Our friends(?) the Praetorians

Inventing a military unit like the 21st century Praetorian Guard Special Forces in my Roma Nova books was an interesting challenge!

I chose to use the old Roman name because, although later corrupt and power broking, they were the courageous, battle-hardened elite who guarded the Ancient Roman emperor’s life with theirs. And service to the imperatrix and the state is today the core value of the Roma Novan Praetorians.

Who were the original Praetorians?
The cohortes praetoriae were first mentioned around 275 BC during the Roman Republic as a guard for the command HQ – the praetorium – and served on an ad hoc basis as a small escort force for high-ranking officials such as army generals or provincial governors. Usually war leaders wore a distinguishing garment or headdress; perfect for showing your own troops who they should rally round, but also tending to act as a big fat target sign to the enemy. For this reason, during the Siege of Numantia, Scipio Aemilianus formed a troop of 500 men for his personal protection.

The Praetorian Relief, from a triumphal arch. Creative Commons, Louvre-Lens Museum


As Roman generals occupied their positions for longer periods of time the name cohors prætoria emerged. (Cohors means one armed unit, cohortes more than one. Strangely enough, cohors means attendants, retinue, staff as you might expect, but also enclosure/yard/pen or farmyard!)

By the end of 40 BC, Octavian (Julius Caesar’s great-nephew, adopted son and heir, and future Roman emperor Augustus) and his rival Mark Antony both operated Praetorian units during their civil wars. Mark Antony commanded three cohorts in the East and even issued coins in honour of his Praetorians in 32 BC. Octavian is said to have commanded five cohorts at the Battle of Actium. Following this victory, Octavian merged his forces with those of the defeated Mark Antony in a symbolic reunification of the former army of Julius Caesar. And the Praetorians melded into his personal security detail.

Hand-picked veterans, the accompanied the emperor on active campaign, serving as the last reserve in battle. In more peaceful times, they functioned as secret police and enforcers protecting the civic administration and rule of law as defined by (sometimes) the Senate and (ultimately and more often) the emperor.

Service in the Praetorian Guard
As Praetorians represented the elite soldiers from the legions a man had to be in excellent physical condition, of good moral character, and come from a respectable family if he wished to be be admitted to the Guard. In addition, he had to obtain letters of recommendations from higher status members of society; this is where good connections counted! Once past the recruitment procedure, he was designated as probatus, and assigned as a miles (soldier) to one of the centuries of a cohort. After two years, he could be considered for the post of immunis (roughly equivalent to a corporal), perhaps as a commis (junior chief) at general headquarters or as a technician. This first promotion exempted him from daily basic tasks (hence our word immune). After another two years, he could be promoted to principalis, with salary doubled, and in charge of delivering messages (tesserarius), as an assistant centurion (optio) or standard bearer (signifer) at the corps of the century. If literate and numerate, he could join the administrative staff of the prefect.

A Praetorian soldier from the 2nd century AD – retrieved in Pozzuoli (1800). Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Praetorians’ mandatory service was shorter in duration than for soldiers in the legions; twelve years instead of sixteen starting in year 13 BC, then from AD5 sixteen instead of twenty years. Under Nero, the pay of a Praetorian was three and a half times that of a legionary, augmented by donativum, a ‘donation’ a.k.a. bribe) granted by each new emperor. This additional pay was often repeated at significant events including birthdays, births and marriages of the imperial family.

In order not to alienate the population of Rome, while conserving Republican civilian traditions, the Praetorians did not wear their armour while in the heart of the city. Instead they often dressed in a formal toga, which distinguished them from civilians but remained the mark of a Roman citizen. Augustus, conscious of the risk of maintaining a military force in an obvious way within the city, imposed this dress code.

Major monetary distributions or food subsidies rewarded/bought the fidelity of the Praetorians following each failed plot (such as that of Messalina against Claudius in AD 48 or Piso against Nero in AD 65).

Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, Patricia Quinn as Livilla in the BBC adaptation of I, Claudius (Robert Graves)

Bad apples
Efficient and generally feared as they were, becoming their leader (praefectus) was a springboard to immense power. One of the most infamous prefects was Sejanus (acted by a younger Patrick Stewart in the television series I, Claudius). Lucius Aelius Seianus rose to power under Tiberius and was one of the first prefects to exploit his position in order to pursue his own ambitions. He concentrated all the Praetorians under his personal command and made himself indispensable to the new emperor Tiberius, who tried in vain to persuade the Senate to share the responsibility of governing the Empire. Tiberius became an absentee emperor, a recluse on Capri, and left everything to his energetic prefect.

However, Sejanus alienated Drusus, Tiberius’s son, and when Germanicus, the heir to the throne, died in AD 19, Sejanus feared that Drusus would become the next emperor. So he poisoned Drusus with the help of the latter’s wife, Livilla, and immediately launched a ruthless elimination programme against all potential competitors. He even persuaded Tiberius to make him his heir apparent.

Sejanus nearly succeeded in grabbing power, but his plot was discovered in AD 31. Using the vigiles and the cohortes urbanae (together effectively Rome’s civilian police), Tiberius manoeuvred Sejanus into a position of weakness from which he fell from power and was executed.

Decline and fall
Later, the Guard intrigued and interfered in Roman politics to the point of overthrowing emperors and proclaiming their successors even before they were ratified by the Senate and the legions stationed in the provinces. After AD 238, literary and epigraphic sources dry up, and information on the Praetorian Guard becomes scarce during the following fifty years, a period in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, civil war, plague, and economic depression, known as the Crisis of the Third Century

In AD 284, Diocletian reduced their status; they were no longer to be part of palace life. After all, Diocletian lived in Nicomedia, modern Turkey, 60 miles from Byzantium. Two new corps, the Ioviani and Herculiani (named after the gods Jupiter and Hercules), replaced the Praetorians as the personal protectors of the emperors, a practice that remained intact with the Tetrarchy. By the time Diocletian retired in May AD 305, their Castra Praetoria seems to have housed only a minor garrison in Rome.

The Battle of the Milvian Bridge by (Giulio Romano,1524, Vatican Museum)

During the early 4th century, Caesar Flavius Valerius Severus attempted to disband the Praetorian Guard. In response, the Praetorians turned to Maxentius, the son of the retired emperor Maximian, and proclaimed him their emperor in October AD 306. By AD 312, however, Constantine the Great marched on Rome with an army in order to eliminate Maxentius and gain control of the Western Roman Empire, resulting in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Ultimately, Constantine’s army achieved a decisive victory against the Praetorians, whose emperor, Maxentius, was killed during the fighting. Constantine definitively disbanded the remnants of the Praetorian Guard, sending remaining soldiers out to various corners of the empire. The Castra Praetoria was dismantled in a grand gesture inaugurating a new age in Roman history, ending that of the original Praetorians.

Why haven’t the Roma Novan Praetorians ‘gone bad’?
Firstly, they have the shining example of the ancients; overstep the mark and you will be abolished.
Secondly, the Twelve Families, the imperatrix‘s council of advisers drawn from the original families settling Roma Nova, are closer to the ruler than any Praetorian would be and thus form a buffer.
Thirdly, although the Praetorians’ function is to protect the ruler, act as her intelligence service and special forces, they are employed soldiers like others in the Roma Novan military and like other citizens are subject to the law. That’s the theory…

Women Praetorians?
As Ancient Rome was a patriarchal society, Praetorians were, like all military, uniquely male.

Photo courtesy of Britannia www.durolitum.co.uk

The original guard had been finally disbanded nearly a hundred years before the small group of senatorial families were to trek north and found the Roma Nova in my books in AD 395. Perhaps the ‘new Romans’ felt the negative connotations about Praetorians had faded or perhaps they were desperate to hang on to their deepest traditions ­– Romans were proud of their history and traditional cultural values – but when a bodyguard was formed for the first ruler, Apulius, they called it the cohors praetoria or Praetorian Guard.

Women became members of the fighting units defending Roma Nova alongside their brothers and fathers. They had no choice; the new settlers were numerically so few that they didn’t have enough male fighters. As the units evolved into legions over the years, women were eligible to transfer from the regular forces into the Praetorian units along with their male colleagues. The requirements for every Praetorian down the ages were (and still are) strength, a very high level of physical fitness, intelligence and skills levels, irrespective of gender.

The ancients were permitted to bear arms inside the city of Rome, so my modern Praetorians are allowed to carry side arms inside the Golden Palace, the home of Roma Nova’s imperatrix.

The Praetorian Guard in my Roma Nova books protect the imperatrix (ruler) and also form an elite tactical military force as they did in ancient Rome. This is how Aurelia and Carina Mitela have ended up serving in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces – an ‘odd job’ for women in history, especially when until recently in the real world, too, such a role would normally have been associated exclusively with men.



The Roma Nova thriller series

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, is available for download now.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

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