Book Review: Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome's Imperial Bodyguard


by Guy de la Bédoyère

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. Pp. viii, 336. Illus., diag., appends., chron., notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 0300218958

The Emperor’s Bodyguards, Enforcers, and Overthrowers

English historian de la Bédoyère, author of Defying Rome and a number of other works on Roman subjects, takes a look at the cohortes praetoriae, from their origins in the personal bodyguards of the Roman warlords during the civil wars of the Late Republic, through three centuries until their dissolution in A.D. 312 by Constantine the Great.

The book’s ten chapters cover varying periods in the history of the Praetorians. So de la Bédoyère gives us one chapter on the civil wars that followed the assassination of Caesar (44-31 BC) and one on the guard in the reign of Augustus (31 BC-AD 14). Three chapters cover the Praetorians during the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero (AD 14-68), one on the “Year of the Four Emperors” (AD 69), one on the Flavian dynasty (AD 69-96), and one on the era of the “Five Good Emperors” (AD 96-180). The next chapter curiously lumps the reigns of Commodus and the Severans together, despite the fact that Septimius Severus totally restructured the Praetorians, essentially disbanding and then completely reconstructing the institution. The final chapter carries the story of the Praetorians through the “Crisis of the Third Century”, the complex series of civil wars, usurpations, secessions, and invasions that nearly brought the empire down (AD 235-284), the restoration under Diocletian and the institution and collapse of the “Tetrarchy” leading to the abolition of the Praetorians by Constantine (AD 284-312).

As befits the account of an institution that endured for more than three centuries, de la Bédoyère offers interweaves the operational history of the Praetorians, as imperial guards who occasionally turned on their masters, with periodic updates on their recruiting, organization, and even equipment, and their role in the Empire’s wars.

De la Bédoyère often remarks on the surprising lack of primary evidence about the Praetorians, which is rather refreshing, given that many earlier historians of the subject have often painted a far firmer picture.

Praetorian is a good read for anyone interested in Roman history.

Note: Praetorian is also available in several e-book formats


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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