The Praetorian Guard

The Praetorian Guard was a powerful legion of thousands of elite soldiers in Rome. It was the first Roman emperor, Augustus, who founded the unit in 27 BC. It was created to protect him and Rome. The Praetorian Guard was part of the imperial era, but its origins go back to groups of elite soldiers who protected generals under the Roman Republic, the Evocati.  Soldiers who had served in the military and received an honourable dismissal and who was then asked back by a general or senator. The Evocati were not expected to do menial labour that other soldiers did such as dig ditches etc.

The Praetorian guard was active for 300 years. Their tasks were to protect Roman emperors and the Empire.

Other duties

There was a fire brigade in ancient Rome called the Vigiles. But when there was a fire they could not handle, the emperor could order his praetorian guards to assist in extinguishing the fires. The emperor then also showed that he cared about the people when he let his own private army go out and help them.

Praetorian Guard

The life of a pretorian guardsman

The Praetorians lived in barracks called Castra Praetoria. The barracks were built on the outskirts of Rome. The leader of the Praetorian Guard was called the Praetorian prefect. As a Pretorian Guard, you got three times as much in salary compared to ordinary legionaries. Ordinary legionaries served their purpose for about 20 years while a Praetorian was only active for 16 years.

They also received bribes, so-called donativa, from the new emperor when he came to power. The bribes were as much as several annual salaries. The bribes were made to ensure that the Praetorians were loyal to the guard and their emperor.

Rise and fall from power

During the reign of Emperor Tiberius, there was a Praetorian prefect named Sejanus. He made sure that the Praetorian Guards gained great political power.

He had an affair with the wife of Emperor Tiberius’ son Drusus. Her name was Livilla. Together, they slowly poisoned Drusus so it would look like he died of natural causes. When Emperor Tiberius drew himself back from the leadership role in 26 AD. Sejanus took control of the Roman Empire. He controlled what information was sent to Tiberius, who had then settled down on the island of Capri. He also murdered all political rivals. He became engaged to Livilla, who was also the niece of Tiberius, in order to legally claim the throne as emperor of the Roman Empire. When Tiberius found out what Sejanus was planning, he was executed. The Roman Senate erased all evidence that Sejanus had ever existed.

Sejanus died, but the Praetorian Guard survived and was a constant threat to the empire.

The Praetorian Guard initially consisted of 4,500 men. It then rose to 15,000 men in the late Roman Empire. The Praetorian Guard was not popular with the ordinary citizens of Rome. The Praetorians engaged in extortion, violence and bribery and lived real gangster lives.

Murdered emperors

During the time of the Praetorians’ guards, they murdered 13 Roman emperors, even though the guard were created to protect the emperor.

  • The first to fall victim to praetorian guards was the emperor Caligula who ruled from 37-41 AD. After his death, the Praetorians appointed Caligula’s uncle Claudius to be the emperor.
  • The next emperor who became a victim to the Praetorian Guards was Emperor Galba in 69 AD. They assassinated him because he did not want to pay the bribes that the guard wanted.
  • The Praetorians murdered the emperors Commodus in 192, Caracalla in 217 and Elagabalus in 224 AD.

When Emperor Pertinax, who ruled in 193 AD, realized what a great threat the Praetorian Guards were against his empire, he did everything he could to curb their power. His reign lasted only 86 days before he was assassinated by the Pretorians.

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor
Proclaiming Claudius Emperor after the assassination of Caligula.

After the death of the emperor, The Praetorian Guard auctioned the throne to whom offered to pay the most for it. The winner of the auction was a wealthy senator named Didius Julianus. His highest command made him emperor of the Roman Empire in 193 AD. At that time, the Praetorian Guards consisted of 8000 legionaries. Each received 25,000 sesterces, which was the currency used then. It was the same as the annual salary of all legions combined.

His happiness on the throne was short-lived when, shortly after his takeover, a civil war broke out. The Praetorian Guard abandoned Didius Julianus to avoid fighting. Didius Julianus remained on the throne for 66 days before being assassinated.

It was the power that became too great for The Praetorian Guard, they became corrupt and greedy. They were motivated by money and power. When they saw opportunities to make money, muscle in on new trades or gain more power, they took that chance. However, they were despised by the Roman people who suffered and the emperors feared them.

At the Roman Games, it was often the Praetorian Guard who made sure that the audience behaved. Sometimes they also stepped into the arena and participated in the bloody games. They gladly showed their fighting ability by performing hunts on wild animals.

The Praetorians were also known for spying and performing secret operations. For the secret operations, there was a special wing called “speculatores”.

Together with other members from the Praetorian Guards, they disguised themselves as ordinary citizens and walked around to eavesdrop on conversations between the people in the city. They arrested everyone who was critical to the emperor. Sometimes executions took place in secret.

Year 69 AD a very unusual event occurred. General Vitellius defeated Emperor Otho and took over the Roman throne. The new emperor fired all Praetorians because he was afraid they would be loyal to the previous emperor. He replaced them with an even larger troop from his own legions. Vitellius only managed to rule for a few days before the commander of the legions of Judea, Vespasian, moved to Rome and proclaimed himself emperor.

The dismissed Praetorians were recruited to Vespasiana’s army. The two armies fought against each other and Vespasian’s army with the former Praetorians won. They then regained their positions in Praetorians Guards.


The Pretoria Guard was finally dissolved by Emperor Constantine I in the 4th century. It was not until 312 AD that Emperor Constantine I dissolved the unit. They had then become too powerful and too great a threat to the stability of the empire.