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The Praetorian Guard

Text (c) 2000, 2001 by Captain Jenny Cline, U.S. Army


Foundation of the Guard

The Praetorian Prefects

Role of the Guard in Power Struggles

Demise of the Praetorians

Praetorian Structure & Organization




Service & Careers

Pay & Privileges




Foundation of the Praetorian Guard

    The Praetorian Guard, as they have become popularly known, were formally organized by Octavian following his final victory over Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony).  In a symbolic gesture, Octavian -- who was soon to receive the title Augustus ("The Revered One") and become the first Roman emperor -- combined the surviving cadres of Antony's and his own bodyguard troops, called in Latin cohortes praetoriae, into the structured arm we know as the Praetorian Guard.

    The first credible example of bodyguard-type cohorts dates to 133 BCE, when Scipio Aemilianus organized 500 of his clients into a so-called "troop of friends."  The practice of keeping a bodyguard unit, later termed a cohors praetoria, became standard as the Republic devolved into civil war.  (The cohors praetoria was named for the praetorium, the central area of the military camp where the commander's tent had been pitched; thus, the praetorium was the camp headquarters, and its guardians, the praetorian cohort.)

    According to the Roman historian Appian, the rival successors to Julius Caesar's autocratic legacy, Marcus Antonius and Octavianus, each formed for themselves several praetorian cohorts out of a volunteer cadre of Caesar's legionary veterans:

    They dismissed from military service the soldiers who had served their full time except 8,000 who had asked to remain.  These they took back and divided between themselves and formed them in praetorian cohorts.  

(Appian, Civil Wars, Bk V.3)

    From this veteran host, Antonius established three cohorts, Octavianus between five and nine.  From Antonian coinage, scholars have surmised that Antonius' praetorian cohorts accompanied the general on his ill-starred campaigns in the East.  Coinage minted in the late 30's BCE celebrates not only his cohortes praetoriae but a mounted praetorian cohort, a cohors speculatorum.

    The basis for Octavianus having at least five cohorts comes from Orosius, who records that these five praetorian units accompanied Octavianus during the climactic battle with Antonius' army at Actium in 31 BCE.  Tacitus records the existence in 23 CE of nine cohorts of the newly-instituted  Praetorian Guard, a figure further supported by contemporary inscriptions.

    Suetonius writes that Augustus stationed only three cohorts of Praetorians within the city of Rome, and these troops were billeted individually among the populace, not concentrated in a camp.  The other cohorts were maintained in towns throughout Italia.  

    In the early years of the Empire, Augustus wielded his kinglike authority as princeps delicately to avoid offending the conservative Roman political sensibility.  His billeting policy kept the Praetorian power dispersed and so concealed, like a mailed fist in a velvet glove, inconspicuous and seemingly inoffensive.


The Praetorian Prefects

    At the official inception of the Praetorian Guard by Octavian (Augustus) following his consolidation of power after Actium in 31 BCE, each cohors praetoria was an autonomous unit under the command of a military tribune -- a high-ranking member of  the ordo equester, the mercantile class of the Roman oligarchy.

    In 2 BCE, Augustus consolidated the Praetorian cohorts under two overall commanders, the Praetorian Prefects, who exercised joint control.  While the command of individual cohorts remained the responsibility of a tribune, the Guard as a whole became the responsibility of the two Prefects.  Presumably the reason Augustus chose to divide such authority between two commanders was similar to the logic employed by the founders of the old Republic, who chose to elect two men as joint Consuls rather than vest too much executive power in one man.

    The post of praefectus praetorio was often treated more as a political appointment than a military one.  While some Prefects might previously have held the post of praefectus urbi (commanding the Urban Cohorts), praefectus vigilum (commanding the Vigiles), or praefectus Aegypti, few Prefects had any combat command experience.  Until the time of Marcus Aurelius, Prefects were hardly ever called upon to lead their troops in the field.  In the case of Fuscus the Prefect of Domitian, the results he achieved in battle command were not indicative of expertise -- he misjudged the rough Dacian terrain, overextended his forces, and was slain on the field for his error.

    On the other hand, Prefects chosen wisely by responsible Emperors were often dynamic and capable leaders; for example, the disciplined Prefect of Hadrian, Marcus Turbo, whom the historian Cassius Dio quotes as having said that a Praetorian Prefect should die on his feet.

    For the Guard, the initial experiment in joint command worked, for a period of years.  Under the watchful eye of Augustus, the Praetorian Guard and its Prefects discharged their duties faithfully.  However, Augustus' successor Tiberius came to rely heavily on his Prefect, Lucius Aelius Seianus (called Sejanus).  With his father, Sejanus had served jointly as Prefect until 15 CE, when Sejanus became sole Prefect -- a dangerous precedent.

    Sejanus insinuated himself into Tiberius' deepest confidence, then used that trust to manipulate the Emperor, enrich himself, and plot against the imperial family.  When Sejanus alienated the Emperor's son, Drusus, he felt himself threatened and connived with Drusus' wife to have the heir poisoned.  The plot succeeded, much to the detriment of the dynasty.  Seeing his path to the imperial throne open, Sejanus very nearly convinced the aging Tiberius to name him as heir, but in 31 CE, the Emperor discovered the extent of Sejanus' crimes.  The ambitious, ruthless Prefect was condemned and executed.

    To secure the continued loyalty of the Praetorians after their Prefect's demise, Tiberius authorized a special payment (donativum) of 1,000 denarii, more than one year's pay to each Guardsman.  Though similar personal donatives had been gifted by past generals and rulers to their troops, this bonus -- a bribe, really -- was an ominous sign of where the true power lay behind the imperial throne, a reality that the Emperor and his Guard both recognized.


Role of the Guard in Power Struggles

1st c. CE

    The exclusive privileges and power of the Prefecture practically ensured that Prefects would involve themselves in dynastic intrigue, the problems of succession that plagued the imperial office from the death of the first Emperor to the very last.  The sons of Tiberius died before him, as did his former favorite Sejanus.  Tiberius spent the waning months of his life without a clear choice of heir.  Upon Tiberius' death in 37 CE, Quintus Sutorius Macro, the Praetorian Prefect who replaced Sejanus, helped bring Gaius Caligula, Tiberius' immortally-infamous grandson,  to the throne.  Caligula ruled only four years, since his mad cruelty engendered such resentment among the Guard officers responsible for his safety that in 41 CE, they murdered him.

    In the chaotic days that followed, the Republic came close to being restored.  But before the Senate could act, the Praetorians thrust an unexpected successor forward -- Claudius, Caligula's handsome but laughably clumsy uncle, whom the guilty Guardsmen had found cowering behind a curtain as they looted the imperial palace.  The Praetorians carried Claudius to their headquarters and proclaimed him Emperor, heedless of the will of the Senate.  In spite of the illegitimate elevation, the Senate could do nothing but ratify the Praetorians' choice, or risk further bloodshed.  The Senate acquiesced, their chance to rescue the Republic slipping away for good.

    Claudius knew that he owed the Praetorians everything, and had seen first-hand how they could take it all away, without consequence.  To garner their goodwill, he ordered a payment of five years' salary to each Guardsman, calling the spectacular donative a "gift" to celebrate his accession to the throne.  While the gesture might have bought his safety from the Guard, no amount of money could protect Claudius from his own family.  He was poisoned by his wife Agrippina and stepson Nero, whom the Praetorians embraced willingly as Emperor, ignoring the taint of his guilt in the murder of Claudius their benefactor.

    Nero was as unbalanced as Caligula, although his extreme tendencies were moderated in part by Nero's advisers, notably the Praetorian Prefect, Sextus Afranius Burrus.  After Burrus died, Nero spun completely out of control and managed to alienate nearly everyone around him, even his mother Agrippina who had murdered her husband Claudius to place her son on the throne.  In 65 CE, Nero narrowly avoided the threat of conspiracy, thanks to the Prefect Tigellinus, who hunted down the plotters mercilessly.  The list of conspirators even included Tigellinus' fellow Prefect, as well as a number of other officers of the Praetorian Guard.  All were condemned and the Guard received a bounty of 500 denarii for their loyalty -- more accurately, lack of participation -- in the conspiracy of Piso.

    Three years later, after further outrageous behavior, Nero faced a worse threat: a serious rival for his throne, supported by the Guard who abandoned Nero at the behest of their new Prefect, Nymphidius Sabinus.  Not even Tigellinus could save Nero, who in his isolated desperation committed suicide.  The pretender, Galba, had made a promise to the Guard of 30,000 sesterces for each man, but he alienated many Praetorians when he unwisely reneged on his word.  Otho, another emerging claimant, exploited the opportunity by bribing 23 Guard cavalrymen (speculatores) to announce him as the new Emperor.  Although the Praetorian cohors on duty at the time opposed the coup, the confusion gave Otho the time he needed to sway the rest of the Guard to his side.  Galba paid with his life for the promise he could not keep to his Guardsmen.

    69 CE came to be called the "Year of the Four Emperors."  Galba had been slain by the Praetorian sponsors of Otho, who himself was defeated by a third candidate, Aulus Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior.  Although he had the formidable support of the Danubian legions, Otho lost on the field of Bedriacum in part due to the poor performance of the Praetorian Guard, whose soldiers had seen no field experience for almost 100 years.

    Vitellius wasted no time pulling the fangs of the Guard who had opposed him.  Suetonius says he ordered 120 Praetorians implicated in Galba's murder to be summarily executed and discharged the remaining Guard soldiers without severance.  Vitellius then rebuilt the Guard out of the cadre of his own loyal German legionaries, while the former Guard members, actively seeking vengeance, fled Italy to join the camp of yet a fourth would-be Emperor, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, governor of Syria.  Vespasian swiftly marched west and crushed Vitellius at Bedriacum, the same bloody plain where Vitellius had defeated Otho.

    After his ultimate victory, one of Vespasian's first acts was to return his loyal ex-Praetorians to the ranks of the Guard.  In an abrupt reversal of fortune, heads rolled as the old Guard replaced the new.  Vespasian solidified his hold on the loyalty of the Praetorians by appointing his elder son, Titus, as Praetorian Prefect.  From this time forward, the command of the Guard would be the highest post an equestrian noble could obtain.

    Vespasian and his sons who ruled after him, Titus (79-81 CE) and Domitian (81-96 CE), commanded the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard as securely as any Emperor had since Augustus.  Domitian made heavy use of the Praetorians in his campaigns against the Germans as well as in Dacia.  The Praetorians were heavily engaged in combat, so much so that in 87 CE, one of their Prefects, Cornelius Fuscus, was slain in battle.

    Domitian, though capable, proved susceptible to the intrigues of the Senate.  Unwilling to flatter them and possessed of a suspicious nature bordering on the paranoid, Domitian made enough enemies that in 96 CE he was assassinated by a group of them, including the Prefect Petronius Secundus.  The Senate nominated Marcus Cocceius Nerva, an aging senator whom the brooding Praetorians felt responsible for their beloved Domitian's death.  They demanded that the new Emperor order the execution of Petronius Secundus for his part in the murder.  Fearing for his own life, Nerva gave the order.

    Faced with the growing resentment of the Guard, Nerva sought a powerful ally to counterbalance the Praetorian animus.  He found his ally in Marcus Ulpius Traianus, governor of Germania Superior.  Trajan commanded the German legions and as heir, could be confidently expected to avenge Nerva should the Praetorians harm him.


2nd c. CE

     Although no foul play could be linked to Nerva’s death in 98 CE, Trajan had the surviving Praetorian Prefect executed all the same.  Wary of returning too soon to Rome, Trajan lingered in his former province, making plans to conclude what Domitian had begun – the conquest of Dacia.  About this time, a new arm of elite household troops was formed: the Equites Singulares Augusti, picked cavalrymen from auxiliary units stationed throughout the Empire.  Along with the Praetorian cavalry (the speculatores) the Singulares formed the Emperor’s mounted escort.

    The Praetorians were to play a significant role in Trajan’s Dacian invasions of 101-102 and 105-106 CE.  For their excellent service, the Emperor rewarded them with eternal recognition on his monumental column that is still standing today in Rome.  The Praetorians also accompanied Trajan on his campaigns against the Parthians on the eastern frontiers.

      Through the 2nd c. CE, the Praetorians continued to serve on campaigns abroad, reinforcing their loyalty to the Roman state and keeping their officers too well-occupied to pursue personal agendas.  Both Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius brought a Praetorian contingent with them on their campaigns in the East and North, where the Guard fought heavily, losing two more Prefects in combat.

    But Marcus Aurelius’ incapable son Commodus, who succeeded his father in 180 CE, did not continue the forward defensive policy pursued by his wiser predecessors.  The legions languished near dormancy in their frontier bases, while the Praetorians withdrew to their camp in Rome to grow bored and corrupt once more. 

    After five years of weak rule, Commodus disposed of his overeager Prefect Perrenis, while his freedman, Cleander, exerted a growing influence over the administration of the Empire due to Commodus’ lack of interest.  Cleander even convinced Commodus to appoint him as co-Prefect alongside the two legitimate Prefects.  Cleander promptly abused his new power by ordering the Equites Singulares to slay dissident Roman civilians.  The incident led to a confused street battle between the Singulares and the Urban Cohorts, Rome’s police force.

      The removal of Cleander in 192 did Commodus no good, for shortly thereafter the Prefect Laetus murdered the vainglorious Emperor and placed his co-conspirator, Pertinax, on the throne.  Pertinax tried to buy the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard with a bounty of 3,000 denarii, but the surly Guard barely tolerated him for three months before assassinating him.


3rd c. CE

    Rome fell once again into chaos, with the Praetorians literally auctioning the Empire to the highest bidder, a senator named Didius Julianus.  Unbeknownst to Rome, the legions of the Danubian provinces had already cast their vote in favor of Lucius Septimius Severus, a career soldier and governor of Pannonia Superior.  Severus led his army south to Rome as the Praetorians holed up inside their camp, but through a ruse the crafty general lured the Guard out, unarmed.  Thereafter Julianus was eliminated and the captured Praetorians replaced with loyal soldiers of the Severan legions, a tactic Vitellius had attempted with short-lived success in 69 CE.

    Although Severus had to contend with his strong-willed new Prefect, Plautianus, he busied the Praetorians with new campaigns and conflicts, until the Emperor’s death in 211 CE.  But Severus’ heirs Geta and Caracalla, like many other Emperors' offspring, were not equal to their father in capability.  Shortly after their joint rule began, the jealous Caracalla murdered his brother, creating dissension among the legions and Praetorians alike.

    After such an ill-omened start to his reign, Caracalla could never regain the trust of his soldiers, despite his overeager efforts to gain their love by living among them as a common soldier.  In 217 CE, while on campaign with Caracalla in the East, the Praetorian Prefect Macrinus assassinated the would-be “soldier Emperor” and amazingly, took Caracalla’s place as Emperor.

    But Macrinus’ reign would last only a year before he fell to another contender, the bizarre Elagabalus, whose great-aunt was Julia Domna, powerfully influential wife of Septimius Severus.  Elagabalus, priest of the eastern cult of Elagabal, proved too unmilitary and un-Roman for the Praetorians to accept.  In 222 CE, they replaced the priest-Emperor with his pubescent cousin, Severus Alexander, who of course could not control the avaricious willfulness of the Guard.  Since he did nothing to curb their excesses, the Praetorians tolerated Alexander until 235, when he too was replaced.

    From this period to the Guard’s ultimate end in the civil war of 305 CE which brought Constantine the Great to the imperial throne, the Praetorians grew ever more mercenary and unbiddable.  Under capable Emperors such as Aurelian and Diocletian, the Guard proved useful in the field.  However, for most Emperors of the time – and for the people of Rome – the Praetorian Guard was a menacing presence in their walled camp on the outskirts of Rome, always watchful, always dangerous.



Demise of the Praetorians

    The Praetorian Guard, ever since its consolidation at Rome in 23 CE on the orders of Emperor Tiberius, had occupied a position of direct military power over the city and her inhabitants.  Accountable not to the Senate or the citizenry of Rome, but only to the Emperor to whom they swore (fickle) allegiance, the Praetorians exploited their military presence to oppress, murder, and intimidate the Roman people for centuries.

    When a strong Emperor could keep his Praetorians busy at campaigning, he stood a chance of controlling their baser tendencies.  But the danger in disciplining the Guard made the effort very much like attempting to ride a tiger – apply any controlling pressure to the beast, and he might devour his rider.  Fearing for life, many a weak ruler neglected to exercise command over the Praetorians, and Rome suffered their predations.

    The underlying problem of the Guard’s corruption lay in the loyalty oath that all Roman soldiers swore.  Under the Republic, new soldiers promised to serve Rome, but under the Empire, soldiers gave their allegiance not to Rome, but to one man, their Emperor.  As Rome’s succession problems gave rise to outright civil war, Emperors were made and deposed too easily, weakening the legitimacy of the office and its hereditary nature.  Once the Guard discovered their latent power to effect a coup d'etat at will, it was far easier to abandon a promise to a fragile, mortal man than one made to the deathless idea of Rome the state.

    But the Guard’s sphere of influence was limited to the city of Rome and to the Emperor, when he was in the city.  Those Emperors who survived longest and ruled most effectively did so because they commanded the loyalty of the frontier legions, who trumped the Praetorians by superior numbers and better combat experience.  It was this vulnerability that spelled the ultimate demise of the Praetorian Guard.

    In 305 CE, at the height of the Tetrarchy, the senior Emperors Diocletian and Maximian achieved a rare feat: they retired.  In keeping with the rules of Tetrarchic succession, they promoted the junior Emperors Galerius and Constantius as replacements.  But the next year, Constantius died unexpectedly while on a tour of Britannia, and his loyal legions there impetuously proclaimed his son, Constantine, as the new co-Emperor.  The Praetorians had their own contestant: Maximian’s son Maxentius, who ruled in Rome from 306-312 CE.  An inveterate Christian-hater – or so Constantine’s apologists claimed – Maxentius is said to have turned a blind eye as his Guardsmen mercilessly hunted down the adherents of Christ.

    For six years of his rival’s rule in Rome, Constantine held his army in check as he waited to see if Maxentius’ other enemies would finish him off.  After an army led by Maxentius’ Praetorian Prefect Pompeianus crushed the usurper Domitius Alexander, Constantine decided to wait no longer.  He led his legions south to face the inevitable clash with the Emperor's forces.  In 312 CE, Constantine entered Italia, where he brushed aside a challenge by the Prefect Pompeianus.

    Now left with no other option, Maxentius prepared to defend Rome.  He chose the ground north of the Tiber River, outside of the city, and arrayed his forces there to await Constantine’s approach.  To facilitate the movement of his forces and supplies, Maxentius ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge to supplement the stone Milvian Bridge that crossed the Tiber about 3 kilometers north of Rome.  It was a fateful order.

    As his army marched toward Rome, Constantine experienced a hallucinatory vision in which the Christian god promised him victory under the sign of Christ, the Greek letters chi-rho.  Announcing this to his troops as an omen of coming victory, Constantine unfurled a great chi-rho banner with the Latin pronouncement, “By this sign you will conquer.”

    Perhaps the vision was a ploy by Constantine to rally his tired troops, many of whom were devotees of Christianity, or had at least heard of the phenomenon.  Perhaps it was even a genuine experience, although the depth of Constantine’s later adherence to Christian teachings seems to have been superficial and his protestations of faith politically motivated.  Whatever the case, it was a turning point in Roman history.  Inspired by the vision, the banner of Christ, and the promise of victory, Constantine’s army marched with new vigor and purpose – not only to install their general as ruler of the Roman world, but to topple old gods in the name of the new.

    When the armies collided, Constantine’s vision proved true.  His motivated troops routed the forces of Maxentius, including the Praetorian Guard who took the field with him.  Retreating in good order but still engaged by the pursuing enemy, the beaten Praetorians fell back to the Milvian Bridge.  As the Praetorians and Maxentius attempted to cross the wooden pontoon bridge, it collapsed under the weight of hundreds of armored bodies.  Flung into the Tiber, many Praetorians drowned, their Emperor and an entire era dying with them.

    Constantine, upon learning of Maxentius’ end, mopped up the remaining resistance and moved into Rome to receive the imperial laurel.  He disbanded the Praetorian Guard as punishment for their support of his enemy.  He also ordered the demolishment of the western wall of the Castra Praetoria, the fortress headquarters of the Guard since the days of Tiberius.  The protective duties formerly associated with the Praetorians were assumed by Constantine’s bodyguard corps, the Scholae Palatinae.  The office of Praetorian Prefect remained; devoid of its command but retaining the title’s prestige, it became the highest civilian post in the Empire.

    As for the Praetorian Guard, they were but a memory, unmissed and unmourned.  Only a caricatured legacy of corruption survived to characterize their effect on the history of Rome.  


Praetorian Structure & Organization

    Augustus set the number of Praetorian cohorts at nine following his establishment of the Principate.  By the reign of Caligula, the number of cohorts had risen to 12; this enlargement may have occured as early as Tiberius' reign at the behest of his power-hungry Prefect Sejanus, who also consolidated the previously-scattered cohorts at a new walled camp in Rome, the castra praetoria.

    Vitellius is credited with enlarging the Guard further in 69 CE, to 16 cohorts.  Tacitus assigns 1,000 men to each of Vitellius' new Praetorian cohorts.  After Vespasian's victory, he cut the Guard back to nine cohorts but seems to have retained the 1,000-man cohort strength.  His son Domitian brought the Guard up to 10 cohorts.  The total strength of 10,000 Guardsmen remained fairly constant through the remainder of its existence.

The Guard Infantry

    There is longstanding controversy over the exact size of the Praetorian cohorts at their inception under Augustus.  While Durry (and Peter Connolly after him) maintained that 500 was the initial size of each cohort, Durry's contemporary Passerini argued that 1,000 men was the actual strength, and Campbell supports the latter figure.  

    Assuming the more conservative figure of 500 men per cohort, Augustus'  nine cohort-strong Praetorian Guard would have had about 4,500 men at its inception, not including the Guard cavalry of which little is known.  Three infantry cohorts totaling 1,500 men were stationed in Rome, while the other six cohorts with 3,000 men were stationed abroad in Italy.

    Each cohort of about 500 men was commanded by a tribunus praetorio (Praetorian tribune) with a centurio (centurion) commanding each of six subordinate centuries of 80 men each.


The Guard Cavalry

    It can be inferred from epigraphic evidence that, like the legions they derived from, the Praetorian Guard did include a small contingent of cavalry, but the exact number and disposition are unclear.  It is also unknown whether the mounted arm was expected to operate in the field as actual cavalry, or more as infantry mounted to keep up with the mounted imperial retinue.

    Following Michael Speidel's argument in Riding for Caesar, the strength of the Guard cavalry arm would have varied from 400 to 1000 troopers. 


The Speculatores





    The arms, armor, and other equipment of a Praetorian Guardsman are now thought to have been similar to those of a regular legionary soldier, although it appears that the Guard retained the oval scutum of the Augustan period even after the legions had moved on to a rectangular scutum shape.  This practice seems to hold true until at least the Flavian period.  


Praetorian vs Legionary Equipment

    Specifically, the Flavian-era Cancellaria Relief in the Vatican Museum shows Praetorians wearing what may be termed "escort undress," that is, the uniform worn while accompanying the Emperor within the city of Rome.  The Guardsmen are depicted lacking body armor and helmets, without swords or dagger, but bearing pila and curved shields.  They wear military belts (cingulae) as well as the paenula (thigh-length cloak) and focale (neck scarf).  They may be confirmed as Praetorians by their distinctive shield insignia -- stars and moon -- and notably, the shields are indeed oval, not rectangular.  (See further below for more about unique Praetorian insignia.)

    We can ascertain that Praetorians carried similar arms to regular legionary troops based on a variety of evidence.  One of the most fascinating literary clues comes from the Histories of Tacitus, who records that during a night battle in 69 CE, two Flavian milites -- Praetorian soldiers, in Boris Rankov's view -- endeavored to disguise themselves in order to infiltrate the lines of an opposing Roman legion.

    To blend in with the enemy legionaries, the Guardsmen picked up shields from the enemy dead and were able to successfully reach their objective without being identified as hostile.  

    This passage suggests that if a presumably Praetorian soldier needed only to trade shields with an enemy in order to pass as one of their number, then the differences in weapons, helmets, and body armor between Praetorian and legionary troops must not have been significant.  Even assuming that Tacitus' disguised milites were not Praetorians, the story still demonstrates that the characteristic difference between Roman troops lay mostly in their shields and the unit insignia they bore.


The Myth of Equipment Uniformity

    The reliefs of Trajan’s Column were frequently cited in the past as evidence of clear distinctions of dress and arms between Praetorians, legionaries, and auxiliaries.  But an increasing body of archaeological and epigraphic evidence suggests that in fact, no uniform codes were prescribed.  Moreover, Roman soldiers paid for and replaced their own armament out of their personal salaries, which would tend to generate a wide variety of equipment quality and styles of manufacture.  Such wide variety is indeed confirmed by the archaeological record.

    It was once presumed that all legionaries wore segmented armor after its introduction in the early 1st c. CE, and that after that time, the lorica hamata (mail shirt) was worn only by auxilia.  More recently, however, scholars such as Bishop and Maxfield have posited that there was a far greater diversity of armor within units.  Legionaries and auxiliaries may have worn either segmented or mail armor based on personal preference or local practice.  

    Like legionaries, Praetorians wore mail shirts, then gradually and not universally transitioned into segmented cuirasses, and later came to favor scale mail in the late 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.


Attic Helmets?

      In the case of helmets, there has been no assumption that one style or another was prescribed for all members of a unit, since so many styles of helmet have been discovered within contemporary time periods.  

    The Praetorians were long thought to have worn a special Attic (Greek) style of helmet, but this conclusion appears to have been based on a common but misleading artistic representation.  No intact Attic helmets have been unearthed in Roman military contexts.  Instead, based on such evidence as Tacitus’ story above, scholars now believe that Praetorian Guardsmen wore helmets similar to their legionary contemporaries.  However, Mike Bishop and H. Russell Robinson before him have noted that brow-plates have been unearthed, suggesting some use of the Attic style helmet.  If the Attic style were in military use, it most likely would have been limited to officers such as tribunes and legates.

    H. Russell Robinson, in his landmark work The Armour of Imperial Rome, explained the artistic convention of the Attic helmet as a representation of its singular use as parade armor.  Other authors, such as Lawrence Keppie, follow this argument (and even extend it to explain the Praetorian retention of oval shields after the legions had presumably moved on to prefer the rectangular shape).

    However, Boris Rankov argues that this theory seems unlikely.  Praetorians would not have conducted public military parades within the city of Rome, due to the ancient custom forbidding armed troops within the city limits.  Troops participating in triumphal processions are known to have worn only the tunic (tunica) and decorative belt (cingulum militare), without armor or helmet.  It is not clear which weapons they might have carried on such a parade, if any.


Cingulum.jpg (10077 bytes)

("military belt")

The Soldier's Belt

    The cingulum militare was the visible and audible hallmark of a soldier, who wore it with civilian as well as military dress.  The ornate belt included a swath of several hanging leather straps, embellished with small metal disks and fancy terminal pieces, which would jingle smartly as their wearer walked.  

    Herodian recorded that when Septimius Severus summarily discharged all the unfaithful Guardsmen upon his accession, he also denied them the honor of wearing the cingulum and its decorative dagger.  The symbolic gesture was intended to show that the ex-Praetorians were well and truly cashiered.

    While armchair theorists once held that the belt had a protective function for the groin, it has become apparent from modern reconstruction and re-enactment that the swinging of weighted leather straps in the male genital area is more of a hazard than a defense!  Either the soldiers tied the straps up for running, or cinched the belt higher on the body to avoid injuring themselves.

    The cingulum may well have had a function in the preservation of male modesty when wearing the tunica without pants (as the Romans were wont to do in hot or temperate weather).  The straps would normally fall between the legs, preventing wind or motion from lifting the tunic and exposing the soldier.  Similarly, when a soldier sat down or squatted, the straps would naturally fall between his legs, keeping the front of the tunic where it should be, and not gaping open if his legs were crossed, for example.

Roman in toga















Caligae.jpg (12719 bytes)

A legionary's caligae ("boots")

Praetorian Clothing

    Praetorians on guard in the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill went about their protective duties clothed in the classic Roman toga, which lent the Guardsmen an air of tradition, while the toga itself would serve to hide their belted sidearms under its voluminous woolen folds.  By appearing unarmed in this fashion, the Guard paid lip-service to the old Republican custom forbidding armed soldiery within the pomerium, the sacred city-limits of Rome.

    In normal uniform, the tunic of a Praetorian Guardsman, judging from surviving artistic evidence, would have been a varying shade of white or beige, like the color worn in legionary units.  Red, popularly considered the typical color of Roman soldiers, seems to have been limited to centurions and other persons of significance.  In the 1st c. BCE, Julius Caesar, for example, distinguished himself on the battlefields of Gaul by wearing a bright red cloak.

    Undyed wool is typically a natural off-white color, thus requiring no effort to obtain nor maintain its homely shade.  However, the pigment required to produce red dyed wool would have been more expensive and harder to procure in quantity.  Red tunics would help to distinguish centurions in battle, and even conceal bloodstains.  Purple, a traditionally royal hue requiring a frightfully expensive dye, seems most likely to have been reserved for the Emperor and his family.  No evidence survives for use of other colors, although the possibility of blue and green tunics cannot be ruled out.

    On the Column of Antoninus Pius, there can be seen an interesting but isolated depiction of Praetorians wearing what appears to be a scalloped undergarment of some kind, beneath their lorica segmentata which is also depicted in an atypical fashion.  The scalloping may be indicative of a special tunic cut, or more likely a simple case of artistic excess on the sculptor's part.

    Domitian's Cancellaria Relief (mentioned above) also shows a unique example of Roman soldiers -- Praetorians in this case -- wearing what appear to be ankle-length woolen socks, open at the toe and heel.  It also confirms that Praetorians dressed much as other Roman regulars did, by wearing the paenula, focale, and cingulum.  

    Praetorian infantry wore the standard military boot, the caliga, but Suetonius in an anecdote referring to Gaius Caligula's eccentricities says that the mad Emperor dressed "in speculatoria caliga."  Caligula clearly intended to show fellowship with his Guard by affecting their dress, and Suetonius like his contemporaries found this to be odd.  The clear implication from this reference is that Guard speculatores, the elite mounted bodyguard, wore a peculiar type of military sandal.  However, no example of the speculatoria caliga survives.

Distinctive Praetorian Insignia

    The Praetorian Guard did utilize distinctive symbolism to set themselves apart from legionary troops.  The most basic was their wear of the classical toga while on duty in the imperial palace.  Praetorian standard-bearers (signiferi) wore lion-skins over their helmets instead of the legionary bearskins, while Praetorian standards (signa) differed noticeably from their legionary equivalents, incorporating images (imagines) of the emperor as well as crowns and other unit decorations for valor. 

    Other motifs common to Praetorian signa include moon and stars, guardian spirits (genii), scorpions, and eagles.  The occurrence of eagles on  Praetorian signa indicates that the aquiline symbol was not necessarily limited to legionary use (e.g., the aquila eagle-standard that was a legion’s focal totem).

    The scorpion was the natal emblem of the Praetorian Guard, representing Scorpio, the astrological symbol under which the Emperor Tiberius was born.  Although the Praetorians were formally organized by Augustus, his successor Tiberius was called the “second founder” of the Guard.

    Tiberius, at the urging of his calculating Prefect Sejanus, recalled all the Praetorian cohorts from their dispersed postings throughout Italy.  On the outskirts of Rome, Tiberius ordered the construction of a great walled camp, the Castra Praetoria, where the entire Guard would be billeted.  These major changes greatly concentrated the power of the Praetorian Guard, a fact that did not long escape their notice.

    In gratitude to Tiberius, the Guard adopted his birth-sign, Scorpio, as their own emblem since they were “reborn” under his rule.  The scorpion seems to have been the most distinguishing mark of the Praetorians upon the field of battle, for it decorated their standards, shields, and even appeared on helmets and other privately procured equipment.  A scorpion symbol is also found on a coin minted by Caligula to honor his Praetorians. 

    Ironically, the Praetorians lived up to their birth-sign’s vicious reputation, delivering a treacherous sting to an unwary or incompetent Emperor.

Equipment Notes:

For more information about wear of the toga, see


Service and Careers

    In Augustus' time, an enlistee in the Guard signed on for a service term of 12 years.  By 5 CE, Augustus had lengthened the term to 16 years.  

    Most volunteers -- and all Guardsmen were volunteers, since vacancies in the Guard were much sought after -- were between the ages of 15 and 32 years.  (Contrastingly, legionary recruits were generally 18-23 years old; the more strenuous service conditions of the legions perhaps account for the difference.)

    During his 16-year service, a Guardsman could expect to remain primarily in the city of Rome -- a far more pleasing prospect to an enlistee than the 20-year term of the legionary recruit who would be soldiering on the distant frontiers of the Empire.  For this reason, service in the Praetorian Guard remained a popular option for Italian youth, even after Italian enlistment in the legions began to decline.

    Originally, Augustus formed his Guard from a cadre of faithful veterans, but in the subsequent years of the 1st and 2nd c. CE, vacancies were filled from the civilian populace of Rome.  By the era of Septimius Severus, more Praetorian billets were being filled by military personnel transferred from the Vigiles, the Cohortes Urbanae, or the legions -- these men having proved their worth after a few years' good service.

    Once in the Guard, a soldier who performed well might be offered special positions with increased pay and benefits, or be offered a posting to the Guard cavalry.  Epigraphic evidence suggests that Guard cavalrymen normally had five years' prior service in the Praetorian infantry arm.

    From the time of Augustus, Praetorians like other soldiers were forbidden to contract legal marriages, although many men did in fact contrive to form habitual relationships with women that were marriages in all but name.

    Brian Dobson has estimated that seven centurionate positions became vacant each year in Rome amongst the Praetorians, Urban Cohorts, and Vigiles.  Of 90 legionary centurionates being made vacant annually through discharge and deaths, perhaps 17 might have been filled from the corps of  Praetorians.  The financial attraction of higher rank clearly provided an incentive to Praetorian Guardsmen to be promoted to the commissioned ranks of the centurionate.

    It was rare for Praetorian centurions to be selected from sources outside the Guard.  The most common route to the Praetorian centurionate was for a Guardsman to serve his 16 years, be retained as an evocatus (time-expired reservist), then be offered centurion positions first in the Vigiles, then the Urban Cohorts, finally returning to the Guard.

    The singular post of primus pilus (chief centurion of a legion) ushered its holder into the ranks of the equestrian order.  As an equestrian, the primus pilus could aspire to a tribunate in the Vigiles, Urban Cohorts, or Praetorian Guard.  Many Praetorian tribunes were primipilares who had previously held tribunates of the Vigiles or Urbani.  The next step for such men would be primus pilus bis or iterum, and thereafter for a tiny few, the possibility of equestrian procuratorships or prefectures.


Pay and Privileges

Regular Salary

    In the time of Augustus, Praetorian soldiers were paid at a scale 1.5 times that which legionaries received in salary; later Augustus raised Guard pay even further, to three times the legionary rate.  For their part, the legionary pay scales had not changed since Caesar's day (he had doubled the pay for a common soldier to 225 denarii per year), and would not rise again until Domitian's reign. 

    Under Augustus, a basic legionary centurion received five times a Praetorian ranker's wage, while the highest centurionate rank, primus pilus, received 20 times the Praetorian salary, with all other benefits being commensurately higher.  It should thus be expected that the pay of a Praetorian centurion was even more lucrative.  

    Under Caracalla, a Praetorian Guardsman received 10,000 sesterces in pay compared to the legionary's 3,000.

Occasional Bonuses

    At his death, Augustus' will stipulated that each Praetorian receive a conservative donative of 1,000 sesterces, while the Urbani and legionaries received 500 and 300 apiece.  Tiberius' will followed the same practice of a moderate posthumous bonus for the military.

    Claudius, upon his accession, nervously retreated to the former practice of the civil warlords of the dying Republic, by granting an exorbitant donative of 15,000 sesterces per man for his Praetorians.  This was five times a year's pay for a Guardsman, and by Campbell's estimates, the total donative to both Guard and legions would have cost the imperial treasury more than twice the total annual military payroll.  Dio says, without specifics, that Nero promised the Guard all that Claudius had given them.

    Nero also gave his Praetorians a donative of 2,000 sesterces per man for their restraint during the Pisonian conspiracy of 65 CE, and as a further benefit, he granted them the right to requisition free grain for their monthly rations, instead of having to deduct it from their salary as other soldiers must.

    Galba's proxies promised 30,000 sesterces apiece to the Guard and 5,000 to each of his legionaries, but when Galba himself would not honor the deal, the Guard quickly turned against him.  Otho and Vitellius, the two other deposed claimants of the "Long Year" of 69 CE, also promised -- but presumably paid -- donatives to their armies.

    Vespasian, at least, did not promise the moon to his soldiers.  Evidence is vague but it does appear that he paid the accustomed donative upon his eventual accession to the purple.  This would put him in the 15,000-sestercius range offered previously by Claudius and Nero.  He might even have reduced the bonus to 10,000 sesterces.  

    Upon Domitian's accession, only a donative of 100 sesterces was recorded, although Campbell points out that this may have represented a kind of "down payment" for a later, larger bonus.

    It is unknown what amount, if any, Nerva and Trajan paid upon their elevations.  Hadrian, according to the Historia Augusta, paid a double-amount, presumably of what had become the standard sum.  The latter sum is unclear, however.  

    It surely could not responsibly have exceeded 20,000 sesterces, which was the amount bestowed by Marcus Aurelius and perhaps his predecessor Antoninus Pius.  That being the probable amount, the standard sum for accessional donatives from Nerva forward (and perhaps as early as the conservative Vespasian) should have been about 10,000 sesterces.

    The largest attested donative was promised to the Praetorians by Didius Julianus: a literal "bid" (which they accepted) of 25,000 sesterces per man in exchange for elevating him to the purple.  Thereafter, known donatives declined.  Septimius Severus, while promising a large sum, actually got away with a real payment of only 1,000 sesterces apiece, in spite of his soldiers' demand for 10,000!  After Elagabalus, there is no evidence surviving, but it seems likely the later Empire's finances would have been decreasingly able to afford extravagant bonuses which a healthier treasury could absorb.

    Revealing the shape of things to come, Marcus Aurelius (according to Dio) had refused a request for a victory bonus from his soldiers fighting the Germans, telling them that anything more than their salary would only be squeezed from the blood of their relatives and families.  As the treasury was drained by the rapacious military budget and a declining tax base due to war and plague in the late 2nd c. CE, the clock began to wind down on the fortunes of the Roman Empire.

Pay and Privileges Notes:

To convert sesterces to denarii, see Roman Monetary Units.



Praetorian diploma


    Brian Campbell has estimated that about 280 Guardsmen were discharged each year.

    Upon discharge, each Praetorian veteran in Augustan times was granted a bonus of 20,000 sesterces. (This is in contrast to legionaries who received 12,000 sesterces at that time.  Later, under Caracalla, the praemia increased to 20,000 sesterces for legionaries and a presumably higher but unspecified amount for Praetorians.)

    Unlike legionaries, a retiring Guardsman received a discharge certificate, termed by scholars a diploma, verifying his faithful service and granting him the right of legal marriage.  While auxiliaries and fleet veterans also received diplomata, the formulaic wording of the Praetorian diploma was distinctive and meant to convey a special relationship with the Emperor, for it was addressed directly from the Emperor to the retiree, not written in the less intimate third person as found in auxiliary and fleet diplomas.

    For evidence of this special bond the Praetorians perceived with their Emperor, Dio relates their conduct at the funeral of Augustus.  After the centurions of the Praetorian cohorts had lit the old Emperor's wooden funeral pyre, many Guardsmen who had received decorations from his hand ran up to the blazing bier and pitched their awards in, as a sacrificial show of grief.  

    Like discharged legionaries and auxiliaries, time-served Praetorians were encouraged to take up residence in special veterans' colonies, such as the  colonia Augusta Praetoria, chartered by Augustus in 25 BCE in the newly-subjugated lands of the alpine tribe of Salassi.  

    The peculiar institution of the colonia served two pragmatic functions for Rome -- it provided a reserve military presence in remote and frequently restive regions, and over time, it helped to spread Roman culture and values among foreign peoples, building a larger Roman identity among the peoples of the Empire.



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