Book Review – The Praetorian Guard

As part of the interview weekend for Ph.D candidates that I attended at Baylor University in February, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Carey Newman, Director of the Baylor University Press.  He was kind enough to pass out free books to those who attended.  I received Sandra Bingham’s The Praetorian Guard.  I read it, enjoyed it, and have decided to make it the inaugural book review on this blog to express my gratitude to Dr. Newman.

ImageSandra Bingham, The Praetorian Guard, (Waco:  Baylor Press, 2013).

In this well-written and thoroughly researched book, Sandra Bingham (teaching fellow, University of Edinburgh) investigates the Praetorian Guard, the elite Roman military force whose primary responsibility it was to protect the emperor.  Bingham, however, takes special care to point out the many and varied other duties that the guard also performed both in the city of Rome as well as in the field.

Bingham finds the genesis of the guard in the republican period, when military commanders used praetorian cohorts as their personal bodyguards in the field.  In the republican period, however, troops were not allowed to enter the capital, so it was an intentional demonstration of power when triumvirs Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus entered Rome in 43 BCE, separately and on three consecutive days, each with his own praetorian cohort.  After Octavian’s victory at Actium, he took over Antony’s praetorian cohorts, combining them with his own to create the imperial Praetorian Guard.

From this beginning under Augustus, Bingham traces the history of the guard until its disbandment in 312 CE by Constantine.  She focuses especially on dispelling the notion that the guard functioned exclusively as a bodyguard for the emperor.  Instead, the presence of these elite troops within Rome proved convenient for Augustus and subsequent emperors, because they delegated many and varied tasks to the guard.  The guard was probably involved in crowd control and security at large events from very early.  In addition, certain members of the guard, called speculatores, were regularly involved in clandestine activities, including couriering imperial correspondence and spying on people deemed to be a threat.  Epictetus reports that a spy might “sit down next to you and start to denounce the emperor.”  Then, having the security of the other starting the conversation, you join in, “and are immediately carted off to prison.”  The speculatores were also regularly involved in the guarding and execution of prisoners, especially of condemned political prisoners, in order to ensure their inability to communicate with their followers (for example, the imprisonment of Herod Agrippa under Tiberius; Mithridates under Claudius, and the apostle Paul under Nero).

In 6 CE, Augustus formed another group of the guard, called vigiles, which was permanently responsible for fighting fires, and may have also been involved in policing the streets at night.  Ironically, the actions of the vigiles in setting preemptory “counter-fires” in an attempt to bring the famous blaze of 64 CE under control may have added fuel to the rumors that Nero had started the blaze himself.

It was essential that the guard’s allegiance was to the person of the emperor himself, for many of these tasks required immediate obedience, tact, and secrecy, and they were often unsavory or even illegal, such as the execution of a member of the imperial family.  The loyalty of the guard was secured by doubling the rate of pay of regular legionaries and shortening the terms of service, by the payment of large donatives by the emperor upon his accession, and by the prestige of being a member of the guard and the benefit of living in Rome rather than being stationed in the provinces or on the frontier.  The importance of the guard’s loyalty to the emperor is self-evident, but the point is driven home by the occasions on which the guard or its prefects were involved in assassination plots (for example, Gaius, 41 CE; Nero, 68 CE; Galba, 69 CE; Commodus, 192 CE).

Bingham’s book provides valuable insight into the history, organization, and duties of the imperial Praetorian Guard.  She makes liberal use of both primary and secondary sources, and the abundant endnotes provide the studious reader with ample resources for further reading, without interfering with the flow of the narrative for the more casual reader.  As the only full-length treatment of the guard in English, Bingham’s book is sure to be welcomed by classicists, military historians, and all enthusiasts of Roman history.


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