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Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard, by Guy de la Bédoyère, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2017, $35

A history of the Roman Praetorian Guard from its beginning through its disbanding by Constantine, this volume centers on the unit’s formation, role, structure, conditions, deployment, leadership and, most important, the part it played within the larger context of Rome’s imperial history.

Augustus formed the Praetorian Guard in 27 BC following his victory against Mark Antony at Actium. During the Roman civil wars personal bodyguards were common among rival commanders, who justly feared assassination by enemies—and even their own troops if things went badly. Augustus’ guard was relatively small—some dozen cohorts (4,800 men), about the size of a single legion. Only a few cohorts were stationed in Rome itself, the rest being dispersed throughout Italy. Under Tiberius the guard expanded to 15,000 men, almost all of whom were stationed at a separate base in Rome. Not unlike Adolf Hitler’s Sturmabteilung or Josef Stalin’s Soviet secret police, the guard ultimately posed a threat to the ruler himself and over the next three centuries often played a role in removing and installing new emperors

The Praetorian Guard is without doubt an important subject for an ancient historian, but it is one fraught with difficulty. The greatest problem is that evidence for the guard’s activities makes only erratic appearances in the ancient sources, usually as passing commentaries to the sources’ larger narratives—the lives of the emperors themselves. For long periods, from 98 to 180 for example, the sources make no mention at all of the guard. During only a few periods is the information sufficient. Bédoyère’s command of the general narrative of Roman history, however, allows him to assemble what information there is on the stronger framework of events concerning the emperors themselves. The author admits the evidence is complex and incomplete, suggesting readers also examine the two other major works on the guard (The Praetorian Guard, by Boris Rankov, and Roman Guardsman, 62 BC–AD 324, by Ross Cowan).

If not for the lay reader, this book is valuable for students of all things Roman, filling gaps in our knowledge of a pivotal institution in Roman history.

—Richard A. Gabriel