1. The Praetorian Guard and City Guard Cohorts

From the reign of Augustus the Praetorian Guard was Imperial Rome’s criminal and political police force, occasionally also serving in military campaigns. The City Guard and Night Watch were the civil police and fire brigades of the city of Rome, with City Guard detachments sometimes also serving at other centers. During the first century B.C. and first century A.D. the emperor’s personal bodyguard was provided by another unit, the German Guard, a separate and elite legion-strength unit of handpicked German auxiliaries, based, up to four cohorts at a time, at Rome’s Palatium—their ten cohorts rotated regularly between Rome and several Italian towns outside the capital.

Men of the Praetorian Guard enjoyed the most prestige and the highest pay of any unit in the Roman army. For hundreds of years during the early imperial era theirs was the only regular army unit permitted by law to be stationed in Italy south of the Po River.

The Praetorian Guard was the oldest unit in the Roman army. After the creation of the Republic in 509 B.C., it accompanied the praetor, the most senior elected Roman official before the post was superseded by that of consul, and the unit’s task was protection of the praetor and the city of Rome. Later, it was answerable to the consuls.

The Praetorian Guard fell into disuse during the first half of the first century B.C., and played no part in Roman history when Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar were making their mark. In 44 B.C., following Caesar’s death, Mark Antony, as sole remaining consul, recruited a new Praetorian Guard at Rome as a personal protection unit. The initial strength of Antony’s Guard was six thousand men. His Guard had one thousand men per cohort, setting the pattern for the future. Appian says Antony’s guardsmen were former legion centurions, but this was impossible, being the equivalent of all the centurions from one hundred legions. They would have been retired veterans of a variety of ranks. Unlike legionaries, who were signed up for sixteen-year enlistments at that time, Antony enlisted his Praetorians for twelve years.

In October 44 B.C., Antony left these six Praetorian cohorts at Rome and formed a new Praetorian cohort from his legions at Brindisi. This ‘Brindisi cohort’ stayed with him for the rest of his career. The combined Praetorian cohorts marched for Antony and Octavian during the war against Cassius and Brutus. In early October 42 B.C., on the day the first Battle of Philippi was fought in Macedonia, two thousand men of the Guard were with the Martia Legion and another legion being shipped in as reinforcements for Octavian and Anthony. In a lightly escorted troop convoy bound from Italy to Greece, they were caught by 130 warships loyal to Brutus and Cassius and suffered heavy casualties.

Following the division of the empire after Philippi, it seems the Praetorians, apart from the Brindisi cohort, remained based at Rome when Antony took command in the East, and they came under Octavian’s control. By 32 B.C., the Praetorians’ enlistment had expired. But as Octavian declared war on Cleopatra that year, while he recruited new men to the Guard he also retained a number of Praetorian vets, being reluctant to let go of his best troops. He finally allowed these men to retire seven years later, providing land grants and setting up a colony for them in 25 B.C. at Merida (Augusta Emerita), in Spain, and settling others near the later city of Aosta (Augusta Praetoria), in northwestern Italy. But not before they’d fought for him against Antony and Cleopatra, then in a campaign against Illyrian tribes, followed by the first two years of the Cantabrian War in northern Spain, finally subduing the troublesome Celts of the Salassi tribe in northwestern Italy. Among the tombstones of some of his retired Praetorians found at another colony in northern Italy, at Ateste, were those of men such as Titus Fannius of the 1st Praetorian Cohort and Marcus Gellius of the 2nd.

In 30 B.C., after defeating Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian (the later Augustus) reorganized the Praetorian Guard, giving it the task of protecting and maintaining order at Rome. In that year, he ordained that the unit’s command should always be split between two commanders, each with the rank of prefect, or colonel. In 2 B.C. those prefects were Quintus Ostorius Scapula and Publius Salvius Aper. At Augustus’s death in A.D. 14 the prefects were Sicilians, Lucius Aelius Sejanus and his father Seius Strabo.

By A.D. 23, Strabo had been sent to Egypt, leaving his son as sole colonel of the Guard. Sejanus, like many of his successors, was to use his solitary power to further his own political ambitions. One of Sejanus’s first steps was to bring all the Praetorian Guard cohorts under the roof of a single new fortified barracks, the massive Castra Praetoria, in the 4th Precinct of Rome on the city’s northeastern outskirts, at a site beyond the old city walls. Prior to this, the cohorts had been quartered separately at Rome.

Many emperors followed the Augustan practice of appointing dual Praetorian Prefects, but the number varied between one and two throughout the Praetorians’ existence. For example, early in his reign Claudius had two Praetorian Prefects, Lusius Geta and Rufrius Crispinus, but replaced them with a single commander, Sextus Afranius Burrus, on the insistence of his wife Agrippina the Younger. Nero retained Burrus, but on that prefect’s death in A.D. 62 reverted to two: Faenius Rufus, who was later replaced by Nymphydius Sabinus after being involved in the A.D. 65 Piso Plot against Nero, and Ofonius Tigellinus. The emperor Septimus Severus, who reigned A.D. 193-211, used one Praetorian Prefect at a time, first Fulvius Plautianus then Papinian, but extended the prefect’s powers to the control of State finances and all Italian courts outside Rome.

After the abolition of the Praetorian Guard by Constantine the Great in the fourth century, two Praetorian Prefects continued to be appointed by subsequent emperors, with their duties confined to finances and administration. The dual posts were still being used by the A.D. 393-423 reign of Flavius Honorius—both Praetorian Prefects were murdered in an uprising of the army that also killed most of the rest of Honorius’s cabinet, just prior to the death in A.D. 408 of Honorius’s best general, Marshal of the Armies Stilicho.

It was the custom of the emperors to present each new Praetorian commander with a sword, as a symbol of the Guards’ right to bear arms in the capital. An old law made it illegal for the ordinary citizen to go armed within the city of Rome. There were three exceptions to this rule. The first was the emperor himself, and some emperors wore a ceremonial dagger representative of their power over the life and death of every subject, often around their neck. As his badge of office, the emperor’s Chief Secretary wore a sheathed dagger at the waist. Third, men of the Praetorian Guard, City Guard, Night Watch, and German Guard were authorized to wear swords in the city.

Normally, the prefect’s ceremonial sword was handed over sheathed, but in A.D. 110 when the emperor Trajan presented the sword to new Praetorian Prefect Colonel Saburanus, he unsheathed the weapon, held up the blade, and said to the colonel: “Take this sword in order that, if I rule well, you may use it for me, but if I rule badly, against me.”

While the equivalent modern rank of colonel nominally went with the job of Praetorian Prefect, men of higher rank sometimes occupied the post. Vespasian’s son and successor, Titus, a successful commander in chief during the Judean offensives, subsequently held the post for some years. On the other hand, men sometimes came up through the ranks from common soldier to become Prefect of the Guard. Men the like of Gaius Silpicius Similis, a centurion, briefly held the post during Trajan’s reign. The length of the term of office of Praetorian Prefects was open-ended, although not for life as proposed to Augustus early in his reign, and was terminated at the emperor’s discretion.

One of the most famously industrious colonels of the Guard was Quintus Marcius Turbo, a prefect during Hadrian’s reign. A former general, Turbo always worked into the early hours of the morning. When, in A.D. 136, the emperor urged him to take life a little easier, Colonel Turbo replied, paraphrasing the emperor Vespasian, that a Prefect of the Guard should die on his feet.

In Augustus’s day the Praetorians numbered nine thousand men in nine cohorts. These cohorts were organized along similar lines to the double-strength 1st cohort of each Imperial legion, and were officered by six centurions. As Praetorian cohorts operated independently of one another, there was no chief centurion or camp prefect of the Guard. Each Praetorian and City Guard cohort was commanded by a tribune, a broad-stripe colonel who had served his years on the army’s promotion ladder and qualified for deputy legion commander status. Guard tribunes shared the task of Tribune of the Watch at Rome on rotation. There are instances of Praetorian tribunes who were still serving in the Guard in their forties. There is no record of junior tribunes serving officer cadetships with the Guard in Imperial times as they did with the legions.

From the reign of Augustus the Praetorian Guard was required to provide a detachment that surrounded the building where the Senate was sitting—usually the Senate House, but on special occasions sittings took place in one temple or another—to prevent members of the public from entering. Following an A.D. 33 edict of the Senate, they also searched all senators for weapons before they were allowed to enter the Senate House. In addition, the Praetorian Guard provided a cohort for guard duty to keep order at the circus on chariot racing days and during public spectacles, at the amphitheater during public spectacles, and at the theater during musical and dramatic performances. During a riot at a theater at the capital in A.D. 15 a Praetorian centurion and several guardsmen were killed and their tribune injured.

The Praetorian Guard also operated the city prison, which was on the Street of the Banker, beside the Gemonian Stairs and a short distance from the Forum, and carried out sentences imposed by the emperor, Senate, and courts, including implementing exile and execution any place in the empire. There are accounts on record of centurions of the Guard traveling to remote provinces and distant islands with details of up to 60 guardsmen to carry out the capital punishment of condemned individuals on the spot.

A typical execution assignment took place in A.D. 66 when Nero sent a centurion and Guard detachment to northwest Italy to execute Marius Ostorius Scapula, who had won the Civic Crown in Britain as a young cavalry colonel twenty years before while serving with his father, the governor, and who had been found guilty of conspiracy to murder the emperor. Ostorius barricaded himself inside his villa and took his own life. The Praetorian centurion subsequently decapitated him—the heads of executed men were returned to Rome as proof the sentence had been carried out.

Heads of offenders executed outside Rome were exhibited on the rostra in the Forum and/or the Gemonian Stairs. The bodies of those executed at Rome were thrown down the Stairs, a custom said to have originated with Tarpaeia, daughter of the commander of the Capitol during the Sabine War, who betrayed Rome to the Sabines and was thrown from the Tarpaeian Rock in punishment. It was illegal to bury or cremate the bodies of executed men and women; they were tossed into the Tiber after public display.

The City Guard was Rome’s beat police force. Formed by Augustus in A.D. 10 and in three cohorts through to the time of Tiberius, later growing to four, the City Guard provided the sentries at the city gates and did the everyday police work of the capital, in daylight hours, including patrolling the deserted streets on days when chariot races and public spectacles were being conducted at one arena or other, to discourage burglars. The City Guard also acted as a fire brigade during daylight. City Guard cohorts, with a strength of 1,500 men each, were commanded by tribunes, who reported to the City Prefect. Like the Praetorian Prefect, the City Prefect had the nominal rank of colonel, but the post was frequently held by men of general rank.

The cohorts of Augustus’s Praetorian Guard and City Guard were numbered 1 through 12, the first nine being Praetorian cohorts, the last three being City Guard cohorts. One cohort, the 12th, later the 13th and subsequently the 18th when the Guard expanded, was permanently stationed in France at Lyons (Lugdunum), capital of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis, to guard the Imperial mint that Augustus set up there to replace the old Republican mint beneath the Temple of Juno Moneta at Rome. A new central mint was established at Rome from A.D. 64, and once the Lyons mint was eventually phased out no City Guard cohort was stationed outside Rome.

Caligula added three more Praetotian cohorts. By Nero’s reign, there were fourteen Praetorian cohorts and four City Guard cohorts. They were numbered 1 through 18, with the last four being City Guard cohorts. In A.D. 66 the strength of the 18th Cohort at Lyons was down from 1,500 to 1,200 men; Vindex may have taken 300 of these guardsmen to the Rhine as his personal bodyguard. Josephus indicates the unit was back to full strength by A.D. 68 following riots at Lyons in the wake of Nero’s demise.

Claudius stationed a cohort of the City Guard at Ostia and another at Puzzuoli, Rome’s two main west coast ports. Their first duty was to act as firemen, to protect the ports’ vast grain warehouses. The length of the Puzzuoli posting is uncertain, but during the reigns of Nero and Galba and into the reign of Otho the 17th Cohort of the Guard was stationed at Ostia. From the reign of Vespasian, a fire brigade of barefoot Tyrrhenian Fleet marines served Ostia and Puzzuoli, allowing the City Guard cohorts to return to normal duties at the capital.

After coming to power in A.D. 69, Vitellius sacked all guardsmen (experienced men with under two years to run on their enlistments), replacing them with twenty thousand men from the legions he’d brought with him from the Rhine, creating twenty new Praetorian cohorts. He would live to regret it—the fired guardsmen joined his rival Vespasian. Once Vespasian became emperor he reduced Praetorian numbers, recruiting the new A.D. 71 enlistment in Italy, as in the past. In his reign there were seven thousand Praetorians in fourteen cohorts. By the reign of Alexander Severus, 150 years later, the Praetorian Guard numbered ten thousand men.

Until A.D. 69 there was also a Praetorian Cavalry. Vitellius replaced it in July of A.D. 69 with the newly created Singularian Horse, an elite unit made up of Rome’s best German auxiliary cavalrymen, in several wings. Their unit emblem was the scorpion, they used hexagonal shields, and they had their own barracks and stables complex at Rome in the 5th Precinct, below the Esquiline Hill. The Singularians were still in existence late in the second century, as attested by tombstones of the unit’s troopers at Rome, but by the early third century had been superseded as the household cavalry by the Batavian Horse.

Praetorian Guard and City Guard soldiers were Roman citizens and natives of Italy. During the reign of Tiberius, A.D. 14-37, recruits for Praetorian and City Guard cohorts were levied in Etruria, Umbria, Latium, and the old Roman colonies in Italy. Centurions could be both transferred to Guard cohorts from the legions and promoted from within Guard ranks.

From 27 B.C., Praetorians were paid substantially more than legionaries—4 sesterces per day. When Tiberius came to the throne in A.D. 14 he doubled Praetorians’ pay to win their support, to three times what legionaries were paid. In 13 B.C., Augustus established set retirement bonuses for his troops. Praetorian guardsmen received 20,000 sesterces on retiring, as opposed to legionaries’ 12,000 sesterces each.

Unlike legionaries, Praetorians rarely had the opportunity to profit from the spoils of war, but they were compensated by receiving larger financial legacies than legionaries in the wills of various emperors, and new emperors paid them a bonus when they took the throne. There were various other sources of income. For example, Tiberius paid each of his Praetorians a 1,000-sesterces bribe to stay in barracks when he had Naevius Sertorius Macro, then commander of the German Guard, forcibly remove their prefect Sejanus in A.D. 31. (Macro was subsequently given Sejanus’s job by the emperor.)

The twelve-year enlistment period for members of the Praetorian Guard instituted by Mark Antony in 44 B.C. was increased to sixteen years by Augustus in A.D. 5, in line with the increase in the legion enlistment period from sixteen to twenty years that he introduced between 6 B.C. and A.D. 11.

Almost always, the Praetorian Guard only left Rome if it was to accompany the emperor of the day as he traveled or campaigned outside the capital. The Guard played a prominent role in the Dacian Wars between A.D. 101 and 106, when the emperor Trajan personally led the campaigns. He apparently waited for the latest Praetorian reenlistment to be completed in early A.D. 101 before launching his invasion. There were occasional exceptions to this rule. In A.D. 14 Tiberius sent Praetorian cohorts with his son Drusus to put down a mutiny of the three legions stationed in Pannonia. He also sent two Praetorian cohorts to his adopted son Germanicus Caesar for his last German campaign in A.D. 16.

Following Vitellius’s death the men of his Praetorian Guard became PoW’s, but that didn’t stop them clamoring for their discharge rights. Licinius Mucianus offered them land only, but they hung on for their retirement bonus. The Senate authorized a state loan from private businessmen to pay them out, with a former consul appointed to administer the fund, but Mucianus subsequently discharged them without benefits.

2. The Night Watch

For the hours of darkness there was a separate Night Watch at Rome during much of the Imperial era. The Cohortes Vigilum, literally “the cohorts that stay awake,” were seven in number. Augustus divided Rome into fourteen administrative regios or precincts, and each Night Watch cohort of one thousand men covered two regios and was quartered in barracks in their precincts. These district Night Watch headquarters were the forerunners of police precinct houses of modern times. The Night Watch was commanded by its own prefect, an officer of Equestrian rank who reported to the City Prefect.

The Night Watch was formed by Augustus in A.D. 6, as a temporary night time police force and fire brigade following extensive fires in the city. The Watch proved so useful that he kept them on and they became a permanent fixture. In Augustus’s day Night Watch men were always freedmen, former slaves. Later, they came from other classes of society, as well. They were paid from the public treasury. Their rate of pay is unknown, but would have been similar to that of auxiliaries, as would their length of service.

Prior to the formation of the Night Watch, the wealthier inhabitants of Rome employed night watchmen to patrol their blocks. These watchmen carried bells to warn residents of fire, and Night Watch patrols most likely did the same.

To relieve congestion and prevent accidents in the narrow streets of Rome by day, in 59 B.C. Julius Caesar banned wheeled transport from Rome during daylight hours, giving the Night Watch plenty to do as traffic police by night. Augustus exempted Imperial chariots, carriages of the Vestal Virgins and the empress, and the carts of construction workers from this regulation. This meant that all wagons bringing in produce for sale in the capital and taking out exports could only move at night. Hence Imperial Rome’s reputation as the city that never slept.

The nocturnal Night Watch troops never left the capital and were considered inferior in quality and status to both Praetorian and City Guard soldiers.

3. Uniforms, Arms, Standards, and Equipment

The Praetorian Guard, City Guard, and Night Watch were armed and uniformed in the same manner as the legionary. The curved Praetorian shield was a little more rounded at the top and bottom than that of the legionary, and Praetorian standardbearers wore lion skin capes as opposed to the bearskin capes of legion standardbearers.

The Praetorian Guard did not march behind an eagle standard like a legion. As each Guard cohort was in effect an independent unit, guardsmen rallied behind the standards of their cohorts, all of which were topped by the symbol of the open right hand.

A law promulgated by Augustus permitted men of Guard units to go about the city of Rome armed only with swords. Their shields and javelins were stored in the barracks armory, and were brought out for parades outside the old city walls, for emergencies, and when the Praetorians and City Guard served outside the city of Rome.

4. Reorganization and Decline

The Praetorian Guard was reorganized by Septimus Severus in A.D. 193. The recruiting ground of the Guard had been broadened by this time by Severus’s predecessors to take in not only Italy but Spain, Macedonia, and Noricum—central Austria and part of Bavaria. Severus had marched on Rome with his Pannonian legions to avenge the murder by men of the Guard of the new emperor Pertinax, a famous and respected soldier, and the Guard was made to pay. After taking Rome bloodlessly in June of A.D. 193, Severus had the Praetorians form up on the Field of Mars and then ceremoniously stripped them of bravery decorations and dishonorably dismissed them. He ordered that any former member of this Praetorian enlistment who came within one hundred miles of Rome in the future be executed. Severus formed a new Guard with fifteen thousand men from his legions, with the most meritorious legionaries at frontier garrisons transferred to Praetorian service.

Severus took his Praetorian Guard against rivals Niger in the East and Albinus, Governor of Britain, in France. In February 197, near Lyons, when Severus led his Guard to shore up his right wing, they broke, and Severus only just managed to reform them. Then, with the help of cavalry, they routed Albinus’s left wing and won the day.

A typical Praetorian of the third century was Lucius Titius Celer. A member of the 9th Cohort, commanded by a Centurion Montanus, he died at Rome aged thirty-four. Celer, a native of Zuglio in Italy, had served for fifteen years.

The emperor Diocletian had no great liking for Rome or its institutions—he lived out most of his reign in the East. When he became emperor in A.D. 285 he disbanded the existing Praetorian Guard and City Guard cohorts and brought in two legions from the Balkans, forming them into two Praetorian Guard divisions with a combined strength of ten thousand men. Diocletian appointed a co-emperor, Maximianus, giving himself the title Jove and Maximianus that of Hercules, and the two new Praetorian divisions were called the Jovia and the Herculiana. This new Guard served on the same pay and length of service conditions as the legions.

Maxentius, emperor from A.D. 306, reverted to the old Praetorian system. Abolishing Diocletian’s two divisions, he recruited Praetorians from all the legions and lifted their numbers to eighteen thousand, also reinstating their old service period and pay privileges.

The end of the Praetorian Guard came abuptly in A.D. 312. General Constantine, who governed Spain, Gaul, and Britain, marched into Italy with forty thousand men to challenge Maxentius, his brother-in-law. After defeating Maxentius’s larger army outside Verona, Constantine won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge at Rome; here thousands of Praetorians were killed standing their ground as the rest of Maxentius’s army was overrun.

Constantine sent Maxentius’s surviving Praetorians to his legions, banishing them to frontier garrison posts. Decreeing the abolition of the Praetorian Guard, he forbade the creation of any new force to replace it and had the Praetorian barracks torn down. When Constantine departed Rome several months later he turned his back on the city, returning only twice in his twenty-five-year reign. He made his capital at Constantinople, the later Istanbul in Turkey.

A number of emperors were made by the Guard, notably Claudius, Nero, Otho, Diocletian, and Gordian III. More were unmade by the Praetorians, murdering, dethroning, or deserting them—Caligula, Nero, Galba, Pertinax, Julianus, Elagabalus, Balbinus, and Maximus included.

The demise of the Guard reflected the course of the Roman military, then on a downhill slide. Within another eighty-three years the legions were being withdrawn from the frontiers. Two hundred years later the Senate would also disappear. No Senate, no Praetorian Guard, no Augustan legions. The fall of Rome can be charted by the end of her most enduring institutions.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!