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This is a mostly good introduction to Roman guardsmen from the Late Republic (62 BC, when an ad hoc praetorian cohort is first mentioned) to AD 324. Incidentally, I did not quite understand why the author chose the later date which corresponds to the final defeat of Licinius by Constantine rather than, say, the end of Constantine’s reign.
This leads to my first puzzle related to the scope of this book and the extent to which it is “true” to its title. There were quite a few guard units during the rest of the fourth century. The Schola Palatina cavalry regiments come to mind, of which there were a dozen, for instance. They only get half a paragraph at the very end of the book and this is to suggest that they may have evolved out of previous detachments of Praetorians send out to act as guardsmen for the Tetrarchs. While possible and even plausible, there does not seem to be any evidence to back this interpretation.
The elite auxilia palatina, and various other bodyguard units could also have been worth mentioning. These were also elite shock troops and the successors of the Praetorians cohorts, the German bodyguard and the Equites Singulari Augusti. While no explanation is explicitly offered for these choices, it seems that the author decided in fact to focus on a rather wide definition of the Praetorian Guard, which included both infantry and cavalry but also units in additional to the Praetorian cohorts, including the two mentioned above.
Regardless of the author’s reasons for narrowing the scope, the result is a title that tends to cover similar ground as that of the two other volumes available on the Praetorians (from Boris Rankov and Sandra Bingham, respectively) and another one on the Horse Guards (Riding for Caesar from Michael Speidel). The advantage is that Ross Cowan’s title may serve as a useful introduction, overview and starting point to either or all of the three others. The possible disadvantage is that it may lack originality to some extent. It also comes up with many points that are also made in these other books although having less room to discuss any of them.
Having mentioned these elements, Ross Cowan’s title does have two outstanding features. Here again, however, they can be seen as either “positives” or “negatives”.
One is the author’s extensive use of epigraphic evidence (Guards’ tombstones) to discuss various terms of service (age of enlistment and length of service, in particular). For me at least, this was clearly a “positive”, if only because it shows the level of in-depth research that the author has done. It also gives the reader direct access to at least some of this research which is generally only available in specialised and multiple publications. Finally, on a more subjective note perhaps, it adds “meat on the bones” (no pun intended!) and illustrates the author’s statements through a multiplicity of examples. The “flipside” of this, however, is that there are a rather large number of examples, with these taking up quite a bit of “limited and valuable” space. The reverse argument can also be made, to some extent. A collection of examples made to demonstrate a point is not as convincing as a comprehensive review of all existing tombstones from guards if only because the author may have picked only the examples that illustrate his point.
The second outstanding feature, which can also be found in Sandra Bingham’s book on the Praetorian Guard, is that these guardsmen’s reputations have been somewhat unfairly blackened and tarnished. Here again, while the point is very in a very interesting one, I did not find the author’s demonstration fully convincing for either of the two terms that he discusses.
The first term is about the Praetorian Guard’s reputation for disloyalty or even betraying and murdering the Emperors that they were tasked with serving and defending. The author (and Sandra Bingham) contends that they were a number of cases where any of these actions happened but such actions were triggered by a minority, or even a small faction or subset of “politicised” Guards, with the vast majority being faithful and doing their jobs well.
While this is both possible and plausible, it is also entirely unverifiable in practice since for most of these events we simply cannot know what the bulk of the Guards may really have felt or thought. It is also worthwhile noting that even in known cases where the Guard DID go on a rampage because “their” Emperor had been murdered (see, for instance, the case of Domitian), their motives could have been much more mixed and complex than just plain loyalty, sympathy or genuine affection. For instance, one of these could have been a sense of shame, since they had essentially failed in their main duty to protect the Emperor. Another could have been a sense of self-interest and self-preservation, because it was their paymaster to whom they essentially owed their privileged position and high status that had been removed.
The other point that makes this statement questionable is that palace coups that typically involve conspiracies and murders are almost always (and almost have to be) restricted to a small number of plotters, if only because of the need of secrecy. In addition to being almost a prerequisite for success, a small number of active plotters does not really allow the author to imply that all others are necessarily loyal defenders of the established Emperor. It might have been more convincing to depict the attitude of Guardsmen in such instances as being split between a minority of active plotters, a minority of active supporters, and a vast majority in between which might or might not take sides. The later would probably favour the incumbent out of sheer conservatism and self-interest (something like the Devil/Paymaster you know versus the Devil/Paymaster you don’t know), regardless of whether this Emperor was a “good ruler” or not.
The second statement made by the author is the view that the Guard units were elite military forces in addition to being palace guards, bodyguards and sometimes executioners. Here also, the evidence is rather mixed because a convincing argument can be built for both sides. The author does make the point that the Guard, or at least elements of it, accompanied the Emperor on campaigns, but then you would expect no less from his bodyguards. He also makes the more controversial point that they were engaged in fighting and performed rather well. It is a fact that they were at times engaged in fighting when accompanying Emperors on campaigns – for instance in Briton during the initial stage of the Conquest when they accompanied Emperor Claudius who so badly needed to be seen as a conqueror. They were also actively engaged in most of the Empire’s civil wars during which they fought hard and gave a rather good account of themselves. This, however, may have simply been because they had more to lose and, when they lost, the survivors indeed did lose all their benefits on a number of occasions and were replaced as guardsmen by the henchmen of the “new regime.” So contrary to what the author claims, their various engagements in actual fighting do not clearly demonstrate their military efficiency or any clear superiority over “troops of the line”.
A related point here is to refer to the recruitment of guardsmen and the conditions of their service to see if this can evidence their elite nature. Interestingly, the conclusions that can be drawn are also mixed, as the author implies and shows, but does not explicitly mention. Guards were not all veteran legionaries. A number of them were recruited without having seen previous armed service although we simply do not know if these recruitments were exceptions or commonplace. To the extent that the prime consideration must have been loyalty to the reigning Emperor, recruiting his own henchmen as guards would, of course, seem quite logical, regardless of their military qualities which could be acquired through rigorous training.
Since, unlike the legions on the frontiers, Guards only saw fighting episodically, had more “comfortable” living and serving conditions and were not entirely composed of experienced and hardened veterans, one the main factors that could make them “elite forces” in terms of military efficiency would be the quality and intensity of their training and of their trainers. Here again, the author does point to the high status of such trainers within the Guard. One may also assume that at least some of the best trainers across the legions may have been attracted to and recruited into the Guard, but this is only - and no more than - an assumption.
Four (somewhat hesitant) stars, since it is not possible to use half stars (three and a half would have been ideal for me, but three stars would be too harsh).