The Praetorian Guard
Text (c) 2000, 2001 by Captain Jenny Cline,
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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
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
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.
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 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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
A legionary's caligae ("boots")
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.
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.
For more information about wear of the toga, see www.ancientsites.com/~julilla_sempronius/toga.htm.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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:
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
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.