The Praetorian Guard: A History of Rome's Elite Special Forces

By Fratantuono, Lee | The Historian, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

The Praetorian Guard: A History of Rome's Elite Special Forces


Fratantuono, Lee, The Historian


The Praetorian Guard: A History of Rome's Elite Special Forces. By Sandra Bingham. (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 240. $29.95.)

This is an important and eminently useful book to be welcomed by classicists, military and ancient historians, and aficionados of imperial Rome among a more general readership. This monograph provides the most accessible (and indeed essentially the only) Anglophone volume available on the de facto personal army of the leaders of the Roman principate and dominate, the emperors of a transformed Roman Republic. This illustrated survey of the three-hundred-year history of the Praetorian Guard offers a fairly meticulously annotated examination of the evidence (literary, epigraphical, and archaeological) for this private military force alongside a valuable reappraisal of several aspects of Roman military life and the nature of the imperial bodyguard. In some ways, the present work is a history of imperial Rome told through the prism of the somewhat shadowy figures on whom the very existence of the principate and its governmental successors can be considered to have rested.

Sandra Bingham's task is difficult; the extant evidence is, in some aspects, quite scanty and sometimes even contradictory, and the material extends from the late republican precursors of the developed, more familiar Guard of the JulioClaudian years to the institution's survival through the crisis of the third century and eventual reincarnation in the more stable Severan period. In short, the author's subject demands conversance with the literary record and archaeological remains of a vast sweep of Roman military history, a familiarity that Bingham ably and amply brings to her task. Bingham's focused examination of the Guard allows for a welcome reconsideration of certain aspects and details of famous events in Roman history in which the soldiers of the Guard played key parts, especially the assassination of Caligula, the elimination of Messalina, the complicated events of the Long Year of the Four Emperors, Trajan's military adventures in Dacia (and the commemoration thereof on the eponymous column), and the death of Commodus and commencement of the difficult period of the Barracks emperors. …

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