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What Was the Praetorian Guard?

The Praetorian Guard was an elite unit of the Imperial Roman army, serving as personal bodyguards to the emperors. Trusted yet feared, they wielded significant political power, often influencing imperial succession. Their loyalty, however, was not always guaranteed. Discover how the Praetorians shaped the fate of Rome—what secrets did they protect, and what betrayals did they conceal? Continue reading to uncover their story.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The ancient Roman Empire was not always ruled by an all-powerful emperor, but power was split between prominent military leaders, ambitious politicians and a legislative Senate based on Greek political ideals. Once Augustus Caesar assumed the title and power of imperator or emperor, however, the hierarchy of power shifted towards a titular ruler who controlled both the military and the Senate, in as much as it were possible during those turbulent and violent times.

The emperor also held a more militaristic title of praetor, much as a modern president is also considered a commander-in-chief. Because the praetor was a constant target of political and military opportunists both foreign and domestic, an elite group of experienced soldiers was drafted to form a Praetorian Guard. The Guard's first and only loyalty was to whichever praetor held power at the time.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Under the protection of Praetorian Guard units, the emperor was free to walk through the halls of the Senate or the streets of Rome with little fear of assassination or violent confrontation. If the emperor wanted to visit a distant battle site, a large guard detail was automatically dispatched. Although individual Praetorian Guards were still considered soldiers in good stead, they were generally spared from front line combat duties while in the service of the praetor.

As the Roman Empire began to crumble, however, a number of members of the Praetorian Guard began to exert their own political muscle. Strict loyalty to the emperor became a secondary concern as guard members pursued their own political ambitions or fed the engine of political "machines" seeking the overthrow of the present empirical ruler. Corruption became rampant, which prompted at least one emperor, Constantine, to order it completely disbanded.

Members of the Praetorian Guard during the height of the Roman Empire could best be compared to the modern Swiss Guard which protects the Pope or the legendary French Musketeers who pledged their undying loyalty to the French king. The Praetorian Guard might perform routine protective duties in the emperor's private quarters one day, then quell a civil uprising or reinforce a besieged regular army outpost the next.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the primary role of the Praetorian Guard?

The Praetorian Guard was an elite unit of the Imperial Roman army whose primary role was to serve as the personal bodyguards of the Roman emperors. They were responsible for the safety of the emperor and his family, and they also played a significant role in Roman politics, sometimes even deciding the outcome of imperial succession through their support or opposition to different claimants to the throne.

How were members of the Praetorian Guard selected?

Members of the Praetorian Guard were selected from the ranks of the Roman legions, with a preference for those of Italian or Roman descent. They were chosen based on their military skills, loyalty, and proven service. The selection process was rigorous, ensuring that only the most capable and trustworthy soldiers were admitted into the guard.

Did the Praetorian Guard have any influence on Roman politics?

Yes, the Praetorian Guard had a significant influence on Roman politics. They were known to be kingmakers, with the power to install and depose emperors. Their influence peaked during the 'Year of the Four Emperors' in 69 AD, when they played a crucial role in the rapid succession of emperors. Their political involvement often led to instability and was a factor in the eventual disbandment of the guard by Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century.

What led to the disbandment of the Praetorian Guard?

The disbandment of the Praetorian Guard was ordered by Emperor Constantine I after he defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. Constantine's decision was influenced by the Guard's history of meddling in politics, their loyalty to his rival Maxentius, and his desire to establish a new capital in Constantinople, away from the power base of the Praetorian Guard in Rome.

How did the Praetorian Guard differ from regular Roman soldiers?

The Praetorian Guard differed from regular Roman soldiers in several ways. They were an elite force with better pay, privileges, and living conditions. They served in Rome or the immediate vicinity, unlike regular legions who were often stationed at the frontiers of the Empire. Additionally, their duties involved not only military engagements but also ceremonial functions and, at times, political interventions, setting them apart from the standard legionary's role.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular HistoricalIndex contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular HistoricalIndex contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...

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