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The Praetorian Guard was a fixture of the imperial era, but their origins date back to groups of elite soldiers that protected generals during the Roman Republic. As early as the second century B.C., special units were selected to shadow famed Roman leaders such as Marc Antony, Scipio Africanus and Lucius Cornelius Sulla whenever they ventured into the field. Julius Caesar later enlisted his tenth legion as personal security, but the Praetorian Guard as we know it didn’t appear until shortly after Augustus became Rome’s first emperor in 27 B.C. After ascending to the throne, Augustus established his own imperial guards comprised of nine cohorts of 500 to 1,000 men each. The unit would endure as a symbol of imperial might for over 300 years. By A.D. 23, it even operated out of its own fortress, the Castra Praetoria, located on the outskirts of Rome.
Fire was a constant threat in ancient Rome, and though the Empire had had a dedicated firefighting corps called the “Vigiles,” it wasn’t unusual for the emperor’s Praetorians to lend a hand in the event of a particularly unruly blaze. Guardsmen are known to have chipped in at a fire at the Temple of Vesta, and they were likely involved in setting up firebreaks during an infamous conflagration that leveled much of Rome during Nero’s reign. While the Praetorians significant numbers would have helped combat fires, their presence also had a public relations component. By dispatching his personal guard to assist in disaster relief, the emperor could show the citizenry that he was concerned for their welfare.
The Praetorian Guard often handled crowd control at the Roman games, but they occasionally stepped into the arena and played an active role in the bloodshed. There is evidence that the Guard took part in gruesome wild beast hunts to demonstrate their combat prowess, and they played a notorious role in a “naumachia,” or staged sea battle, hosted by Emperor Claudius in A.D. 52. The spectacle saw as many as 19,000 men and some 100 boats clash in a mock naval engagement on the Fucine Lake. Most of the participants were prisoners and slaves, and the Praetorians, armed with catapults and ballistae, surrounded the battle on rafts to add to the mayhem and prevent any of the condemned from escaping.
4. They acted as a secret police force.
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The Praetorians were known to engage in espionage, intimidation, arrests and killings to protect the interests of the Roman emperor. For clandestine operations, they may have employed a special wing of troops known as “speculatores.” Formerly a reconnaissance corps under the Roman Republic, by the imperial era this unit had graduated to serving as couriers and intelligence operatives in the service of the Caesar. Speculatores and other members of the Praetorians would disguise themselves as ordinary citizens at gladiator contests, theatrical performances and protests to monitor and arrest anyone who criticized the emperor. They also kept tabs on suspected enemies of the state, and in some cases they even secretly executed those judged to be an imminent threat to the emperor or his policies.