March 21, 2017

The emperor’s bodyguards

By Guy de la Bédoyère
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While most readers familiar with Roman history have heard the name “Praetorian Guard,” many will readily admit that their knowledge of the elite squad charged with protecting Roman emperors is incomplete. In fact, the Praetorians have been the subject of numerous conflicting and uncertain historical accounts in need of clarification.

To that end, British historian Guy de la Bédoyère’s Praetorian chronicles the rise and fall of the Guard, which both protected and destroyed many emperors during its nearly 350-year history. De la Bédoyère illuminates this important facet of Roman history with precision, style and plenty of intrigue as regimes rise, prefects fall and emperors descend into madness.

At first glance, the book appears dense and intimidating—with its broad cast of characters and ample appendices—but de la Bédoyère’s account reads more like an epic military drama than a textbook. The author brings to life stories like the multiple assassination attempts carried out on the insane emperor Commodus by his Praetorian prefect. Knowing his days were numbered, like a long line of slaughtered prefects before him, Quintus Aemilius Laetus conspired with the emperor’s mistress to execute a failed poisoning attempt before simply having him strangled.

Demonstrating a misguided sense of self-confidence, the emperor Caligula openly invited a host of his prefects, including some of his Praetorians, to murder him if they wished. In a show of loyalty and deference to absolute authority, the prefects swore up and down that they would never harm Caligula—and later stabbed him to death as he listened to a song composed in his honor.

In the early fourth century, after backing the wrong side in a civil war (and seeing many of their number drown in the climactic Battle of the Milvian Bridge), the Guard was permanently dissolved by the emperor Constantine.

Praetorian includes a photo section depicting ruins, tombstones and artistic renderings of many figures from the book, adding an interesting visual component to the text.

De la Bédoyère, whose best known work in the U.S. is The Romans for Dummies, has crafted a well-researched but accessible narrative that will appeal to those fascinated with the military, all-around knowledge seekers and especially those with a passion for ancient history.

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By Guy de la Bédoyère
ISBN 9780300218954

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