Out of my headHistory repeats itself because no one was listening the first time.- AnonymousWay back when in Lahore there was a week there in which I found myself with more time on my hands than I knew what to do with. My TV had conked out (isn’t it Arthur
Out of my head
"History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time."
Way back when in Lahore there was a week there in which I found myself with more time on my hands than I knew what to do with. My TV had conked out (isn’t it Arthur C Clarke who said, “The epitaph of the human race will read: Whom the gods would destroy, they first give television”?) and I had to find some way to kill the hours.
So I picked up Edward Gibbon’s ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ off the family bookshelf and found myself just about incapable of putting it down, devouring the humongous tome over the next few days. Gibbon’s account had a huge amount of fascinating stuff in it (sometimes I jest that everything I needed to learn about politics I learnt from Gibbon) and one of the most fascinating bits was the role of the Praetorian Guard in the history of Imperial Rome.
The Guard consisted of handpicked men, sworn to serve the Roman emperor as his personal bodyguards. But a Praetorian wasn’t just any old bodyguard. No, sir! He was also an elite super soldier, a cop, a fire-fighter (no, seriously!), and a spy. He was there wherever and whenever he was needed, a true superhero if there ever was one, emerging like Batman from his Bat-cave (no, seriously – theGuard was housed in its very own fort, Castra Praetoria, just on the outskirts of Rome) when the Bat-signal went out. He was on the front lines accompanying the emperor or defending the borders of the empire at the emperor’s direct command. He was called in to quell riots and uprisings when the ordinary Roman citizens got unruly.
When one of Rome’s frequent fires broke out, the Praetorian Guard would often be called in to put them out because, you know, Rome’s fire-fighting corps (known as the ‘Vigiles’) just weren’t quite good enough and it also helped to show the citizens that the emperor cared enough about them to send in his own personal guard to help in emergencies. If all of that wasn’t enough, a Praetorian also sometimes took part in gladiatorial spectacles (odds heavily stacked in his favour, of course) for the entertainment of the people.
Of course, a Praetorian needed to be rewarded for all his hard work in the service of the empire and the emperor. That was the least his patriotism deserved. A Praetorian guardsman got one and a half times the pay of an ordinary legionnaire and was relatively quite rich when compared to an ordinary Roman citizen. He was eligible for a special donativum (donation or pay) whenever a new emperor ascended to the throne (the better to secure his loyalty to the new ruler) or whenever the emperor felt particularly insecure. When a Praetorian retired he received a substantial retirement bonus as well as a land settlement. A Praetorian guard could end up quite wealthy by the time he left service.
During his service, a Praetorian even turned into James Bond when the need arose. A special wing of the Guard known as the ‘speculatores’ went around in disguise, spying on Roman citizens at gladiatorial contests and at the theatre and any public gatherings or protests to pinpoint dissenters and critics of the emperor, sometimes arresting them, sometimes threatening them or beating them up. Sometimes even secretly executing the ‘enemies of the state’. It was all totally halal because a Praetorian was a true patriot and loyal to the emperor.
Until he wasn’t.
As the power and influence of the Praetorian guards grew (sometimes rivalling or exceeding that of the emperor himself) they both helped install emperors and assassinate them (sometimes when the emperors failed to adequately reward them). The emperor Caligula was, by many accounts, completely barmy. However, when he dared to mock the military – the height of his perceived insanity – the Praetorians conspired with some senators and courtiers to have him assassinated in 41 AD. At this point, the senate wanted to restore the Roman Republic but the Praetorians were having none of this. They insisted on the continuation of imperial rule and had Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, installed as the new emperor.
In the year 193 AD, the Praetorian Guard murdered yet another emperor (Commodus) as well as his successor Pertinax (whom they’d helped install in the first place) all within the space of a few months. The foolish Pertinax had tried to impose new disciplinary measures on the Praetorians which, as you can well imagine, didn’t go over too well with the guardsmen. However, they were still not willing to take on the mantle and responsibilities of power directly. So the Praetorian Guard put the Roman throne on the auction block, selling it to the highest bidder for a princely sum to a wealthy senator, Didius Julianus.
Julianus’ reign lasted all of 66 days before he was replaced by Septimus Severus with the traitorous help of – you guessed it – the Praetorian Guard. The machinations of the Praetorians continued for the next century or so and it wasn’t until they sided in the civil war between the ‘usurper’ Maxentius against the emperor Constantine and ended up on the losing side was their power finally broken, the Castra Praetoria razed, and the Guard disbanded. Make of that what you will.
The writer is a freelance columnist.