18 November 2016

Women Praetorians?

The Praetorian Relief, from a triumphal arch.
Creative Commons, Louvre-Lens Museum
Praetorians, the elite Roman soldiers – tough, arrogant, corrupt, overreaching, brutal, loyal, uncompromising, kingmakers, thugs, patriots, a bulwark, a protection squad, the ultimate fighting force.  They’ve been depicted as all of these in the media and literature. And as in any military hierarchy across the ages they are regarded as tough but snotty by all other military units. But soldiers in those regular units have usually aspired to join them...

The term ‘Praetorian’ derives from praetor meaning the residence of the commanding general of a Roman army in the field. In 133 BC, Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, the hero of the Third Punic War, was besieging Numantia in Spain and formed a personal bodyguard that became known as the cohors praetoria. Chosen from the ranks (Roman citizens and Latins only) to form a separate elite force, on an ad hoc basis, it guarded the praetor’s tent and/or person.  

Under Augustus in 27BC, this elite expeditionary force turned into a permanent imperial guard under the command of two Praetorian prefects. Augustus understood perfectly the need to have physical protection as well as a dedicated, loyal unit which could enforce his political wishes; his path to power had been physically and politically dangerous. Originally nine cohorts were formed, consisting each of 500 men, plus a small cavalry contingent. Only three units were on duty at any given time in the capital patrol in the palace and major buildings. The remaining cohorts were stationed in the towns surrounding Rome.

Under his successor, Tiberius, or rather his ambitious Praetorian prefect Sejanus, their numbers increased and they were centralised in Rome in a camp outside the then city wall, the Castra Praetoria.

Creative Commons, R. Ontario Museum
But they were more than a palace guard and political troops. On the death of Augustus in 14 AD, Tiberius, was faced with mutinies among both the Rhine and Pannonian legions. According to Tacitus, the Pannonian forces were dealt with by Tiberius' son Drusus, accompanied by two Praetorian cohorts, the Praetorian cavalry and some of the German bodyguard. The German mutiny was put down by Tiberius' nephew and adopted son Germanicus, his intended heir, who then led the legions and detachments of the Guard in an invasion of Germany over the next two years. The Guard saw much action in the Year of the Four Emperors in 69, fighting effectivelyl for Otho at the first battle of Bedriacum. Under Domitian and Trajan, the guard fought in wars from Dacia to Mesopotamia, and under Marcus Aurelius on the Danubian frontier during the Marcomannic Wars and continued front line service throughout the third century..

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1867
The guard’s political power grew, even to the extent of intervening in the choice of emperor; the most famous example is Claudius. At the end of the second century, Septimus Severus disbanded the old Praetorian Guard and replaced it with ten military cohorts from his Danubian legions. From then on the Praetorians would be drawn from regular legions. Although the guard was finally dissolved by Emperor Constantine I in 312 AD he replaced it with scholae palatinae, crack cavalry units each 500 strong. At the end of the fourth century, there were around a dozen such units.

The idea of ‘Praetorian’ still conveys the idea of a tough, elite force whose role is to protect the ruler and ultimately the state. As Ancient Rome was a patriarchal society, they were of course, like all military, uniquely male. When I started writing thrillers with a heavy dose of espionage and special forces action in a Roman style society, calling them ‘Praetorian’ seemed a natural fit.

The original guard had been finally disbanded nearly a hundred years before the small group of senatorial families were to trek north and found Roma Nova in my books.  Perhaps they felt the negative connotations about Praetorians had faded or perhaps they were desperate to hang on to their deepest traditions ­– Romans were proud of their history and traditional cultural values – but when a bodyguard was formed for the first ruler, Apulius, they called it the cohors praetoria or Praetorian Guard.

Photo courtesy of Britannia
Women became members of the fighting units defending Roma Nova alongside their brothers and fathers. They had no choice; the new settlers were numerically so few that they didn’t have enough male fighters. As the units evolved into legions over the years, women were eligible to transfer from the regular forces into the Praetorian units along with their male colleagues. The requirements for every Praetorian down the ages were (and still are) strength, a very high level of physical fitness, intelligence and skills levels, irrespective of gender.

The Praetorian Guard in my Roma Nova books protect the imperatrix  (ruler) and also form an elite tactical military force as they did in ancient Rome. Today we call them special forces. The modern Roma Novan Praetorians also have an intelligence remit. And this is how Aurelia and Carina Mitela have ended up serving in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces – an ‘odd job’ for women in history, especially when until recently in the real world such a role would normally be associated exclusively with men.


Alison Morton is the author of the acclaimed Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and the latest, INSURRECTIO

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site: http://alison-morton.com
Twitter https://twitter.com/alison_morton @alison-morton
Goodreads  https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5783095.Alison_Morton

Discover Alison’s latest book, INSURRECTIO

Early 1980s. Caius Tellus, the charismatic leader of a rising nationalist movement threatens to destroy Roma Nova, the last province of the Roman Empire to survive into the 20th century.

Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and imperial councillor, attempts to rally resistance to the growing fear and instability. But it may already be too late to save Roma Nova from meltdown and herself from entrapment and destruction by her lifelong enemy.…

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Watch the book trailer:  https://youtu.be/eXGslRLjv6g