The Praetorian Guard (180–235) II

Only then did Severus enter Rome himself. Rome was filled with troops, just as it had been in 68–9. This agitated the crowd, which had acclaimed him as he arrived. Severus made promises that he did not keep, such as insisting he would not murder senators. Having disposed of the Praetorian Guard in its existing form, Severus obviously had to rebuild it. He appears to have done so with Juvenalis and Macrinus still at the helm as prefects in reward for their loyalty over the transition. Severus’ new Praetorian Guard represented the first major change in the institution since its formation under Augustus and amounted to a new creation. Valerius Martinus, a Pannonian, lived only until he was twenty-five but by then he had already served for three years in the X praetorian cohort, following service in the XIIII legion Gemina. XIIII Gemina had declared very early on for Severus so Martinus probably benefited from being transferred to the new Guard in 193 or soon afterwards. Lucius Domitius Valerianus from Jerusalem joined the new praetorians soon after 193. He had served originally in the VI legion Ferrata before being transferred to the X praetorian cohort where he stayed until his honourable discharge on 7 January 208. Valerianus cannot have been in the Guard before Severus reformed it in 193, so this means his eighteen years of military service, specified on the altar he dedicated, must have begun in the legions in 190 under Commodus. Therefore it is probable most of his time, between 193 and 208, was in the Guard under Severus. One of the most significant appointments to the Guard at this time was a Thracian soldier of epic height who began his Roman military career in the auxiliary cavalry. In 235 this man would seize power as Maximinus, following the murder of Severus Alexander, the last of the Severan dynasty.

Dio’s reference to there being ten thousand men in ten cohorts in AD 5 is sometimes assumed to be a reference really to the organization of the Guard in his own time, the early third century. It is possible that ten praetorian cohorts had been in existence from Flavian times on. It is beyond doubt, however, unusually for this topic, that from Severus onwards, the Praetorian Guard consisted nominally of ten thousand men in ten milliary cohorts as Dio had described. Diplomas of the third century certainly confirm that thereafter there were ten cohorts. A crucial change made by Severus was to abolish the rule that the praetorians were only recruited from Italy, Spain, Macedonia and Noricum. Instead any legionary was eligible for consideration if he had proved himself in war. This had the effect of making appointment to the Guard a realistic aspiration for any legionary. The idea was that by recruiting from experienced legionaries, the Severan praetorian would now have a far better idea of how to behave as a soldier. This was not always the case. By the time Selvinius Justinus died at the age of thirty-two in the early third century, he had already served seventeen years in the VII praetorian cohort. Unfortunately, there was an unintended consequence, or so Dio claimed. Italians who might have found a job with the Guard now found themselves without anywhere to go and resorted to street fighting, hooliganism and generally abusive behaviour as a result. Rome also now found itself home to provincial soldiers whose customs were regarded as lowering the tone. The reports seem likely to be exaggerated. A Guard of around ten thousand men would hardly have absorbed all of Italy’s disaffected young men. Nor would ten thousand provincial praetorians have changed the character of Rome, especially as many of the new praetorians clearly spent much of their time on campaign. An interesting peripheral aspect to this story is that the paenula cloak, apparently part of the Praetorian Guard’s everyday dress, seems to have dropped out of use by the military by this date; it had, perhaps, become discredited by association with the cashiered praetorians.

Severus had more pressing concerns for the immediate future. He had to dispose first of Niger and then turn on Albinus. Niger was defeated at Issus in Cilicia in 194. He fled to Parthia but was caught by Severus’ agents and killed. Severus was distracted by various rebellions in the east before he was able in 196 to turn his attention to Clodius Albinus in the west, still nursing ambitions of becoming emperor after Severus even though Severus had withdrawn the title of Caesar from him. The climax came at the Battle of Lugdunum (Lyon) in Gaul in a vast engagement in which the Praetorian Guard played an important part. The figure claimed by Dio for the battle of 150,000 men in each army is simply enormous and equivalent to around thirty legions each, an implausibly vast number. It is better interpreted as the figure for both armies together, but there cannot be any doubt that the engagement was of major significance.

The battle began badly for Severus because Albinus had placed his right wing behind concealed trenches. Albinus ordered the wing to withdraw, luring the Severan forces after them. Severus fell into the trap. His forces raced forwards, with the front lines crashing into the trenches. The rest stopped in their tracks, leading to a retreat with a knock-on effect on the soldiers at the back, some of whom collapsed into a ravine. Meanwhile the Albinians fired missiles and arrows at those still standing. Severus, horrified by the impending catastrophe, ordered his praetorians forward to help. The praetorians came within danger of being wiped out too; when Severus lost his horse it began to look as though the game was up. Severus only won because he personally rallied those close to him, and because cavalry under the command of Julius Laetus, one of the legionary legates from the east who had supported Severus in 193, arrived in time to save the day. Laetus had been watching to see how the battle shifted before showing his hand, deciding that the Severan rally was enough to make him fight for Severus. It is a shame we do not know more about how many praetorians were present, and exactly how they were deployed but, given the claimed numbers involved in the battle, it seems very likely that all, or at least most, of the praetorians were amongst them. If so, the reformed Praetorian Guard must have been very nearly destroyed within a very few years of being organized because it is certain the body count on the battlefield was enormous.

The Battle of Lugdunum marks a point in the history of the Praetorian Guard when it seems to have become normal for all or most of the Guard to be deployed away from Rome as part of the main army. Conversely, it also represented a return to the way praetorians had been deployed during the period 44–31 BC. The only praetorians likely to be left in Rome during a time when the Guard was needed for war were men approaching retirement. The II legion Parthica, formed by Severus, was based at Albanum, just 12 miles (19 km) from Rome from around 197 onwards. The legion would clearly have helped compensate for the absence of the Guard so long as some of the legion was at home. It also bolstered the number of soldiers immediately available to the emperor as a field army, without having to rely entirely on the Guard or troops pulled from frontier garrisons. Alternatively it could fulfil some of the Guard’s duties if the emperor took praetorians on campaign with him. A praetorian in Severus’ Guard could expect to see a great deal of action. Publius Aelius Maximinus was a soldier in the V praetorian cohort under Severus. On his tombstone he was said to have participated ‘in all the campaigns’, which suggests that going to war had become routine for praetorians, though it simply could have been a stock, rather than a literal, claim. Since the tombstone was found in Rome, Aelius Maximinus had presumably lived to tell the tale, expiring at some point after his return, though he was only thirty-one years and eight months old when he died.

The soldiers who took part in Severus’ wars and who earned the right to transfer to the new Praetorian Guard found that a further Severan change in terms and conditions was an increase in length of service to eighteen years. This could include the time spent as a legionary. Lucius Domitius Valerianus was discharged in 208 after serving eighteen years. He had been recruited into the VI legion Ferrata in around 190 under Commodus, from which he transferred to the X praetorian cohort at an unspecified later date, serving in the century of Flavius Caralitanus. The date of discharge is provided by the reference to the joint consulship of Severus’ sons, Caracalla and Geta, which they held that year. The VI legion Ferrata had been based in Syria since at least AD 150 and had formed part of the eastern army supporting Severus, being awarded with the title Fidelis Constans (‘always faithful’) for not siding with Niger. The funerary memorial of another praetorian of this era, Lucius Septimius Valerinus of the VIIII praetorian cohort and formerly of the I legion Adiutrix, shows him bareheaded in the traditional praetorian tunic with sword at his side and holding a spear.

The Praetorian Guard as an institution survived to fight another day for Severus. It remained an important symbol of imperial power and Rome’s military strength. A praetorian standard was featured on the so-called Arch of the Moneylenders, dedicated in Rome in 204. With Albinus destroyed and his supporters executed, Severus returned to Rome before turning his attention to Parthia in 198. A cash handout to the Roman people was accompanied by a large payment to ‘the soldiers’, as well as a pay rise and other privileges, such as being able to cohabit with wives. These must have included praetorians, but quite to what extent is unknown as the reference is to the army in general. Herodian was acutely critical of how the new arrangements could undermine military discipline.

Parthia took advantage of the Roman civil wars of 193–7 and invaded Mesopotamia. By 199 Severus was crossing Mesopotamia to fight back but an assault on Hatra went badly, leaving him with numerous casualties and a lot of siege equipment destroyed. This provoked Julius Crispus, a praetorian tribune, to quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, where Aeneas bemoans the fact that so many lives were being lost just because his enemy Turnus wanted to secure the hand of Lavinia. The meaning was obvious: Severus was sending numerous Roman soldiers to their deaths for a futile cause. Another praetorian reported Crispus’ comment and was rewarded by Severus with Crispus’ job. Severus also killed Julius Laetus, whose success in the field here, as in Gaul at Lugdunum, was beginning to make him the focus of the soldiers’ loyalty.

It is not known whether Laetus really did have ideas above his station but one of the praetorian prefects, Caius Fulvius Plautianus, a fellow Libyan of Severus, very definitely did. In or around 200, while Severus was in Egypt, Plautianus killed his co-prefect Quintus Aemilius Saturninus. He next removed privileges from the tribunes in case any of them imagined they were likely to be promoted. The implication from Dio’s account is that both were with Severus in Egypt, or at least in the region. Plautianus’ ambition was to make himself sole permanent prefect; it appears that Severus was complicit in Plautianus’ designs and facilitated his prefect’s advance. Dio accused Plautianus of engaging in a campaign of grand larceny and plundering. By far the most eccentric allegation was that Plautianus had castrated a hundred Roman citizens of ‘noble’ (senatorial) birth so that his daughter Plautilla could be waited on by eunuchs. Plautianus was honoured with innumerable statues, and was the subject of oaths both by soldiers (praetorians?) and senators. Plautianus steadily moved upwards, being appointed a consul, and in 200 having Plautilla selected for marriage to Severus’ eldest son, Caracalla. The nuptials did not take place until late 202 or 203, which coincided with the tenth anniversary of Severus becoming emperor, even though it had taken five years to annihilate his rivals. Plautianus handed over as Plautilla’s dowry a huge sum of money, said by Dio to be fifty times the appropriate sum even for a woman of royal status. Plautianus bankrolled animal fights at games to celebrate Severus’ decennalia (tenth anniversary), while the Guards themselves received from the emperor ten gold coins each, equivalent to 1,000 sestertii, the same amount awarded in Augustus’ will almost two centuries earlier.

The description of Plautianus’ behaviour has echoes of both Sejanus and Tigellinus. It is difficult to believe that this was not deliberate on Dio’s part, for example, the depiction of Plautianus gorging himself at a banquet and engaging in promiscuous sexual activity. Eventually, Plautianus went too far, even by the standards of the day. The account of the fall of Plautianus is confused and difficult to follow but, essentially, what seems to have happened is that his ambitions had earned him the hatred of both of Severus’ sons, Caracalla and Geta. Caracalla disliked his wife Plautilla, and this fuelled his determination to get rid of Plautianus. In Herodian’s version, Caracalla’s loathing for Plautilla led Plautianus to fear for his own life and to sidestep the threat by trying to seize power for himself. In 205 Caracalla used his tutor Euodus to talk a praetorian centurion called Saturninus and two other centurions into claiming that they were three of ten centurions ordered by Plautianus to kill Severus and Caracalla. Herodian’s version has Saturninus as a praetorian tribune who was completely loyal to Plautianus; Plautianus in this account offered Saturninus the praetorian prefecture if he killed Severus and Caracalla. Saturninus persuaded Plautianus to put all this down in writing. Saturninus headed off to the palace but realized there was no chance of murdering Severus and Caracalla, and decided to tell Severus about Plautianus’ scheming.

Severus initially disbelieved Saturninus. Deciding that Caracalla was really the culprit, Severus tackled his son. Eventually, Saturninus concluded that the only way to prove his innocence was to send a message to Plautianus that the deed was done to trick him into coming to the palace. Plautianus fell for the ruse and turned up, only to be confronted by Severus and Caracalla. Plautianus tried to talk his way out and nearly succeeded, but when it emerged that he was wearing a breastplate under his ordinary clothes it became obvious that Saturninus had been telling the truth. The ancestor festival being held that day made it completely implausible that Plautianus would have needed to go around wearing a breastplate unless he was up to no good. Caracalla pointed this out, and ordered Saturninus and others to kill the prefect. Plautianus’ body was thrown out into the street. There is some debate about how much of either version is believable. The details do not matter as much here as the fact that it appears, once more, that a praetorian prefect had been given the opportunity to take advantage of his position and had succeeded in doing so. The parallels with Sejanus are obvious, including this time the more successful manipulation of an imperial marriage, the excessive trust, the greed, the duplicity and the tricking of the guilty prefect.

In the aftermath, Severus, who had learned a valuable lesson, returned to the traditional two-prefect system. The new men were carefully chosen. Quintus Marcius Laetus came up the traditional route from the prefecture of Egypt. Aemilius Papinianus was a brilliant and famous jurist. They were to remain in post throughout the rest of Severus’ reign. During their time Severus embarked on his war of conquest in Britain, which was designed to give Caracalla and Geta a chance to prove themselves. Dio’s account of the period also includes a reference to the policing duties to which the praetorians were liable to be allocated. Bulla was an Italian bandit leader who ranged over Italy with impunity for two years. Despite being pursued by soldiers, Bulla led a marauding gang that even included disaffected imperial freedmen. Severus, by then on campaign in Britain, was irritated to hear that while he was fighting a war his forces in Italy were incapable of stopping a robber. Severus ordered that a praetorian tribune at the head of a cavalry force be sent, under threat of severe punishment if he failed, to capture Bulla. Instead of using brute force, the tribune persuaded Bulla’s mistress to give him up on a promise of immunity. He was taken to Papinianus, who must therefore have still been in Italy. Papinianus asked Bulla why he was a robber. Bulla tartly responded, ‘Why are you a prefect?’ However gratifying Bulla must have felt his witty riposte to be, the answer turned out to be that as praetorian prefect Papinianus had a good deal more power than Bulla. The robber chief was promptly killed by being thrown to wild beasts.

By 210 Papinianus was in Britain with Severus. Some of the Guard was on campaign with Severus. Gaius Cesennius Senecio was a centurion of the II praetorian cohort, which held the Severan Pia Vindex (‘faithful avenger’) decoration. He was killed, or died, in Britain and his remains returned to Rome for burial, where his tombstone survives. It is not known whether he was actually involved in fighting or was merely serving as part of an escort, but he had reached the heights of being an exercitator ‘of praetorian cavalry’. Caracalla, desperate for sole power (he had been made joint emperor in 198, and since 209 with Geta as well), seems to have spontaneously toyed with the idea of killing his father, raising his sword as they rode out to fight the Caledonians of northern Britain. Caracalla hesitated (he was in plain sight) and gave up. Severus taunted Caracalla, telling him he should go ahead with the attack, and even made a sword available. Papinianus was present as one of the witnesses. Severus egged on Caracalla and told his son that he could order Papinianus to kill him. In the meantime Laetus must have remained in charge of the praetorians left in Rome. Caracalla resisted the opportunity to kill his father. Severus died soon afterwards in York on 4 February 211 but not before he had advised his sons to work together, make the soldiers rich, and treat everyone else with scorn. Caracalla ignored the advice to live in harmony with Geta but followed the rest. He moved quickly. According to Dio he immediately removed Papinianus from his post and killed a number of others, including his tutor Euodus and his wife Plautilla, though it is possible that Papinianus remained in post until he was murdered in 212 after Geta was killed.

After abandoning Severus’ campaign in Britain by negotiating peace, Caracalla and Geta returned to Rome in May 211. The two brothers’ mutual loathing was exhibited by continual plots against each other and the way they surrounded themselves with armed guards. They even went to the extent of dividing up the palace into separate fortified establishments, an arrangement that would be comic had the consequences not been so drastic. They even concocted a plan to divide the Empire between them. Only when their mother, Julia Domna, pointed out that they could not divide her between them was the plan abandoned. This solved nothing. Since Geta had an armed escort of soldiers, Caracalla resorted to asking Julia to summon the pair of them early in 212. In Dio’s version Caracalla had centurions on hand who had been briefed to murder Geta, which they did while Geta clung to his mother. This was followed by the murder of all those who had attended Geta, including soldiers, amounting to ‘twenty thousand’. In Herodian’s account Caracalla was blamed for the killing. The likelihood is that praetorian centurions were responsible, but only because they had been bribed by Caracalla.

According to Herodian, Caracalla fled from the palace to the Castra Praetoria, claiming he had only just escaped an attempt on his own life, and made his way to seek sanctuary in the sacellum. Here Caracalla told his story in which Geta had supposedly been plotting to murder him, but that he, Caracalla, had managed to kill his enemy and escape. The praetorians were encouraged to believe Caracalla with an instant payout of 2,500 denarii and a 50 per cent pay rise, the latter being extended to the whole army at a cost of 280 million sestertii in total (70 million denarii). To provide the instant payout the praetorians were told to collect the cash from temples and treasuries in Rome. By this time the truth had reached the praetorians, but since they had already been bought they acceded to Caracalla’s sole rule. The Historia Augusta’s version is slightly different: when the news reached the Castra Praetoria it was a shock to praetorians who had not been bribed or been in on the plot, and who also believed they had sworn allegiance to both brothers. The praetorians therefore locked the Castra Praetoria and refused to see Caracalla. Any sense that this outrage was founded on solid moral rectitude was soon exposed as humbug when Caracalla paid out the money to purchase the Guard’s support. The versions are not necessarily contradictory. It is plausible that some of the praetorians were disturbed by the news, but it was also historically clear that the praetorians, like other soldiers, had their price and if it had been paid then there was nothing more to be said (at least for the moment).

The substantial pay rise offered by Caracalla inevitably incurred a significant charge on the state, which added to the problems experienced by Severus when he found the imperial treasuries drained in 193. Severus had resorted to debasing the denarius, reducing its silver content to 50 per cent. The solution, introduced in 215, was even more cynical. The denarius was joined by a new coin, known today as the antoninianus after Caracalla’s official name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Apparently tariffed as a double-denarius, the new coin in fact only contained half as much silver again as one denarius. Therefore, the melting of three denarii provided enough silver to be alloyed with copper to produce two new antoninianii, apparently tariffed as the equivalent of four denarii. Clearly designed to make state expenses easier to pay, such as the praetorians’ pay rise, inflationary consequences were inevitable but these took generations to impact on the economy. The new coin was issued until around 222, after which it was discontinued until 238 when it started to replace the denarius permanently.

The killing of Geta was the manifestation of a new and vicious era. Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus had been joint emperors but Verus’ death in 169 was not suspicious and nor had the two been rivals. Therefore the question of divided loyalties had not arisen with the Praetorian Guard. The Severan family presented a completely new problem. It seems not to have been in doubt to anyone at the time that Caracalla was responsible, and that he had arranged for the murder, apparently with sidekicks chosen from the Guard’s centurionate. In the aftermath of Geta’s death, the praetorian prefect Maecius Laetus was forced to commit suicide, even though it appears he might have helped Caracalla plan the murder. Other killings followed, including the former praetorian prefect Papinianus who was murdered with an axe after the praetorians made allegations about him. Worse, Caracalla even told the praetorians that since he ruled for them and not for himself, they could be both accusers and judges. He confined himself to being annoyed that Papinianus was executed with an axe instead of a sword.

To compound the increasing tension, a mutiny broke out amongst the urban cohorts. The murder of Papinianus seems to have been ordered simply because he had backed Geta. As Papinianus was dragged off to be killed, he commented that whoever took his place would be a fool if he did not avenge this attack on the office of the praetorian prefecture. This may well be a literary device, since the observation turned out to be exactly what happened. Another praetorian prefect, the little-known Valerius Patruinus, was killed too. There is a tenuous possibility that some of the praetorians were now based in premises on imperial property on the Pincian Hill in Rome, if they had not been previously. An inscription from here names Julia Domna as ‘mother of Augustus [Caracalla] and of the camps’.

Caracalla’s reign degenerated even further into a series of increasingly arbitrary killings. In 213 he set out on a tour of the provinces, ordering executions as he went, including that of the proconsul of Gallia Narbonensis. By the time he reached Thrace, he was accompanied by an unnamed praetorian prefect. One possibility is that the post was already held by Macrinus, known to have been in post when he murdered Caracalla in 217. Alternatively, Gnaeus Marcius Rustius Rufinus is a possibility. Marcus Opellius Macrinus was prefect by the end of the reign, apparently alongside Marcus Oclatinius Adventus, a man whose remarkable career had seen him move up from being a speculator, serving in a variety of jobs including frumentarius (imperial spy), and procurator of Britain under Severus between c. 205 and 208, eventually rising to city prefect under Macrinus as emperor.