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The Praetorian Guard (or shorter Praetorian , Latin Praetoriani ) was a guard troupe that of the Roman emperors was used. Guardsmen were already used by generals in republican times (cohors praetoria) and can be traced back to at least the Scipion family around 275 BC. Trace back to BC. The lictors of the higher ranks of the course honorum and the extraordinarii(an expanded protective force of the officials, since the lictors were no longer up to their task alone) were gradually united to form the first Praetorians. The first guard to bear the name Praetorian was founded around 138 BC. Created. During the time of the republic, however, it was never a permanent establishment, but rather soldiers who were selected during a campaign to form the bodyguards of the respective commander.

The first emperor, Augustus , did not dissolve his Praetorians after the end of the civil wars, but transformed them from 27 BC onwards. In a permanent guard that numbered several thousand members. Since 2 BC Standing under the supreme command of the Praetorian prefects , the troops repeatedly influenced the succession to the throne and, indirectly, the politics of the rulers during the imperial period . Constantine the Great dissolved the Praetorian Guard in 312; In late antiquity, among others, the scholae palatinae , the excubitores and the protectores domestici took over their functions as guard units . The post of Praetorian prefect, however, remained until the 7th century as a civil office.



The term Praetorian comes from the main square of the legionary camp with the general's tent, the Praetorium . It was the custom of many Roman generals ( legates ) to choose a private troop of soldiers from the ranks to act as bodyguards of the tent or themselves. Scipio the Younger formed a special troop of 500 men, made up of clients and friends, and called cohors amicorum . This force consisted of both infantry and cavalry . It was later called cohors praetoria and was used by many well-known military leaders, including Gaius Julius Caesar , Mark Antony and Augustus . When Augustus in 27 BC After having become ruler of the Roman Empire, he decided that such a formation could be useful not only in war but also in politics, and recruited the Praetorian Guard from the ranks of the legions of all the provinces.

An early 2nd century Praetorian

The Praetorians under Augustus

The team that was originally formed differed considerably from the later guard. While Augustus needed military cover available to him in Rome, he was also careful to maintain the republican appearance of his regime, and legions were actually only allowed to stay in Italy in exceptional cases. Therefore, he instead ordered nine Praetorian cohorts of 500 (or 1000) men each, of whom only three were allowed to serve in the capital at the same time, where they were housed decentrally. A small number of separate cavalry units ( turmae ) of 30 men were also set up. While they patrolled the palace and larger buildings as inconspicuously as possible, the others were stationed in the cities in the vicinity of Rome, so that these individual cohorts did not appear to pose a threat. With the installation of two Praetorian prefects ( Quintus Ostorius Scapula and Publius Salvius Aper ) in 2 BC. This system was not changed significantly, only the organization and the command improved.

The Praetorians after the death of Augustus

Augustus' death on August 19, 14 AD also marked a turning point for the Praetorians, whose influence was now growing rapidly. Due to the measures of their prefect Sejan , who enjoyed the trust of the new emperor Tiberius , the guard was moved from the Italian barracks to Rome itself: In 23 Sejan convinced the emperor that a central Praetorian camp ( Castra praetoria ) was needed, which was finally on Outskirts of Rome, just outside the Pomerium , was built. From now on, one of the cohorts was to perform the daily guard in the imperial palace, so that from now on the emperors in Rome had the entire guard at their disposal, but at the same time were more at the mercy of the Praetorians. When Tiberius decided a little later to move his residence to Capri and to entrust Sejan with the day-to-day business in Rome, the power of the Prefects of the Guard grew again. How much became clear in the year 31, when Tiberius, who at that time still resided on Capri, decided to get rid of the prefect, but felt himself forced to rely on the city guards of the vigiles against Sejan ; evidently he could not be sure whether the guards in Rome would be more loyal to him or to Sejan. Although the Praetorian Guard ultimately demonstrated their loyalty to the Emperor during the overthrow of their Prefect, it was at that moment that their political weight became evident.

After Sejan's death, which was ultimately sacrificed by his men for a donativum (imperial gift of money), the guard began to play an increasingly ambitious and bloody role in the empire, provided that their weak emperors gave them leeway. The Praetorians saw themselves as the representatives of the Roman army at the center of power and, moreover, saw themselves as an elite unit with high standards. In the year 41, Emperor Caligula was killed by some conspirators from the senatorial class and the guard. The Praetorians, the majority of whom had obviously not been involved in the assassination, then spontaneously put Caligula's uncle Claudius on the throne (also out of attachment to the imperial family) and accepted that the Senate would unsuccessfully oppose it . According to Flavius ​​Josephus , they wanted to forestall other groups by raising their own candidate so that the new emperor should be indebted to them. The Senate had to bow to the decision of the Guard and officially provide Claudius with imperial powers. For the first time the Praetorians had made an emperor.

The true influence of the Praetorians

In the first two centuries of the Principate , the Praetorians played an important role as they were the unit that represented the Roman military in Italy and the capital Rome. Since no emperor could be proclaimed without the consent of soldiers, they claimed - as we have seen - already under Claudius an essential say in the succession in the principate.

While the guard had the de facto power to kill the emperor, they apparently played no role in imperial administration and politics, apart from personnel decisions in the palace. Occasionally, after a coup in which the guard was involved, the revenge of the new regent was to be expected after particularly hair-raising acts of violence. Vespasian , relying on the disgruntled cohorts previously dismissed by his rival Vitellius , first reduced their numbers in 69 when he ascended the throne. They later returned to the old number. Under the strong emperors between Trajan and Marcus Aurelius , the political influence of the guard and their prefects was small, only with Commodus this began to change again. His successor, Pertinax, tried to discipline the guardsmen, and in return was slain by them in 193. Then Didius Julianus “bought” the imperial title - or rather: the support of the Praetorians - through a high donation at a kind of “auction” organized by the Guard. It should be noted, however, that earlier emperors bought the Praetorians' favor with gifts of money; That this is portrayed as particularly offensive by Julianus is not least due to the fact that authors like Cassius Dio sympathized with Septimius Severus .

Septimius Severus: The Guard is changing

Later in 193, Septimius Severus marched into Rome, disbanded the existing Praetorian Guard that had stood by Didius Julianus and replaced them with a new formation made up of his own Pannonian legions. Until then, only Roman citizens born in Italy (and exceptionally in particularly strongly Romanized provinces such as Baetica ) had been accepted into the guard. Now the character of the guard changed, since from then on it was open to every legionnaire and from 212 also every other imperial soldier, so that the separation between the Praetorians and the rest of the army began to blur. In fact, the Guard became a normal unit to which any soldier could rise. According to researchers such as Patrick J. Geary , the Praetorians had previously played a decisive role in ensuring that the empire preserved its core Italo-Roman character; this time came to an end in 193. Shortly afterwards, the guard also lost their status as the only armed force in the capital, because Septimius Severus broke with the tradition of not stationing regular troops in Italy and relocated a legion, the legio II Parthica , 202 to a new camp in front of the gates Rome (in Albano Laziale ). In doing so he created a counterbalance to the Praetorians.

The guard in the 3rd century

Depiction of a Praetorian from the early 3rd century

Nonetheless, the Guard remained important, which is also reflected in the significant role played by its prefects. In 217, the praefectus praetorio Macrinus even succeeded in becoming emperor himself, although he was unable to stay on the throne for long. The rebellious mob fought openly on the streets of Rome in the six- emperor year 238, who shortly afterwards murdered the emperors Balbinus and Pupienus , because they had been proclaimed by the senate against their will. The guard instead let the Caesar Gordian III. acclaim as emperor, whose Praetorian prefect Timesitheus rose to the de facto regent of the empire a little later. His successor as praefectus praetorio , Philip the Arab , became emperor in 244.

In 271 Aurelian moved east with legions , Praetorian cohorts, and other cavalry units to break the power of Palmyra . Palmyra was easily defeated, which has led modern scholars to believe that Diocletian and his fellow emperors, modeled on Aurelian, gradually developed the sacer comitatus (the imperial escort in the field) from 284 : These were troops that had gone through a selection process and included structures of command which were apparently modeled on the old Praetorian cohorts, but did not have their uniform composition, but were much larger than the Praetorian cohort. Since the soldier emperors of the 3rd century traveled far more often than the previous rulers, a new bodyguard was created, the protectores domestici .

Diocletian, previously commander of this guard, restricted the status of the Praetorians after he began to rule as emperor in 284; henceforth they were no longer part of the palace, especially since Diocletian no longer resided in Italy, but primarily in Nicomedia , about 100 kilometers from Byzantium in the province of Bithynia . Diocletian's three co-emperors did not reside in Rome either. A new corps, the Jovians and Herculians , replaced the Praetorians as bodyguards of the emperors, a practice that also worked during the Tetrarchy . When Diocletian's resignation on May 1, 305, the Castra Praetoria in Rome seem to have comprised only a very small garrison .

The end of the Praetorians

The beginning of the end of the Praetorians in Roman history began when Maxentius , the son of the resigned Augustus Maximian , who had been passed over to succeed his father in 305, sought power; the troops in Rome took up the problem and proclaimed him emperor on October 28, 306:

“Then he (Maxentius) called in Lucianus as an assistant in his company, the person responsible for the supply of pork with which the public treasury supplied the people of Rome, as well as the tribunes Marcellianus and Marcellus and the soldiers at the imperial court, who one called the Praetorians. The latter raised him to the imperial throne, promising that he would reward those who did this for him with rich gifts. "

- Zosimos , 2,9,3

Since Maxentius resided in Rome, the size and importance of the Praetorians under him increased again strongly; but the other emperors did not recognize the usurper. Severus , one of the legitimate rulers, tried to disband the guard on the orders of senior Augustus Galerius , but only managed to drive their remnants into the revolt and support Maxentius. Severus found death.

When Constantine I then forced a final confrontation in the battle of the Milvian Bridge off Rome during his invasion of Italy in 312 , the Praetorians formed the core of Maxentius' army. After his victory, Constantine finally dissolved the Praetorian Guard. The surviving soldiers were transferred to the various corners of the empire that Castra Praetoria destroyed. After nearly 350 years, the dissolution of the Imperial Praetorian Guard was a significant event that marked the beginning of a new era in Roman history. The office of the powerful Praetorian prefect remained, however; Until the end of late antiquity , it was the most important post within the civilian imperial administration.


The Praetorians versus the Legion forces

While serving as guards in Rome, the Praetorians wore sword, lance, and shield, but no armor or helmet. These were only used when they were used as combat troops , which only became customary since the first four-emperor year 69 AD. In the field, the Praetorians were equal to every unit of the Roman army . Only very rarely used by the first emperors, for example during the Germanicus campaigns from 14 to 16 AD, especially in the battle of the Angrivarian Wall , they became much more active from 69. They fought for Otho in the first battle of Bedriacum , under Domitian and Trajan they took part in the wars from Dacia to Mesopotamia , while under Marcus Aurelius they spent years on the Danube front . In the 3rd century, Praetorians supported the emperors in several cities.

Although the Praetorians were similar to the Legion forces, there were some differences. Their cohorts were larger, the pay and benefits were better, and their military assets could be relied on. They received higher monetary gifts (donativa) from the emperors than the regular troops; however, only rarely. Under Augustus, the Praetorian cohorts probably consisted of 9,000 men ( Cassius Dio speaks of double the number) who were recruited from the regular army or the youth of Etruria , Umbria and Lazio , and later also from Macedonia , Hispania Baetica , Hispania Tarraconensis , Lusitania and Illyricum . Vitellius formed a new guard from the Germanic, Septimius Severus from the Pannonian legions. In addition, he put together the replacements for the ranks from across the empire.

At the time of Augustus, around 5 AD, each cohort of Praetorians consisted of 500 or 1000 men (the sources are contradicting), but, as with the legions, the immediately deployable portion was much smaller. Tacitus reports that the number of cohorts was increased from nine to twelve in 47, briefly increased to 16 in 69, and then quickly reduced to nine by Vespasian. In the year 101 it was finally raised again to ten, so that as a result an elite force of 5,000 or 10,000 men was available. Septimius Severus then increased the target number of cohorts to 1,500 men each.

The training of the Praetorians

The training of the guardsmen was more intensive than in the legions because of the free time available when they were not on duty or traveling with the emperor, with the guards following the same rules as the rest of the army. The equipment was also the same - with one notable exception: specially decorated breastplates, particularly suitable for parades and official occasions. As a result, the guardsmen had two sets of equipment - one for service in Rome and one for the field.

The salary

The Praetorians received significantly higher salaries than the other Roman soldiers. They were paid according to a system called sesquiplex stipendum , which means one and a half times the pay. Legionaries received 225 denarii as a scholarship , while the Guardsmen received 375, which were paid three times a year, in January, May and September. Augustus paid 150 denarii annual legionnaires' wages (375 denarii to the Praetorians), Claudius increased it to 225 denars. A Praetorian received an annual salary of 750 denarii. Domitian increased the stipendum (the Praetorian) to 300 (3 payments = 900 denars), Commodus to 375, Severus to 500 (3 payments = 1,500 denars) and Caracalla to 700 denars (3 payments = 2,100 denars). On special occasions, the guard received a "donative" from the emperor. When a Praetorian retired, he received 20,000 sesterces (5,000 denarii), a gift of land, and a diploma "for the warrior who courageously and faithfully served his ministry". Quite a few Praetorians then chose to switch to the evocati ("the summoned"), who remained in the service of the emperor as experienced soldiers: the evocati were identified by a gold ring and a vine as status symbols; they were particularly deserving veterans who now often took on special tasks and were paid particularly well.


Ranks in the Praetorian cohorts, in ascending order
Munifex Simple soldier.
Immune Crew ranks that were exempted from normal work duties (munera) of soldiers.
Evocati Soldiers who voluntarily served longer after completing their regular service hours. Evocati of the Praetorians who switched to the legions were hired there as evocati Augusti in a higher rank.
Centuriones Commander of a centurion . A cohort consisted of six centuries. In contrast to the legions, Praetorian Centurions were ranked among themselves.
Tribuni Lowest staff officer rank, usually from knighthood among the Praetorians . In contrast to the legate commander of only one cohort.

In addition to the cohorts, the commanders of the Praetorian Guard, the Praefecti , of which there were usually two, but occasionally only one, were subordinate to other units. These were the speculatores (“scouts”) and the statores (“police”), which were used by the emperors primarily as political police, but also for courier services, as well as the emperor's personal cavalry created by Galba , the equites singulares Augusti .

Mercenary as the imperial bodyguard

Despite the Praetorians' task of protecting general and Roman emperors, they mostly surrounded themselves with barbaric mercenary troops as bodyguards since Augustus . These were recruited among the Teutons , Gauls, Thracians, in late antiquity and, verifiably, among the Burgundians , and had the advantage that they were not involved in the intrigues and power struggles of Roman society. Furthermore, as foreigners in Rome, they were particularly dependent on their master. In addition to these aspects, however, their loyalty (they mostly came from socialization relationships in which loyalty was particularly important) was the main argument against the Praetorians.

Modern use of the term

In a figurative sense, the term “Praetorian Guard” denotes a loyal group of people close to them in the vicinity of powerful people (politicians, business leaders). The film Das Netz with Sandra Bullock can be cited as an example of this definition of the term .

The term “Praetorianism” describes above all the willingness of higher-ranking persons in the standing armed forces of a country to bring about the desired situation again through often violent intervention in politics in the event of political developments that are viewed as unfavorable or unsustainable, for example by helping people to power who should work in the interests of the military. An example is Spain in the 19th century, when dozens of pronunciamientos by the military such as Rafael del Riego and Baldomero Espartero established , defended, fought and abolished monarchs, regents, constitutions and a republic.


Web links

Commons : Praetorian Guard  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. ^ Tacitus Annales 2, 20