Much like modern militaries, the famed Roman Empire had its own version of special forces as well. While they did not act in a similar fashion as the SAS or Spetsnaz, they were still highly specialized units handpicked to perform some of the most important jobs within the empire. The best Rome had to offer was the Praetorian Guard. The creation of this unit and how its purpose changed eventually had a drastic and detrimental impact on the inner workings of the Roman Empire. Not only did this unit become one of the most feared in Rome, but it also held the keys to who became the most powerful man in the Ancient World.
The Formation of the Praetorian Guard
The precursor units to the Praetorians originated in the Roman Republic. It was not uncommon for high-ranking Roman aristocrats and generals such as Julius Caesar or Scipio Africanus to have an elite group of bodyguards who would accompany them when they traveled or led an army into battle. The official formation of the Praetorian Guard began in the early years of the Roman Empire. When the first emperor of Rome, Augustus, took power in 27 BCE, he formed the unit to protect himself from political adversaries and unruly mobs.
The Praetorians numbered between 4,500 and 15,000 men throughout their existence. In the unit's early years, each soldier was handpicked out of some of the most grizzled and hardened veterans of Rome's legions. By 23 CE, the Praetorians even operated out of their own headquarters located in the fortress Castra Praetoria on the outskirts of Rome itself.
Not Your Average Soldier
It is almost certain that the Praetorian Guard played a major role in the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE. Unlike the special forces of today, the Praetorian Guard almost never saw combat. It was not common for the emperor to get too close to the battlefield, let alone actually participate in a battle. The emperor usually either stayed within Italy or Rome for most of his rule. With little in the way of enemies to fight, the emperor found other uses for them other than dispatching pesky political opponents.
Fires were a constant hazard in the cramped slums of Rome. It was not uncommon for entire neighborhoods to be reduced to smoldering rubble overnight if the fire brigade did not arrive in time. To help combat this chronic issue, many of the Praetorians were levied into these groups of ancient first responders. Not only did this help stop the spread of fires, but it also served as a great public relations stunt for the emperor. If the average citizen saw his personal bodyguards battling a blaze in their part of the city, it would help give them the sense that the emperor genuinely cared about their wellbeing.
It was also common for these soldiers to serve as crowd control during large public games. During festivals and gladiatorial events, the emperor's bodyguards would keep the peace among the more rambunctious attendees. There is even evidence that some of the Praetorians participated in the games themselves, throwing themselves into the Colosseum to fight lions and elephants.
One of the more common functions of the Praetorians was their role as secret police. Being the most powerful man in the world came with a lot of enemies. So the emperor was never in short supply of people who needed to be extorted, spied on, tortured, exiled, or killed to maintain power. There are plenty of examples of Roman emperors using their bodyguards to round up thousands of political rivals in mass arrests. Nero was infamous for using his Praetorians to coerce rich landowners into handing over their wealth to the state.
The Praetorians were deeply involved in the political intrigue of the empire. Roman senators, generals, and other members of the aristocracy knew better than to get on the bad side of the emperor's bodyguards. Falling out of favor with either the emperor or the guardsmen was not conducive to a successful life in Ancient Rome.
Degeneracy and Corruption
It was not long before the once well-respected and prestigious Praetorian Guard fell into a state of chaos and disarray. Since each soldier within the Praetorians was handpicked by the emperor himself, a position within the unit soon became a place for the sons of senators and political allies. The emperor selected candidates in order to gain good favor among the who's who of Roman society.
These new appointees were far from the best Rome had to offer in terms of martial ability or discipline. Most of them were corrupt, immoral, degenerates who would rather spend their time at brothels and taverns, spending their high wages on wine and prostitutes. Even their once near-mythical reputation as elite fighters began to wane as they went into combat more often during instances of revolts and civil unrest. There were many cases during civil wars between reigning emperors and disobedient generals where the run-of-the-mill legionaries would make short work of the supposedly unbeatable Praetorian Guard.
A Danger to Rome and the Emperor
Perhaps the biggest legacy the Praetorian Guard has left behind is their affinity for bribes and willingness to betray their emperor for their own benefit. In an ironic twist of fate, not long after the Praetorians were established, they soon became one of the biggest threats to the emperor's life. The Praetorian's loyalty was notoriously fickle and could be swayed by just about anyone with enough money or influence to do so. Over the unit's 340-year existence, they were directly responsible for assassinating 13 emperors.
In 193 CE, after the assassination of Commodus, the Roman senate elected Pertinax to rule. Pertinax was not unaware of the unreliability of the Praetorians and decided to pay them all exorbitant amounts of money in order to secure their loyalty. In a particularly extraordinary display of treachery and greed, the Pratorians took the bribe and killed Pertinax anyways.
With the throne now empty, the Praetorians offered up the imperial throne to the highest bidder. Didius Julianus, one of the wealthiest men in the Roman Empire, promised the Praetorians a small fortune for each soldier and was given the title of emperor. However, when they discovered he did not have the money to pay them all, they killed him as well.
An End to the Chaos
In the 3rd century, there is much less mention of the Praetorian Guard. While some historians believe they started to fade into irrelevancy thanks to the reforms made by Septimius Severus, others argue that due to the endless turmoil and conflict in the 3rd century, the Praetorians had little in the way of influence. This was thanks to the sheer number of pretender emperors who emerged from the legions stationed far away from their power base in Rome.
For the brief time these military emperors ruled, they were usually accompanied by their own private bodyguards, made up of soldiers from the legions they commanded. It would not make sense to put so much faith into such an untrustworthy institution like the Praetorians when they were in ample supply of loyal men who were much less likely to stab them in the back.
In 312 CE, after the famous Battle of Milvian Bridge, the victorious Constantine the Great marched into Rome and permanently disbanded the unit once and for all. Constantine ensured that they would never challenge his reign by scattering the unit's men across the many legions stationed throughout the empire. He even went so far as to dismantle their once great symbol of power at Castra Praetoria.
The Praetorian Guard was a far cry from being the Ancient World's version of SEAL Team 6. They served a multi-purpose role within Roman society and rarely saw combat, at least when compared to the regular legionnaires stationed on the frontier. The Praetorians played a significant, and some would say detrimental role within Roman politics and were often the source of much of the empire's turmoil and political strife in the later 2nd and early 3rd centuries.
Some historians argue that they only were only involved with the assassinations of incompetent emperors. And while even if this is true, the fallout and political instability did not do any favors for Rome in the long run. With so much chaos stemming from their greed and lust for power, it is safe to say that the Praetorian Guard played a meaningful role in the slow decline of the Roman Empire.