344 pages, Yale University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0300218954
There once was a time when the term “praetorian” was not a pejorative. Founded by Augustus around 27 B.C., the elite Praetorian Guard was tasked with the protection of the emperor and his family…however, as the centuries unfolded, Praetorian soldiers served not only as protectors and enforcers, but also as powerful political players in their own right; while fiercely loyal to some emperors, they could also ruthlessly topple those Emperors who displeased them, men such as Caligula, Nero, Pertinax, and many more, besides. It is in this context, then, that we get negative-sounding news, like British parliamentary protectors of the referendum decision to leave the European Union being described as a “self-styled Praetorian Guard” (not a flattering comparison, by any means). It is, perhaps, a useful phrase, suggesting varyingly a commitment to a principle, a person and to the interests of the Guards themselves, each one of these variations stemming from its Roman origins, as Guy de la Bédoyère, shows in Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome's Imperial Bodyguard. The author introduces Praetorians of all echelons – from prefects and messengers to artillery experts and executioners – and provides a compelling full narrative history of the Guard. He explores the delicate position of emperors for whom prestige and guile were the only defenses against bodyguards hungry for power, a hunger that was satisfied only when Constantine permanently disbanded them upon his ascension. Mind you, they were by no means a wholly malign institution, however (or, indeed, stationed only in Rome, one of Bédoyère’s revelatory asides). For example, having effectively put Nero on the throne (steered by Agrippina) they were able to moderate his tendency to unwholesome excess through their rather admirable prefect, the former military tribune Sextus Afranius Burrus (and with the help of Nero’s tutor, Seneca). Folding fascinating details into a broad assessment of the Praetorian era, the author sheds new light on the wielding of power in the greatest of the ancient world’s empires.