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p952 Praetoriani

Unsigned article on p952‑953 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

PRAETORIA′NI, sc. milites, or Praetoriae Cohortes, a body of troops instituted by Augustus to protect his person and his power, and called by that name in imitation of the Praetoria Cohors, or select troop, which attended the person of the praetor or general of the Roman army (Sallust, Cat. 60; Cic. Cat. 11; Caes. Bell. Gall. I.40). This cohort is said to have been first formed by Scipio Africanus out of the bravest troops, whom he exempted from all their duties except guarding his person, and to whom he gave sixfold pay (Festus, s.v.); but even in the early times of the republic the Roman general seems to have been attended by a select troop (Liv. II.20). In the time of the civil wars the number of the praetorian cohorts was greatly increased (Appian, Bell. Civ. III.67, V.3); but the establishment of them as a separate force was owing to the policy of Augustus. They originally consisted of nine (Tac. Ann. IV.5; Suet. Aug. 49) or ten cohorts (Dion Cass. LV.24), each consisting of a thousand men, horse and foot. They were chosen only from Italy, chiefly from Etruria and Umbria, or ancient Latium, and the old colonies (Tac. l.c., Hist. I.84), but afterwards from Macedonia, Noricum, and Spain also (Dion Cass. LXXIV.2). Augustus, in accordance with his general policy of avoiding the appearance of despotism, stationed only three of these cohorts in the capital, and dispersed the remainder in the adjacent towns of Italy (Suet. Aug. 49). Tiberius, however, under pretence of introducing a stricter discipline among them, assembled them all at Rome in a permanent camp, which was strongly fortified (Tac. Ann. IV.2; Tiber. 37; Dion Cass. LVII.19). Their number was increased by Vitellius to sixteen cohorts, or 16,000 men (Tac. Hist. II.93).

The Praetorians were distinguished by double pay and especial privileges. Their term of service was originally fixed by Augustus at twelve years (Dion Cass. LIV.25), but was afterwards increased to sixteen years; and when they had served their time, each soldier received 20,000 sesterces (Id. LV.23; Tac. Ann. I.17). All the Praetorians seem to have had the same rank as the centurions in the regular legions, since we are told by Dion (LV.24) that they had the privilege of carrying a vitis (ῥάβδος) like the centurions. The Praetorians, however, soon became the most powerful body in the state, and like the janissaries at Constantinople, frequently deposed and elevated emperors according to their pleasure. Even the most powerful of the emperors were obliged to court their favour; and they always obtained a liberal donation upon the accession of each emperor. After the death of Pertinax (A.D. 193) they even offered the empire for sale, which was purchased by Didius Julianus (Dion Cass. LXXIII.11; Spartian. Julian. 2, Herodian. II.7); but upon the accession of Severus in the same year they were disbanded, on account of the part they had taken in the death of Pertinax, and banished from the city (Dion Cass. LXXIV.1). The emperors, however, could not dispense with guards, and accordingly the Praetorians were restored on a new model by Severus, and increased to four times their ancient number. Instead of being levied in Italy, Macedonia, Noricum, or Spain, as formerly, the best soldiers were now draughted from all the legions on the frontiers; so that the praetorian cohorts now formed the bravest troops of the empire (Dion Cass. LXXIV.2; Herodian. III.13). Diocletian reduced their numbers p953and abolished their privileges (Aurel. Vict. de Caes. 39); they were still allowed to remain at Rome, but had no longer the guard of the emperor's person, as he never resided in the capital. Their numbers were again increased by Maxentius, but after his defeat by Constantine, A.D. 312, they were entirely suppressed by the latter, their fortified camp destroyed, and those who had not perished in the battle between Constantine and Maxentius were dispersed among the legions (Zosimus, II.17; Aurel. Vict. de Caes. 40). The new form of government established by Constantine did not require such a body of troops, and accordingly they were never revived. The emperor's body guards now only consisted of the Domestici, horse and foot under two comites, and of the Protectores (Cod. 12 tit. 17; Cod. Theod. 6 tit. 24).

The commanders of the Praetorians were called Praefecti Praetorio, whose duties, powers, &c. are mentioned in a separate article.


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