Caesar Conquers the Ptolemys

After Caesar had arranged a reconciliation between Cleopatra and the young Ptolemy, he learned from his barber that the eunuch Pothinus and Achillas were devising a plot to assassinate him. Acting quickly, he hosted an elaborate banquet to celebrate the union between brother and sister, and during the festivities, Pothinus was seized by soldiers, dragged outside, and executed. Somehow, Achillas managed to escape and return to his army. Caesar, realizing that war was imminent, and that his few thousand Roman soldiers were hardly enough to withstand an assault from Achillas’s army, sent his friend Mithradates after additional forces in Syria and Asia Minor, hoping, by a rear attack, to defeat the Egyptian army stationed at Pelusium. To ensure the success of his plan, Caesar held not only the young Ptolemy, but also his sister and her tutor Ganamydes as security in the palace. However, his scheme was foiled when Achillas left Pelusium without warning and headed for Alexandria. When his army reached the outskirts of the city, they were greeted enthusiastically by the inhabitants. This news was discouraging for Caesar, who now had to deal with the fanatical mobs of Alexandria as well as Achillas’s army of 20,000 foot soldiers and 2,000 cavalry

Suddenly, Ptolemy’s sister loomed as a heroine to the Alexandrians, something Achillas viewed with displeasure, since his allegiance was with the young Ptolemy. Knowing that Achillas would never bend from this position, Ptolemy’s sister had him executed, then proclaimed Ganamydes general of the Egyptian army and leader of the revolt against Caesar.

The Roman galleys carrying the Thirty-Seventh Legion from Asia Minor had now reached the Egyptian coast, but because of contrary winds, they were unable to proceed toward Alexandria. At anchor in the harbor off Lochias, the Egyptian fleet posed an additional problem for the Roman ships. However, in a surprise attack, Caesar’s soldiers set fire to the Egyptian ships, and the flames, spreading rapidly in the driving wind, consumed most of the dockyard, many structures near the palace, and also several thousand books that were housed in one of the buildings. From this incident, historians mistakingly assumed that the Great Library of Alexandria had been destroyed, but the Library was nowhere near the docks. The Roman historian Lucan reported that Caesar, besieged in the palace, ordered torches to be soaked with pitch and thrown on the Egyptian ships. The fire immediately spread to the rigging and to the decks, which were coated with resin. Devoured by flames, the first of the Egyptian ships began to sink, while the fire spread rapidly toward the rest of the ships. The houses nearest the docks caught fire too; and the flames, driven by gusts of wind, streaked the sky like meteors over the rooftops.

The most immediate damage occurred in the area around the docks, in shipyards, arsenals, and warehouses in which grain and books were stored. Some forty thousand book scrolls were destroyed in the fire. Not at all connected with the Great Library, they were account books and ledgers containing records of Alexandria’s export goods bound for Rome and other cities throughout the world.

When the sea finally calmed, the Roman galleys appeared off Pharos Island. Caesar was transported there and personally escorted them into the harbor, after which a select force of legionaries under his command set out to capture Pharos. They planned to make one assault from the sea, the other from the eastern harbor, then swing around and take the great promontory Heptastadion. The landing on Pharos was successful and the northern part of the Heptastadion was quickly secured. Caesar himself led the attack to gain the southern section of the promontory that faced the city, but he met with unexpected resistance and soon found himself trapped on the Heptastadion between two attacking Egyptian forces. Several galleys and boats were summoned to his assistance and Caesar got into one of the small boats, but it was so heavy with survivors and wounded it overturned and sank, forcing him to swim two hundred yards to another vessel.

That night, in the company of Cleopatra and several officers, he remained silent during dinner, then withdrew to his bedchamber. Not only had he underestimated the strength of the Egyptian forces, but in the struggle to take the Heptastadion, he had lost a great number of sailors, 400 of his best legionaries, and his favorite purple general’s cloak.

Farther east, Mithridates and his army had already taken the fortress at Pelusium and were advancing down the Nile. The Egyptian force at Memphis was no match for them, and after an easy victory, Mithridates crossed the western bank of the Nile and headed for Alexandria. When the young Ptolemy learned that Mithridates and his army were converging on the city, he took immediate charge of his troops and marched south to battle. Caesar, waiting until the Egyptian army had withdrawn from the city, left a small guard in the palace and sailed eastward, presumably toward Pelusium, but under the cover of darkness, his galleys reversed their direction and sailed quietly back to the western harbor of Alexandria, where he joined forces with Mithridates’ army, and together they headed north to attack the Egyptians, who were still under the assumption that Caesar had sailed away from Alexandria.

The ruse succeeded. In the two-day battle that raged on a fortified hill rising between a marsh on one side and the Nile on the other, the Egyptian army was annihilated. Some survivors tried to escape in small boats across the Nile, the young Ptolemy among them, but as he jumped into one of the crowded boats, it overturned and sank, and he drowned with all the others. His body, later recovered and identified by the golden corselet he wore, was brought to Alexandria and buried with full honors. The following evening, Caesar entered the city in triumph. After five weary months, the Alexandrian War had finally come to an end, and he now was ready to install on the throne of Egypt a queen who would soon bear his child.

A few months later, in early spring, he and Cleopatra boarded a magnificent barge and embarked on a voyage up the Nile. This Ptolemaic state barge was 300 feet long, 45 feet on the beam, and rose 60 feet above the water. It was propelled by many banks of oars, and contained bedchambers, banquet rooms, shrines, grottoes, gardens, and courtyards with porticoes and colonnades. A fleet of galleys and supply ships followed close behind; also several thousand Roman troops as a precaution against any attempt to assassinate the new queen. In all, four hundred ships accompanied the barge as it moved slowly up the Nile. News of this voyage rapidly circulated through the country and crowds of people “came flocking along both sides of the river to view the spectacle, for in their minds, they beheld a gigantic vessel transporting their god Ammon and the goddess Isis through the very heart of Egypt.”

The display of wealth and echo of Egyptian gods and goddesses set the stage for Cleopatra’s reign as queen. Because she presented herself to the Egyptian people as royalty, they would thereafter accord her with near-mystical powers that would protect them and their kingdom.


Caesar Besieged in Alexandria

“Battle of Alexandria Caesar left behind his purple cloak which was later captured by the Alexandrians as a battle trophy”

Shortly after Cleopatra’s October 48 BC arrival, Caesar moved from the villa on the royal grounds to the palace proper. Each generation of Ptolemies had added to that sprawling complex, as magnificent in its design as in its materials. “Pharaoh” means “the greatest household” in ancient Egyptian, and on this the Ptolemies had delivered. The palace included well over a hundred guest rooms. Caesar looked out at lush grounds dotted with fountains and statuary and guesthouses; a vaulted walkway led from the palace complex to its theater, which stood on higher terrain. No Hellenistic monarchs did opulence better than the Ptolemies, the preeminent importers of Persian carpets, of ivory and gold, tortoiseshell and panther skin. As a general rule any surface that could be ornamented was—with garnet and topaz, with encaustic, with brilliant mosaic, with gold. The coffered ceilings were studded with agate and lapis, the cedar doors with mother-of-pearl, the gates overlaid with gold and silver. Corinthian capitals shimmered with ivory and gold. Cleopatra’s palace boasted the greatest profusion of precious materials known at the time.

Insofar as it was possible to be comfortable while under siege, Cleopatra and Caesar were well accommodated. None of the extravagant tableware or plush furnishings of their redoubt detracted, however, from the fact that Cleopatra—virtually alone in the city—was eager for a Roman to involve himself in Egyptian affairs. The rumbles and jeers outside, the scuffling in the street, the whizzing stones, drove that point home. The most intense fighting took place in the harbor, which the Alexandrians attempted to blockade. Early on they managed to set fire to several Roman freighters. The fleet Cleopatra had lent Pompey had moreover returned. Both sides jockeyed for control of those fifty quadriremes and quinqueremes, large vessels requiring four and five banks of rowers. Caesar could not afford to allow the ships to fall into enemy hands if he expected to see either provisions or reinforcements, for which he had sent out calls in every direction. Nor could he hope to man them. He was seriously outnumbered and at a geographic disadvantage; in desperation, he set fire to the anchored warships. Cleopatra’s reaction as flames spread over the ropes and across the decks is difficult to imagine. She could not have escaped the penetrating clouds of smoke, sharp with the tang of resin, that wafted across her gardens; the palace was illuminated by the blaze, which burned well into the night. This was the dockyard fire that may have claimed some portion of the Alexandrian library. Nor could Cleopatra have missed the pitched battle that preceded the conflagration, for which the entire city turned out: “And there was not a soul in Alexandria, whether Roman or townsman, except for those whose attention was engrossed in fortification work or fighting, who did not make for the highest buildings and take their place to see the show from any vantage point, and with prayers and vows demand victory for their own side from the immortal gods.” Amid mingled shouts and much commotion, Caesar’s men scrambled on to Pharos to seize the great lighthouse. Caesar allowed them a bit of plunder, then stationed a garrison on the rocky island.

Also shortly after Cleopatra’s arrival, Caesar composed the final pages of the volume we know today as The Civil War. About those events he would have been writing in something close to real time. It has been suggested that he broke off where he did—with Arsinoe’s defection and Pothinus’s murder—for literary or political reasons. Caesar could not easily discourse on a Western republic in an Eastern palace. He was also at that juncture in his narrative briefly in possession of the upper hand. Just as likely Caesar found himself with less time to write, if not overwhelmed. He was indeed the man who famously dictated letters from his stadium seat, who turned out a text on Latin while traveling from Gaul, a long poem en route to Spain. The murder of the eunuch Pothinus had galvanized the opposition, however. Already it included the women and children of the city. They had no need of wicker screens or battering rams, happy as they were to express themselves with slingshots and stones. Sprays of homemade missiles pelted the palace walls. Battles flared night and day, as Alexandria filled with zealous reinforcements and with siege huts and catapults of various sizes. Triple-width, forty-foot stone barricades went up across the city, transformed into an armed camp.

From the palace Caesar observed what had put Alexandria on the map and what made it so difficult to rule: its people were endlessly, boundlessly resourceful. His men watched in amazement—and with resentment; ingenuity was meant to be a Roman specialty—as the Alexandrians constructed wheeled, ten-story assault towers. Draft animals led those mammoth contraptions down the straight, paved avenues of the city. Two things in particular astonished the Romans. Everything could be accomplished more quickly in Alexandria. And its people were clever copyists of the first rank. Repeatedly they went Caesar one better. As a Roman general recounted later, they “put into effect whatever they saw us do with such skill that it seemed our troops had imitated their work.” National pride was at stake on both sides. When Caesar bested the seafaring Alexandrians in a naval battle, they were shattered. Subsequently they threw themselves into the task of building a fleet. In the secret royal dockyard sat a number of old ships, no longer seaworthy. Down came colonnades and the roofs of gymnasiums, their rafters magically transformed into oars. In a matter of days, twenty-two quadriremes and five quinqueremes materialized, along with a number of smaller craft, manned and ready for combat. Nearly overnight, the Egyptians conjured up a navy twice as large as Caesar’s.*

Repeatedly the Romans sputtered about the twin Alexandrian capacities for deceit and treachery, which in the midst of an armed conflict surely counts as high praise. As if to prove the point, Ganymedes, Arsinoe’s ex-tutor and the new royal commander, set his men to work digging deep wells. They drained the city’s underground conduits, into which they pumped seawater. Quickly the palace water proved cloudy and undrinkable. (Ganymedes may or may not have known this to be an old trick of Caesar’s, who had similarly annoyed Pompey.) The Romans panicked. Did it not make more sense to retreat immediately? Caesar calmed his men: Fresh water could not be far off, as veins of it reliably occurred near oceans. One lay just beyond the palace walls. As for withdrawal, it was not an option. The legionnaires could not reach their ships without the Alexandrians slaughtering them. Caesar ordered an all-night dig, which proved him correct; his men quickly located fresh water. It remained true, however, that on their side the Alexandrians had great cleverness and plentiful resources, as well as that most potent of motivations: their autonomy was at stake. They had distinctly unfavorable memories of Gabinius, the general who had returned Auletes to the throne. To fail to drive Caesar out now was to become a province of Rome. Caesar could only remind his men they must fight with equal conviction.

He found himself entirely on the defensive, perhaps another reason the account of the Alexandrian War that bears his name was written by a senior officer, based on postwar conversations. Caesar indeed controlled the palace and the lighthouse in the east, but Achillas, Ptolemy’s commander, dominated the rest of the city, and with it nearly every advantageous position. His men persistently ambushed Roman supplies. Fortunately for Caesar, if there was one thing he could count on as much as Alexandrian ingenuity it was Alexandrian infighting. Arsinoe’s tutor argued with Achillas, whom he accused of treachery. Plot followed counterplot, much to the delight of the army, bribed generously and in turn more generously by each side. Ultimately Arsinoe convinced her tutor to murder the redoubtable Achillas. Cleopatra knew well what their sister Berenice had accomplished in their father’s absence; she had badly blundered in failing to prevent Arsinoe’s escape.

Arsinoe and Ganymedes turned out to be no favorites of the people, however. This the Alexandrians made clear as reinforcements approached and as Caesar—despite a forced swim in the harbor and a devastating loss of men—began to feel the war turning in his favor. To the palace came a delegation in mid-January, shortly after Cleopatra’s twenty-second birthday. They lobbied for young Ptolemy’s release. Already the people had tried unsuccessfully to liberate their king. Now they claimed they were finished with his sister. They yearned for peace. They needed Ptolemy “in order, as they claimed, that they might consult with him about the terms on which a truce could be effected.” He had clearly behaved well while under guard. Generally he left no impression of fortitude or leadership, though petulance came naturally to him. Caesar saw some advantages in his release. Were the Alexandrians to surrender, he would need somehow to dispense with this extraneous king; Ptolemy could clearly never again rule with his sister. In his absence Caesar would have better reason to deliver up the Alexandrians to Cleopatra. And were Ptolemy to continue to fight—it is unclear if the rationale here was Caesar’s, or attributed to him later—the Romans would be conducting a war that was all the more honorable for being waged “against a king rather than against a gang of refugees and runaway slaves.”

Caesar duly sat Cleopatra’s thirteen-year-old brother down for a talk. He urged him “to think of his ancestral kingdom, to take pity on his glorious homeland, which had been disfigured by the disgrace of fire and ruin; to begin by bringing his people back to their senses, and then save them; and to trust the Roman people and himself, Caesar, whose faith in him was firm enough to send him to join enemies who were under arms.” Caesar then dismissed the young man. Ptolemy made no move to leave; instead he again dissolved into tears. He begged Caesar not to send him away. Their friendship meant more to him even than his throne. His devotion moved Caesar who—eyes welling up in turn—assured him that they would be reunited soon enough. At which young Ptolemy set off to embrace the war with a new intensity, one that confirmed that “the tears he had shed when talking to Caesar were obviously tears of joy.” Only Caesar’s men seemed gratified by this turn of events, which they hoped might cure their commander of his absurdly forgiving ways. The comedy would not have surprised Cleopatra, well accomplished in the dramatic arts, and possibly even the mastermind behind this scene. It is conceivable that Caesar liberated Ptolemy to sow further dissension in the rebel ranks. If he did so (the interpretation is a generous one), Cleopatra presumably collaborated on the staging.

Fortunately for Caesar and Cleopatra, a large army of reinforcements hurried toward Alexandria. The best help came from a high-ranking Judaean official, who arrived with a contingent of three thousand well-armed Jews. Ptolemy set out to crush that force at nearly the same moment that Caesar set out to join it; he was for some time frustrated by the Egyptian cavalry. All converged in a fierce battle west of the Nile, at a location halfway between Alexandria and present-day Cairo. The casualties were great on both sides, but—by storming the high point of the Egyptian camp in a surprise early-morning maneuver—Caesar managed a swift victory. Terrified, a great number of the Egyptians hurled themselves from the ramparts of their fort into the surrounding trenches. Some survived. It seemed Ptolemy did not; he was probably little mourned by anyone, including his advisers. As his body never materialized, Caesar took special pains to display his golden armor, which did. The magical, rejuvenating powers of the Nile were well known; already it had delivered up queens in sacks and babies in baskets. Caesar did not want a resurrection on his hands, though even his meticulous efforts now would not prevent the appearance of a Ptolemy-pretender later.

With his cavalry Caesar hurried to Alexandria, to receive the kind of welcome he had doubtless expected months earlier: “The entire population of the town threw down their weapons, left their defenses, assumed the garb in which suppliants commonly crave pardon from their masters, and after bringing out all the sacred objects with whose religious awe they used to appeal to their displeased or angry monarchs, went to meet Caesar as he approached, and surrendered to him.” Graciously he accepted the surrender and consoled the populace. Cleopatra would have been ecstatic; Caesar’s defeat would have been hers as well. She presumably received advance word but would in any event have heard the raucous cheers as Caesar approached on horseback. His legions met him at the palace with loud applause. It was March 27; the relief must have been extreme. Caesar’s men had given him more than a decade of service, and on arrival in Alexandria believed the civil war to be over. They had by no means counted on this last, little understood exploit. Nor were they alone in their consternation. Rome had heard nothing from Caesar since December. What was keeping him in Egypt, when all was off-kilter at home? Whatever the reason for the delay, the silence was unsettling. It must have begun to seem that Egypt had claimed Caesar as it had Pompey and—as some would argue—in an entirely different way, it ultimately would.



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.