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The Praetorian Guard, an elite corps of soldiers in the Late Republic, became the most famous and controversial unit in the Imperial Army.

Its name has become synonymous with intrigue, conspiracy, betrayal, and assassination. It was responsible for the overthrow, abandonment, or murder of 15 out of the first 48 emperors who governed Rome between 27 bc and ad 305. Its deterioration into a ruthless mercenary force is its most enduring legacy. Yet the original purpose of the Praetorian Guard was far from the brutal history it eventually left behind.

Created by the first emperor of Rome, Augustus, the Guard was designed to protect the monarch and the royal family, thus extending their reign and keeping the army, Senate, and Roman mob in line.

The only armed troops allowed to be quartered south of the Rubicon River, Italy’s northern boundary, the Guard massed at their citadel, the Castra Praetoria, a potent political as well as military force. Their cooperation would assure stability in the Empire by shielding the emperor from harm, thus making his will supreme and his actions final.

Praetorian Guard, 200 b.C.

The origins of the Praetorian Guard were rooted in a practice common to the armies formed by Republican Rome. Beginning in the third century bc, Roman military commanders created a small body of soldiers to act as their bodyguards.

Such units first appeared in the armies raised by the Scipio family in 275 bc. (The Scipio clan would continue to have an important influence on Roman military defense policy and expansion through the first century bc). During the siege of Numantia, which ended in 133 bc, Scipio Aemilianus formed a bodyguard of 500 men, about the size of a normal Roman cohort. This was the largest personal guard ever created for the protection of a Roman general up to that time, a fact that was widely commented upon by contemporary observers.

A Roman general (known as an imperator) would raise a volunteer unit, usually from ordinary legionaries, or in some cases from auxiliary troops recruited from areas outside Rome, which would be specially designated to protect him and his staff while on campaign. These elite units were called praetorian guards (in Latin: praetoriani), taking their name from the general’s headquarters tent (praetoria) found in every army camp.

Most Roman generals of the Republic and early Principate periods were not just military leaders, but provincial governors as well. This combined position elevated them to the status of proconsul, or propraetor.

Whatever his actual title, the proconsul would come from the Roman aristocracy following a career involving a succession of roles, some civilian in nature, others connected with the military. As a provincial governor, he combined both civil and military responsibilities, administering the province or leading an army, whatever the situation required. To accomplish his duties, particularly in running the day-to-day operations of an army, the proconsul needed the assistance of an able staff.

Roman troops in full armor grace this triumphal arch celebrating Rome’s conquest of Britain in ad 43.

The leader’s staff (cohor praetorian) was composed of two elements. One directed the administration of the army—the quartermasters, engineers, and volunteer aides—while the other directed the fighting men.

The latter group constituted a commander’s bodyguard. It also acted as his ready reserve during battle, an elite contingent of picked men always at the leader’s immediate disposal. Members of this complement included friends and relatives of the general, as well as particularly competent tribunes and centurions who knew how to handle themselves and their troops in a fight.

Often an army commander created a single praetorian cohort combining both administrative and combat functions. This was the case with Julius Caesar, who, during his campaign against the German leader Ariovistus in 58 bc at the start of the Gallic Wars mounted a unit of 900 foot soldiers of his 10th Legion to act as his bodyguard for the duration of the campaign.

Lucius Sergius Catiline, during his revolt against the Consul Marcus Cicero in 63-62 bc, had 2,000 veteran centurions and legionaries called the Sullani who acted as his bodyguard and principal strike force. In contrast, while governor of Cilicia in Asia Minor in 52 bc, Marcus Cicero formed two distinct praetorian cohorts: one designed as a combat unit, the other a purely administrative entity.

For the next three centuries the fortunes of the Praetorian Guard rose and fell with those of their masters. They assassinated several demonstrably evil emperors, including Caligula, Commodus, and Elagabalus, but they generally preferred to stay out of the limelight.

At length, during the reign of the co-emperors Diocletian and Maximian (ad 286-305) the praetorian cohorts were dispersed around the empire and their manpower was drastically reduced. In response, the remaining guardsmen proclaimed their own candidate, Maxentius, emperor in ad 306 and fought to the death with him at the Battle of Milvian Bridge six years later. Maxentius’s opponent, and the ultimate victor in that contest, Constantine the Great, disbanded the surviving praetorians, sending them to the various corners of the realm.

He also demolished the Castra Praetoria, thus forcefully underlining the end of the Praetorian Guard as a formal military entity.

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