Adventures in Bookland: Praetorian by Guy de la Bédoyère
De la Bédoyère’s book on the Praetorians will likely become the definitive account of the rise and fall of the emperor’s bodyguards but whether it is the best book on the subject depends on what the reader is looking for when opening its pages. If you are looking for a sober and scholarly history of the Praetorians, with a thorough examination of the sources (or lack of them) and extensive discussions of such issues as whether the guards’ cohorts were quingenary (composed of 500 men) or milliary (made up of 1,000 troops), and the evolution of the term cohors praetoria from the purely descriptive to the imperially prescriptive then you will be in historical heaven. However, if you would prefer a gossipy trip through the underbelly of Roman imperial politics and the temptations attendant upon being the bodyguard to the most powerful man in the world, then Praetorian might disappoint. A serious historian, de la Bédoyère prefers to pass over, or passingly refer to, some of the more salacious details of Roman history on the not unreasonable grounds that these were likely inventions to please an audience no less keen on scandal then than are audiences of reality TV today. In Roman terms, de la Bédoyère is more Josephus than Suetonius. While no one would disagree that history should inform, it’s an open question as to how much it should entertain. For instance, when presented with an opportunity such as Hadrian’s praetorian prefect going by the name of Quintus Marcius Turbo, should the responsible historian abstain from the temptation to turn name into pun as being beneath his historical credibility, or should he revel in it, claiming that it will help the reader to remember while really indulging in wordplay for the sheer fun of it. It will come as no surprise that de la Bédoyère reacts to the name with all the disdain of Lady Bracknell presented with a handbag.
This is not to say the book is dull but rather that it turns, deliberately, from the sensational to the plausible. It is at its liveliest where our sources are most extensive, but it becomes interestingly scholarly where the sources are at their thinnest as this allows de la Bédoyère to deploy his considerable knowledge of epigraphs – the inscriptions cut into tombs – and temple dedications to deepen and broaden our understanding of how the Praetorians were deployed in the later stages of the Empire. From being bodyguards, they had become imperial firefighters, putting out rebellions and repelling invasions, or even acting as sentries on a grain route in far-off Numidia. It was a long way from the intrigues of Sejanus. Indeed, it was the intrigues of the prefects in the disastrous third century that eventually led to the dissolution of the Praetorians, when they picked the wrong side in the war between Constantine and Maxentius. Having gained the purple, Constantine was not about to let the Praetorians play the role of emperor maker again, and the Castra Praetoria, their camp in Rome, was demolished. The Praetorians were no longer players. But, among the many books on the Guard, this one certainly is.