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Short and Sweet
on 9 May 2013
This is a very readable and relatively short book (124 pages for the main text) but also a piece of carefully researched scholarship, with some 85 pages of notes and another 15 pages of references. As such, it is accessible to a wide audience. It has an interesting story to tell. It could also be a good companion for those who have already invested in Boris Rankov's "The Praetorian Guard", in Osprey's Elite series if only because the latter has some nice plates and relatively good content but not enough space to cover the three and a half centuries of history of the Guard.
The book has three particularly interesting features. One is to show in the introduction to what extent common perceptions of the Praetorians have often verged on caricatures, with the Guards been seen as evil and/or corrupt. A second feature is to show how the Guard evolved from its Republican origins as the Praetorian cohort and bodyguard of successful Roman warlords into the Guard of the only warlord to emerge victorious from the Civil Wars (Octavius Augustus). The third feature presents and discusses how the roles assigned to the Guard increased over time and went well beyond that of bodyguards to include that of secret police, executioners, fire-fighters and fighting troops accompanying the Emperor on campaigns and effectively fighting in the field.
One of the most interesting points made by Sandra Bingham is to show that all of these functions were derived from the Guard's main feature: its closeness to the reigning Emperor and that this closeness and the loyalty and the trust that it implied could lead to assigning them the most delicate missions, including in some cases the removal of other members of the Imperial family. Another interesting point is to show that while some Praetorians might have turned against their respective Emperors, plots involved Praetorians senior officers (tribunes and prefects, mostly) - that is those involved in imperial politics and closest to imperial power - and perhaps a few centurions. The rank and file, according to the author at least, seem to have been less inclined to betray and play "kingmaker", if only because they stood to lose their very privileged status in doing so.
Other interesting features include discussions on numbers (a hot topic among historians) and on the Praetorian camp, on their very favourable terms of service, and on their sometimes tense relations with both Rome's population and with the legions. The author also very correctly shows that a shift in the relations with the legions started to occur under the Flavians as the Guard's main source of recruitment changed and they came to be increasingly used in the field.
Despite all these favourable elements, there are a few problems with this book. At times, the author tends to be a bit repetitive. Also, while the book is very readable, the main text seems, at times, to have been streamlined to such an extent that you may get the impression that only the bare bones are left. Some may like it just like that, to the extent that the text is clear and gets straight to the main points, which are well made. Others may have preferred to have a bit more "flesh on the bones" and perhaps more discussions on certain points. To be fair, however, many of these discussions have been included in the notes and this is the main reason for taking up so much space. A related comment is that, at times, I found that the author tended to be somewhat over-assertive while some of the statements made are in fact assumptions. This, again, is largely part of the price that Sandra Bingham has accepted to pay to present an eminently readable account of the Praetorian Guard in English.