The Praetorian Guard – Second Century II

The governor of Britain, like any provincial governor, enjoyed the prestige of having his own military staff, singulares, drawn from soldiers in the provincial garrison, including the auxilia, and serving on detachment. These men were known as beneficiarii, literally because they benefited from the privileges and status afforded by the job, and carried out the governor’s orders. They were not praetorians but they were the governor’s equivalent. Just as the praetorians amplified the status of the emperor, so the governor’s bodyguard enhanced and advertised his status and made it possible for him to allocate soldiers from his guard to other deserving officials. While governor of Bithynia and Pontus, Pliny the Younger was asked by a visiting imperial freedman procurator for an escort of six soldiers on a corn-procuring mission, to which Pliny added two mounted soldiers.

Under Hadrian, if not before, additional barracks were built in Rome. In 2015 during work on a new metro line a substantial and well-appointed barrack block of Hadrianic date was discovered around half a kilometre south-east of the Colosseum in the vicinity of four other barrack blocks, together with associated burials. It was clearly a dedicated military zone. It is difficult to imagine who the occupants might have been other than some of the praetorians, and in this case it was probably the equites singulares Augusti. The remains uncovered included a corridor around 100 metres long with thirty-nine rooms opening off it. Some of the floors had mosaics that had existed long enough to be patched and repaired. Such decoration was not typical of legionary fortresses and reflects the higher standard of living to which praetorians were accustomed. These facilities were roughly half the distance from the centre of Rome compared to the Castra Praetoria, making them much more convenient and also made a quicker response in a crisis possible. We know so little about the internal layout of the Castra Praetoria that there is every possibility it was not fully used at this time.

It is therefore interesting that around the same time, by c. 120 or not long after, a fort to accommodate the governor of Britannia’s guard was built in the north-west part of the settled area of London, perhaps connected with Hadrian’s visit to the province and to ensure his protection. The location and purpose of the Cripplegate fort resembled those of the Castra Praetoria in the sense that it was a freestanding military base on the outskirts of what was otherwise a civilian and administrative settlement. London, although tiny compared to Rome, was still the largest city in the province of Britannia. The new fort, which may have replaced an earlier timber one, covered 4.5 hectares and was thus far smaller than a legionary fortress, but it was more than twice the size of most ordinary forts. It was large enough to accommodate the equivalent of a milliary infantry cohort, probably with a cavalry component. The location of known gates, defences, and fragmentary traces of barracks suggest that unlike the Castra Praetoria it was conventional in plan, resembling other forts. Evidence from tombstone inscriptions in London indicates that soldiers were detached from all three legions to serve on the governor’s bodyguard, for example Flavius Agricola of the VI legion, which only arrived in Britain under Hadrian, who died in London aged forty-two. The London fort was by no means typical. Roman forts in a civilian context are very unusual, Carthage being an exception. It survived long enough to be absorbed into London’s later Roman walls, just as the Castra Praetoria was absorbed into the Aurelian Walls of Rome in the late third century. All provincial governors had bodyguard units, so far as we know, for obvious reasons of security and prestige. London’s fort suggests that special conditions prevailed in Britain, necessitating a fortified headquarters in the manner of a provincial castra praetoria, but in this case requiring full military defences because of the residual instability in the province.

Back in Rome, by the end of Hadrian’s reign or shortly after the accession of Antoninus Pius in 138 two new praetorian prefects were appointed: Marcus Gavius Maximus and Marcus Petronius Mamertinus. The reign of Antoninus Pius is even less well known than Hadrian’s since Dio’s account is more or less completely lost, leaving us only with the Historia Augusta. It is both conceivable and probable that praetorians participated in wars during the reign of Antoninus Pius, but there is nothing to confirm that.

Hadrian’s original intention had been to be succeeded by Lucius Ceionius Commodus, adopted by the childless emperor in 136 and renamed Lucius Aelius Caesar. The occasion of his adoption was accompanied by the distribution of 300 million sestertii amongst the soldiers. This must have included the praetorians, and at a preferential rate compared to the rest of the army. Aelius, in the event, predeceased Hadrian, dying on 1 January 138. His demise occasioned a crisis for the ailing Hadrian, who selected Antoninus Pius, a highly regarded senator whose wife Faustina was the great-granddaughter of Trajan’s sister, Marciana. Antoninus and Faustina adopted Aelius’ son, Lucius Verus, along with Marcus Aurelius, the husband of their daughter, Faustina Junior, providing a cash handout to the soldiers on the occasion of that marriage in 145. This complicated web of relationships successfully created a dynasty but for the most part had relied on selecting suitable men rather than on a direct bloodline. Hadrian had even initially considered Marcus Aurelius as his heir, but rejected him on the grounds that at eighteen he was too young.

The principal praetorian prefect of the new reign was Marcus Gavius Maximus, who in or around 158 was said to have served in the position for twenty years, so therefore must have been appointed either by Hadrian in early 138 or by Antoninus soon afterwards. With one exception Antoninus Pius kept men in the posts in which they had been placed by Hadrian until they died. The other prefect, Marcus Petronius Mamertinus, died around 143, after which Gavius Maximus held the sole prefecture for the rest of his life. The two men are cited on an inscription of 1 March 139 recording the honourable discharge of thirty-nine equites singulares Augusti. The inclusion of the names of both praetorian prefects suggests a closer link between the office of the prefecture and the emperor’s mounted bodyguard than might otherwise have been obvious.46 In the same year a mosaic floor was installed in the Castra Praetoria with an inscription that commemorated the vicennalia (twentieth anniversary of the accession) of Antoninus Pius. It was an appropriate recognition of the mutual dependence of emperor and his bodyguard.

Little is known about Marcus Petronius Mamertinus. His tenure as praetorian prefect is otherwise only known from a letter of Marcus Cornelius Fronto. He may have previously been prefect of Egypt. After his praetorian prefecture he was awarded honorary consular status by 150, leaving only Gavius Maximus in post. Marcus Gavius Maximus was apparently ‘a very stern man’. He also seems to have been extremely rich. A fragmentary inscription from the port town at Ostia, and another one in the Vatican Museum, suggest that Gavius Maximus had paid for the lavish Forum Baths, which remain one of the most conspicuous and largest ruins at the site today. The structure is imaginatively designed so that the bath chambers, which all face south-west, received sun throughout the middle of the day and afternoon, reflecting the most popular time of the day to visit the baths. Although the building, like all such structures at Ostia, is built largely of brick, it was expensively faced throughout with marble, much of which has since been robbed away. It is difficult to know what to make of this. Gavius Maximus may have paid for the baths at his own expense, but it is also possible that Antoninus Pius subsidized the costs on his prefect’s behalf. Why Gavius Maximus would have wanted or needed to pay for the baths, or indeed how he became wealthy enough to fund them, is unknown. Civic munificence was virtually ubiquitous in the Roman world but we know of no particular connection that Gavius Maximus had with the port town; perhaps he had come from there or his father had made his name in the thriving commerce of the settlement. Either way, there is no obvious connection with the praetorians themselves. Instead we have an image of the praetorian prefect as a member of the imperial court rather than as a military commanding officer, and encouraging public popularity through his gifts to the community. Whether or not he is representative of the praetorian prefects at this date cannot be said. This was certainly what the office had evolved into when the Guard was disbanded in 312.

Marcus Gavius Maximus was succeeded briefly in 158 as praetorian prefect by Gaius Tattius Maximus, who had been prefect of the vigiles since 156. The prefecture was then once again restored to a joint position, with Sextus Cornelius Repentinus and Titus Furius Victorinus being appointed. Cornelius Repentinus’ promotion from his position as imperial secretary did not last long. His reputation was destroyed in 158 when a rumour emerged that he had been appointed with the assistance of Galeria Lysistrata, one of Faustina’s freedwomen and mistress of Antoninus Pius. It should be noted in the emperor’s defence that Faustina, highly esteemed though she was, had died in 141.

One inscription from this era gives us an example of a praetorian operating in the broader community in an official capacity as a surveyor. Blesius Taurinus was a praetorian land surveyor (mensor agrarius) serving with the VI praetorian cohort during the reign of Antoninus Pius. Taurinus was sent on imperial authority to Ardea, 22 miles (35 km) south of Rome, where he determined the boundaries of the settlement. With that done, Tuscenius Felix, serving for the second time as primus pilus of an unspecified unit, delivered a decision (what it was is unknown). As so often in the Roman world, military personnel exhibited the greatest concentration of professional expertise available. In this case Antoninus Pius had used these men to resolve something that had been brought to his attention, perhaps a property dispute. The army was the most convenient, and perhaps the only source of the necessary skills and manpower the emperor could call on.

Antoninus Pius was succeeded in 161 by Marcus Aurelius, who since 145 had been his son-in-law and earmarked as his heir by awarding him the tribunician power at the same time. As he lay dying, Antoninus Pius called together all his friends and prefects, who must have included Titus Furius Victorinus, and told them that Aurelius would be succeeding him. When he assumed power, Marcus Aurelius immediately appointed Lucius Verus, the son of Hadrian’s originally intended successor Aelius, as his co-emperor and had him marry his daughter Lucilla. The reasons were both dynastic and practical. Verus was younger and more interested in participating in the frontier wars that were to be increasingly a characteristic of this reign, and was soon dispatched to fight the Parthians in the east.

The joint emperors’ first act was to head for the Castra Praetoria where they allegedly offered the soldiers 20,000 sestertii each, and proportionately more to the centurions and tribunes. This figure is generally regarded as an obvious exaggeration – though it matched the amount awarded on discharge as far back as Augustus’ time so there is no overwhelming reason to assume it is wrong.53 In 162 the praetorian prefect Titus Furius Victorinus accompanied Lucius Verus to the Parthian war, where he was to die either by fighting or from plague in 167. He was commemorated in the forum at Rome by a statue with an inscription that recorded his exploits and how he had been awarded honorary consular status. Furius Victorinus must have commanded several cohorts drawn from the Praetorian Guard, presumably another occasion when praetorians were now routinely forming part of imperial armies in the field when necessary. This war was to be successful. Verus returned to Rome in 166 where his inclination to luxurious and indulgent living annoyed Marcus Aurelius.

In January 168 veteran praetorians were offered improved support for starting families. In order to help these men acquire wives, any sons born of the marriage would count for their fathers-in-law when it came to seeking a claim for intestate property or claiming exemption from tutela (legal guardianship). In other words, the boys’ maternal grandfathers would now be able to use their grandsons by their daughters (so long as these daughters married a praetorian veteran) in the same ways, legally, as they would have done their grandsons by their sons. Praetorians, like all other soldiers, were not allowed by law to marry while in service and this had been the position from the inception of the Guard under Augustus. In practice, unofficial unions did take place and it is apparent from a number of sources that during the second century such arrangements were sometimes accepted by the authorities, right up to and including the emperor. This was far from guaranteed. In 117 the prefect of Egypt, Marcus Rutilius Rufus, denied a wife the right to a claim on the estate of her deceased soldier husband on the simple grounds that ‘a soldier is not permitted to marry’.

Whatever the legality and unofficial liaisons, praetorians do not appear to have embarked on such relationships to anything like the same degree as ordinary soldiers. On the evidence of funerary epitaphs and who dedicated them, only 3 per cent of praetorians in the first century had unofficial wives; the majority of deceased praetorians were commemorated by fellow soldiers. This rises to over 10 per cent in the second century and to over 25 per cent in the third century. By comparison, a third of the legionaries on the Danube in the second century were likely to be commemorated by a wife – three times as many as a praetorian of the same period. The praetorians may have been subjected to sterner discipline because of their location and involvement in imperial security, but it is no less possible that frontier legionaries found that acquiring unofficial wives was the easiest way of securing female company, whereas praetorians, being based in Rome, had more casual opportunities.

There is some suggestion that the Praetorian Guard also evolved its own distinctive traditions of a more formal military presentation and terminology in which, perhaps, publicly acknowledging the existence of an unofficial wife was less ‘the done thing’ than it might have been amongst legionaries. Praetorians were much more likely to describe themselves as the commanipularis, ‘comrade of the same maniple’, of a colleague than legionaries were. For example, Marcus Paccius Avitus of the V praetorian cohort died at the age of thirty after five years’ service. His tombstone was erected by his commanipularis, Lucius Valerius. Whether this is really evidence of a fundamentally different culture or merely different style is a moot point. Legionaries were more likely to call each other commilito, ‘co-soldier’, or contubernalis, ‘tent-party comrade’, which seems more a matter of style than evidence of different levels of formal military culture. Unless a praetorian had a wife whose name is mentioned on his tombstone, we cannot assume that more praetorians had wives who were excluded from the epigraphic tradition and that therefore, for whatever reason, praetorians were less likely to form unofficial unions while the law remained in force. Moreover, Paccius Avitus had died young and this seems to be common to many of the praetorians we happen to know about. Praetorians of the second century were also more likely to be discharged early than legionaries. Up to 58 per cent had been discharged within seventeen years, whereas legionaries had served ‘much longer periods of time’ before being discharged at this rate. Various factors might explain this, including a possibly higher rate of loss in combat and disease in Rome.

Those who lived long enough to benefit from the shorter terms of service were likely to be awarded an honourable discharge and then move on to prestigious civic jobs such as municipal magistracies in their home towns. Gaius Com[. . .] Secundus, a veteran of the V praetorian cohort, returned to what was probably his home town of the colony of Minturnae (Minterno) where he served his community as an aedile, a magistracy that would have entitled him thereafter to a seat on the town council (ordo) as a decurion (councillor). Gaius Arrius Clemens, who had served with distinction in Dacia under Trajan while with the VIIII praetorian cohort, proceeded to a series of posts as centurion before ending up as a duumvir (one of the two senior magistrates) in the town of Matilica (Matelica) in Umbria, and as patron of the community. Such men were primarily memorialized in their prestigious positions of later life, their service as ordinary praetorians being brushed over if mentioned at all. They would have been more likely to marry during this later time in their lives, having both the money and legal opportunity, as well as having age on their side, unlike legionaries. This would also explain why praetorians received discharge certificates which noted their right now to marry, an essential document if they were to marry non-citizen wives.

The outbreak of war on the Danube frontier, when the Germanic tribal confederation known as the Marcomanni invaded in 168, caused Verus and Aurelius to head out to fight, but Verus died in 169 during their return to Rome. Marcus Aurelius carried on as sole emperor until 177 when his son, Commodus, was elevated from the position of Caesar that he had held since 175, to joint Augustus with his father. During that period, between the years 169 and 172, there is clear evidence of praetorian prefects serving in a capacity we would most easily recognize as commissioners of police. An imperial freedman called Cosmus wrote to the praetorian prefects Bassaeus Rufus and Macrinius Vindex, who had succeeded the deceased Furius Victorinus in or around 167, with Vindex probably being appointed a little later. Bassaeus Rufus came from modest origins and reached the praetorian prefecture via the prefecture of Egypt, but Macrinius Vindex’s earlier career is unknown. The purpose of the letter was to appeal to the prefects for their help in stopping the magistrates at the cities of Saepinum (Attilia) and Bovianum (Boiano), and stationarii, from troubling lessees of sheep flocks on an imperial estate. The stationarii were armed police installed in specific locations, and had been established by Augustus. It is not clear in this instance if praetorians were being used as stationarii, though some inscriptions show that praetorians could be used in this role and sometimes far beyond Italy. Titus Valerius Secundus of the VII praetorian cohort, for example, was a stationarius at Ephesus where he died in service at the age of twenty-six.

Cosmus alleged that the magistrates and stationarii had been accusing the lessees of being runaway slaves, and appropriating the sheep accordingly. This meant that the magistrates and stationarii were stealing imperial property. Rufus and Vindex obliged. They wrote to the magistrates, attaching a copy of Cosmus’ letter, and it is the text of this that has survived. It was a warning to the magistrates and other suspects to desist, on pain of further investigation and punishment. Although the outcome is not known, the document is one of the most specific records of the praetorian prefects operating in a way more akin to a civilian police force, though urban cohorts seem to have been included as well.

In the meantime, the Marcomannic War continued. For all their responsibilities in homeland policing, the praetorian prefects also continued to serve as military commanders in the field. Both Bassaeus Rufus and Macrinius Vindex travelled with Marcus Aurelius on campaign in the early 170s, though we do not know how often or the numbers of praetorians involved. Since both prefects were participating it is possible that a large proportion of the Guard had accompanied them, the remainder perhaps being left under the command of a tribune in Rome, apart of course from those dispersed on various duties around the Empire. In the event Macrinius Vindex was to die leading in battle in or around 172.

Macrinius Vindex was not replaced immediately. Marcus Aurelius was said to have had a particular favourite candidate in the senator Publius Helvius Pertinax, praising him both in the senate and also at military assemblies, but regretted that as Pertinax was a senator he would have to pass him over. Of course, given the appointment of Titus as commander of the Guard by Vespasian, this was a technicality which could have been overlooked had Marcus Aurelius really wanted to. Bassaeus Rufus continued in post in the meantime, possibly as sole prefect. He attended the trial of Herodes Atticus before Marcus Aurelius at Sirmium in 173 or 174. Herodes had been accused of tyranny by the Athenians. During the trial Bassaeus Rufus, described as being praetorian prefect by Philostratus, said it was clear Herodes wished to die. Herodes retorted by saying that at his age there was very little he feared. Bassaeus was still in post in July 177, but probably for not much longer, after which he received honorary consular status. His name is recorded in this capacity. Publius Tarrutenius Paternus became praetorian prefect in or around 179, having been a former imperial secretary. He led a force against the Marcomanni in 179 so he must have been in post by then, but is not specifically attested in it until after the death of Marcus Aurelius when in c. 182 he participated in a plot to kill Commodus. The only other possible evidence we have for the Guard in action at this date is the sculpture on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome depicting the Marcomannic War. Unlike Trajan’s Column, the identification is a good deal more tenuous and depends on the belief that scale armour is the distinguishing factor. There is some verification for this in Dio who refers to this feature of praetorian equipment when describing the Guard under Macrinius in 218. Other scenes on the column also show the equites singulares Augusti with Marcus Aurelius on campaign.

This single example highlights the central issue when it comes to dealing with the Praetorian Guard between the accession of Trajan in 98 and the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180. These eighty-two years were more than long enough for no one to have any living memory of the power the Guard could choose to exert as emperor-breakers and makers. The reality was that none of the emperors in that period was deficient in any of the key qualities required. Their successions were largely undisputed, their judgement was respected, and their personal qualities for the most part sufficient to ensure that they stayed in power and died in their beds. The Avidius Cassius episode in Egypt in 175 was a rare exception. The state was thus not vulnerable and in these circumstances there was no opportunity or need for the praetorians to try and influence events. They took part in wars, and their prefects served the emperors as advisers, chiefs of police or generals as and when needed. It must have been for the most part an easy, complacent and privileged lifestyle. This was to change dramatically under Commodus who was the first ruler for almost a century to exhibit serious shortcomings in his ability either to rule or to choose suitable men for key commands, amongst which was of course the praetorian prefecture. This was to result in the revival of a badly led and dysfunctional Praetorian Guard which would culminate in one of the most degenerate episodes in its history.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.