Ever since the first caveman picked up a spear, some men have been better at waging war than others. Indeed, the idea of special forces is nothing new. Everyone from the Ancient Greeks and Romans through to the Papal armies of the Renaissance had their equivalents of the Navy SEALs or the SAS. These were small, elite groups of warriors capable of taking on the most dangerous of missions. Or sometimes the very best soldiers were kept away from the frontline and remained at home serving as the personal bodyguards for kings and emperors.
Of course, over the centuries, myth and reality have become blurred. Surely no group of soldiers were truly ‘invincible. And were gay lovers really used as elite troops in the hope that they would fight – and possibly die – together? Here, we look at the finest soldiers ever to set foot on the field of battle. All had different skills, different backgrounds and different roles. But all were to be feared and respected…
17. The Praetorian Guard were the Emperors’ bodyguards, but even the most powerful men in Rome were afraid of them
During the days of the Roman Republic, the finest soldiers would often be used to protect high-ranking officials, including consuls – otherwise known as praetors. When Augustus installed himself as the first real Emperor of Rome in 27BC, he adopted the system. After all, his acquisition of total control over the vast Empire was highly controversial and he had many enemies. Augustus needed men he could trust to keep him safe from his many enemies and opponents.
Under Augustus, the size of the elite unit was kept the same; nine cohorts, each of around 500 men each made up the Emperor’s bodyguard. At the same time, the entry requirements were also kept the same. In order to be considered for a place in the prestigious institution, a soldier needed not only to be a veteran of the armed forces, physically super-fit and talented on the battlefield, he also needed to be from a good family and with a good character. This, of course, meant that nearly all the men of the Praetorian Guard came from Rome itself or from the surrounding provinces. Moreover, almost all were from upper-class families, with patronage or a letter of recommendation the usual way of getting a place in the unit.
However, Augustus introduced some notable changes, some of which lasted for centuries. The length of service for a Praetorian Guard was reduced from 16 to 12 years. In comparison, a normal Roman solider would be required to serve for 25 years. The pay rate was raised, too. A member of the elite unit would earn three, or even six, times the rate of a normal soldier. The Guard was granted an elevated status in Roman society. They had their own headquarters, Castra Praetoria, just outside of Rome and were permitted to marry and have children while in service, something off-limits for a regular solider.
What’s more, there were additional perks and bonuses. For instance, the Emperor Claudius gave them all of his bodyguards five years’ pay in one lump sum when he came to power. And understandably so. Like many Emperors, he wanted to buy their loyalty. According to most histories, the Praetorian Guard had a hand in deposing or assassinating as many as 25 Emperors: Commodus in 192, Caracalla in 217, Elagabalus in 222 and Pupienus and Balbinus in 238 were all killed by the men who were supposed to be protecting them.