How elite were the Praetorian guards?

Aug 2016
29
Sarawak
#1
First of all, I want to know how "elite" were the praetorian guards in terms of strength, mobility, quality of equipment and their duties to protect the emperor.

How were they actually raised to be a praetorian guard in service to the emperor? Were they handpicked by the emperor himself and/or their skills in combat and loyalty? I would love to know much more about them if any of you would kindly elaborate them for me. I love history but I still need to know much more before calling myself a " novice historian".
 
Jul 2013
1,003
America
#2
Scottish historian Dr. Ross Cowan is pretty adamant about the guard being the elite of the Roman army. They were the best equipped, most well trained, most highly paid organization during the reign of the Principate. In battle, they often served as elite shock troops intended to break the enemy's line. Numerous examples have proven this to be true, from Germanicus's campaigns against the Germans to the year of the four emperors. In regards to the latter, despite their relative inactivity leading up to the events that led to the civil war (along with the derision they received from 'regular' front line units in the early stages of the war) they proved to be utterly terrifying in combat as they thrashed their opposition with ease. To put it bluntly, their training was top notch. No other unit was as well prepared as they were, emperors like Vespasian and Hadrian consistently and routinely pushed the guard to their extreme during their regimens. Anyway, the guard routinely deployed to warzones, especially under warrior emperors like Marcus Aurelius, and Trajan.

Becoming a Praetorian guard was a pretty intense and competitive affair, as the Guard was only open to 'upper class' Italian males who hailed from the most illustrious cities/backgrounds. Eventually the guard was opened up to overseas Italians from colonies in Spain and Macedonia. There were stringent physical requirements present to join the guard, from what I remember only men 6 feet and above were allowed to join. None the less, during the reign of Severus, the emperor opened up the guard to the men of the Danubian legions, and evicted the previous guardsmen. The guard along with Legio II Parthica Severiana (another elite legion uniquely composed of Italian soldiers) would form the basis of the comitatus - the Severan field army. Anyway, this didn't last long, and by the reign of Maxinimus Thrax, the guard had taken on an Italian ethos once again which would stay the course for the remainder of its history - even by the time of Maxentius, Italians still comprised the backbone of guard according to Cowan and others.

Buy Ross Cowan's book, and the most recent book by guy de la bédoyère.
 
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Aug 2016
29
Sarawak
#3
Scottish historian Dr. Ross Cowan is pretty adamant about the guard being the elite of the Roman army. They were the best equipped, most well trained, most highly paid organization during the reign of the Principate. In battle, they often served as elite shock troops intended to break the enemy's line. Numerous examples have proven this to be true, from Germanicus's campaigns against the Germans to the year of the four emperors. In regards to the latter, despite their relative inactivity leading up to the events that led to the civil war (along with the derision they received from 'regular' front line units in the early stages of the war) they proved to be utterly terrifying in combat as they thrashed their opposition with ease. To put it bluntly, their training was top notch. No other unit was as well prepared as they were, emperors like Vespasian and Hadrian consistently and routinely pushed the guard to their extreme during their regimens. Anyway, the guard routinely deployed to warzones, especially under warrior emperors like Marcus Aurelius, and Trajan.

Becoming a Praetorian guard was a pretty intense and competitive affair, as the Guard was only open to 'upper class' Italian males who hailed from the most illustrious cities/backgrounds. Eventually the guard was opened up to overseas Italians from colonies in Spain and Macedonia. There were stringent physical requirements present to join the guard, from what I remember only men 6 feet and above were allowed to join. None the less, during the reign of Severus, the emperor opened up the guard to the men of the Danubian legions, and evicted the previous guardsmen. The guard along with Legio II Parthica Severiana (another elite legion uniquely composed of Italian soldiers) would form the basis of the comitatus - the Severan field army. Anyway, this didn't last long, and by the reign of Maxinimus Thrax, the guard had taken on an Italian ethos once again which would stay the course for the remainder of its history - even by the time of Maxentius, Italians still comprised the backbone of guard according to Cowan and others.

Buy Ross Cowan's book, and the most recent book by guy de la bédoyère.
Interesting! It's a wonder why they were the most feared soldiers in the world of antiquity. 6 feet men to be an elite guard? I've read an article that the romans were shorter south of the Alps? I couldn't find that article anymore but they were shorter than the gauls?
 

Naima

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
2,321
Venice
#4
Interesting! It's a wonder why they were the most feared soldiers in the world of antiquity. 6 feet men to be an elite guard? I've read an article that the romans were shorter south of the Alps? I couldn't find that article anymore but they were shorter than the gauls?
A pure myth based on incongruents findings of pompeii where most there were poorly feed slaves or paupers who couldn't escape the Vesuvius explosion. The minimum height to enter the army was 1.70 m some elite units had a minimal height of 1.8 m or more.
 
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Naima

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
2,321
Venice
#5
Interesting! It's a wonder why they were the most feared soldiers in the world of antiquity. 6 feet men to be an elite guard? I've read an article that the romans were shorter south of the Alps? I couldn't find that article anymore but they were shorter than the gauls?
Also augmented by the de bello gallico passage where gauls were mocking the short romans moving huge wood towers... fact is that many if the soldiers of caesar had gaulish origins as well wich poses the passage as a mere ilarous one to please some common stereotypes of the reader abd present the enemy as more fierce and terrible.
In general its pretty much the same as today europe where Italians are generally shorter than danes but are not dwarfs or other pseudoinvented myth... the height difference is usually by few cms.
An average roman could be 1.76 a gaul 1.78 a german 1.8 .... but wasn't incommon to have shorter germans and taller Romans ... Caesar himself was 1.8m tall.
 
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Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,811
Dispargum
#6
The biggest factor effecting height was childhood diet which would also effect muscular strength. Soldiers recruited from wealthier Italian cities would naturally be taller and stronger than soldiers recruited from poorer provincial regions.

Another factor influencing eliteness of certain military units is the priority that elite units have for weapons, equipment, and new soldiers to replace losses. So the Praetorian Guards would be better units because the men were bigger and stronger than their opponents, and also better armed, equiped, and there were more of them (The Praetorian Guards units were kept up to strength while legions on the frontiers were often only at 3/4 or even half strength).
 
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Jul 2016
8,950
USA
#7
Interesting! It's a wonder why they were the most feared soldiers in the world of antiquity. 6 feet men to be an elite guard? I've read an article that the romans were shorter south of the Alps? I couldn't find that article anymore but they were shorter than the gauls?
Those were Roman feet, which are 11 inches, not 12.

And I'd be wary of accepting any concrete standards of the ancient world, especially an organization that existed for hundreds of years. Standards weren't really enforced, they didn't really exist. The minimum height requirements for a miles gregarius is just as crazy, its one line that likely was never followed by everyone.
 
Jul 2013
1,003
America
#8
Those were Roman feet, which are 11 inches, not 12.

And I'd be wary of accepting any concrete standards of the ancient world, especially an organization that existed for hundreds of years. Standards weren't really enforced, they didn't really exist. The minimum height requirements for a miles gregarius is just as crazy, its one line that likely was never followed by everyone.
The point that I'm attempting to make is that unlike the provincial legions, the guard had significantly more stringent entrance standards...and being physically intimidating/impressive certainly played a part in it.
 
Jul 2013
1,003
America
#9
The biggest factor effecting height was childhood diet which would also effect muscular strength. Soldiers recruited from wealthier Italian cities would naturally be taller and stronger than soldiers recruited from poorer provincial regions.

Another factor influencing eliteness of certain military units is the priority that elite units have for weapons, equipment, and new soldiers to replace losses. So the Praetorian Guards would be better units because the men were bigger and stronger than their opponents, and also better armed, equiped, and there were more of them (The Praetorian Guards units were kept up to strength while legions on the frontiers were often only at 3/4 or even half strength).
This exactly. I could quote/cite a plethora of books, but the general academic consensus these days is that they were in fact the 'cream' of the Roman army.
 
Jan 2015
2,878
MD, USA
#10
First off, just to quibble, what we call the "Praetorian Guard" was actually the Praetorian cohorts, 12 "double strength" or "milliary" cohorts of about 800 men each. So a total strength of about 2 legions.

Is there a reference to a height requirement for them? I only remember Vegetius talking about a height requirement for the first cohort of a legion, but the Praetorians are not something I've researched, really. There certainly wasn't any "standard" requirement for joining the army in general.

So I also don't recall all of that about them being so elite. Certainly they served in a number of campaigns (whenever the Emperor was present, for instance), but not sure I see them having as much combat experience of the typical legion. Not sure how they could be better trained, either, since the legions did daily weapon drill and frequent marching practice, etc. It's not like there was any sort of advanced Ranger or SEAL training. Certainly the Praetorians wouldn't be any better armed, even if their swords and belts had more bling.

EDIT to add--They were certainly prestigious!! I don't think anyone in the regular legions would have passed up a chance to serve with the Praetorians, even if they might have sneered at them for being pampered town boys (not that I'm saying they actually DID that!). I'm not up on all the references to how they performed in battle, and I'm sure they pulled their weight.

I've got the Osprey book on the Praetorians by Boris Rankov, and I remember it being nicely informative but it's been a while since I read it. And of course it's just an Osprey book!

Matthew
 
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