The Jews first inhabited the city that would become known as Jerusalem and the area known as Judea—a fertile strip of land along the Mediterranean, at the junction of numerous land and sea trading routes—in the tenth century BCE, when the Israelitribes under King David conquered the area. The Israelis were in turn conquered by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, who in 586 BCE took thousands of Jews into captivity in Babylonia. But after Persian king Cyrus freed them, they returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt their Temple, the heart of the Jewish religion, and lived there for hundreds of years. The Syrian Seleucid dynasty seized Jerusalem in 198 BCE, but thirty years later, all of Judea was freed by a successful revolt of the Maccabees, a Jewish liberation movement.

Thereafter, the Jews enjoyed a century of independence until the Romans under their great consul Pompey took advantage of a civil war between various Jewish religious factions to seize Judea and annex it to the Roman province of Syria in 63 BCE. Although the Romans at first allowed the Jews to have their own leaders—the famous Herod the Great was one of these—there were numerous violent clashes between Roman authorities and extremist Jews, known as Zealots, who wanted the Romans to leave Judea. (It was into this world, fraught with violent political and religious tensions, that Jesus Christ was born; some scholars believe that his message was one of Jewish zealotry and that Christ himself may have been a Zealot.)

In 6 CE, the strife in Judea had grown to such an extent that the Romans decided to place the country under more direct control by appointing procurators—civilian magistrates or governors who reported directly to the Roman emperor—which caused a great deal of dissension among the Jewish people. For one thing, taxes (which, at 19 percent of estimated income, were already quite high) now needed to be paid in money, rather than goods, which placed an almost intolerable burden on the people of a mainly agricultural society. And the taxes had to be paid in Roman coinage. Roman coins had pictures of their goddess Roma or their divine emperor, which broke the Jewish religious strictures against graven images and paying tribute to other gods. To make matters worse, the procurators who collected these impossible sums (Pontius Pilate was one) were in the main corrupt men who despised Jews.

The Jewish leadership became divided as the population became polarized. The high-ranking, conservative religious leaders known as the Sadducees wanted people to pay their taxes, cooperate with the Romans, and avoid bloodshed, while the more radical Jews of the sect known as the Zealots preached rebellion. Matters came to a head in the spring of 66 CE when a procurator named Gessius Florus enraged Jews by seizing money from the treasury of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to make up for a shortfall in Judean tax payments. Rioting tore the city apart, and Florus sent in Roman legionaries along with Greek auxiliary troops to put it down. They did, but bloodily, killing 3,000 citizens of Jerusalem.


The stage was now set for the first of the Jewish uprisings in what would become the long and bloody conflict called the Jewish-Roman Wars. The Sadducees managed to convince Florus to remove all but one cohort of Greek troops from the city, which they thought might help cool tempers, but it was too late. The Sicarii, the most extreme of the Zealots, functioning much like a modern-day terrorist group, sent out assassins to stab to death prominent Sadducees on the streets. Even moderate Jews were targets, causing fear and panic to spread among the populace.

Then the Zealot leader Eleazar ben Hananiah, the captain of the Temple guard and the son of a former high priest, convinced those who followed him that they should not make any more of the animal sacrifices that they were required by Roman law to make to Emperor Nero. Finally, Eleazar’s forces turned to open warfare, massacring the Greek troops left in the city after most of them had surrendered.

This type of killing was a sign of the terrible hatred that is a hallmark of never-ending warfare. The Jews had been impoverished by decades of severe taxation, had their citizenry murdered, and had their religion scorned. It was in particular the profanation of the Temple by the seizing of proceeds its citizens had meant for the upkeep of their religion that enraged most Jews. The situation worsened almost immediately, from a Roman point of view, because the Roman governor of the region, Cestius Gallus, who was stationed in Antioch, Syria, was inept at best. He led an army to assault the Zealots in Jerusalem, but just as it seemed the Romans would defeat the Jews, he withdrew them.

On their way back to Syria, in November 66, the Romans were ambushed by Hananiah’s Zealot troops at the pass at Beth-Horon, a strategic point on a road leading out of Jerusalem where, a hundred years before, the Maccabees had defeated a Seleucid force. An awareness of history is an important thing in a small people fighting an empire. The Zealot troops rained arrows, spears, and rocks down upon the Roman soldiers. As the Romans ducked for cover, they were attacked from the front by a large Zealot force. Unable to maneuver or form up into ranks in the crowded and narrow pass, 6,000 Roman soldiers were killed or wounded.

Up until that point, it was the worst defeat suffered by troops of a rebellious province in Roman history, and an important one in terms of morale for the Zealots. More and more Jews began to flock to their banners, and the Zealots spread out from Jerusalem, taking small Roman outposts all over Judea and Galilee. They also set out to seize major ports along the Mediterranean, hoping to make it more difficult for the Romans to land troops.


In Rome, Emperor Nero was infuriated when he heard that this small province would dare to rise against the might of the Roman Empire. Like most Romans, he had little or no understanding of the power of religion in the lives of the Jewish people. The Jewish religion was interwoven with every aspect of the Jewish culture, from birth to death. When the Romans trampled upon this, they trampled upon a centuries-old way of life.

Fortunately for the Romans, Nero made an unusually good choice for the job of destroying the Jews: the general Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Fifty-eight years old in 67, Vespasianus, known in English as Vespasian, had successfully commanded a legion during the invasion of Britain and been awarded with greater and greater honors, which included being made governor of Africa in 63. However, thereafter his personal fortunes took a downturn as he fell into debt and was then dismissed from the royal court for falling asleep during one of Nero’s endless musical recitals. Nero appointed him because of his reputation as a tough, patient, and stubborn fighter—Vespasian’s nickname among his men was “the Mule Driver”—and that is exactly what the Romans got.

A war fought against guerillas who are inspired by both religion and patriotism is one of the most difficult ones for an imperial country to wage, which is why Vespasian was the right commander at the right time. Landing 45,000 Roman legionaries in Judaea, he began attacking Jewish fortresses one by one, patiently surrounding them, searching for a weak point, finding it, and then exploiting it. Little quarter was given in these battles by either side, with the Zealots either committing suicide at the end or being put to the sword by Vespasian’s men.

In the spring of 68, slowly approaching the outskirts of Jerusalem, Vespasian learned that Emperor Nero had committed suicide after the Roman Senate declared him a public enemy. In the chaotic year that followed—one that saw civil war in Italy and four different emperors upon the Roman throne—Vespasian delayed assaulting Jerusalem while he awaited orders from Rome. When, in 69, he himself was named emperor—his age, honesty, and stability being what the Romans sought—he left control of siege operations against Jerusalem in the hand of his son Titus and headed home.


The siege that Titus—a future emperor of Rome himself—conducted against Jerusalem was a classic one. It was the spring of 70 and the city had been surrounded for more than a year. Although much of this delay was caused by the fact that Vespasian had been awaiting clarity over the situation in Rome, it had worked out strategically for the Roman army. During the lengthy period, the Jewish rebels within the city had begun fighting among themselves.

One faction consisted of Zealots who had been responsible for many of the Jewish victories in the countryside over the past year. Another was a strange group led by John of Gischala, a Galilean who had his men dress, according to the historian Josephus, like women, even “plaiting their hair,” wearing eye shadow, and dousing themselves with perfume. This had the effect of momentarily confusing their enemies long enough for them to plunge a dagger into their chests. The third faction was a stark desert group led by Simon ben Giora, who sought a social revolution that was close in nature to the type that Karl Marx would later write about.

This was a bloody internecine conflict that took place in the streets and alleyways of Jerusalem, its chief weapon being assassination. It weakened the Jewish forces, but in the long run, nothing could have stopped the Roman juggernaut. In May of 70, with a shower of arrows and the thudding of huge battering rams, Titus sent his forces crashing against the city’s walls. It was no easy task. Jerusalem had three walls—the first 20 feet (6 m) high and the two inner ones 30 feet (9 m) high and 15 feet (4.6 m) thick.

But the Roman army was expert at siege tactics. For them, siege was not a long investment, hoping to starve the enemy out or wear him down—that tactic, which we recognize today, began in the Middle Ages. Instead, the Roman siege was an aggressive, offensive action, a repentina oppugnatio (“violent assault”). In this case, the Roman frontline troops brought up movable wooden towers 75 feet (23 m) high, from which they showered down spears, stones, and arrows on the city’s defenders. In the meantime, Roman battering rams shook Jerusalem’s outer wall, day after day.

After fifteen days of fierce attack, the Romans broke through the first wall of defense and the Zealots retreated to their second wall. Four days after that, the Romans broke through that and the Jews were at last forced behind their final line of defense. As those on the ramparts fought bravely, parties of Zealots and Jewish civilians, seeing that destruction was near, began to escape through Jerusalem’s extensive series of sewers. To stop this, Titus ordered a huge wall to be built around the city, a structure 4½ miles (7.2 km) around, replete with thirteen forts, which was completed in just three days’ time, according to the writer Josephus, at the cost of denuding the once heavily forested hills surrounding the city.

Showing that he was fighting a war without mercy, Titus had those Jews who surrendered to Roman forces crucified in full view of the city’s defenders. By early July, legionaries at last breached the last defenses of Jerusalem and drove its defenders into three hilltop fortresses, including the Temple. Knocking the Temple doors down with battering rams, the Romans set fire to it, driving the last remaining Zealots out and slaughtering them.

The bloody fighting didn’t end even then, for Titus hunted the Jews through Jerusalem’s sewers and subterranean water tunnels until these doomed brick caverns ran red with blood. Titus kept 2,000 men, women, and children with which to celebrate his brother Domitian’s birthday—by sending them into gladiatorial rings to be torn apart by wild animals.

As a parting gesture, Titus ordered the entire city of Jerusalem destroyed, leaving only a portion of the wall on the western side—which is today’s Wailing Wall—standing to protect his garrison of legionaries.


Writing at the end of his history of the Jewish-Roman Wars, Josephus describes the Romans surveying the dead Zealots at Masada and goes on to say: “Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of the Jews’ resolution and the immoveable contempt for death which so great a number of them had shown when they went through with such an action as [the mass suicide].”

The first Jewish-Roman War officially closed in 73, when Masada fell, but in actuality the war never really ended at all. The “courage of the Jews” impressed the Romans so much that they made it their practice in the years post-Masada to hunt down entire lineages of Jews and attempt to exterminate them, understanding that their enemy never gave up. This, along with the general devastation of the war (perhaps one million Jews died in seven years; Roman losses are unknown, but certainly in the thousands), led thousands of other Jews to emigrate from the country to different parts of the Roman Empire.

One ingredient of long warfare is long memory, and the Jews in the years after the First Jewish-Roman War never forgot the horrors perpetrated on them, their country, and their religion. The Romans owned the known world at that time, so there were few places the Jews could go that would be outside the reach of those who had despoiled Jerusalem and its Temple. Still, many Jews joined existing Jewish communities in Egypt, Cyprus, and Cyrenaica, which is the northeastern part of modern-day Libya, making lives for themselves as tradesmen, farmers, and herders.

Around 115, the Roman emperor Trajan, an able administrator who sought to consolidate the borders of the Roman Empire, launched a war against Parthia (which encompassed modern-day Iran and Iraq and parts of modern-day Afghanistan) and Armenia. As he was busy waging what would turn out to be successful actions in these areas, a major Jewish revolt began in Cyrene, the largest town in Cyrenaica. It was led by a man named Lukuas (sometimes called Andreas), who may have been a messianic figure, since the first thing that Lukuas ordered his followers to do was destroy the pagan temples of Apollo, Artemis, Hecate, Demeter, Isis, and Pluto, all Greek gods, and to attack those who worshipped them. “Seized by a terrible spirit of rebellion,” as the Greek historian Eusebius wrote, they burned these temples to the ground.

Thousands of Greek citizens (all Roman subjects) were killed by the Jews, and many more fled to Alexandria, Egypt, where there was a population of perhaps 150,000 Jews, making it the largest Jewish center outside of Judea. Even though the Jews in Alexandria had nothing to do with Lukuas and his followers, they were persecuted, and many of them massacred, by the enraged Greeks who had lost property and family members in Cyrene. The following year, in 116, the Jews of Egypt had their revenge, destroying Roman and Greek temples in Alexandria and, with especial symbolism, despoiling the tomb of Pompey, who had captured Jerusalem two centuries before.


Praetorian Guard – From Julianus to Severus

Didius Julianus secured his position as emperor by promising the Praetorian Guard 25,000 sestertii each. It was a generous offer, but proved too generous because Julianus had failed to consider whether he could pay it. He was gathered up by the praetorians who, displaying their standards, escorted the new emperor to the forum and the senate. The public display of power was deliberate and obvious and had the desired effect. Julianus indulged the conceit that he had come alone to address the senate while a large number of armed troops secured the building outside and a number came with him into the senate. It was a clear demonstration of where the real power lay, reminiscent of the accession of Otho in 69. Under the circumstances it was hardly surprising that the senate confirmed by decree that Julianus was emperor. He also ingratiated himself, or tried to, with the Guard by acceding to their personal nominees for the prefecture, in this case Flavius Genialis and Tullius Crispinus. His limited coinage focused to some extent on the army, with ‘Harmony of the soldiers’ being the principal offering. Conversely, Pertinax’s coinage had been far more general in its themes. Unfortunately for Julianus, not only did he lack the personal resources to fund the donative, but the imperial treasuries also remained barren after Commodus’ reckless reign. The praetorians were infuriated and started publicly humiliating Julianus, who was already gaining a reputation as greedy and indulgent.

Didius Julianus’ short-lived regime was already crumbling. In the east, Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria, had been declared emperor by his troops after news of the murder of Pertinax reached them. News of Niger’s ambitions reached Rome, where a frustrated populace started to protest in his favour. Part of the reason appears to have been a belief that Pertinax had been capable of arresting the rot that had set in under Commodus but had not been allowed to finish the job by the otiose and wasteful Julianus. Fighting broke out between the crowd and ‘soldiers’, which probably included the urban cohorts and the praetorians. Niger was by no means the only potential challenger. Lucius Septimius Severus, governor of Upper Pannonia, had allied himself to Pertinax, but on the latter’s death Severus had been declared emperor on 9 April 193 by his own troops. There was an irony in Severus’ status. He had been made one of twenty-five consuls appointed by Cleander, just before the latter was made praetorian prefect. In the west, Decimus Clodius Albinus, the governor of Britain, had also thrown his hat into the ring. The stage was set for another civil war. Severus was an arch manipulator. First he bought Albinus’ cooperation by offering him the post of heir apparent. Next, he set out first to secure Rome and then to destroy Niger. Severus was confident that in the meantime Julianus would be deposed; he could then turn against Albinus, destroy him and emerge, as Vespasian had in 69, as the supreme power in the Roman world.

For the moment Julianus depended almost entirely on the fragile loyalty of the praetorians, men to whom he had promised a vast sum of money that he was unable to pay. His first move was inevitable, but futile. He ordered the senate to declare Severus a public enemy. His second was to have a defensible stronghold constructed and prepare the whole city for war, which included fortifying his own palace so that he could hold it to the end. Rome filled up with soldiers and equipment, but the preparations turned into a farce. Dio mocked what the praetorians and other available forces had become. Years of easy living, cultivated in the indulgent days of Commodus’ reign, had left the soldiers without much idea of what they were supposed to do. The fleet troops from Misenum had forgotten how to drill. According to Herodian, the praetorians had to be told to arm themselves, get back into training and dig trenches; this implies that they were accustomed to being unarmed and were completely out of condition. This depiction of the Praetorian Guard, however, suited the purpose of Dio and Herodian. A stereotyped derelict and incompetent Guard amplified the impression of the decadence of Commodus’ reign and the incompetence of Didius Julianus, as well as creating a gratifying image of grossly overpaid and indolent public servants getting their comeuppance. Nevertheless, the indolence probably had a basis in truth and might also have been linked to a conservative attitude to equipment. By the end of the second century AD praetorian infantrymen were still habitually equipping themselves with the pilum, while legionaries had spurned this in favour of various new forms of javelin.

The praetorians became agitated. Not only were they completely overwhelmed by all the work they had had to do, but they were also extremely concerned at the prospect of confronting the Syrian army under Severus that was approaching through northern Italy. Julianus toyed with the idea of offering Severus a share in the Empire in an effort to save his own skin. The praetorian prefect Tullius Crispinus was sent north to take a suitable message to this effect to Severus. Severus suspected that Crispinus had really been sent on a mission to murder him, so he had Crispinus killed. In his place Julianus appointed a third prefect, Flavius Juvenalis, whose loyalty Severus secured by writing to him confirming that he would hold the post when he, Severus, took power. There is some confusion here. The Historia Augusta calls the third prefect Veturius Macrinus, so conceivably two new prefects had been appointed, both of whom seem to have transferred to the Severan regime. Severus sent letters ahead, perhaps via Juvenalis, promising the praetorians that they would be unharmed if they handed over Pertinax’s killers. They obliged, and this meant that Julianus was finished. Severus also sent an advance force to infiltrate the city, disguised as citizens. The senate, realizing that the praetorians had abandoned Julianus, voted that Julianus be executed. This happened in short order on 2 June 193. Next they declared Severus to be the new emperor. Didius Julianus had reigned for a little over two months. In the space of five months in 193 the Praetorian Guard had played their first truly significant role in imperial events for well over a century. They had toppled an emperor and installed another, only to abandon him with unseemly haste, contributing significantly now to the inception of a new dynasty whose members would rule the Roman world until 235. Not since 69 had the praetorians made so much difference, though, ironically, it seems that in 193 as troops they were no more than a shadow of their former selves. They were to pay a heavy price for their interference in imperial politics.

The transition of power was not as smooth as the praetorians hoped. Their tribunes, now working for Severus, ordered them to leave their barracks unarmed, dressed only in the subarmilis (under-armour garment) and head for Severus’ camp. Severus stood up to address them but it was a trap. The praetorians were promptly surrounded by his armed troops, who had orders not to attack the praetorians but to contain them. Severus ordered that those who had killed Pertinax be executed. This act was to have consequences forty-five years later when another generation of praetorians believed they were about to be cashiered too. Severus harangued the praetorians because they had not supported Julianus or protected him, despite his shortcomings, completely ignoring their own oath of loyalty. In Severus’ view this ignoble conduct was tantamount to disqualifying themselves from entitlement to be praetorians; oddly, the so-called ‘auction of the Empire’ seems to have gone without mention.

Severus had a very good reason for adopting this strategy. It avoided creating any impression that he was buying the Empire as Didius Julianus had, even though previous emperors, including very respectable ones like Marcus Aurelius, had paid a donative. Firing the praetorians en masse also saved him a great deal of money, in the form of either a donative or a retirement gratuity. Given the cost of Severus’ own war, and the appalling state of the imperial treasuries, this must have been a pressing consideration. The normal practice would have been for the emperor to pay a donative out of his own pocket. Severus was prepared to spare the praetorians’ lives but only on the condition that they were stripped of rank and equipment and cashiered on the spot. This meant literally being stripped. They were forcibly divested by Severus’ legionaries of their uniforms, belts and any military insignia, and also made to part with their ceremonial daggers ‘inlaid with gold and silver’. Just in case the humiliated praetorians took it into their heads that they might rush back to the Castra Praetoria and arm themselves, Severus had sent a squad ahead to secure the camp. The praetorians had to disperse into Rome, the mounted troops having also to abandon their horses, though one killed both his horse and then himself in despair at the ignominy.

Only then did Severus enter Rome himself. Rome was filled with troops, just as it had been in 68–9. This agitated the crowd, which had acclaimed him as he arrived. Severus made promises that he did not keep, such as insisting he would not murder senators. Having disposed of the Praetorian Guard in its existing form, Severus obviously had to rebuild it. He appears to have done so with Juvenalis and Macrinus still at the helm as prefects in reward for their loyalty over the transition. Severus’ new Praetorian Guard represented the first major change in the institution since its formation under Augustus and amounted to a new creation. Valerius Martinus, a Pannonian, lived only until he was twenty-five but by then he had already served for three years in the X praetorian cohort, following service in the XIIII legion Gemina. XIIII Gemina had declared very early on for Severus so Martinus probably benefited from being transferred to the new Guard in 193 or soon afterwards. Lucius Domitius Valerianus from Jerusalem joined the new praetorians soon after 193. He had served originally in the VI legion Ferrata before being transferred to the X praetorian cohort where he stayed until his honourable discharge on 7 January 208. Valerianus cannot have been in the Guard before Severus reformed it in 193, so this means his eighteen years of military service, specified on the altar he dedicated, must have begun in the legions in 190 under Commodus. Therefore it is probable most of his time, between 193 and 208, was in the Guard under Severus. One of the most significant appointments to the Guard at this time was a Thracian soldier of epic height who began his Roman military career in the auxiliary cavalry. In 235 this man would seize power as Maximinus, following the murder of Severus Alexander, the last of the Severan dynasty.

Dio’s reference to there being ten thousand men in ten cohorts in AD 5 is sometimes assumed to be a reference really to the organization of the Guard in his own time, the early third century. It is possible that ten praetorian cohorts had been in existence from Flavian times on. It is beyond doubt, however, unusually for this topic, that from Severus onwards, the Praetorian Guard consisted nominally of ten thousand men in ten milliary cohorts as Dio had described. Diplomas of the third century certainly confirm that thereafter there were ten cohorts. A crucial change made by Severus was to abolish the rule that the praetorians were only recruited from Italy, Spain, Macedonia and Noricum. Instead any legionary was eligible for consideration if he had proved himself in war. This had the effect of making appointment to the Guard a realistic aspiration for any legionary. The idea was that by recruiting from experienced legionaries, the Severan praetorian would now have a far better idea of how to behave as a soldier. This was not always the case. By the time Selvinius Justinus died at the age of thirty-two in the early third century, he had already served seventeen years in the VII praetorian cohort. Unfortunately, there was an unintended consequence, or so Dio claimed. Italians who might have found a job with the Guard now found themselves without anywhere to go and resorted to street fighting, hooliganism and generally abusive behaviour as a result. Rome also now found itself home to provincial soldiers whose customs were regarded as lowering the tone. The reports seem likely to be exaggerated. A Guard of around ten thousand men would hardly have absorbed all of Italy’s disaffected young men. Nor would ten thousand provincial praetorians have changed the character of Rome, especially as many of the new praetorians clearly spent much of their time on campaign. An interesting peripheral aspect to this story is that the paenula cloak, apparently part of the Praetorian Guard’s everyday dress, seems to have dropped out of use by the military by this date; it had, perhaps, become discredited by association with the cashiered praetorians.

Severus had more pressing concerns for the immediate future. He had to dispose first of Niger and then turn on Albinus. Niger was defeated at Issus in Cilicia in 194. He fled to Parthia but was caught by Severus’ agents and killed. Severus was distracted by various rebellions in the east before he was able in 196 to turn his attention to Clodius Albinus in the west, still nursing ambitions of becoming emperor after Severus even though Severus had withdrawn the title of Caesar from him. The climax came at the Battle of Lugdunum (Lyon) in Gaul in a vast engagement in which the Praetorian Guard played an important part. The figure claimed by Dio for the battle of 150,000 men in each army is simply enormous and equivalent to around thirty legions each, an implausibly vast number. It is better interpreted as the figure for both armies together, but there cannot be any doubt that the engagement was of major significance.

The battle began badly for Severus because Albinus had placed his right wing behind concealed trenches. Albinus ordered the wing to withdraw, luring the Severan forces after them. Severus fell into the trap. His forces raced forwards, with the front lines crashing into the trenches. The rest stopped in their tracks, leading to a retreat with a knock-on effect on the soldiers at the back, some of whom collapsed into a ravine. Meanwhile the Albinians fired missiles and arrows at those still standing. Severus, horrified by the impending catastrophe, ordered his praetorians forward to help. The praetorians came within danger of being wiped out too; when Severus lost his horse it began to look as though the game was up. Severus only won because he personally rallied those close to him, and because cavalry under the command of Julius Laetus, one of the legionary legates from the east who had supported Severus in 193, arrived in time to save the day. Laetus had been watching to see how the battle shifted before showing his hand, deciding that the Severan rally was enough to make him fight for Severus. It is a shame we do not know more about how many praetorians were present, and exactly how they were deployed but, given the claimed numbers involved in the battle, it seems very likely that all, or at least most, of the praetorians were amongst them. If so, the reformed Praetorian Guard must have been very nearly destroyed within a very few years of being organized because it is certain the body count on the battlefield was enormous.

The Battle of Lugdunum marks a point in the history of the Praetorian Guard when it seems to have become normal for all or most of the Guard to be deployed away from Rome as part of the main army. Conversely, it also represented a return to the way praetorians had been deployed during the period 44–31 BC. The only praetorians likely to be left in Rome during a time when the Guard was needed for war were men approaching retirement. The II legion Parthica, formed by Severus, was based at Albanum, just 12 miles (19 km) from Rome from around 197 onwards. The legion would clearly have helped compensate for the absence of the Guard so long as some of the legion was at home. It also bolstered the number of soldiers immediately available to the emperor as a field army, without having to rely entirely on the Guard or troops pulled from frontier garrisons. Alternatively it could fulfil some of the Guard’s duties if the emperor took praetorians on campaign with him. A praetorian in Severus’ Guard could expect to see a great deal of action. Publius Aelius Maximinus was a soldier in the V praetorian cohort under Severus. On his tombstone he was said to have participated ‘in all the campaigns’, which suggests that going to war had become routine for praetorians, though it simply could have been a stock, rather than a literal, claim. Since the tombstone was found in Rome, Aelius Maximinus had presumably lived to tell the tale, expiring at some point after his return, though he was only thirty-one years and eight months old when he died.

The soldiers who took part in Severus’ wars and who earned the right to transfer to the new Praetorian Guard found that a further Severan change in terms and conditions was an increase in length of service to eighteen years. This could include the time spent as a legionary. Lucius Domitius Valerianus was discharged in 208 after serving eighteen years. He had been recruited into the VI legion Ferrata in around 190 under Commodus, from which he transferred to the X praetorian cohort at an unspecified later date, serving in the century of Flavius Caralitanus. The date of discharge is provided by the reference to the joint consulship of Severus’ sons, Caracalla and Geta, which they held that year. The VI legion Ferrata had been based in Syria since at least AD 150 and had formed part of the eastern army supporting Severus, being awarded with the title Fidelis Constans (‘always faithful’) for not siding with Niger. The funerary memorial of another praetorian of this era, Lucius Septimius Valerinus of the VIIII praetorian cohort and formerly of the I legion Adiutrix, shows him bareheaded in the traditional praetorian tunic with sword at his side and holding a spear.

The Praetorian Guard as an institution survived to fight another day for Severus. It remained an important symbol of imperial power and Rome’s military strength. A praetorian standard was featured on the so-called Arch of the Moneylenders, dedicated in Rome in 204. With Albinus destroyed and his supporters executed, Severus returned to Rome before turning his attention to Parthia in 198. A cash handout to the Roman people was accompanied by a large payment to ‘the soldiers’, as well as a pay rise and other privileges, such as being able to cohabit with wives. These must have included praetorians, but quite to what extent is unknown as the reference is to the army in general. Herodian was acutely critical of how the new arrangements could undermine military discipline.


Caesar’s Allies

Gaul Cavalry

German Cavalry

It was the practice of the Romans to make foreign friends of any people for whom they wanted to intervene on the score of friendship, without being obliged to defend them as allies.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars]

Throughout the Republican period, Rome relied heavily on its allies for additional infantry and cavalry forces to make up for a lack of manpower. In some cases these were specialist fighters recruited on an ad hoc basis and in varying strengths from the locality. More important were the allied light troops who were drawn from Mediterranean regions Rome had long been in contact with and with whom they had the closest relations. These troops were customarily raised for the duration of a campaign, which sometimes led the Romans themselves to questions their allies’ quality and commitment. Allied formations were usually under the control of an individual unit’s chief, and were armed, equipped and fought in the particular unit’s traditional style.

Usually the allied contingent of the Roman army was of equal or larger size than the legionary force and was usually formed along Roman lines. Units regularly seem to have been about 500 or 1,000 strong and broken down into either six or ten centuries. These could be arraigned with the main army in the centre of the Roman line or placed on both wings. Sometimes the more lightly armoured allied contingents were mixed with the heavier armed legionaries to prevent the allies from being picked off. Along with the heavily armed troops, many of the allies provided specialist light infantry troops, such as archers and slingers. These units are likely to have been dressed according to their ethnic origin, although there is no definitive evidence of which units were at Alesia. Over forty arrowheads have been recovered from Alesia and it is thought that some of the Roman forms of arrows with one and two barbs are likely to have been used by allied Roman troops. Roman arrows were manufactured from iron and were up to 7.8cm long and 2.5cm wide. Tests of reconstructed bows suggest they would have had a maximum range of around 300m, and so they would be able to fire at the Gauls beyond even the deepest of Caesar’s defences. Slings were also used and a number of examples of slingshot come from Alesia, most notably three with inscriptions on them. Reconstructed slingshots have shown a range of up to 400m, easily enough to provide covering fire from any of the hilltops around Alesia into the valleys below.

Throughout his campaigns in Gaul Caesar does not define the constitution of his cavalry and so we cannot be certain about their number or ethnicity. It is likely that at least some of the cavalry at Alesia were Roman. At the beginning of the conflict, Caesar was also able to call upon friendly Gallic tribes to provide him with Gallic cavalry and these were employed as warriors, as well as scouts, guides, interpreters and messengers. However, Caesar had always considered them unreliable, a belief which was confirmed once Vercingetorix rebelled and Caesar lost the majority of his Gallic troops to his rival. Some must have been retained however, if only in an intelligence role, but by the beginning of the Alesia Campaign Caesar was forced to employ new cavalry in the form of German mercenaries.

Caesar, as he perceived that the enemy were superior in cavalry, and he himself could receive no aid from The Province or Italy, while all communication was cut off, sends across the Rhine into Germany to those states which he had subdued in the preceding campaigns, and summons from them cavalry and the light-armed infantry, who were accustomed to engage among them. On their arrival, as they were mounted on unserviceable horses, he takes horses from the military tribunes and the rest, nay, even from the Roman knights and veterans, and distributes them among the Germans.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 65]

Caesar tells us that the bulk of the German mercenaries were cavalrymen. Evidence for Germanic cavalry in the archaeological record at Alesia is slight; this is partially because German weapons are hard to distinguish due to their similarity with Gallic weapons. One shield boss with a central projecting stud is almost certainly German, given its similarities to later German bosses. Bones of horses coming from the ditches discovered at the foot of Mont Réa have been identified as coming from a male horse of no more than three years old. These bones may represent the well-bred young stallions given to the German cavalry. If this is correct, the evidence would conform well to the German cavalry attack on this region. Recent interpretation suggests that these horse remains may have been deliberately buried in the ditches, not simply to cover them up, but in a form of sacrificial burial. It was the Gallic custom to bury sacrifices in the peripheral ditches of sanctuaries. In Gallic eyes, the circumvallation ditch may have been associated with the practice of ritual sacrifice in these periphery ditches after the defeat.

There is not even any great abundance of iron, as may be inferred from the character of their weapons. Only a very few use swords or lances. The spears that they carry – framea is the native word – have short and narrow heads, but are so sharp and easy to handle, that the same weapon serves at need for close or distant fighting.’

[Tacitus, Germania, VI]

Along with the cavalry, the Germans are described as using spearmen who mingled with the mounted troops. This tactic may explain the successes of the German cavalry during the Alesia Campaign. Tacitus tells us that German warriors were lightly armed, the cavalry often having only a spear and shield. The infantry were armed in a similar manner, with the addition of a number of small javelins. All the Germans were dressed lightly with few wearing armour or helmets. Some even fought completely naked. In the main, German warriors wore breeches and large cloaks that would be draped over their shoulders in regional style. Their clothing was manufactured in simple colours and patterns, the only ostentatious part of their dress being elaborate knotted hairstyles. These varied from tribe to tribe and so identified each warrior as the member of a particular clan, a practice that had continued for hundreds of years.

[The Germans are] … a people who excelled all others, even the largest men, in size; savage, the bravest of the brave, despising death because they believe they shall live hereafter, bearing heat and cold with equal patience, living on herbs in time of scarcity, and their horses browsing on trees. It seems that they were without patient endurance in their battles, and did not fight in a scientific way or in any regular order, but with a sort of high spirit simply made an onset like wild beasts, for which reason they were overcome by Roman science and endurance.’

[Appian, History of Rome, 3]

Caesar tells us that the River Rhine marks the border between the Gallic peoples to the south and the Germans to the north. German warriors were famed for their physique, size and fearlessness – attributes which in Roman eyes made them appear as savages. Like the Gauls, the Romans had a stereotype for the Germans, who were seen as brutish to the point of indifference to death (a recurrent image even up until the present). As ever, the reality was very different; the German peoples had as complex a society as any other of the period. There were close affinities between Celtic peoples and Germans, in art, religion and culture. An innate conservatism meant that German tribes were slow to change and reduced access to resources seems to have meant that their technologies were less advanced than in Gaul. What they lacked in technology the Germans made up for in vigour. It was this trait that so impressed Caesar in his brief excursion across the Rhine into Germany – a trait that was to put to great use during the Alesia Campaign.

The Praetorians I

In 28 March AD 193 the emperor Pertinax was murdered after a reign of just eighty-seven days. His efforts to rule Rome with integrity and order had been generally welcomed. The Praetorian Guard, Rome’s spoilt, privileged and elite imperial bodyguard, was the most conspicuous exception. Pertinax had tried to instill meaningful discipline amongst the swaggering praetorians, who had become accustomed during the reign of Commodus to behaving as badly as they pleased, including hitting passers-by. To soften the impact of the new rules, Pertinax had promised the Guard 12,000 sestertii each, claiming he was matching what Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus had paid them on their accession in 160. Pertinax even sold off Commodus’ property to raise the cash, since the treasury had been reduced to its last million sestertii by his profligate expenditure and wild living. The praetorians, however, took exception to the idea they might return the favour by improving their behaviour. After all, they were aware that Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus had actually paid 20,000 sestertii to their predecessors and that Pertinax had possibly only ever paid half of what he had offered. The praetorians killed Pertinax but, terrified of the consequences of what they had done, they dashed back to their camp, the Castra Praetoria, and locked the gates.

Strangely, everything quietened down and the praetorians realized no one had come after them. Fully aware now that they were the ones who were really in charge, they posted a notice at the Castra Praetoria offering the Roman Empire for sale. Most of the senators were suitably disgusted, though the story as written by Dio may owe at least part of its inspiration to the events of the civil war year of 69 and the short rule of Otho. But one of them, a greedy and ambitious senator called Marcus Didius Julianus, drunk and egged on by his equally greedy and ambitious wife and daughter, Manlia Scantilla and Didia Clara, and two praetorian tribunes called Publius Florianus and Vectius Aper, raced round to the praetorian camp having spotted an opportunity. So did Titus Flavius Sulpicianus, who was the prefect of Rome as well as being Pertinax’s father-in-law. When Didius Julianus arrived he found that Sulpicianus was already there, busily securing his position and ensuring that Julianus was locked out. Only with the use of placards advertising his promises, and the transfer of a Sulpician supporter called Maurentius, was Julianus able to attract the praetorians’ attention.

What followed was rightly called a ‘disgraceful business’ by Dio, though the sheer theatricality of the description needs to be read with some caution. The praetorians capitalized on the fact that no one could hope to be emperor without their backing. Didius Julianus and Flavius Sulpicianus, each desperate for supreme power, started making rival cash offers to the Guard. The soldiers enthusiastically threw themselves into the auction, running across the camp between the candidates to tell each how much he would have to raise his bid by. Sulpicianus was about to win with an offer of 20,000 sestertii per praetorian when Julianus seized the day with a reckless counter bid of 25,000. Julianus added for good measure the warning that Sulpicianus might seek revenge for the death of Pertinax and also that he, Julianus, would restore all the freedoms the praetorians had enjoyed under Commodus. So delighted were the praetorians by the new offer they promptly declared Julianus to be the new emperor.

This event was so extraordinary, tawdry and demeaning that even now it seems barely credible that the Roman Empire could have stooped so low. Herodian described it as a decisive turning point, the moment when soldiers lost any respect for the emperors and which contributed to so much of the disorder that was to follow in the years to come. The Praetorian Guard had brazenly created an emperor purely on the promise of a huge cash handout, consummately and nakedly abusing their position and power. Julianus lasted even less time than Pertinax, having injudiciously offered far more money than he could afford. He was executed on the orders of the senate just sixty-six days after he was made emperor. By then Julianus already faced a rebellion in the east in the form of the Roman army in Illyricum under Septimius Severus, and failed to make any use of his praetorians; the civil war that convulsed the Roman Empire from 193 to 197 would be decided by Roman provincial forces, not the praetorians. Severus cashiered the Guard and recreated it with trusted legionaries from his own forces. Even that did not solve the problem. In the decades to come the Guard and its prefects played a decisive role in toppling and making one emperor after another.

How could it have come to this? The praetorians were the most privileged of all Roman soldiers. They were paid the most, served the least time, and enjoyed the best conditions. Their status exceeded that of all the other armed forces; but, in the two centuries or more since their formal foundation as a permanent institution by Augustus, circumstances had conspired to make them the supreme authority. In 193 it was a power they misused in so reprehensible a way it is hard to imagine how they could ever have recovered any of the prestige they had once enjoyed.

Edward Gibbon’s description of the Guard’s relationship with the emperor is unmatched for the clarity with which he identified the paradox inherent in the system:

Such formidable servants are always necessary, but often fatal to the throne of despotism. By thus introducing the Praetorian guards, as it were, into the palace and the senate, the emperors taught them to perceive their own strength, and the weakness of the civil government; to view the vices of their masters with familiar contempt, and to lay aside that reverential awe, which distance only, and mystery, can preserve towards an imaginary power. In the luxurious idleness of an opulent city, their pride was nourished by the sense of their irresistible weight; nor was it possible to conceal from them, that the person of the sovereign, the authority of the senate, the public treasure, and the seat of Empire, were all in their hands. To divert the Praetorian bands from these dangerous reflections, the firmest and best established princes were obliged to mix blandishments with commands, rewards with punishments, to flatter their pride, indulge their pleasures, connive at their irregularities, and to purchase their precarious faith by a liberal donative; which, since the elevation of Claudius, was exacted as a legal claim, on the accession of every new emperor.

The Guard’s ambitions, and those of its prefects, expanded to fill the voids left by inadequate or vulnerable rulers. Thus, Tiberius’ self-imposed exile to Capri made it possible for the praetorian prefect Sejanus to try and become emperor himself. The disastrous reign of Caligula in 37–41 led to his assassination and to the Guard appointing its own emperor in the form of Claudius. The loss of the Guard’s support played a key part in Nero giving up and committing suicide in 68. During the civil war of 68–9 the Guard played crucial roles in the fight between the rivals for the Empire. In the second century AD the succession of strong and effective rulers meant that from 98 until 180 the Guard rarely appears in ancient sources. The dereliction of the reign of Commodus (180–92) brought the Guard back to the fore once more and it was the behaviour of the praetorians that led to the murder of Pertinax and the brief and tawdry reign of Didius Julianus. In volatile and unsettled times the Guard acted as catalysts and opportunists, and their prefects as major players, for good or ill.

The events of 193 were therefore more or less inevitable, and the seeds had been sown the moment Augustus created the Guard more than two centuries earlier. The precarious balance was bound to be upset sooner or later, though as an institution the Guard survived this venal episode. Finally, in 312 Constantine I disbanded the Guard altogether after its ill-judged support for his rival Maxentius. The praetorians were individually dispersed to the frontier garrisons of the Empire. It was an ignominious end for an institution that had enjoyed a formal and permanent existence for 340 years and an ad hoc role before that as the personal bodyguard of Roman generals in the Republic.

This book does not focus on the details of the praetorians’ armour and equipment, a subject amply and excellently covered by Rankov (1994) and Cowan (2014). Instead, this book is a history of the Praetorian Guard from its beginnings right through to its final disbandment. The focus is on the Guard and its role, its formation, structure, conditions, deployment, leadership and its experiences within the narrative context of Roman imperial history. The evidence is complex and incomplete because the Praetorian Guard makes only erratic appearances in ancient sources. There is a great deal that is unknown, and which will probably remain so.

The term ‘Praetorian Guard’ is a modern one. The Romans knew the imperial bodyguard collectively as the cohortes praetoriae, ‘the praetorian cohorts’, and their fort as the Castra Praetoria, or Praetoriana, ‘the praetorian barracks’, or the Castra Praetorianorum, ‘barracks of the praetorians’, rather than conferring on either the Guard or its headquarters a singular title. This makes no difference to the fact that the Guard’s evolution into the highest-paid, most esteemed and most influential part of the Roman military machine has always made it a source of some fascination. Praetorians regarded themselves as a cut above the rest of the Roman military machine, as indeed they were. A praetorian centurion called Manlius Valerianus had his views memorialized on his tombstone at Aquileia. He had, he said, ‘commanded a century in a praetorian cohort, not a barbarian legion’.

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. Precedent, circumstances and expediency all played a part in the Guard’s history, with the result that there are numerous inconsistencies, such as the number and size of the cohorts, the pay, and even the duties praetorians performed, both individually and collectively. Nevertheless, the Guard emerges as an organization that played a vitally significant and continuous part in Roman history, and which helped define the image of the Roman state both then and now.

Recruitment into the Praetorian Guard at the start of a military career, or as a later promotion for a legionary, meant belonging to the most prestigious part of the most powerful organization in antiquity. It continued to give the men involved considerable standing in the communities where they lived in retirement as civilians. Then, as now, Roman soldiers typified a popular image of Roman power and society. The Roman state evolved with a tradition of compulsory military service for its citizens and with an ideology founded on a destiny of divinely backed victory and conquest. In Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid, Jupiter set out the future for the Roman people. Aeneas, the mythical progenitor of the Julian line and ancestor of Augustus, would crush Italy’s fierce tribes and his descendant Romulus would found Rome, a city whose people would have no limits of time or space, and an empire that would never end. Rome’s wars did indeed expand Roman power, absorbing other states and communities, which would earn affiliated status instead of annihilation if their own soldiers were contributed to service on behalf of Rome. The men of the Roman senatorial elite customarily served as military officers as part of their career path, known as the cursus honorum. A huge proportion of male Roman citizens, of whatever class, had some military experience. They had either served as soldiers or as officers and many would have participated in military campaigns. From all this they acquired enormously important skills, not just in fighting but also in practical techniques such as building and administration.


The Praetorians II

The Roman army, made up of the Praetorian Guard, legions, auxiliary forces and navy, did not exist as a permanent organization under a centralized command. During the Republic, legions were raised from the citizenry when required and placed under the command of a senator of consular rank who was temporarily awarded the power of imperium (military command), which he could only hold outside Italy, unless exceptional circumstances necessitated otherwise. This legalized but limited his control of a military force. It also facilitated the development of loyalty to the person of that general (imperator); in the first century BC this became a particularly dangerous facet of the Roman world. During this age of the imperatores, some of these generals saw an opportunity to use their armies for personal glory and advancement. The origins of the Praetorian Guard lay in the bodyguard units men such as Antony and Octavian created to amplify their status.

Part of displaying military prestige for an imperator involved having a body of selected soldiers to act as his personal bodyguard. These soldiers, the ‘praetorians’, were named after the term for a general’s tent or residence on campaign, the praetorium. The word was derived from the word praetor, which meant literally ‘the man who goes before others’. In a general sense the word meant ‘leader’ or ‘chief’ and was applied to a specific level of senatorial magistracy, the praetorship, with certain duties. A propraetor was a man who had served as a praetor and could be sent to govern a province. Praetorium could then be literally translated as ‘the place of the man who goes before others’. His bodyguard soldiers were organized into cohorts (cohortes), a standard Roman military term for a body of around 480 men and normally applied to subdivisions of legions. The word also means ‘courtyard’ or ‘enclosure’, and the military application therefore derives from this by meaning literally ‘a courtyard’s-worth of men’.

The Praetorian Guard also served as a vital bulwark for the emperor against the power and influence of the senate. The Guard’s mere existence was a constant reminder to the senate of the emperor’s ability to use force to assert his position. As Gibbon so memorably observed, the praetorians represented ‘the emperor’s power and status and gave him the ability to coerce the Roman aristocracy’. It was a precarious balance. The emperor was dependent on a force that he needed to have absolute authority over. The proximity of the Praetorian Guard to the emperor, both in a metaphorical and physical sense, meant that the emperor’s prestige and influence had always to be greater than that of the praetorians if he was to maintain control.

It was the idea of men who would protect their general in a military context that Octavian as Augustus would later turn into a permanent institution as part of the greater Roman army (also made permanent under his rule). It was also the component of the army that enjoyed special status by virtue of being closest to him as emperor. By being continuously stationed in Rome from the reign of Tiberius on, the Praetorian Guard became the most visible embodiment both of the emperor’s power and of the change in government since the Republic. It is hardly surprising then that the overwhelming popular impression of the Roman Empire is of a highly militarized society. The ubiquitous nature of the Roman army and its dominance of so much of the record have reinforced this.

As a new institution the Praetorian Guard and its command had to be incorporated into the Roman hierarchy and positioned in a way that maximized prestige while minimizing the risk to the emperor. The wealthiest and most powerful members of Roman society were the senatorial families. Their male members served in a number of prestigious magistracies, proceeding along a fairly standardized career path that climaxed with service as one of the praetors, and then as one of the two consuls serving at any one time. Senators who had served as praetors were eligible to be appointed to command legions or govern provinces. Giving command of the Guard to a senator would have been far too risky. The position of ‘emperor’ as we understand it did not officially exist. Augustus held certain Republican senatorial offices but his real power was vested in his special personal authority and prestige. This involved considerable guile and tact because of the technical equality between him and other senators, any one of whom might challenge his power. A senator with command of the Praetorian Guard might have that potential.

Augustus therefore used for command of the Guard men of equestrian rank, a more numerous body of second-grade aristocrats whose property qualification for eligibility was much lower. These men could serve as procurators, the financial administrators of provinces, as well as in a host of other positions. These ranged from minor procuratorial posts or the prefecture of an auxiliary military unit such as a cavalry wing right up, under the Empire, to commanding the Praetorian Guard, governing Egypt, controlling the grain supply or serving as prefect of Rome. All these latter prefectures were of such importance that an emperor could not afford to give them to senators who might then emerge as his rivals. Equestrians were a far less risky prospect because they lacked the rank equivalence a senator enjoyed with the emperor. The whole system relied on a complex web of patronage, loyalties, interest groups and factions trickling down from the emperor from the time of Augustus on.

The Roman world by the time of Augustus was not only enormous by the standards of the ancient world, but also by our own. It already stretched from Gaul (modern France) to Syria and Egypt in the east and included much of western, central and southern Europe as well as North Africa and Turkey. New conquests ensured its expansion until the reign of Trajan (98–117). The Roman army was widely distributed throughout these territories, with the largest garrisons in key and frontier provinces such as Syria and along the Rhine. Larger and more complex than any other western ancient civilization, the Roman world challenged the logistical and administrative powers of what was still a relatively primitive era. In this context all Roman soldiers, not just the praetorians, were the everyday manifestation of the state. Soldiers took on all sorts of minor administrative and supervisory duties. These ranged from acting as police (an especially vital role that involved centurions bringing ‘the power of the central administration to the level of the villages’), overseeing amongst many other duties construction projects, raising taxes, to operating the mint and supervising the movement of grain. Roman soldiers, including veterans, were thus the principal means through which the state acted and enforced its measures.

Not surprisingly, Roman soldiers, especially the Praetorian Guard, were sometimes depicted in the popular culture of the time as privileged bullies who enjoyed a favoured status above the law. Juvenal’s incomplete Sixteenth Satire itemizes the various advantages the military benefited from, such as the freedom to thrash a civilian without fear of redress and the knowledge that a soldier pursuing a court case could be sure to have it heard immediately, unlike everyone else. Juvenal was probably writing about the way praetorians, the most privileged of all Roman soldiers, behaved. The state that depended so much on military cooperation and support could not afford to have a disaffected army.

Today the Rome Metro’s Linea B includes a stop called Castro Pretorio. Visitors emerge from there on to the extremely busy Viale Castro Pretorio. A short walk leads to the well-preserved original north and east walls of the Castra Praetoria, the Guard’s fort and headquarters. Created by the praetorian prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus in or around 23 during the reign of Tiberius (14–37), the fort based the whole Guard on the outskirts of Rome where it remained until its disbandment in 312. The location, in the north-eastern part of the settled area, was thinly populated and had hitherto mainly been used for burials. It was a tactful setting which conveniently obfuscated the fact that the emperors’ power was ultimately vested in their ability to harness military force. Nevertheless, it was close enough to Rome for the praetorians to be on hand in the centre of the city in minutes, reinforcing their fellows in the cohorts serving at any given moment as the emperor’s guard. This much is apparent from some of the dynamic episodes when praetorians proved themselves to be the most decisive force in Rome.

The decision to relocate the whole Guard to Rome in AD 23 was one of the most significant moments in the history of the Guard and the Roman world. It was a logical progression from Augustus’ decision to make the Guard a permanent institution, itself a revolutionary move, and place it under commanders appointed by him. Now that it was based in Rome the Guard could influence political events directly. The only obstacles in its way were emperors with the power and prestige to control the Guard and harness its power. The moment an emperor fell short of what was expected of him, it was all too often the praetorians who determined what happened next.

The Praetorian Guard, whether in its barracks, performing any one of a multiplicity of practical duties or being with the emperor on campaign, was fundamental to the exercise and retention of imperial power. The challenge for any emperor was to keep the Guard and its prefects under control. As Gibbon pointed out, that was extremely difficult to do. The Roman Empire has always had much to teach us about the consequences and dangers of absolute power in a state where so much could depend on the abilities and circumstances of a single person. The Praetorian Guard was one of the most potent ingredients in the story of the Roman emperors.

The Legacy of the Danubian Emperors


Some of the most prominent of the so-called “Illyrian” Emperors (from left to right):
Aurelian, Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian, Valens, Gratian & Justinian.


Permanent damage caused during the third century

Notwithstanding the revulsion with which his name was held by later Roman writers, the emperor Gallienus had at least managed to prevent the complete disintegration of the Roman Empire. He had personally taken the field to withstand barbarian attacks, even though he had not been able to prevent the secession of large parts of the empire from his rule, and his reputation has been largely restored by modern historians.

Yet it had taken the actions of three super-human Danubian generals to stem the tide of anarchy, civil strife and barbarian invasions, each personally leading battle-hardened legions recruited predominantly from the Balkan areas.

Claudius had smashed the Gothic barbarians thoroughly when their ravages seemed to be unstoppable, but his premature death by plague had prevented him from following up his success.

Aurelian had similarly crushed all barbarian intruders and reunited the entire empire under his rule. He had also set in motion the economic reforms needed to restore the devastated Roman economy.

Probus, Aurelian’s loyal general and later emperor in his own right, had maintained his reputation as a destroyer of barbarians while also consolidating the fragile, newly restored empire. He had in addition perhaps settled an honourable peace with Persia.

These three rulers truly deserved the title of ‘Restorer of the World’ (awarded formally only to Aurelian and Probus) and their actions had checked serious barbarian incursions for decades. They had fostered a climate of stability, so important for the restoration of economic confidence, creating the background in which the administrative skills of Diocletian, also a Danubian general, could flourish.

Looking back, it can be seen that the Roman army staff, many of whom were fervent Roman patriots, had decided that they had had enough of incompetent rule by those without proper military training. After watching Gallienus’ inability to restore the empire, senior generals had arranged for his murder and replaced him with one of their own number, Claudius. After Claudius’ premature death from plague, the army ignored his self-appointed successor, his inexperienced brother Quintillus, and appointed Aurelian. Quintillus committed suicide.

When Aurelian was murdered by treachery, the army negotiated for at least two months for an acceptable substitute, Tacitus. Tacitus died, again against the army’s wishes, and again a self-appointed family member, Florian, was deserted in favour of the talented general Probus. After the latter was murdered, the army appeared to accept the self-appointed Carus, a lawyer who dealt competently with the Persians but, after his early death, both of Carus’ sons were eliminated in favour of the general Diocletian. Diocletian would attempt to ensure a proper succession of capable military appointees through the Tetrarchy system. Considering the extraordinary achievements of all the army appointees, it would appear that the army staff’s decision to select the emperors was correct.

Yet even our three supermen could not undo all the damage caused by the chaos of the mid-third century.

1. Poor discipline of the Roman legions

It had become very difficult for even an Aurelian or a Probus to impose strict discipline on the troops, and the latter had lost his life in the attempt. The army was now drawn primarily from the provinces and from the barbarians, so it had little commitment to the concept of supporting Rome. Few Italians, still fewer Romans, now served with the legions. The loyalty of the troops was generally bought with large handouts.

The new emperor Diocletian would be the first of some two dozen of his predecessors – and that tally excludes pretenders to the purple – to have died of natural old age since Septimius Severus 100 years previously. Indeed, if we except the premature death from plague of Claudius in 270, and the doubtful causes of death of Tacitus, Carus and Numerian, Diocletian was the first of these two dozen not to have died violently. However, Diocletian found it necessary to make a huge increase in the size of the Roman army, perhaps by as much as 50 per cent, and this inevitably led to a fresh decline in the standard of the recruits. The Latin historian Aurelius Victor, writing in 360, showed strong antipathy towards the contemporary Roman army, which he blamed for most of the troubles of his and recent times.

In passing, we find that the cavalry formations formed by Gallienus had been returned to the border legions by the time of Diocletian. In later years, Aurelian’s elite light Dalmatian and Moorish cavalry no longer serve as part of the emperor’s main mobile army, but have been stationed on the Danube and Euphrates frontiers. The originator of this change is unknown. Ultimately, the Roman clibanarii (heavy-armoured cavalry) were a flop. The armour was far too stiff for manoeuvrability, was also far too hot for use against the similarly attired Persians, and a mass cavalry charge could be countered easily by tripping up the horses or by slashing at the animal. The unseated rider could scarcely move! The named units of clibanarii known to have existed at the end of the fourth century are believed to have comprised lightly armoured cavalry units only.

2. Failure to eliminate enemies

Whenever a band of barbarians invaded, it was only rarely eliminated completely as an enemy. For example, the invasions by the Alamanni, the Juthungi, the Sarmatians/Vandals and the Goths were recurring disasters that seemed always to be contained by the most temporary of measures – frequently simply by relieving the barbarians of their booty and escorting them out of Roman territory. It was only when Aurelian carried the fight back into Gothic lands in 272 that the wars with those Goths were terminated for a generation. The difficulty was that it was always too dangerous to an emperor to permit a general to have sufficient forces for punitive actions, while the main mobile army under the emperor’s direct command was forever scuttling from one crisis to another.

3. Economic crisis

The need to fund the army had caused heavy taxation and the gross debasement of the coinage, resulting in severe inflation. This phenomenon was well recognized, but little understood at the time. It left an economic legacy that would baffle even Diocletian.

The discovery in later ages of many coin hoards buried during the third century reveals the general insecurity of the times and the need to store the few old coins, with a high proportion of silver or gold, which still possessed real intrinsic value. However, hoarding tended to make everyone less well off, by restricting the free circulation of precious metals.

Even the number of costly burial inscriptions fell steeply during this period of disorder, as evidenced by surviving examples. The trend was not reversed until the accession of Diocletian.

4. Loss of rights

The Romans had for centuries understood that in national emergencies it was necessary to appoint a dictator who would take severe steps as he thought appropriate – and for which he could not later be held accountable – but military necessity had turned every emperor into an outright dictator with the absolute right to pass laws, make civil and military appointments and command armies. Thus the old Roman spirit of seeking public office for personal honour and public benefit had all but died out. The Senate itself was largely abandoned by those qualified to sit in it, as it possessed virtually no real power. Moreover, the fiction by which the emperor referred to himself as Princeps (leading citizen) was vanishing. The emperor had become a sovereign in all but name, and it is now customary to refer to the empire during and after the time of Diocletian as a ‘Dominate’ (ruled by a lord) where previously it had been a ‘Principate’.

5. Walled cities

Another sign of the insecurity of the times was the number of towns and cities that now possessed their own surrounding walls for defence. Rome herself had to be similarly protected during Aurelian’s reign. The walls were built as quickly as possible from any materials that lay to hand; even tombstones were employed as part of the basic structure. The new walls enclosed generally a smaller area than the original town. This may have been for convenience in building the fortifications, but also reflected a steep decline in the Roman population. The smaller cities were cramped, and had no room for large monuments. The construction of an inner city wall at Athens has already been described.

6. Population decline

The population of the Roman world had fallen markedly as a natural consequence of the catastrophes of the third century. Wars, an endemic plague that had lasted for twenty years, causing at one point 7,000 deaths each day at Rome, and general insecurity, which has long been known to reduce birth rates, had all taken their toll. One interesting by-product from the disturbances in Gaul was that many wealthy landowners sold up their estates and fled to the relatively safer province of Britain, where they established the large villas whose remains survive to this day.

7. Collapse of agriculture and of trade

The lands had been ravaged and the population killed or fled. Inevitably there were fewer lands under cultivation, fewer farm hands and fewer mouths to feed. One solution to the shortage of unskilled agricultural labour was to ask cities to send out their idle occupants. The luxury of bread and circuses for the unemployed could no longer be afforded by most towns. Equally, there were fewer markets in which to sell goods. Manufacturers found that their distant markets were inaccessible, due to dangerous communications, or the local people too poor to afford the wares. The glass and pottery industries are known to have been very hard hit in the mid-third century.

The consequence was that the emperors themselves had increasingly to sponsor their own industries, particularly for military goods, and this created unfair competition for any would-be entrepreneurs trying to start their own businesses.

8. Loss of skills

The most intractable problem was the loss of basic skills. The armies themselves had lost large numbers of men in the interminable civil wars, although there was an increasing tendency for the legions on both sides to count their numbers first and for the weaker to murder their own emperor before he led them into a hopeless battle. Worse still was the loss of skilled artisans who had died or been killed, and simply could not be replaced.

The advanced Greek sciences and philosophies virtually dried up in the mid-third century. The last great exponent of pagan philosophy, the Egyptian-Greek Plotinus (205–270), who taught at Rome from 245 after an apprenticeship in Alexandria, produced late in life several books intended to explain the workings of the universe and especially to explain the concept of evil. The writer Porphyry, who was his pupil, attempted to popularize the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus, but it soon fell into disuse. The cultured emperor Gallienus, however, had been much impressed by the philosopher’s work.

The extent and standard of art, as measured by sculptures, books and paintings, and of public buildings, declined markedly over this period. There are virtually no original written works excepting novels, most notably the lengthy Aethiopica by the Greek author Heliodorus. There are no useful histories, save those of Dexippus, and no major poets known from the mid-third century. Fragments of the lesser Latin poets Reposianus and Nemesianus have survived from 280–290. The later emperor Constantine the Great would celebrate his victory over Maxentius (312) with a standard triumphal arch in Rome, for which some of the sculptures had to be removed from a second-century monument. Constantine’s arch still stands next to the famous Colosseum. Mosaics remained of good quality, as can be seen even in Britain, and the standard of engravature on Aurelian’s new coins had much improved.

9. Serfdom

Some of the few remaining wealthy landowners within the empire, such as those in the undisturbed provinces of southern Italy and northern Africa, were in the happy position of being able to purchase large chunks of devastated farmland at knockdown prices from those who had fled. At the same time, the later emperors issued many ordinances to force surplus city dwellers onto the land, to which they were bound by other laws that obliged sons to take up the occupations of their fathers.

The embattled emperors depended heavily on land taxes to pay their armies, and connived – by the passage of legislation – at an arrangement with the landowners whereby the freemen, the clients, on the giant new estates were tied to the land, unable to leave. Thus they became serfs in a system recognizable as the forerunner of the medieval feudal system. Another part of the deal between landlord and emperor was that the estates should provide conscripts for the armies, and this burden also fell on the former clients. The net effect of these changes was that the flight from the land had been arrested, areas under cultivation increased – and the clients had become serfs. This section of the Roman community had involuntarily given up its freedom in order to avoid enslavement by the barbarians.

10. Settlement of barbarians within the empire

One solution to make good the population loss in the shattered areas was to settle captured barbarian tribesmen within the areas that they had devastated, providing a robust new workforce and enabling them to make good the damage they had caused. This was always a dubious policy, as was recognized even by contemporary writers. Many tribesmen were glad of the chance to contribute to Roman civilization, with the attendant benefits for themselves, while the Roman army found them a useful source for hardy recruits. However, some of the barbarians went through the motions of settlement before using their new territory as a convenient base from which to plunder their neighbours. The loyalty of the newly settled tribes must always have been uncertain; less so when the new settlers were themselves fleeing from more violent barbarians in their rear.

11. Degeneration of language

While the empire had remained a strong, cohesive unit, its standard of Latin had remained remarkably homogeneous in all the provinces, as evidenced by surviving inscriptions. The invasions of the mid-third century, and the separation of the breakaway Roman empires, caused the degeneration of Latin speech and grammar into regional accents and variations. In later centuries, these variants would form the foundation of the modern Romance (Latin-derived) languages, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.

12. Failure of the pagan religions and philosophy

Worship of the emperor, or of his genius, was never very convincing and adoption of the title of ‘Lord and God’ did not save any of the bearers (Aurelian, Probus and perhaps Carus) from assassination.

Sun worship offered ultimately nothing to humanity struggling under the burdens of barbarian invasions, plague and oppressive taxation. It implied no rules for behaviour and failed to explain the only too obvious struggle between good and evil. Philosophy was also a disappointment; a policy of ascension from the Body to the Soul to the Divine Mind to a godlike state (the ‘One’) by yearning and self-contemplation had little appeal or even challenge. Neither could stand up against the fast-rising movement of Christianity that offered so much more: salvation by Grace and immortality of the soul coupled with strict rules for conduct towards your neighbour and God.

The final legacy

The most enduring achievement of our Danubian supermen may therefore be simply that they allowed the empire to survive; to survive long enough for Christianity to become widespread even among the barbarians and thereby, in Gibbon’s words, ‘[Christianity] broke the violence of the fall [of the Roman Empire], and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.’ Ironically, none of our supermen showed much enthusiasm for Christianity.

Late Roman Decline I


Army of Diocletian by JohnnyShumate


The new emperor, Diocletian, was yet another former Danubian general who was to prove to be as outstanding an administrator as his predecessors had been military exponents. Diocletian realized early on that the empire simply could not any longer be handled by one man; whenever he was in any one part of it, pretenders arose or barbarians invaded in another. Carausius, given a fleet to combat the pirate menace in the North Sea, had fled with it in 286 to Britain. The Bagaudae tribe had rebelled once the former emperor Carinus had left Gaul, and barbarians had invaded in 286. Therefore he divided the empire into two (286), appointing an old army friend and general, Maximian, as his coemperor in the west; Diocletian took the wealthier east. Both in turn appointed successors as emperors designate, known as caesars, to provide a system of rule known as the Tetrarchy (293). It meant that the most capable generals were assured a share of the imperial power, while the presence of effectively four rulers enabled a much closer guarding of the frontiers and posed an almost insuperable problem to any usurpers. The tetrarchs built magnificent palaces for themselves in their self-selected capitals of government. They also launched a savage new attack (303–304) on the fast-growing Christian Church that would prove to be both the last and also the fiercest of all the Church’s persecutions, and would persist in the eastern empire until 311.

Diocletian raised the manpower of the army from some 300,000–400,000 in the time of Severus to more than half a million men under arms, and again favoured the concept of a frontier defence where barbarians were to be checked at the empire’s perimeter and not within it. He continued the separation of the frontier garrisons, comprising mostly ex-barbarian soldiers, from the mobile ‘rapid-response’ units of infantry and cavalry that were generally made up from conscripts from the empire reinforced with barbarian special troops. This rapid expansion of the army must have caused a deterioration in the quality of the recruits.

Diocletian also reorganized the provinces into dioceses for better management and defence. The number of provinces within each diocese was approximately doubled from the original number, with extra provincial governors and their administrations, partly with a view to making rebellion harder for would-be usurpers. Each provincial governor now commanded about half the number of soldiers that he might have called upon to support a rebellion before the division of the provinces.

The Tetrarchy also had the effect that the numbers of senior administrative staff were perhaps quadrupled, the dioceses doubled the number of civil servants and the army had also been greatly increased. All had to be paid for; taxation was changed from an erratic collection when needed to a regular levy. Aurelius Victor claims that the new tax burden to pay for all this had been fair as first imposed by Diocletian, but that later emperors became greedy. The Christian writer Lactantius, a contemporary of Diocletian, paints a grim picture of the cost of the new bureaucracy and armies.

Diocletian tried again to reform the currency after Aurelian’s partial success in the 270s. He reminted the gold coin at sixty to a Roman pound of gold and a high-grade silver coin was issued at ninety-six to the pound weight of silver. Aurelian’s old reformed antoninianus was standardized now at 3 per cent silver content, including face wash, and about 10 grams weight. The name of the new coin is unknown; it is today referred to by numismatists as a follis, although a very similar coin described in the ancient sources as a nummus appears in the fourth century. Again, the silver content of the follis drifted down over succeeding years to about 1.5 per cent silver before Constantine the Great introduced new reforms. Diocletian also took giant steps to improve the economy, but his attempts to control inflation by mandate (prices were not allowed to rise – by order) proved to be a failure despite the most stringent penalties.

On Rome’s eastern front, Diocletian established numerous fortresses to watch over the Persians. The Strata Diocletiana provided a fortified main Roman road connecting many of the strategic points on the eastern frontier, and ran from Sura on the river Euphrates to the caravan city of Damascus. The new Persian king Narses (293–302) tried to renew hostilities against Rome with the invasion of Mesopotamia and Armenia in 296, followed by an incursion into Syria. The nearest tetrarch, Galerius, lost a battle in 297, but the new forts held firm and Galerius defeated Narses heavily in the following year, seizing the Persian ruler’s family and harem. Diocletian was able to dictate terms to Narses, resulting in a pact in 299 that ended some fifty years of hostility between the two kingdoms and enabled trade to resume. The peace lasted for forty years.

After twenty years of rule (305) Diocletian committed the unique act of resigning as emperor, and forced his reluctant colleague to do the same, so that the caesars now stepped into power and appointed in turn their successors. Unfortunately, squabbles began as to the appointments, another dreary cycle of civil wars began and finally the empire was reunited (324) under the sole reign of Constantine, who was joint or sole emperor from 306 to 337.

The individual rule of Constantine ushered in a new era, described variously as ‘the Police State’, ‘the beginning of the Middle Ages’ or ‘the end of the Roman Empire’. At first the new emperor was an ardent adherent to the Sun god, and Sol Invictus appears on his coins as late as 318. However, Constantine attributed his military victories in the civil war of 312 to a vision of Christianity, made it the official religion and received the title ‘The Great’, bestowed by a grateful Church. He created what we would today recognize as a medieval court, which he moved from Rome to a new capital on the Bosporus that he named modestly ‘Constantinople’. The new capital was furnished by removing valuables from other parts of the empire, particularly from pagan temples, and it possessed its own senate so that the ancient centre of power in Rome was greatly diminished. At the same time, all power was concentrated completely into the hands of the emperor, who served as head of state and head of the Church. Constantine was a king in all but name.

Because Christianity was now the official Roman religion, Constantine was in the happy position of being able to grab gold from the richly ornamented pagan temples in order to institute another revision of the currency. He introduced the new solidus, a gold coin minted at seventy-two to a pound weight of gold, and this high-quality coin would be retained as the standard gold issue for centuries to come – well into the Middle Ages. He also minted a new, high-quality silver coin at ninety-six to the pound weight. The follis continued to deteriorate and its production had largely ended by 353. Simple silver-less coins of base metals still provided the small change for day-to-day transactions.

Constantine extended Diocletian’s laws creating hereditary classes of citizens so that members could not move into any of the (many) occupations, such as the clergy, that were exempt from taxes. They could not even join the army. These changes resulted in widespread, overt hostility to the rule of the State. He also formalized the distinction between the frontier army and the better-paid mobile army, a decision that Zosimus would claim in the next century to have been responsible ultimately for the collapse of the Roman Empire. Worse, increasing use was made of barbarians within the army at all levels up to the top officers, while higher levels of immigration were permitted. The size of the legion, which had remained fairly constant at some 5,000–6,000 men for centuries, was reduced to 1,000 infantry and/or cavalry for flexibility of deployment. There were accordingly far more legions than previously.

The relative freedom from external enemies and civil wars allowed a final flourishing of Roman art in the middle of the fourth century. For a while pagan and Christian cultures coexisted comfortably in a nominally Christian empire, and this was when several historical works and the illustrated ‘Calendar of 354’ were produced. The latter shows that the birthdays of several of the ‘good’ emperors were still celebrated officially as public holidays, with circus races in their honour. Present in the list are the birthdays of Augustus, the first true emperor, Trajan, Hadrian, the Antonine emperors, Severus and, more recently, Claudius II Gothicus, Aurelian and Probus, followed by Constantine and his successors. Remarkable omissions from the feast days are the names of Diocletian, Carus and his sons, Valerian and Tacitus. Less remarkable are the omissions of the despised Commodus, Caracalla and Gallienus. The immediate successors of Augustus are also absent. The list of feast days includes the celebration of several pagan gods, including Sol Invictus, but lacks the celebration of the pagan god Mithras, still very popular but significantly never adopted by an emperor. Christian feast days are not yet commemorated. It was at about this time that the emperor Constantius II transferred the celebration of Christmas to 25 December, allegedly in order to counter the worship of the Sun.

There was a brief pagan revival under the last non-Christian emperor Julian (361–363) who, wisely, contented himself with encouraging pagan rituals rather than active persecution of Christians. While still a general, Julian had crossed the Rhine in 359 to harass the Alamanni after repelling their earlier invasion. In the east, the Persians again became aggressive under the rule of a new Shapur II. In the years from 337 to 350 Shapur made three raids into Mesopotamia and in 359 the Persians made a full-scale invasion, seizing several of the key fortress cities. Julian moved his armies to the east, but died in action; his Christian successor Jovian abandoned the Roman conquests so hard-won by Galerius in 298.

Again the empire had to be divided for defence, and the last strong emperor of the western empire, Valentinian (364–375), not only repelled a barbarian invasion but decided on a policy that had not been seen for decades. He carried the war back into the barbarians’ territory across the Rhine and ravaged their lands intermittently for the next seven years. Undoubtedly this strategy was made possible by the fact that Valentinian had appointed his loyal younger brother, Valens, as emperor in the east, so that Valentinian could deploy safely the great part of his army for reprisals. Valentinian seems to have impressed Jerome, who described him thus: ‘Valentinian in another time would have been an exceptional emperor, and was similar to Aurelian in his behaviour, except that his undue strictness and a certain frugality were interpreted as cruelty and greed.’ Valentinian died of apoplexy at the height of his triumph over the German tribesmen, and in the east Valens and his legions were overrun by the resurgent Goths – who had been allowed to settle within the Roman frontier – at the battle of Adrianople in 378. The army was almost wiped out after faulty tactics (probably part of the Roman cavalry engaged the enemy before the complete army was properly deployed) and then smoke from blazing fires blowing into Roman faces, and Valens was never seen again.

The victorious barbarians swarmed over Thrace but were unable to break into its walled cities. The new emperors of west and east, respectively Gratian and Theodosius, settled the Goths within the Roman frontier and recruited heavily from them to replace the vanished legions. Yet the barbarians served under their own chieftains and could be persuaded to adopt Roman military tactics only with difficulty, while they were also reluctant to wear their heavy Roman armour. Even the famous Roman curved, rectangular shield gave way to a lighter, circular type. The imposition of strict discipline on Roman armies had become troublesome from the early third century, with their propensity to make and unmake emperors; now it would be well-nigh impossible. Although neither the bravery nor, surprisingly, the loyalty to Rome of the new recruits could be criticized, the fact remains that by the end of the fourth century the ‘Roman’ army amounted largely to just another barbarian force. Less surprisingly, the new army was not successful against the numerically superior waves of other barbarians pouring in across the frontiers.

As the situation deteriorated, the increasingly Christian rulers and leaders of the empire took firmer steps to prevent its superstitious population from reverting to pagan worship in the hope of averting the barbarian onslaught. The use of public funds to pay for pagan ceremonies was halted in 384. In 389 all pagan festivals were stopped, excepting those deemed to be innocuous, such as the celebration of Roma Aeterna. Pagan temples were to be preserved as ‘ornaments’. Six years later, all pagan holidays were removed from the calendar but the games that once celebrated them were allowed to continue. The gladiatorial schools were closed in 399 and the last gladiatorial games were held in 404, being then replaced by wild beast hunts. The barbarian army, however, remained predominantly pagan.