Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard – Review

‘…the Guard could not do without the emperor. Without him, the Guard had no identity, no purpose and – crucially – no pay […] so long as the Guard existed there would, by definition, be an emperor whom they supported. This loyalty, however, was conditional and transferable.’

On the back cover of my copy of Praetorian is a quote by Peter Thonemann in The Sunday Times who recommends this book ‘to aspiring tyrants and the ordinary armchair historian’ – now that’s a hearty recommendation if ever there was one. I am aware of the role the Guard played earlier in the history of the Empire thanks to I, Claudius and other more historically accurate books, but I figured this book would be an excellent opportunity to read about the entire history of the Guard from its beginnings to its end. In this respect the book fulfils its aims, not only exploring the rise, fall, and fluctuating role and status of the Guard through the centuries, but it also gives a good insight into many of the emperors who depended on the soldiers during this time. Unfortunately, the author acknowleges in the Introduction that the evidence about the Guard is ‘complex and incomplete because the Praetorian Guard makes only erratic appearances in ancient sources […] The organization of the Guard, like so much else in the Roman Empire, was a good deal less precise and regimented than is often assumed today’ – and while it is important to acknowledge this, somehow the book comes across as overly detailed in places, too tightly packed to get a clear idea of the bigger picture.

‘The praetorians had emerged as the single group of people whose support, or lack of, could make or break an emperor.’

The Praetorian Guard was an organization that played a key role in Roman history, and ‘helped define the image of the Roman state both then and now’. As such, de la Bédoyère has a monumental task, not only in covering the centuries of the Praetorians’ history but doing so in a clear way in this, their first full narrative history. While the scarcity of evidence means that some periods of history are able to be explored in greater detail than others, at times the writing became very bogged down in names and dates, even in the less famous parts of the narrative and especially during the Year of the Four Emperors. Knowing which emperor was which, no matter who the two Praetorian prefects were at the time, proved difficult, and meant the usually lively and well paced style stumbled. This style seemed to echo the role of the Praetorians themselves, whose role developed from enforcers and soldiers to contractors and other roles the emperor needed, from set-dressing under Caligula to an audience leading the applause at Nero’s concerts. When the emperors were more competent at ruling the role of the Guard changed once more, though it could always be questioned whether the Guard were loyal to the person of the emperor or his title.

‘Since Sejanus had turned out to be so thoroughly rotten, corrupt and cynical, he would have been regarded by [ancient] historians as a lost cause from the day he was born. Therefore any scurrilous rumour, however obscure, was likely to be gleefully incoroporated into a canon of malignant criticism of his malevolence and opportunism.’

Although on occasion this book felt like a bit of a slog, it is important for the narrative it presents and the sheer volume of material it covers. It would make an ideal reference book for the reigns of certain emperors in relation to the Guard that was tasked to protect them, or the role of the Guard at certain periods in history, but I would not reccomend doing what I did and trying to read it all the way through as a linear narrative. It does have this, as it explores the Guard’s history chronologically, but I certainly found myself enjoying some anecdotes of the Guards and their emperors much more than others. That being said, I am by no means a military historian, so perhaps that could account for some of my confusion and dissatisfaction with certain aspects of this book – I am not the ideal audience for it, aspiring tyrant and armchair historian though I may be.

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