Praetorians, Praetorians Cohort (Praetoriani, Praetoriae Cohortes) was the Emperor’s side guard in ancient Rome. This unit was created by Scipio Africanus in the period of the republic and in principle, it was to be the protection of the army commander and the governor of the province. During the siege of Numantia, the Scipio had a squad of 500 personal guards. This custom of using personal protection was later taken over by other high-ranking Roman commanders who were far from Rome. That unit type was called Cohors Praetoria and was close to the commander during the battle.
Their duties were changed during the reign of Augustus, who transformed the praetorians into military units with orderly functions. Emperor Augustus appointed praetorians in 2 CE as permanent formation in times Julio-Claudian dynasty. The praetorians often took part in war campaigns accompanying the emperor.
Firstly it was 9 cohort of them – 500 soldiers in each – then amount increased to 1000 people. Three cohorts had to be in the capital. The rest of the units were stationed in major Italian cities. Apart from infantry, there were also organized cavalry units (turmae) with 30 people in each. The Praetorians were mainly infantry units, with the ride playing a complementary role. However, Emperor Tiberius from 23 CE decided to bring all the praetorians to Rome, to locate them in the capital. Tacit says that in the year 47 CE the number of cohorts was increased to 12, to 69 CE (during the reign of Vitellius) increased again to 16 units. With Vespasian’s assumption of power, the number of cohorts was reduced to 9. During the reign of Domitian number increased to 10.
The Pretorians were an elite formation, and their service was an honour, reserved mainly for the inhabitants of Rome; however, every man from Italy could become a praetorian. The annual intake was higher than that of an ordinary legionary. For comparison, when Augustus was emperor the legionary received annually stipendium 75 denarii – 225 denarii per year, when praetorian had 350. Emperor Domitian at the turn of the first and second centuries CE raised it to 1000 denarii per year. The service was for 16 years, when the average soldier had to serve 25 years. For veterans, there is also a high level of clearance. These facilities were intended to encourage citizens to join the guard; on the other hand, they caused the Roman soldiers to have a bad reputation for the guard.
In some historical record praetorians, after the murder of Caligula, Claudius was found hiding behind the veil and called the emperor.
The task of the praetorians was to protect the authorities and the political system. Public order service in the city was made up of city cohorts (cohortes urbanae), which belonged to the prefect of the city (praefectus urbi). Only a high-ranking senator could have become one. The (cohortes vigilum) cohorts were also distinguished, which in Augustus times was 7. They served as the fire brigade and night police. These cohorts were usually recruited from freedmen, they were commanded by praefectus vigilurm, who usually was from equites class.
Since the times of Tiberius, the praetorians have been recruited mainly from the inhabitants of Gallia Cisalpina. The Praetorians were stationed in the north-eastern part of Rome, in heavily fortified castra praetoria.
Dissolution of the praetorian formation
High influence and a number of conveniences of the praetorian guard led to the situation that over the centuries this unit often decided to overthrow or choose the emperor (e. g. Caligula, Galba). An ideal example is the successive rulers after the last member of the Antonin dynasty – Commodus, who, by the way, died as a result of a conspiracy arranged by the prefect of the praetorians Quintus Emilius Laecius in 192 CE. The next ruler – Pertinax who took part in the conspiracy, endowed the guards with the amount of 3000 denarii. After three months he lost the support of the praetorians and was killed by their swords. The vacancy on the Roman throne tempted the cohort of praetorians to announce an auction, in which interested parties could offer a reasonable amount in exchange for power. The biggest money was proposed by Didius Julianus who thus became the new emperor of the empire.
The new ruler hadn’t enjoyed his ruling because Rome was besieged by Septimius Severus in June 193 CE. It was when the praetorians lost their position for the first time. Severus insidiously drove the corps into the barracks and disarmed it. In place of the corrupt praetorians, Severus set up a new guard with a very diverse ethnic composition and a lowered payment; based mainly on his soldiers. This is how Septimius Severus was to turn to the unarmed praetorians, who had olive branches in their hands, as a gesture of surrender:
You see by what has happened that we are superior to you in intelligence, in size of army, and in number of supporters. Surely you were easily trapped, captured without a struggle. It is in my power to do with you what I wish when I wish. Helpless and prostrate, you lie before us now, victims of our might.
But if one looks for a punishment equal to the crimes you have committed, it is impossible to find a suitable one. You murdered your revered and benevolent old emperor, the man whom it was your sworn duty to protect. The empire of the Roman people, eternally respected, which our forefathers obtained by their valiant courage or inherited because of their noble birth, this empire you shamefully and disgracefully sold for silver as if it were your personal property.
But you were unable to defend the man whom you yourselves had chosen as emperor. No, you betrayed him like the cowards you are. For these monstrous acts and crimes you deserve a thousand deaths, if one wished to do to you what you have earned. You see clearly what it is right you should suffer. But I will be merciful. I will not butcher you.
My hands shall not do what your hands did. But I say that it is in no way fit or proper for you to continue to serve as the emperor’s bodyguard, you who have violated your oath and stained your hands with the blood of your emperor and fellow Roman, betraying the trust placed in you and the security offered by your protection. Still, compassion leads me to spare your lives and your persons. But I order the soldiers who have you surrounded to cashier you, to strip off any military uniform or equipment you are wearing, and drive you off naked.
And I order you to get yourselves as far from the city of Rome as is humanly possible, and I promise you and I swear it on solemn oath and I proclaim it publicly that if any one of you is found within a hundred miles of Rome, he shall pay for it with his head.
– Herodian, History of Roman Empire, II 13.
Soon afterwards, Septimius presented to the roman senate his decision to change the rules for recruiting praetorians. So far the praetorians were young people from Italy and the most romanised provinces. From now, the best soldiers were selected from the border. It was supposed to be a kind of promotion and a reward in the form of a transfer to service in the capital.
The unit eventually became resolved during the reign of Constantine the Great in 312 CE which was a punishment for the support of Maxentius, Constantine’s rival in the civil war. Their barracks in Rome were demolished and the praetorians were incorporated into various legions.
Silhouette of a praetorian
Those who wanted to join the praetorian guard had to be high. Herodian describes them in Greek as megistoi – “the highest” or “the most powerful”. He also mentions, among other things, that his own praetorian guard, created by the co-ruling Gordians in 238 CE, consisted of the highest young men in Carthage.
To become one of the praetorians it was needed to present oneself physically and show a morally strong personality. Also necessary were letters of recommendation from important characters and families, which facilitated the career path.
Prefect of praetorians
Praetorians in fact were the imperial guard, commanded by the prefect of praetorians (praefectus praetorio). Two and then three prefects were introduced later. The position of the praetorian commander was reserved for the equites. The prefect’s position grew with the gradual destruction of the country. In the third century CE, he became the official deputy emperor and then his representative in the senate. As it turned out, the prefects and their subordinate praetorians had a huge influence on the internal politics of the state. As has already been mentioned, the emperor was chosen many times by them.
Judicial power was also concentrated in the hands of the prefect, in the place of the emperor. In order to prevent attacks by the powerful prefects of the praetorians, the emperors began to appoint two prefects. Due to their judicial powers, one of them was usually held by a lawyer. After the administrative reform of Constantine in the 4th century CE, the prefects were at the head of large administrative units – prefecture (4 in Empire: praefectura praetorio per Orientem, per Illyricum, Italiaei Galliarum).
Title praefectus praetorio was often written on inscriptions as “PR PR” or “PPO”.
Other emperors’ units
From Augustus to Galba the emperors had corporis custodes – as a bodyguard; composed exclusively of barbarians, especially Germans, who did not speak Latin. The aim was to prevent potential conspirators from communicating with the imperial guard.
In addition to the praetorian guard, there was another unit created to protect the emperor – equites singulares Augusticommonly known as Batavi.
List of known prefects
The following list includes all known prefects of the praetorian guard since the establishment of the unit in the 2nd year BCE by Octavius Augustus until 314 CE when the unit was officially withdrawn. The list is incomplete due to the fact that we do not have adequate sources documenting the exact number of people in office, their names and term of office.
Sometimes the praetorians were commanded by one commander and sometimes the emperor appointed two prefects who shared the leadership (Sejanus and Burrus).
Prefects of praetorians together with the period of office:
- Publius Salvius Aper (2 BCE – ?)
- Quintus Ostorius Scapula (2 BCE – ?)
- Publius Varius Ligur (? – ?)
- Lucius Seius Strabo (? – 15 CE)
- Lucius Aelius Sejanus (14 – 31 CE)
- Quintus Naevius Sutorius Macro (31 – 38 CE)
- Marcus Arrecinus Clemens (38 – 41 CE)
- Lucius Arruntius Stella (38 – 41 CE)
- Rufrius Pollio (41 – 43 CE)
- Catonius Justus (41 – 43 CE)
- Rufrius Crispinus (43 – 50 CE)
- Lucius Lusius Geta (47 – 50 CE)
- Sextus Afranius Burrus (50 – 62 CE)
- Lucius Faenius Rufus (62 – 65 CE)
- Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus (62 – 68 CE)
- Gaius Nymphidius Sabinus (65 – 68 CE)
- Cornelius Laco (68 – 69 CE)
- Plotius Firmus (69 CE)
- Licinius Proculus (69 CE)
- Publius Sabinus (69 CE)
- Alfenius Varus (69 CE)
- Junius Priscus (69 CE)
- Arrius Varus (69 – 70 CE)
- Marcus Arrecinus Clemens (70 – 71 CE)
- Tiberius Julius Alexander (69 CE – ?)
- Titus Flavius Vespasianus (71 – 79 CE)
- Lucius Julius Ursus (81 – 83 CE)
- Cornelius Fuscus (81 – 86 CE)
- Lucius Laberius Maximus (83 – 84 CE)
- Casperius Aelianus (84 – 94 CE)
- Titus Flavius Norbanus (94-96 CE)
- Titus Petronius Secundus (94-96 CE)
- Casperius Aelianus (96 – 98 CE)
- Sextus Attius Suburanus (98 – 101 CE)
- Tiberius Claudius Livianus (101 – 112 CE)
- Publius Acilius Attianus (112 – 119 CE)
- Servius Sulpicius Similis (112 – 119 CE)
- Gaius Septicius Clarus (119 – 121 CE)
- Quintus Marcius Turbo (119 CE – ?)
- Marcus Petronius Mamertinus (139 – 143 CE)
- Marcus Gavius Maximus (136 – 156 CE)
- Gaius Tattius Maximus (156 – 159 CE)
- Fabius Cornelius Repentinus (159 CE – ?)
- Furius Victorinus (160 – 168 CE)
- Macrinius Vindex (? – ?)
- Marcus Bassaeus Rufus (168 – 177 CE)
- Publius Tarrutenius Paternus (179 – 182? CE)
- Sextus Tigidius Perennis (180 – 185 CE)
- Niger (185 CE)
- Marcius Quartus (185 CE)
- Titus Longaeus Rufus (185 – 187 CE)
- Publius Atilius Aebutianus (ok. 185 – ok. 187 CE)
- Marcus Aurelius Cleander (ok. 187 – 189? CE)
- Lucius Julius Vehilius Gratus Julianus (188 – ok. 189 CE)
- Regillus (ok. 189 CE)
- Motilenus (ok. 190 CE)
- Quintus Aemilius Laetus (192 – 193 CE)
- Titus Flavius Genialis (193 CE)
- Tullius Crispinus (193 CE)
- Flavius Juvenalis (193 – 200 CE)
- Decimus Veturius Macrinus (193 – 200 CE)
- Gaius Fulvius Plautianus (197? – 205 CE)
- Quintus Aemilius Saturninus (200 CE)
- Marcus Aurelius Julianus (ok. 200? CE)
- Marcus Flavius Drusianus (ok. 204 CE)
- Aemilius Papinianus (205 – 211 CE)
- Quintus Maecius Laetus (205 – 215? CE)
- Valerius Patruinus (211? – 212 CE)
- Gnaeus Marcius Rustius Rufinus (ok. 212 – ok. 217 CE)
- Marcus Oclatinius Adventus (215? – 217 CE)
- Marcus Opellius Macrinus – 212? – 217 CE)
- Ulpius Julianus (217? – 218 CE)
- Julianus Nestor (217? – 218 CE)
- Julius Basilianus (218 CE)
- Publius Valerius Comazon Eutychianus (218 – 222 CE)
- Antiochianus (221 – 221 CE)
- Flavianus (222 CE – ?)
- Geminius Chrestus (222 CE – ?)
- Gnaeus Domitius Annius Ulpianus (222 – 228 CE)
- Lucius Domitius Honoratus (ok. 223 CE – ?)
- Marcus Aedinius Julianus (223? – 238 CE)
- Marcus Attius Cornelianus (ok. 230 CE)
- Julius Paulus (228 – 235 CE) Vitalianus (? – 238 CE)
- Annullinus (? – 238 CE) Domitius (240 CE – ?)
- Gaius Furius Sabinius Aquila Timesitheus (241 – 243 CE)
- Gaius Julius Priscus (242 – po 246 CE)
- Marcus Julius Philippus (243 – 244 CE)
- Maecius Gordianus (244 CE)
- Quintus Herennius Potens (249? – 251 CE)
- Successianus (ok. 257 – 260 CE)
- Silvanus (? – ok. 260 CE)
- Callistus Ballista (260 – 261 CE)
- Lucius Petronius Taurus Volusianus (ok. 260 – ok. 267 CE)
- Marcus Aurelius Heraclianus (268 CE – ?)
- Julius Placidianus (ok. 270 – ok. 275 CE)
- Marcus Annius Florianus (275? – 276 CE)
- Marcus Aurelius Carus (? – 282 CE)
- Lucius Flavius Aper (282? – 284 CE)
- Marcus Aurelius Sabinus Julianus (ok. 283? – ok. 284 CE)
- Titus Claudius Marcus Aurelius Aristobulus (284 – 285 CE)
- Afranius Hannibalianus (286 – ok. 292 CE)
- Julius Asclepiodotus (290 CE – ?)
- Constantius Chlorus (? – ?)
- Ceionius Rufius Volusianus (? – ?)
- Publius Cornelius Anullinus (? – ?)
- Ruricius Pompeianus (? – 312 CE)
- Julius Julianus (315 – 324 CE)
- Junius Annius Bassus (318 – 331 CE)