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Praetorian Guard › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 02 December 2016
Praetorian Guard (Albert Krantz)

The Praetorian Guard ( cohortes praetoriae ) was, in the Roman Republic, a commander's personal bodyguard and then, in the imperial period, an elite force assigned to protect the emperor and Rome. Over the years, the guard would become a dangerous threat to imperial power and emperors were forced to gain its favour in order to ensure their reign. In the 1st and 2nd century CE many an emperor was murdered with Praetorian Guard involvement, and once one of their number, Macrinus, was even declared emperor. The body specifically created to protect the emperor's person had become his greatest liability.


In the Republican period, the Praetorians were a small escort which protected an army commander, general, or governor.Their name derives from the commander's tent, a praetorium. This small force grew in number during Rome's civil wars with each leader having a large personal bodyguard. Rome's first emperor Augustus went a step further and, in 27 BCE, created a permanent bodyguard of nine cohorts totalling at least 4,500 men to protect himself and the royal family, the Praetorian Guard.This was in addition to the small band of, mostly Germanic, bodyguards he and many of his successor employed.
In 2 BCE Augustus appointed two Prefects ( praefectus praetorio ) to command the Praetorian Guard with both directly responsible to the emperor. Curiously, they were the only men allowed to carry a sword in the emperor's presence. Over time these Prefects, possessing the highest equestrian rank, were made members of the emperor's advisory council and even acquired some judicial, financial, and army logistics functions. They also increased in number with five in place during the reign of Constantine I.


During the reign of Tiberius, Augustus' successor, the Guard was expanded to 12 cohorts. Vitellius (r. 69 CE) expanded it again by adding some of his Rhine army so that the Guard now had sixteen 1,000-man cohorts. Domitian (r. 81-96 CE) then reduced the number to ten 1,000-man cohorts, each commanded by a tribune. Units of 100 men were commanded by a centurion, the most senior of which was the trecenarius.
A cavalry wing was added, too, the equites singulares Augusti, which consisted of first 500 horses and then later 1,000.Increasingly, from the 2nd century CE, the Praetorian Guard were used as a useful army reserve and they often took to the field of battle, aiding their emperor defend the empire or their candidate of emperor-to-be achieve his goal. In the field, a Praetorian Prefect would be second-in-command if the emperor were present or sole commander if not.


Members of the Guard were given particular privileges indicated on a diploma signed by the emperor. Prior to 13 BCE, they served for 12 years while legionaries served 20 then; after reforms in 5 CE, Praetorians served for 16 and legionaries 25 years. The Guards also enjoyed over three times the pay given to ordinary legionaries. Their higher status was clearly signified when Augustus left each member 1,000 sestertii in his will compared to the 300 a legionary received. The Praetorians were also distinguished by their finer armour and oval shield, as opposed to the rectangular shield of other legions. They had their own standard when in battle, probably an eagle and wreath. As they served for a shorter period, Praetorian Guards were able to pursue higher military commands at a younger age, once discharged. They were also given other privileges by various emperors such as tax immunity by Vespasian on the land given at the end of their service.
Castra Praetoria

Castra Praetoria


Praetorian Guards largely came from either Italy or the fully-Romanised provinces to better ensure their loyalty. Three cohorts were stationed in Rome, and the rest remained in towns around the capital. This, and the avoidance of full uniform (but still carrying weapons) for those in Rome, was probably because of the Republican tradition that no commander's army should enter the city. However, this situation changed in 23 CE when the Prefect Aelius Sejanus convinced Tiberius to permit the Guard to camp as a single unit in the castra praetoria in the north-eastern suburbs of Rome. Under Aurelian (r. 270-275 CE) the camp became part of the city's fortification walls and its remains can still be seen today. The argument for a single camp was that if the Guard were all stationed together, then they would be better able to respond to an emergency, control any disturbances in the city, or simply act as a deterrent to any would-be conspirators. Whenever the emperor went on campaign in person, a detachment of the Praetorian Guard, led by one of the prefects, went with him.


As the imperial throne wobbled with ever-increasing intrigues the Praetorian Guard became an important factor in plots to usurp the emperor's position. In 41 CE Claudius, after the murder of his predecessor Gaius ( Caligula ) by the Praetorian Guard (whose officers had been humiliated by him), sweetened the Guard by handing out large cash sums – 15,000 sestertii per man. Just to reinforce the relationship, Claudius then had a series of coins minted which depicted the Guard hailing him as emperor. Thereafter, every new emperor was careful to give the Guard a lump sum and the honour of an imperial address even if the Guard never actually held a formal position in the empire's power structure or possessed any political leadership of any note. When the Praetorian Guard backed Otho against Vitellius in 69 CE and lost, the latter widened up recruitment to allow the best veterans from any legion to join. Vespasian attempted to ensure their greater loyalty by a different means, making his son, the future emperor Titus, a Praetorian Prefect.
By the time of Commodus in the late 2nd century CE the Guard had become an ill-disciplined liability. In 193 CE they murdered Pertinax - he had, after all, only offered them a paltry 12,000 sestertii each on his accession - and then gave their allegiance to anyone who could pay them enough, the winner being Didius Julianus. Didius offered to pay the enormous sum of 25,000 sestertii to every Guard member, the equivalent of 5-year's pay, and when he was made emperor actually upped the reward to 30,000 per man. This dwarfed the 20,000 sestertii that Marcus Aurelius had given to each member when he had become emperor, although this was a genuine gift and not a bribe.
The power of the Praetorian Guard led to emperor Septimius Severus replacing the most notorious members with loyal legionaries from his Danube armies. Still, the Praetorian Guard would not go away as a powerful instrument of power, and in 217 CE, Macrinus, a praefectus praetorio, arranged the assassination of Caracalla and was declared emperor by his own men. Finally, Constantine I disbanded the Praetorian Guard in 312 CE after they had backed his rival Maxentius. The Praetorian Prefects would survive, though, as by now they had become important administrators of the regions of the East, Gaul, Illyricum, and Italy, a role they would continue to perform into the Byzantine period.

Horace › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 18 May 2017
Horace ()

Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 BCE), better known to most modern readers as Horace, was one of Rome ’s best-loved poets and, along with his fellow poet Virgil, a member of Emperor Augustus ' inner circle at the imperial palace. Despite his early allegiance to one of Julius Caesar ’s assassins during the early dark days of the civil war, Horace eventually became a close friend to the emperor and supported his attempts at moral reform, believing it brought new life to a suffering empire, a new golden age.


Horace was born on December 8, 65 BCE, in the town of Venusia in Apulia, a region in southeastern Italy, bordering the Adriatic Sea. As an adult, he was described by the Roman historian Suetonius as being short and fat. His father was a freedman and small landowner in Venusia, working part-time as a public auctioneer or co-actor; historians disagree on whether or not he had ever been a slave. Suetonius added that his father may have been a 'dealer in salted provisions.' Obviously, Horace's father was capable enough to send the young poet to Rome and Athens (where he studied literature and philosophy ) to complete his education.


It was while Horace was in Athens that he joined the army of Caesar ’s assassin Marcus Junius Brutus as a tribunus militum or military commander (a post normally held by a member of the equestrian class) against the heir apparent Octavian (the future Augustus). The assassin's forces eventually lost at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, and this defeat left the impressionable Horace and many others with a bitter taste for warfare. Unfortunately, his support of Brutus cost him his family's property.
Despite having supported Caesar's assassin, Horace returned to Rome where he was fortunate to procure a position in government as a scriba quaestorius, an accountant or cashier, working under a quaestor in the imperial treasury. Some question whether or not he actually held the position having opposed Augustus at Philippi, nevertheless, Suetonius claimed he was pardoned and purchased the position. It was at this time that Horace wrote his first series of poems, something that brought him into contact with both Virgil, the author of the Aeneid, and the poet Varius Rufus, the author of De Morte, a poem intended to comfort men and not to fear death. Rufus was a devout follower of the philosopher Epicurus and his school 'The Garden.' Horace was drawn to the Epicurean philosophy and its principle that pleasure was the only good. According to historian M. Beard, both Virgil and Horace represented 'memorable and eloquent images' of the new 'golden age' of Rome. In the words of historian N. Rodgers, Virgil, Horace, and the banished poet Ovid created a classical style that many believed was comparable to that of the ancient Greeks.


Luckily for Horace, Virgil and Rufus introduced him to a man who would have a profound effect on his life, Gaius Maecenas.Maecenas was a wealthy Roman and patron of the arts who gathered around him a circle of young poets. He was not only an author himself but a personal friend and advisor to Augustus, and through him, Horace would meet the emperor. The young poet soon became a favorite of Maecenas, eventually giving him an estate in the Sabine Hills near Rome at Tivoli. It was a place where Horace, having become financially secure, would eventually build a villa.
In keeping with the Epicurean philosophy, Horace's poems demonstrated a joy for life and a love of nature. Published around 30 BCE when he was around 35 years old, the Epodes or Iambi were 17 elegiac poems, many of which were written before he met Maecenas. The poems alluded to Octavian's victory at the Battle of Actium and his defeat of both Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. The poems not only speak of politics but also of love and his admiration for the rural way of life. N. Rodgers quoted him as saying, "Happy the man who far from business ploughs again his ancestral lands" (385).
Odes, Poem 14

Odes, Poem 14

The Epodes were soon followed by the two books of the Satires, also called the Sermones or 'Conversations.' Besides a criticism of the vice that was rampant in Rome, he wrote of a journey he took with Maecenas to Brundisium and the resettlement of the civil war veterans. Some view the poems as autobiographical, containing poems as tributes to Maecenas and Horace's father.


Although poorly received, Horace's next work was the three books and 88 poems of the Odes. These lyrical poems celebrated Rome in the age of Augustus. After their publication, the emperor would encourage the poet to write a fourth book of 15 poems. Horace said the poems were hymns to the gods and modeled after the great Greek authors, among them Alcaeus, Sappho, and Pindar. Horace always had a deep respect and admiration of the Greeks and believed Rome had to recognize the Greek superiority in all intellectual and cultural fields. In these poems he again praised Augustus for his victory at Actium and for bringing peace to a troubled people, restoring the lost customs and morality of the city ’s past.
However, there were those who considered Horace to have a romantic side. Although a life-long bachelor, he seemed to respect commitment. This is evident in Poem 13 in Odes Book 1 :
Three times blessed and more are they
who are united with an unbroken bond;
no wretched quarrels shall ever separate
our love before the final days of life.
(Branyon, 29)
Although he wrote earlier in his Satires : "Love has two evils, war and then peace" (Branyon, 109).
In his next two books, the Epistles, Horace turned away from poetry momentarily and turned to a philosophic reflection, writing on the right way of life. Published around 21 BCE, the first book was a series of letters written to a variety of individuals, telling of the circumstances of his own life and offering counsel. In the second book, Ars Poetica, Horace wrote on the art of writing poetry. About his own difficulty in the writing of poetry, he wrote, "Struggling to be brief, I become obscure" ( Ars Poetica, Line 25) He also penned two letters, one to Augustus and one to his fellow Roman poet Publius Annius Florus.


Over the years the emperor and Horace had become very close; the emperor called Horace his 'little charmer.' In 17 BCE Augustus asked him to write a secular hymn commemorating the 800th anniversary of Rome's founding. Augustus also asked him to join his staff to help draft correspondence, but the poet declined. On this request, Suetonius wrote that due to poor health and demanding workload, the emperor appealed to Maecenas to let Horace come to the palace to 'help him write his letters.' On November 27, 8 BCE Horace died, two months after his life-long friend Maecenas, and was buried near his tomb.Despite legislation enacted by the emperor against bachelorhood, Horace never married, and so, according to Suetonius, Augustus was named as heir of his estate.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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