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Book Review: The Praetorian Guard

By (March 4, 2013) No Comment

Keeping Up with the Romans

The Praetorian Guardpraetorian guard jpg: A History of Rome’s Elite Special Forces

by Sandra Bingham

Baylor University Press, 2013

Despite the rather optimistic little imagination-grab in the subtitle of Sandra Bingham’s rock-solid new book The Praetorian Guard: A History of Rome’s Elite Special Forces, if the average reader conjures any foggy mental image of the Praetorian Guard, it isn’t that of camo-clad Navy SEALS leaping out of moving chariots. Rather, oddly enough, it’s probably veteran Welsh actor John Rhys-Davies. Thirty years before he played Gimli the axe-wielding dwarf in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, Rhys-Davies played a beefy and extremely opportunistic captain of the Praetorian Guard named Macro in Herbert Wise’s 1976 mini-series I, Claudius. In that series, Macro gets several juicy lines (but then again, who didn’t?) as he lends his basso profundo voice and brute strength to aid the rise of conniving social climber Sejanus, stopping at nothing to see his patron rise to the top of the heap in the Rome of Tiberius (and proving equally effective against Sejanus when the time is right). The impression conveyed is that of a military man (and by extension his troopers) utterly corrupted by money and status into a lethal combination of effete and barbarous.

It’s a familiar impression, one associated with virtually every such “elite” body of trained military place-seekers, from the Immortals of ancient Persia to the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire to the Secret Service of 20th Century America. Always the image is of simple soldiers long since grown besotted with the power to make and break rulers (indeed, in Suetonius’ immortal story, it was the Praetorian Guard who found Caligula’s uncle Claudius cowering behind a curtain in the palace and promptly made him emperor so they’d have a puppet to serve), arrogant creatures intent only on securing influence for themselves.

Bingham’s book offers a much-needed corrective for this impression, drawing on a wide array of original and secondary sources to paint as detailed a portrait of the Praetorian Guard as has appeared in English in many years. She makes due obeisance to Marcel Durry’s great 1938 study Les Cohortes Pretoriennes, cites many other works on the subject (including H. D. Stover’s breathless but entertaining Die Pratorianer: Kaisermacher, Kaisermorder), makes very judicious use of Ronald Syme’s stunning two-volume commentary on Tacitus, and works in a smattering of memorable articles from The Journal of Roman Studies – but even so, the most enjoyable aspect of The Praetorian Guard is the ample evidence it gives on every page of an original mind at work. This is an exceptionally clear-headed and hard-working volume.

It begins at the beginning, with the emperor Augustus pulling together scattered pre-existing military units (among them the cohors praetoria) to form what amounted at first to a personal bodyguard at one point numbering nine cohorts of 1000 men apiece, stationed a various points throughout the city and surrounding neighborhoods (although Tiberius, in a gesture equal parts preference and distrust, later concentrated them in one location, the Castra Praetoria) as constantly-visible reminders of the emperor’s whip-hand. Indeed, as Bingham correctly points out, “the presence of a considerable number of troops in Rome whose loyalty was to Augustus alone was a clear indication that the imperial period had begun.”

Of course, this very proximity to the emperor has long been recognized as a paradoxical source of difficulty to historians, since too-close contemporary inquiries were universally discouraged:

The development of a military unit technically belonging to the army but superior to them in status and functioning as a separate entity answering only to the emperor did not lend itself to close scrutiny.

This is true, and it can be maddening: all through the pertinent ancient sources, there are mentions of troops in the city proper, soldiers doing much more than simply guarding the emperor and whichever members of his family were in his favor at the moment. Bingham favors a much more multifaceted view; she stresses (especially in her outstanding chapter “Duties”) that in very little time the Praetorians were serving in half a dozen different capacities, both military and administrative, ranging from assisting local fire-fighting brigades to providing armed security at public games. In all cases, their ubiquity argues against any narrow definition:

It is a mistake to consider the praetorians as simply the bodyguard of the emperor. From the very beginning, they played a much larger role and had a far greater impact on life in Rome because of their close affiliation with the machinery of state.

The Praetorian Guard is of course not without its full share of excitement and danger; at several points in its comparatively short history (reforms made by Septimius Severus starting in 193 put an end to the Guard as it had been known since the days of Augustus), the Praetorians were indeed responsible for creating some emperors and killing others, and Bingham retells these stories with skill. But there are no sops to sensationalism in these pages – this is first-rate critical history, rescuing this pivotal band of paid thugs from the shadows of Macro-style simplifications and presenting it to a new generation of readers in all its complexity. This is a proper addition to even the most over-crowded library of Roman history.