Praetorian - The Rise And Fall Of Rome's Imperial Bodyguard

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  • Author:
    Guy De La Bedoyere
    In the year 312 the Praetorian Guard was disbanded by the Emperor Constantine and its members dispersed throughout the frontier garrisons of the Roman Empire. An ignominious but fitting end after 340 years of existence as the Emperor's bodyguard. The Guard was disbanded because it had supported Constantine's rival, Maxentius, in his bid to become Emperor, a rather poor choice as it turned out. This was by no means the first time that the Guard had tried to act as "power-broker'; it was, however,
    the last!

    Guy De La Bedoyere has written an exhaustive and detailed account of the Praetorian Guard from its early informal origins as a personal bodyguard for Roman Army Generals to its formal establishment as the Imperial Bodyguard. Drawing on a wide range of contemporary resources, he places the development and actions of the Guard in the wider context of Rome and the Empire.

    Thought of by most people as an elite bodyguard for the Emperor, it will come as a surprise to learn of the Guard's less salubrious side. Open to corruption, its venality was infamous, as was its willingness to act as the Emperors enforcers and murder squad. As it came to realise the power of its position, the Guard at times became a political power-broker in its own right, often doing away with rulers it did not favour and actively supporting and even putting into power those who they thought would act in their best interests. For many Emperors having the support of the Guard turned out to be a costly affair in terms of both blood and treasure.

    With the Guard based in and around Rome it could react instantly to any threat to the Emperor or to its own interests and despite its rather cosseted lifestyle it was still at the end of the day, a military unit capable of applying overwhelming force against any threat.

    In disbanding the Guard Constantine was responding not only to their once more playing at politics and threatening his position but also to the external pressures the Empire faced. With the 'barbarian hordes' now a serious and growing threat to the Empire, Constantine found himself increasingly in the field commanding his armies, rather than ruling from Rome. The Guard was also being used militarily in defence of the Empire as a whole rather than in defence of the Emperor's person. Its disbandment ensured that it would no longer be able to threaten the Emperor whilst at the same time it bolstered the numbers of troops in the field. All in all rather neat solution to a problem that had plagued so many Emperors!

    There is little doubt that this will become one of the standard texts for those wanting to research the Praetorian Guard.

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  1. LeoRoverman
    Praetorian
    The rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard
    Guy de la Bedoyere


    Guy De La Bedoyere may be familiar to some as one of the principal Roman historians used in the early Time team digs back in the 90’s. He impressed me then and he impresses now with this book. And it is a difficult subject, unlike most regimental histories which have their own archived sources, this looks back to a time when we have to research the only known sources. I can tell you that is difficult! With time comes obscurity and the original sources become less and less available.

    The Praetorian guard were inextricably linked to the Emperors and it’s no surprise that there is actually more information on the Emperors than the Paetorians themselves. A lot is speculation largely because they depend on the actions of the Emperor to be recorded. It is however beautifully illustrated with colour plates of sites, coins and inscriptions and exhaustive indexes, so it is a proper reference book in that sense. It is not an easy read but it is a book that one picks up regularly just to get that bit more. But as the author states it’s a salutary warning against the use of personal bodyguards given the mayhem they can cause. It includes the period where the Guard actually auctioned off the empire having killed the Emperor Pertinax in 193. The buyer one Didius Julianus didn’t last much longer as they dispatched him too. But if the Roman period is a must for you it’s a great addition to the insights of the period.