The story of Rome through the eyes of the infamous Praetorian Guard, feared bodyguards who wielded the power and leverage to make – or break – the Emperors they swore to protect.
The story of Rome through the eyes of the infamous Praetorian Guard, feared bodyguards who wielded the power and leverage to make – or break – the Emperors they swore to protect.
Strauss, Barry. Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine. 2019
De La Bodeyere, Guy. Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard. 2017
Rankov, Boris. The Praetorian Guard. 1994
Bingham, Sandra. The Praetorian Guard. 2012
Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. 2015
Beard, Mary. The Roman Triumph. 2007.
Suetonius. Lives of the Caesars. AD 121
Dando-Collins, Stephen. Caligula: The Mad Emperor of Rome. 2019.
Tacitus, Cornelius. The Complete Works. 1994.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it. I’m your host Zach Cornwell.
Guys! This is Episode 10. We’ve officially reached double digit territory. Very exciting.
Before we get into today’s episode, I just want to do that annoying podcaster thing where I remind you to rate and review if you haven’t already. It’s a little thing, but it helps a lot. If you’ve been enjoying the show and the stories we’ve been telling, please give us a little five-star love on whatever platform you listen on. If you wanted to go for the gold, you could even leave a few kind words in the form of a review.
And as always, a big thank you for your time. There are lots of podcasts out there, braying and begging for your attention, and I’m honored that you’ve chosen to spend part of your day with me. So thank you.
Anyway, without further ado, welcome to Episode 10, Kingbreakers.
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On March 28th, 193 AD the Roman Empire was for sale.
The emperor, a man named Pertinax, had been murdered. And in the chill of that spring morning, Pertinax’s head was being carried through the streets of Rome on a pike for everyone to see.
The citizens of Rome, wealthy and poor, patrician and plebian alike, watched in slack-jawed horror as they looked into the lifeless eyes of their ruler. It must have been a traumatic thing to see. In Imperial Rome, the Emperor was deified, even worshipped. He was, in some ways, a living god.
And now, God’s head was bouncing around on the tip of a spear.
But who had killed the most powerful man in the Western world? Who had ambushed and decapitated Pertinax, the Emperor of Rome, supreme ruler of a domain that stretched two million square miles and encompassed 50 million people - from the swamps of Britain to the deserts of Syria?
But perhaps the more important question was…who had the audacity to display their crime so brazenly? Who had the guts to march through the streets of the capital, hands still sticky with blood and the evidence of their crime swaying around on top of a pike?
Was it a barbarian assassin? Some angry representative of one of the many people Rome had conquered? No. Was it a saboteur from a rival kingdom, intent on sowing chaos and confusion? No. Maybe it a political enemy, an ambitious Senator or Consul attempting to rekindle the flame of democracy and overthrow an authoritarian ruler? No.
The truth was, the culprits in the murder of Pertinax were the very same men who had sworn sacred oaths to protect him. His personal bodyguard of elite soldiers, companions of every Roman emperor for the previous 200 years, known to history as the Praetorian Guard.
Pertinax had been hacked to death and decapitated by his own bodyguards. His own secret service agents, to use a modern analogy. But now the men of the Praetorian Guard had a problem.
As the saying goes, “nature abhors a vacuum”. Somebody had to be emperor. And with Pertinax dead, the men who had murdered him in cold blood suddenly held all the cards.
By why had they done it? What was the motive?
The truth was, the Praetorians had not liked Pertinax very much at all. He’d gotten this annoying idea in his head that he was going to reform some of the more bloated institutions of the Roman empire. And one of the first things on his list, one of the primary objects of his attention, was the Praetorian Guard. He wanted to put some restraints on them and tone down some of their lavish privileges.
Well, that was not going to work for the Praetorians.
In the 200 years since its inception, the Praetorian Guard had grown frighteningly powerful. This wasn’t a handful of Secret Service bodyguards with earpieces and sunglasses. This was a legion. Thousands of men, Cohorts upon cohorts of the best soldiers Rome had to offer. They were the Emperor’s personal army, and now they had broken free their leash, and turned on the very institution that had elevated them to power.
The Praetorians wanted to keep their privileged position, but they also wanted something more tangible. They wanted money. So with Pertinax’s blood still leaking out of his headless body back in the Imperial palace, the Praetorians issue a proclamation:
The title of Emperor of Rome would be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Pay up, and you’ll have our loyalty and our protection. This was essentially a hostage negotiation. And the “hostage” was control of the Roman empire itself.
Now, the Praetorians were already the most well paid soldiers in the Roman world. They were the rockstars – the best of the best. But to get their attention and secure their sponsorship, a massive amount of money was necessary. And the only men who could possibly front that kind of cash were the monied elite. Bureaucrats and senators.
So two men come forward with the cash. With two competing offers.
One is the governor of the city of Rome proper, and the other is a filthy-rich Senator. Both of these men believed that this was their moment. Their time to snatch this incredible opportunity and buy their way to absolute power.
The governor’s offer gets to the Praetorians first. And it is obscene. There are numbers we could put on it, but the math won’t really mean thing to us in terms of modern currency. The point is, everyone involved thinks it’s a lot. And for a second it looks like the Governor is about to get a very big promotion.
The filthy-rich Senator, a man named Didus Julianus, pulls out all the stops. He makes an even more obscene offer. Something that blows the other bid right out of the water.
Going once.. Going twice... Sold! to the old guy in the toga.
And just like that, Rome got a brand new Emperor. The Praetorians surround their new head honcho and escort him back to the palace behind a wall of shields.
And one of the first things Emperor Didus Julianus notices when he arrives at his fancy new digs, is the headless body of his predecessor. In all the excitement and auctioneering, the Praetorians had failed to tidy up the palace and remove the corpse. But Didus Julianus was not particularly fazed, he spent the rest of the night partying, drinking, and watching private dancers.
But after that adrenaline rush wears off, after the initial high of all his newly purchased power starts to recede, Didus Julianus gets something akin to buyer’s remorse. As 18th century historian Edward Gibbons puts it:
Yet it was observed, that after the crowd of flatterers dispersed, and left him to darkness, solitude, and terrible reflection, he passed a sleepless night; revolving most probably in his mind his own rash folly, the fate of his virtuous predecessor, and the doubtful and dangerous tenure of an empire which had not been acquired by merit, but purchased by money.
Didus Julianus had just spent a fortune to acquire power, but with such a fickle and self-serving gang of defenders like the Praetorians, how long would it last? How long before it was *his* head bobbing on a pike? The sad truth was, his fears were confirmed in a matter of weeks.
Emperor Didus Julianus ascended to the throne in March. And he was dead by June.
After 66 days, he was killed by a more convenient Emperor-in-waiting. In the end, all his deep pockets had bought him was a shallow grave.
In today’s episode, we’re gonna be talking about Imperial Rome. Up until now, I’ve tried to stay away from Rome for two main reasons. 1) the subject has been done to death, and 2) it’s been done to death very very well.
There is no shortage of excellent history podcasts that focus on the Roman Empire. And for good reason - it’s one of the most fascinating, resource-rich periods in Western history. So I promised myself, that if I ever tackled anything to do with Rome, I’d need to find a unique spin on the subject matter. A fresh lens through which to examine it.
The story of Imperial Rome is long, convoluted, and extremely messy. But through all the different civil wars, scandals, salacious coups, and dynastic shifts, one group had an intimate, front row seat to all the drama.
The Praetorian Guard.
If Imperial Rome were a reality show, the Praetorians were the editors and producers, moving behind the scenes and wielding enormous influence over the various twists, turns, and subplots
They were a deeply enigmatic institution. The best way to describe them would be a cross between the FBI, the Secret Service, and Seal Team Six. In the service of the Emperors of Rome, they performed many roles, most of them sinister. They were hitmen, spies, secret police, and political advisors, all rolled into one.
Over time, the Emperors had slowly and foolishly acquiesced to this thuggish group of elite soldiers. Giving them advantage after advantage, privilege after privilege. And at some point, the Praetorians became self-aware, like Skynet, and realized that *they* were the real masters in Imperial Rome.
As historian Edward Gibbon eloquently puts it:
By thus introducing the Prætorian guards as it were into the palace and the senate, the emperors taught them to perceive their own strength, and the weakness of the civil government; to view the vices of their masters with familiar contempt, and to lay aside that reverential awe, which distance only, and mystery, can preserve towards an imaginary power.
In the luxurious idleness of an opulent city, their pride was nourished by the sense of their irresistible weight; nor was it possible to conceal from them, that the person of the sovereign, the authority of the senate, the public treasure, and the seat of empire, were all in their hands. To divert the Prætorian bands from these dangerous reflections, the firmest and best established Emperors were obliged to mix blandishments with commands, rewards with punishments, to flatter their pride, indulge their pleasures, connive at their irregularities, and to purchase their precarious faith.
But how had things gotten to this point? How had a group of pampered bodyguards become one of the dominant forces in Roman political life? How had they managed to amass so much power and prestige that they could hold Rome itself hostage for a cash payout?
Needless to say it’s a great story. And not without world-shaping consequences. It’s an ambitious, sprawling narrative to try and weave together, but hey, it’s Episode 10.
Go big or go home.
Anyway, to really understand how the Emperors of Rome formed this dysfunctional, parasitic bond with the Praetorian Guard, we need to go back to the man who founded them almost 200 years before the infamous auction in 192 AD.
We need to meet the OG. The man. Imperator 1.0.
We need to meet the very first emperor of Rome.
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On August 13, 29 BC - two centuries before the infamous auction we just talked about - there was a spectacular parade winding through the streets of Rome.
If you were standing in the audience along this parade route, you would’ve been in for one of the most incredible spectacles of your entire life. Something you’d never forget. Something you’d tell your grandchildren about.
Pressed within the tight crowds and throngs of people in the heart of Rome, you would’ve been standing along a wide, well-paved street. A parade route, covered in flower petals. And above the shouts and noise of the crowd, you would’ve heard a hypnotic drum beat in the distance. Then above that you would’ve heard singing and chanting and blaring trumpets.
These sounds would get louder and louder and louder, until finally - at the moment when the anticipation became almost unbearable – the beginning of this procession came into view.
You’d see hundreds of men and women in chains. Captives from a defeated army. Some were from Africa, from Greece, and some from Italy itself. They’d be dressed up in gaudy, colorful costumes, specially styled to reflect their country of origin. They must have looked like something straight off a Las Vegas stage, but despite their elaborate getup, they were prisoners, humiliated and condemned to die.
After the prisoners, came a seemingly endless line of wagons. Big rumbling carts that were packed to the brim with exotic weapons and priceless treasures. They were overflowing with silver and gold. Sculptures, statues, and paintings. This was the great treasure haul, the captured wealth and loot taken by the victorious Roman legions.
After all of the money and the bling, came the exotic animals. Some were caged, some were on leashes. There were tigers and crocodiles and elephants and camels. Thousands of birds, purchased especially for this event, zipped through the air and over the crowd in dazzling swarms.
Then, after the animals, came the soldiers, the legionaries. Roman men in the prime of their lives. High as kites on the adrenaline rush of victory. Swaggering down the street like gods. Women are running up and kissing them. Throwing flower petals at their feet. They must have felt like the center of the universe.
But they were not the center of this universe.
The apex of gravity, the source of all this decadence and spectacle, came riding in a four-horse chariot studded with precious gems. Spectators in the crowd would’ve been crawling over each other to get a glimpse of this man in the chariot.
And here is what they likely saw.
A young man in his early 30s, dressed in a radiant purple toga trimmed with gold. His entire face would’ve been painted crimson, completely red except for the whites of his eyes and the flash of his smile. The red paint was a visual reference to the Roman god Jupiter, and the chariot rider certainly must’ve felt like the King of the Gods at the head of this massive victory parade.
This man was named Octavian. And this parade was his triumph.
Now, when I say “triumph”, I don’t mean it in the broad general sense that we use it today. Like a victory or a massive win. In ancient Rome, “triumph” was the specific word for an extremely auspicious ritual that was only granted to successful Roman generals. And not every successful Roman general. You had to be an MVP to get one of these things.
Everyone who was anyone dreamed of being able to dress up like the thunder god Jupiter, and parade their spoils of war through the streets of Rome to the tune of thousands of screaming fans.
And Octavian’s triumph ended up lasting three consecutive days. Three days and nights of decadent processions, insane spectacle, feasting and hard partying. Imagine a Super Bowl Half Time show that lasts 72 straight hours. It’s nuts.
His triumphal procession only traveled a few miles through the city, but Octavian’s journey to this incredible moment had begun years earlier. And as he waved to the crowds, his thoughts surely must have drifted back to the improbable chain of events that had brought him here.
Octavian had been born into the Roman nobility. The elite Patrician class. And if that wasn’t enough of a leg up, Octavian had a very famous relative. An uncle by the name of Gaius Julius Caesar.
Yes, that Caesar. The Caesar.
As a teenager, Octavian idolized his celebrity uncle. And Caesar had a lot of respect for him too. They were close. Maybe even *too* close. The Romans loved a good sex scandal, and there were whispers that Octavian and Caesar’s bond was an incestuous one. But it’s impossible to know for sure, and you have to take Roman gossip with a huge grain of salt. Their society was like one endless issue of TMZ, all the time. It was ridiculous.
But whatever the case, Octavian and Caesar were undeniably tight.
So tight, that when Octavian turns 18, Caesar decides to take the kid on a full-blown military campaign with him. Let him learn the ropes of conquest and genocide up close and personal. So Caesar sends Octavian ahead to the staging camp a few weeks in advance and says he’ll join him later once the army is fully organized.
But Caesar never makes it. A few weeks later, Octavian gets some extremely bad news.
Back in Rome, the most famous murder in history had just gone down.
Caesar had been stabbed 23 times on the floor of the Senate by a conspiracy of political rivals. These murderous Senators thought Caesar was abusing his powers as dictator and was becoming a little too much like a king for their tastes. They expected the Roman people to rally behind them and support their assassination of this tyrant. Well, that didn’t happen. The conspiracy backfires spectacularly and almost overnight, the Roman world is plunged into a full blown civil war.
Into this chaos, at just 18 years old, steps the young Octavian.
Caesar’s murder had been a crushing blow to Octavian. A shocking, traumatic gut punch of an event. But what Octavian didn’t know until after Caesar’s death, was that he’d been named the heir of Caesar’s estate, and almost overnight, Octavian was the equivalent of a millionaire.
When you’re talking about figures from antiquity, it’s sometimes really difficult to get a feel for their personality. What they were like on a human level. Well, two things we know for sure about Octavian is that he was profoundly intelligent and extremely ambitious. And perhaps most importantly, he was so, so young. So initially, everyone underestimated him. They just wrote him off. If Batman’s dead – who cares about Robin?
Well that misperception made Octavian extremely dangerous.
Octavian immediately steps into the vacuum left by Julius Caesar, raises an army, and gathers allies . When I was 18, I didn’t know how to balance a budget, much less lead a vengeful coalition in a civil war. But Octavian was a remarkable, extraordinarily driven person. Over the next fifteen years, he avenges Caesar’s killers, eliminates all his rivals, and becomes the last man standing in this period of internal conflict
15 years after the he’d gotten the worst news of his life, Octavian was standing tall in a chariot, celebrating all the victories he’d won in the civil wars and basking in the glow of adulation. By the time of his triumphal parade through Rome, all of his enemies and competitors were six feet under.
Caesar’s assassins, including the famous Brutus, were dead.
Mark Antony was dead.
Cleopatra was dead.
Caesar and Cleopatra’s 14-year-old son, Caesarion, was dead.
In fact, everyone who could conceivably threaten Octavian’s power was dead.
Side note – it is SO tempting to go down the rabbit hole and talk about all those famous faces in depth. The story of Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra and all these magnetic personalities that lived at the twilight of the Roman Republic is one of the most interesting human dramas in history. But we’re not here for them. We are here to talk about the Praetorian Guard. Maybe we’ll revisit that story someday, but for the sake of brevity I’m trying to stay laser-focused on the stars of our show.
As Octavian’s chariot made its way through the streets of Rome, he looked every inch a king. But Octavian was absolutely *not* a king. And he would’ve been the very first person to insist upon that distinction.
Rome had a long, very contentious relationship with the concept of kings. In fact, even the mention of a monarchy or king-like ruler was enough to trigger the average Roman citizen into a fit of anxiety. See, back in its early days, Rome had a string of very very bad, very tyrannical kings. So they kicked the monarchy to the curb and became a representative democracy: The Roman Republic. And it stayed a Republic for hundreds of years.
Well, Octavian was about to change all of that.
He knew all too well that could never take the title of King. Or the title Uncle Caesar had held: “Dictator”. Calling himself either one of those would’ve resulted in Ides of March 2: Electric Boogaloo. He’d be assassinated faster than he could blink an eye.
Instead, Octavian takes the title of “Augustus”. Or “revered one”. It was a new title he basically just made up / invented especially for him, but it essentially meant that he was first among equals and the highest authority in Rome. Not unlike the transformation of Temujin into Genghis Khan, the subject of our last episode, Octavian became “Augustus” in 27 BC. And in effect, the first Emperor of Rome.
There’s an anecdote from Augustus’ reign that really paints a vivid picture, not only of the kind of person he was, but of the nature of his relationship with democratic institutions like the Roman Senate. As legendary historian Mary Beard notes:
If it is really true that each time Augustus entered or left the senate he acknowledged every senator in turn by name, the whole palaver – allowing ten seconds per man and a fairly full house – would have taken about an hour and a half on entry and exit. For some it must have seemed a display of power rather than citizenly equality.
Over the course of his reign, he slowly, sneakily transformed a vibrant, but dysfunctional Republic into a full-blown autocracy. He gaslights the democratic institutions of Rome into acquiescing to his complete control. A monarchy in all but name. As historian Barry Strauss puts it in his book Ten Caesars:
Politics as it had existed in the republic—messy, lively, parochial, cranky, sometimes violent but always free—was gone.
The Roman elite and the old money were just so happy that all the chaos and instability of civil war were over, that they may have been willing to stifle their own inner voices of alarm at Augustus’ complete consolidation of power. As Roman historian Tacitus said:
He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion, so that, aggrandized by revolution, they preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past.”
So complete was Augustus’ political grip, that the Senate actually voted to name an entire month of the year after him. If you’re familiar with the month of August, then you have unknowingly paid tribute to Rome’s first emperor.
But Octavian (now-Augustus) knew that his position literally rested on a knife’s edge. He needed to protect himself from the viper’s nest of scheming Senators, chattering spies, and opportunistic enemies. Enter the truestars of our show:
The Praetorian Guard.
Augustus never, ever forgot the tragic lesson of his murdered uncle, Julius Caesar. How quickly power could be taken away by a few dozen well-placed jabs of a knife. So he decides that he needs an official imperial bodyguard to protect both him and his family from any danger.
Of course, he didn’t create the concept out of whole cloth. Roman generals had a long tradition of surrounding themselves with an entourage of elite troops. Loyal, deadly enforcers that they could trust with their lives, their secrets, and even their children.
Augustus just cranked that concept up to 11.
Augustus creates a hand-picked personal guard of about 10,000 men. The equivalent of two legions or so. And they were all directly, personally loyal to him. Not to Rome – to him. Although Augustus probably would have argued that he and Rome were one and the same.
To ensure that ironclad loyalty, he pays the Praetorian Guard double what the average Roman legionary would get. For a military man, this was the best gig you could get in the ancient world. To be considered, you had to leverage every connection and networking contact you had ever amassed in hopes of being selected. You had to have a spotless record, and be in peak physical shape. These were all young men, aged about 18 to 32.
If you managed to get into the Praetorian Guard, it was like going pro in the NBA. Once you joined the Praetorians, you were locked into serving for 12 years. Which compared to the normal 16-25 years in the Roman legions, was pretty sweet. But in a clever twist by Augustus, you only got paid *after* your service was up. So right until the last day of your service, you had to be on your best behavior and performing your duties immaculately. But in addition to that sick payday, you also might be rewarded with a land grant and some primo real estate on the Italian peninsula. Needless to say, this was a pretty cushy gig, one that every soldier wanted.
The only downside was that you were technically not allowed to marry while serving in the Praetorian Guard. But that didn’t stop many of these young soldiers from enjoying all the pleasures Rome had to offer. They couldn’t marry, but that didn’t make them celibate. Especially not in a sex-obsessed social ecosystem like Ancient Rome.
So how did Augustus use this personal army? Well, quietly, for one.
You think of the Praetorian Guard, and you think of armored legionaries with fancy white plumes and big rectangular shields marching through the streets. But in reality, they rarely wore full armor. For hundreds of years, garrisoning soldiers in Rome had been a huge taboo, a norm rarely violated and only in times of great upheaval. Augustus may have been an authoritarian leader propped up by the military, but there was no need to flaunt that reality.
When the Praetorians were in Rome proper, they wore street clothes, civilian clothes. One analogy is that they were like plain clothes detectives. And that low-key attire allowed them to perform their most vital function to Augustus.
Surveillance. Suppression. Intimidation. And if necessary, assassination.
The Praetorians were Augustus’ secret police in Rome, and they were very effective in that role. They could move unseen and blend into crowds in public spaces, keeping an ear open for words of sedition or plots against Augustus. If they uncovered anything of substance, they had the authority to torture people for information, and then use that information as evidence against the accused, often without trial. If the charges were serious enough, the Praetorians could just execute them and dump their body in the Tiber river.
In the modern age, we obviously know now that testimony obtained under torture is notoriously unreliable, so the Praetorians likely apprehended, tortured, and executed more than a few innocent men. There are even mentions of the Praetorians operating as prison staff, which seems to imply that Augustus had one or more special facilities where particularly dangerous political prisoners languished under the watchful eye of the Praetorians, where they could be forgotten, starved to death, or quietly killed.
But it wasn’t all clandestine, cloak-and-dagger stuff. The Praetorians could also serve in positive ways. For example, archaeologists have actually found a funeral tablet for a Praetorian guardsman who died fighting a fire. As the only thing resembling an organized police force in Rome at the time, they would’ve been the first line of defense against fires, riots and petty crime.
They also served as security and crowd control at theatres. Roman crowds were really, really into their entertainment and fights would often erupt within the audience. Apparently certain Roman actors would have intense fan clubs and devoted followers, and these groupies would get into brawls with each other over their favorite actors. And things could escalate very quickly. People could quickly get a knife in the stomach over this stuff. Thankfully, the Praetorians were usually present at big events to break up these fights if they occurred.
So there seemed to be a wide range of roles that the Praetorians filled in Rome. From spymasters to glorified bouncers.
By the closing years of the first century BC, Augustus’ power was very well secured, and he was in the twilight of his life. But despite all he’d manage to achieve, he had a big problem. A existential issue that the Praetorians would have been all too aware of, and very anxious about.
He had no heir.
Augustus was in his sixties, and unless he could find a decent successor, this grand experiment with Roman autocracy looked like it might be coming to an end. See, Augustus and his wife Livia had never been able to conceive a son. The couple’s only pregnancy had resulted in an emotionally devastating stillbirth. But they weren’t totally childless. Augustus had a daughter from a previous marriage, named Julia. And Livia had two sons from her previous marriage.
If that all sounds a bit complicated, it is.
The Romans didn’t have family trees so much as family mazes. People married and remarried and adopted and disowned and so on and so forth – all the time. Remember Augustus’s own legitimacy had come from being adopted as Julius Caesar’s heir. In fact, direct power transfers from father to son were very, very rare in Roman Imperial history. If it makes your head spin a little bit, don’t worry. It makes my head spin too.
But the point is, Augustus did not have a natural born son to bequeath his power to. For the Imperial structure he had created to endure after he kicked the bucket, he needed to choose a successor – and he needed to do it fast. But perhaps most importantly, that successor needed to have the absolute loyalty of the Praetorian guard when power was transferred over.
This is when the symbiotic, cyclical relationship between Emperor and Praetorians really begins to take shape. Neither could exist without the other. Just as the Praetorians’ power flowed from the Emperor, the Emperor’s legitimacy flowed from having the backing of Praetorian guard. If those two poles were out of sync, the system would crumble.
Thankfully, Augustus was, to quote the Roman historian Suetonius, a “crafty tyrant”.
Augustus doesn’t have any sons. But he does have a step-son. His wife’s child from a previous marriage. A man named Tiberius. It wasn’t Augustus’ ideal situation, but given the circumstances, he didn’t seem like t a bad option.
Because Tiberius was no slouch. He was a soldier. A capable general who’d cut his teeth putting down rebellions in the frontier provinces of the Empire. He was a competent, grown-ass man who knew how to lead. So Augustus decides, that’s my guy. Tiberius will be the next Emperor of Rome.
As his life came to a close, Augustus was satisfied that his succession crisis had been averted. Rome, he hoped, was in good hands.
When he died at the age of [XX], one of the last things Augustus was supposed to have said, was that “I found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble.” He was undoubtedly an extraordinary person. As autocrats go, he was no dumb thug. He was an intelligent, innovative leader.
But despite all his Machiavellian innovations, Augustus had made one glaring miscalculation. The success or failure of his successors would be determined by the support - or lack thereof - of the powerful institution he had created; The Praetorian Guard.
And with so much power and strength concentrated in such an organization, it would only be a matter of time before the men of the Guard woke up to the reality of their own position and made a play for the throne itself.
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About three miles off the coast of Italy, there’s a tiny island called Capri. It is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world.
If you were to sail out to it today, you’d see towering cliffs rising above clear, sparkling blue water. It’s gorgeous. But as dazzling as it is, it’s not very accessible. There are hidden coves and jagged rocks. And the more you look at it, the more it starts to resemble a fortress.
If you were to hop off your boat onto the pier, and hike up the winding paths to the cliffs rising hundreds of feet into the air, you’d find the ruins of a palace. The foundations of a lush, sprawling villa with dozens if not hundreds of rooms. Standing within these ruins on the top of the cliffs, you can look out over the waves see the Italian coastline in the distance.
This palace is called the Villa of Jupiter. And its natural beauty is rivaled only by its sinister reputation.
This was the personal hideaway of Rome’s second Emperor, Tiberius. And some very, very bad stuff went down on this secluded island paradise. By the end of his reign, the Roman people despised Tiberius. And they openly referred to this isolated citadel as “the old goat’s garden.”.
Why? Well, we’ll get to that.
But the people of Rome didn’t always hate Tiberius. When his step-father, the legendary Augustus died, Tiberius ascended to the throne and became Emperor. And he seemed like a promising continuation of the dynasty his step-father had established. He was in his mid-50s, had plenty of leadership experience, and the respect of most of the army commanders.
But he was also a far cry from the charismatic chameleon that Augustus had been. If the Roman people were looking for another rock star, they were sadly disappointed. As Historian Barry Strauss puts it:
“Tiberius followed Augustus the way Tim Cook followed Steve Jobs.”
Where Augustus was charming, Tiberius was stiff and reserved.
Where Augustus had the love of the common people, Tiberius couldn’t give two fucks about catering to the plebs or mingling with commoners.
And where Augustus wanted to expand the empire and carve out new territory, Tiberius was content to leave Rome’s borders as they were.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Tiberius didn’t really want this job at all. First off, he had nothing but contempt for the Senate. He found them needy and pathetic busybodies, who grumbled about their lack of real power, but were then indecisive when given the opportunity to speak up. There was one instance early during his reign, where Tiberius walks out of the Senate disgusted, mumbling under his breath “Those men are only fit to be slaves”
But the Senators had good reason to bite their tongues in the presence of this new, hard-to-read Emperor.
Unlike Augustus, who had taken the time to personally acknowledge hundreds of Senators by name every time he attended the Senate…Tiberius didn’t do any of that. To make sure they knew who was really in control of Rome, Tiberius would bring the Praetorian Guard to every Senate gathering, armed, imposing, and surrounding the building.
Tiberius wasn’t all that interested in the day-to-day tedium of ruling an Empire, but despite the Senators’ timid demeanor, he knew they weren’t sheep. Given too much space, they’d find a way to undermine him. In private, Tiberius would often describe this delicate balance as “holding a wolf by both ears”.
Usually a man who doesn’t enjoy his job will take comfort in spending time with his family. Well, Tiberius didn’t really like his family either. His step-father Augustus may have been dead, but Tiberius’s mother was still alive and kicking. And she was very overbearing, or at least Tiberius felt that she was. Her constant hovering seemed to be the source of Tiberius’ caginess, like he was always hiding a part of himself that couldn’t be let out while she was alive.
Whatever the exact tenor of their relationship, Tiberius let the way he felt about his mother be known in no uncertain terms when the Senate wanted to give her the title of “Mother of the Country”.
He coldly vetoed it. He even told her not to “meddle with weighty affairs, as such did not suit her gender;"
So. Tiberius was a guy who didn’t like his people, didn’t like his coworkers, didn’t like his family.
But there was one person he did seem to like. Someone he felt at ease around and even comfortable enough to get chatty with. It was the prefect, or captain, of his Praetorian Guard – a man named Sejanus. Sejanus was a second-generation Praetorian. His dad had been Captain of the Praetorian Guard under Augustus, and after the previous generation passed away, Sejanus, in his early 30s and the prime of life, was now the undisputed master of the Emperor’s elite personal army.
Tiberius looked at Sejanus and saw a loyal friend and dedicated bodyguard. Someone who would take a bullet for him. Well, if not a bullet, a boulder.
One on occasion, the Emperor and some friends were dining in a rocky cove, and there was a rockslide. Heavy boulders start falling all over the dinner party, and in an act of apparent selflessness, Sejanus leaps into action and shields Tiberius with his body. Neither men were hurt, but Tiberius was extremely moved by the instinctive, near-suicidal act of loyalty.
Tiberius, the man who hated pretty much everyone, suddenly had a new best buddy.
Sejanus, as we will see, was a smooth operator. Years before the dramatic rock fall incident, Sejanus had proposed an idea. He says to Tiberius, look, sir, we, the Praetorians, want to keep you as safe as possible. And to do that, we really need a permanent garrison inside the city. A camp where the full force of your bodyguard, all 10,000 of us, can be at your beck and call. That’s the best way to keep you safe.
This made a lot of sense to Tiberius.
He was after all, a military man. Being around soldiers all the time was second nature for him. So he agrees to this proposal from his right-hand man, Sejanus. The citizens of Rome must’ve looked on with great uneasiness, as construction began on a fortress, a massive barracks complex right on the outskirts of Rome.
This citadel was called the Castra Praetoria, and it became the epicenter of power for the Praetorian Guard. The Roman people suddenly had stone walls, towers, and 10,000 crack soldiers hovering like a clenched fist over the face of their city. There had never, EVER, been such a large military installation, so close to Rome. Yet another taboo violated by the Guard. Yet another norm shattered.
At around the same time, the Praetorians also got a little visual rebrand that’s worth mentioning. When archeologists or historians are looking at stone carvings or pictographs from the Imperial period, the only way to tell the difference between a regular Roman legionary and a Praetorian is by looking for a distinctive insignia that was displayed prominently on the helmets and shields of the Guard. It was the symbol of a scorpion.
As far as mascots go, a venomous, deadly insect is pretty on-brand for a murder-happy hit squad, But the actual reason the Praetorians adopted the scorpion as their insignia, historians believe, was because Emperor Tiberius’ astrological sign was Scorpio, and they did it to honor him. The creepy connotations it drummed up were just an added bonus.
Now, we’ve already covered how disinterested Tiberius was with governing the Empire. He wasn’t incompetent, he was just bored. So after about a decade of going through the motions, Tiberius decides he’s going to take a permanent vacation. In a move that shocked the Roman elite, the Emperor absconds to an island getaway off the coast of Italy, never to return. The paradise island of Capri.
Tiberius didn’t know it yet, but he had been deceived.
He’d thought the old men of the Senate, the pampered busybodies and fussy bureaucrats were the perilous “wolf” he’d been holding by both ears. But the real predator, all along, had been his trusted Praetorian captain, Sejanus. And Tiberius, in his complacency, had lost his grasp on the ears.
A tiny crack had formed in the façade of Imperial authority, but it was more than enough for an ambitious climber like Lucius Sejanus to slither into and exploit.
Lucius Aelius Sejanus thought he was an Augustus reborn. A slippery, sophisticated politician in a soldier’s body, that was entrusted with the keys to the kingdom. He’d flattered, and indulged, and protected Tiberius, all the while hatching plans to clear the way for his own accession to the throne. As it turned out, the Emperor’s most trusted protector wanted to be Emperor himself.
In his decade+ as Captain of the Praetorian Guard, he’d played the Imperial family like a fiddle, slowly but steadily removing obstacles between him and the ultimate power in Rome. As writer Guy de la Bédoyère says in his history of the Praetorian Guard:
Sejanus’ confidence grew as he realized that being praetorian prefect gave him the power to destroy whomsoever he chose so long as he held the emperor’s unwavering trust.
If you needed a mental image for Sejanus in your head, Littlefinger from Game of Thrones wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
The transgressions of Sejanus were manifold, but his most egregious crime, Tiberius was completely unaware of.
Tiberius had a son. A young, hot-tempered man by the name of Drusus. Drusus saw the slippery Sejanus getting closer and closer to his elderly Dad and hated him for it. He was suspicious of this interloper and had zero hesitation in calling him out on it. At one point Sejanus and Drusus got into such a big argument that Drusus slapped the Praetorian commander across the face.
Sejanus never forgot the sting of that physical insult from the Emperor’s son. And in many ways, that backhand was the nail in Drusus’ coffin. Sejanus was already planning on removing him, but he decided to do it in the most spiteful way possible.
Somehow, Sejanus manages to initiate an affair with Drusus’ wife. And she falls *hard* for him. Sejanus seduces this woman and she becomes so infatuated with the dashing Praetorian captain, that she’d do anything for him. Before long, their pillow talk turned conspiratorial.
With her help, Sejanus arranges to have Drusus, the Emperor’s son, poisoned. A few drops in a cup of wine, and BOOM – the heir to the throne is dead. Tiberius is devastated, but to him it doesn’t look like foul play, just a sudden, fatal illness. He had no idea that Sejanus had just killed his son. Tiberius did have other male descendants and grandchildren, but they were just kids, too young to go toe-to-toe politically with the cunning Praetorian.
With the last obstacle to power removed, and Tiberius safely tucked away on Capri, Sejanus really goes full tilt.
He’s elected to one of the highest political positions in Rome, called a Consulship, which means he has even more influence over the day to day workings of the Empire. Using the Praetorians as his personal hit squad, he silences critics and suppresses dissent. People who speak out against him were forced to commit suicide or just outright executed in their homes.
Statues of Sejanus start going up all over Rome. He even has his birthday declared a national holiday. Basically, this guy’s ego goes into overdrive. And no one could stop him. Their only hope was a distant, disinterested Emperor lounging around on an island.
And just what was old Tiberius, now in his 70s, doing on that island?
Now, I’m gonna go ahead and throw up a little warning before we get into this next part. If you have kids around, maybe hit the pause button. Because let’s just say Tiberius and Jeffrey Epstein would’ve been very good pals if they’d lived in the same day and age.
At the Villa of Jupiter, away from the prying eyes and (as he saw it) self-righteous moralizing of Rome, Tiberius was able to let his true self out of its cage. It’s hard to know how much of this stuff is true and how much is retroactive character assassination, but the Roman historian Suetonius tells us that Tiberius had some extremely troubling sexual tastes. I’ll let historian Barry Strauss relay the details:
“The historian Suetonius is full of juicy stories about Tiberius’s sexual misdeeds on the island. The “old goat,” as people are said to have called him, supposedly went after children of both sexes. His debaucheries are said to have included orgies, threesomes, pedophilia, and the murder of someone who refused him. He supposedly trained little boys to chase him when he was swimming and to get between his legs and lick and nibble him—he called them his “minnows.” Reports like this may have contributed to Tiberius’s low public standing in Rome, but Roman history is full of salacious rumors, and we should be skeptical.”
Even the Praetorian guards on the island weren’t safe from the increasingly cruel and deviant whims of Tiberius. One guardsman was accused of stealing a peacock out of the Royal orchard, so Tiberius had him executed. Another one accidentally blocked the emperor’s path while he was out walking, so Tiberius had the unlucky guardsmen whipped nearly to death.
Anyone who crossed Tiberius on the island of Capri was subjected to a horrible method of execution, according to Suetonius:
“The place of execution is still shown at Capri, where he ordered those who were condemned to die, after long and exquisite tortures, to be thrown, before his eyes, from a precipice into the sea. There a party of soldiers belonging to the fleet waited for them, and broke their bones with poles and oars, lest they should have any life left in them.”
No doubt, the story of Emperor Tiberius and his Praetorian Prefect Sejanus is a tale of two monsters. But it remained to be seen, which monster would come out on top?
At some point, in between bouts of watching people getting thrown to their deaths, Tiberius is tipped off to what Sejanus was up to back in Rome by a whistleblower. The executions, the statues, and the self-aggrandizement. If he didn’t move quickly and cleverly, Tiberius might find himself being flung over the cliffs of Capri, while the Senate sang the praises of a newly crowned Emperor Sejanus.
Tiberius, realized he had to find a creative way of removing this ambitious Praetorian who’d been gobbling up power right under his nose. And like any good politician, he knew that the pen could work hand-in-glove with the sword.
So his big move was to write a letter.
A few weeks go by, and back in Rome, a rumor starts going around. The rumor was that Tiberius was going to give Sejanus special political powers, and effectively name him as the next Emperor. This was the logical conclusion of all the wheeling and dealing that Sejanus had been doing for a decade and a half, so obviously he is jazzed. Tiberius had even sent a messenger from Capri to tell Sejanus this was going to happen.
So on October 18th, 31 AD, Lucius Sejanus strides into the Senate thinking he’s about to get the big job. The Senate technically has to vote on it, but it’s pretty much a done deal. But before the vote takes place, there’s one last little formality they have to observe. The last thing to do is to read a special letter from Tiberius out loud to the entire Senate.
Everyone believed that this letter was going to heap praise on Sejanus and fully endorse his acquisition of these new powers.
Then the messenger starts reading it.
Sejanus’ world is turned upside down in a matter of minutes. The letter from Tiberius goes on to criticize and tear him down, delivering searing invective and brutal denouncements. It was a tongue-lashing that could be felt all the way from Capri.
We don’t know exactly what was said – the precise text of the letter is lost to history – but suffice to say, Sejanus was completely unprepared for this verbal smackdown from the Emperor. He’s so shell-shocked, that he can barely get a word out. His brain can’t string together any convincing rebuttal or defense.
The Senators, who were already fed up with Sejanus’ reign of terror, have all the justification they need to pounce on this guy. They begin yelling and shouting, calling for his head.
Sejanus starts looking around for his Praetorian buddies for backup, but… they’re gone. Tiberius had tipped off Sejanus’ second-in-command the night before, and he’d quietly taken all the other Praetorians back to the Castra Praetoria.
When he woke up that morning, Sejanus was the most powerful man in Rome – now he was all alone. As Roman historian Cassius Dio says, the Senators:
“All with one voice denounced and threatened him. Some because they had been wronged, some to conceal their friendship with him, still others out of joy at his downfall.”
Sejanus is seized by the Senators and their goons and taken outside. They hold a landslide vote, sentence him to death, and execute him. The whole thing couldn’t have taken more than 45 minutes. After strangling him with a wire, they throw his body down the stairs, where it lands bloody and broken in the forum of Rome, for everyone to see.
When political killings like this happen, and there’s blood in the water, something in the human brain just switches off. You see this a lot throughout history; when things are happening very fast, and people are very emotional, and there’s violence in the air, people stop acting rationally, and suspend any sense of decency or mercy.
Because Sejanus was not the only person killed in the aftermath of this political shakeup. Sejanus had a family – clearly he had not taken his Praetorian vows all that seriously. And after he was dead, the mob hauls his children before the Senate. And they too are executed. And these are just kids, teenagers at the oldest. But there was some hesitation around killing one of his children, his 10-year-old daughter Junilla. See, it was a taboo in Rome to execute virgin girls. So to get around this technicality, the executioner rapes her, before putting her to death.
Roman history holds a lot of fascination for people, and there’s a degree of implicit grandeur to it all, but it can also be home to some deeply ugly stuff that just makes your stomach turn.
Tiberius’ plan had unfolded perfectly. In one stroke, he’d removed the man who’d intended to supplant his dynasty and obliterated any lingering base of support. Tiberius was, again, the undisputed master of Rome.
And as for the Praetorians, they made it through the debacle chastened, but relatively unscathed. Their commander was gone, but now they had a new prefect. A new captain completely loyal to Tiberius. As an institution, they were in the clear. And the whole ordeal illustrates just how quickly their allegiances could turn on a dime, and how willing they were to abandon their own in a time of crisis.
I don’t know about you, but one of the first things I do whenever I’m reading about a historical figure is google what they looked like. I don’t why, it just helps if I have some sort of conception of them in my head. And if you’ve been listening to this episode, wondering what this Sejanus guy looked like – the truth is, we have no idea. And that is no accident.
After his fall from grace and execution, Tiberius declared that Sejanus’ legacy would suffer something called damnatio memoriae – which is a Latin phrase that means “destruction of memory”. Over the course of a few months, every physical reminder that Sejanus had ever existed was destroyed. All the statues that had gone up, every coin with his face on it, anything that served as a reminder of how far the Praetorian captain had risen. Even his name could not be spoken. It was like he’d never lived at all.
So how do we know about him?
Well, after Tiberius died and some years passed and people were confident that talking about Sejanus wouldn’t land you in a cell or dead in the street, they wrote down what they remembered. Which, naturally, means things may have been a little more nuanced than the Roman writers would have us believe…but they’re all we’ve got.
Tiberius and his disgraced Praetorian captain Sejanus had put Rome through a lot. With all the political violence and murderous purges, the average citizens of Rome probably thought the next Emperor would be a breath of fresh air – a change of pace.
They would turn out to be dead wrong.
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As I have said before, Roman family trees are not linear and easy to understand. They are labyrinthine and overlapping and complex. And before long, the Roman Imperial clan becomes so sprawling, so quick, that it starts to make your head spin. This huge family, descended – at least, legally - from Julius Caesar, has so many branches and offshoots, and adoptions and dead-ends. Not to mention the fact that they all use similar if not identical names interchangeably.
Keeping it as streamlined as possible is not an easy task. But I’m doing my best.
At first glance, the line of early Roman Emperors appears to be a chain. A Emperor lives, dies, and passes his power onto the next link in the chain. But in reality, it looked much more like a web, than a chain. Some threads get cut, others get tangled. It’s a mess.
But the person at the center of the web during this period, at least in my mind, is Tiberius, the second emperor.
The decisions he made in terms of his own family, who -again – he was not very fond of at all, would go on to have empire-shaping consequences for Rome.
From his pedophilic playground on the island of Capri, Tiberius shaped the world. Both through active malice and aloof neglect. While the doomed Praetorian Captain Sejanus was scheming and accumulating power, Tiberius was actively and methodically destroying a particular branch of his own family, until only a single boy was left.
That boy, traumatized by his experiences and embittered by years of fear, abuse, and uncertainty, would go onto become one of the most notorious rulers in ancient history. An Emperor who sources routinely describe as literally insane. Psychotic, rapacious and nihilistic. One whom only the Praetorian Guard had the power to stop.
For my money, we can lay a hefty portion of the blame for Caligula at the feet of the old goat, Tiberius. Caligula was not born an insane tyrant, he was made into one.
The first thing to know about Rome’s 3rd Emperor, Caligula, was that “Caligula” was not even his real name. His actual name was Gaius. “Caligula” was just a nickname. But it was an adorable nickname. Believe it or not, one of the most horrible men to ever rule Rome is forever known to history as “Lil Boots”.
Let’s back up a smidge.
You see, Caligula’s father was a very famous Roman general. A beloved war hero and a member of the imperial family. Caligula’s war-hero dad would take him on campaign with him, and this little toddler would waddle around the camp, dressed in a miniature version of a soldier’s uniform. Part of which was a pair of tiny marching sandals, called Caliga.
The soldiers soon started calling their unofficial mascot, “CaligulA” or Little Boots.
The little boy, Caligula, was set up to have a pretty great childhood. He had loving parents and siblings. His family had a very bright future in the Roman world, partly because his war-hero father was absolutely adored by the people for his military victories.
Well that didn’t sit well with old Emperor Tiberius, who in my opinion is the real big bad of this whole chain of events.
The “old goat” may not have liked his job as Emperor all that much, but he certainly didn’t want anyone else to have that job either. His ambitious Praetorian commander Sejanus would learn that lesson the hard way a few years later, as we’ve talked about.
But in the meantime, the clear and present danger to Tiberius was this promising little branch of the family that everyone seemed to love so much. The Emperor’s power flowed from his ability to control the army, and a General who had the fanatical support of the legions was a potential threat. Well, Tiberius was not a person who tolerated threats.
When Caligula was just seven years old, his war hero dad suddenly gets sick and dies. But the circumstances of his death didn’t make any sense. He was only 33 years old, he had no health problems. And over a few weeks he gets weaker and weaker until he expires. But then they notice that his corpse is covered in splotches. And that his lips are blue. These were telltale signs of the poisonous herb Belladonna.
Historians can never be fully, completely certain…but all the red thread seems to point back to Emperor Tiberius. In all likelihood, he’d had this potential rival murdered. Again it’s hard to know for sure, anytime anyone dies in Roman history in the prime of life, everyone usually cries poison. I’m usually not a fan of conspiracy theories, but this one checks out.
So Caligula suddenly loses his Dad at the age od seven. It must’ve tore him apart. But Little Boots was only just getting acquainted with tragedy and loss.
Tiberius, with the help of his at-this-point-still-alive spymaster Sejanus, proceeds to slowly but systematically destroy Caligula’s entire family. Caligula’s mother is imprisoned, and one of her Praetorian captors beats her so badly she loses an eye. Alone, isolated and afraid, she killed herself a short time later. Caligula’s older brothers are also imprisoned, starved to death, or forced into suicide.
By the time he was seventeen years old, it was just Caligula and his three sisters. The next year, Caligula gets even worse news. Great-Uncle Tiberius, the emperor, was bringing him to live with him on the island of Capri. And we *all* know what kinds of things happen on the island of Capri.
I wish I could say that that Caligula somehow escaped the sexual predations of his Great-Uncle, but he did not.
Tiberius takes it upon himself to “educate” his young great-nephew in the ways of the bedroom. Not personally – at least not that we know of. But Caligula is forced to have sex with other girls and boys while the 70-year old Emperor supervises. He’s also forced to watch torture sessions, gladiatorial fights to the death, and cliff executions.
Tiberius was bludgeoning this young man’s sanity day in and day out. And this goes on for six long years. Tiberius was making a monster, and he knew it. Roman historian Suetonius claims that Tiberius is supposed to have bragged that he was “nursing a viper for the Roman people”.
Caligula was living in constant fear on Capri. And at one point, in his early 20s, he sneaks into Tiberius’ room in the middle of the night, with a dagger. As he watches his sleeping tormentor, he sees the old man’s chest going up and down, up and down. After all the hell the old goat had put him through…Caligula still couldn’t bring himself to do the deed. Through either fear or pity, Caligula quietly goes back to his room to rest up before another day of…whatever Tiberius had in store for him.
A few years later, at the age of 78, Tiberius eventually dies. Before he does, he appoints Caligula as his successor, and gives him a key piece of advice regarding the Senate and the upper classes of Rome:
“Show no affection for any of them, and spare none of them. For they all hate you (when you are emperor) and they all pray for your death, and they will murder you if they can.”
With that, Tiberius slipped into a state of extreme ailing health. He was barely alive, hovering between life and death; and legend has it that Caligula, having already secured the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard, summoned the courage to have Tiberius smothered with a pillow.
In March of 37 AD, Rome welcomed a brand new Emperor to its streets. One molded by years of tragedy, abuse, and manipulation. He carried those six long years on Capri with him for the rest of his life, and he never set foot on the island again.
As historian Stephen Dando-Collins puts it:
“He’d come to the throne cowered by years of fear, emotionally immature, but ready to enjoy life at last, singing, dancing, and falling about laughing.”
And the people of Rome were just as happy to be rid of the old Tiberius and welcome the young, fresh-faced 24-year-old Caligula as their supreme ruler. But “Little Boots” had big shoes to fill.
As Dando-Collins says:
“The young man was now in control of an empire that extended from Spain through the modern countries of France, Belgium, Holland, Germany west of the Rhine, Switzerland, Italy, the Balkans, and all the modern nations south of the Danube, as well as Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and all the islands of the Mediterranean.”
To everyone’s relief, the young Emperor threw himself into the job wholeheartedly. He rolled back some of the especially nasty laws that Tiberius had enacted. He instituted tax reform and sponsored lavish public games, like gladiatorial matches and chariot racing. The first six months of Caligula’s rule were pretty peachy.
As one inscription put it:
“Since the coronation of Caligula, which all mankind had hoped for, the world has found no measure for its joy … The happiest age of mankind has arrived.”
But as time went off, people started noticing there was something a little “off” about their new 20something Emperor. Things started innocently enough. Caligula was a natural prankster with a dark sense of humor.
For example, during one public auction in Rome, a senator kept falling asleep sitting in the crowd. For whatever reason, this annoys Caligula, so he tells the auctioneer that every time the sleeping man nodded off or his head bobbed, that the motion should be recorded as an escalating bid. The senator woke up to a price tag equivalent to $180,000 dollars.
He sent one man on a diplomatic mission halfway across the empire with a sealed envelope, supposedly containing extremely important information. After the month-long journey, the diplomat arrived at his destination and presented the letter, only to discover its contents were meaningless. Basically a “gotcha! You traveled all that way for nothing.”
Another frequent target of Caligula’s pranks was his uncle Claudius. Not to be confused with his Great Uncle Tiberius, the old goat. Aside from his sisters, Uncle Claudius was Caligula’s closest living blood relative. His dad’s brother. But Claudius was in many ways the black sheep of the family. He had a severe disability, he was born with a limp and had what modern observers speculate was cerebral palsy. And Caligula bullied him relentlessly for it. He shoved him around, mocked the man’s stutter, and even extorted him for money.
Stepping back, it’s worth noting that Caligula’s entire childhood had been defined by powerlessness, and now he had ultimate power. Unquestionable authority. But with his emotional maturity severely stunted, he lacked the ability to mediate his impulses.
Alarm bells should have been going off for everyone, when early in his reign, Caligula would often laugh and say:
“I can do anything I want, to anybody I want.”
Whatever bright-eyed optimism the young Emperor had displayed initially, it vanished when Rome was afflicted by a flu-like pandemic. Thousands upon thousands became sick and died. Caligula became ill too, and for weeks, clung to life. Rome was certain that it would lose its beloved new Emperor mere months after getting him.
But Caligula does survive. And the young man emerged from his illness a profoundly changed person. And not for the better. What happens over the next four years would cement Caligula as one of the most infamous rulers in history. And it would prove to be his undoing.
Caligula, through malice and mental illness, waged a two-front campaign of humiliation against Rome’s two most powerful institutions: The Senate and the Praetorian Guard.
Julius Caesar was fond of the old axiom, divide et impera. Or “divide and rule”. Caligula foolishly did the opposite. His unprecedented cruelty would unite his enemies in a fatal, history-altering conspiracy. One spearheaded by the anti-heroes of our story, the Praetorian Guard.
But what did he do that was so messed up? Well, let’s get into it.
After Caligula recovered from his sickness, the Roman elite would’ve been psyched for any opportunity to be around the Emperor. Proximity was power, after all. And at first it seemed like Caligula was back to his old, fun-loving, plank-playing self. But those pranks quickly took a darker turn.
Shortly after his sickness, Caligula is invited to a wedding. And as he’s watching the ceremonies his eyes start to wander over the bride-to-be. As the groom goes to embrace her, Caligula jumps up and says “hands off my bride!”. He grabs the bride by the wrist, drags her back to the palace, and rapes her. On her wedding day.
Caligula decides he likes this game. He starts throwing lavish dinner parties where he invites only the Senators with the most attractive wives. Then he takes them back to his bedroom, one by one, all evening long. In between, he’d come back to the table to grab a snack or a swig of wine and rate their performance to their husbands faces’. None of these men could do a thing, if they protested, their entire family might be exiled or killed.
Caligula even did this to the captain of his Praetorian Guard. He slept with the man’s wife routinely, openly flaunting it. The Praetorian commander, once a position that had held so much influence under Sejanus, was reduced to a cuckold. When he got tired of the game, he banished the man to Egypt and forced him to commit suicide.
There was a reason besides pure cruelty Caligula was doing this – although not a rational one. He’d come out of his illness in the grips of a delusion. Having survived the pandemic that had killed so many people, he literally believed he was a living god. And that as a divine figure, he could really do anything he wanted to anybody he wanted.
He ordered golden statues of himself to be erected in temples next to figures like Jupiter and Mars. He even ordered the Praetorians to guard these statues day and night, like they were protecting the Emperor himself. It was a humiliating task for the extremely proud Praetorian Guard.
When he wasn’t raping the aristocratic wives of Rome, Caligula was tanking the Roman economy with massive vanity projects and public spectacles. To finance this stuff, he levied heavy taxes. And he was so adamant about them being collected, that he sent soldiers of the Praetorian Guard to personally gather the funds. Yet another embarrassing errand these proud soldiers had to run.
The upper classes of Rome, meanwhile, were growing angrier and more terrified with each passing month. As the historian Josephus summed up: “All men dreaded him”.
Caligula made a habit of putting Senators who opposed or even disagreed him to death. When he ordered the execution of one governor who’d pissed him off, he explicitly told his Praetorian hit squad to take their time, to “make him feel like he is dying”. The Praetorians, bound to do whatever their emperor commanded, inflicted dozens upon dozens of shallow cuts on the governor. He finally bled out, and when they went to pick up his body for burial, it literally fell apart in pieces.
Caligula would often have men tortured in front of him, another one of Tiberius’ habits that had stuck. On one occasion, he had a man whipped in front of him while he ate his dinner. He said to the crying man “you groans for mercy have a musical quality to them.”
As for Caligula’s family life….well that was going about as well as you’d expect too. He had a total of three wives in as many years, and he got bored with them almost immediately. There’s a manic restlessness to Caligula that seemed to drive his lack of impulse control, and that clearly applied to his love life as well. But eventually, third time appeared to be the charm, and his last wife gave birth to a daughter. When his daughter was around one year old, Caligula was told that his little girl kept trying to scratch the eyes out of other children during play dates.
He laughed and said “There can be no doubt then, that I’m the father.”
But the true love of Caligula’s life, if you believe the more sensational Roman writers, was his favorite sister, Drusilla. In fact, it’s rumored that he was having sex with all three of his sisters. The source of this speculation can be traced back to the fact that when Drusilla died in her late 20s, Caligula was inconsolable. He was practically catatonic for days. To an observer, it appeared like he was mourning a lover, rather than a sibling.
There’s a lot of debate around this, though. Because you have to remember, Caligula and his sisters had gone through the death of their Dad, their Mom, and their older brothers together. So it’s a reasonable assumption that they’d be very close. And losing yet *another* member of his immediate family would of course send him spiraling into depression.
But as to whether their bond veered into incestuous territory, we’ll never know for sure. More generous historians have asserted that those details were just character assassination invented after the fact.
Honestly, who knows.
By his mid-twenties, Caligula was already outdoing even the worst excesses of his hated Great-uncle Tiberius. In many ways he’d become even worse. The viper that Tiberius had nursed to sadistic maturity, was loose on the world.
The exact clinical reason for Caligula’s nosedive into tyrannical cruelty has baffled historians for centuries. Everything from schizophrenia to hyperthyroidism has been suggested, but the modern consensus seems to be that Caligula was suffering from manic depressive bi-polar disorder, triggered by the trauma of his youth and exacerbated by his brief, but consequential battle with a life-threatening illness.
Obviously the Roman writers had no conception of mental health like we do today, so they chalked him up to an insane, power-hungry madman.
The men of the Praetorian Guard must have felt like they were going crazy, when they accompanied Caligula on a journey to the German frontier provinces. Instead of fighting real enemies, Caligula organized games of hide-and-seek, which the Praetorians, the most elite fighting men in the empire had to indulge in.
By 41 AD, the Praetorians decide they’ve had enough of this guy. A conspiracy to assassinate Caligula begins coalescing around a single man. A mid-level Praetorian officer named Cassius Chaerea.
Cassius Chaerea, despised Caligula, both personally and professionally. He was a veteran soldier, who’d risen up the ranks over the years to serve in the Praetorian Guard. He’d been in the legions since Caligula was just a two-year-old, and he remembered the days when Little Boots had been a giggling toddler running around camp. Back when an entire world of possibility had been laid at the feet of that promising family, before Tiberius had so callously and systematically ruined their lives.
But Little Boots wasn’t a toddler anymore. He was tyrant. And tragic backstory or not, he needed to be put down.
Cassius Chaerea had personal reasons for wanting Caligula dead, too. Despite his warrior’s pedigree, the Praetorian officer had a soft, high-pitched voice – and Caligula constantly gave him shit for it. He’d accuse him of being effeminate, and force him to kiss his hands while he made phallic gestures. The Praetorian was tired of the humiliation – and he intended to make Caligula pay with his life for it.
So Cassius Chaerea starts reaching out to other Praetorians to recruit a gang of co-conspirators. When they express hesitation, he reminds them of how far they’d fallen, how thoroughly Caligula had debased the institution which had personally protected the divine Augustus, 1st Emperor of Rome.
He asked them if they were tired of being “torturers and executioners”. They replied that they were. With Praetorian support secured, he also reaches out to a group of Senators who were sick and tired of the taxes, the chaos, and the rapey dinner parties.
Before long, the Senators are on board too. And this secret coalition puts together a daring plan.
For the first time in its history, the men of the Praetorian Guard were going to kill an Emperor.
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Can assassins be heroes? Can cold-blooded, premeditated murder be ….a net good for society? It’s the old “would you kill Baby Hitler” question. The kneejerk reaction, at least for me, is to say no fucking way. Absolutely not. But that’s an opinion that’s shaped by the times we live in.
In modern, democratic societies, the most effective weapon we have against bad leaders is the power of the ballot box. And it is profoundly powerful.
But what do you do, when you don’t have the ballot box? When an entire population is essentially a hostage to a leader who is not only mentally disturbed, but actively and fatally hostile to the society he’s supposed to lead? Not only that, a leader who’s only in his early 20s, one who won’t be gone in 2 years or 4 years or 8 years… but possibly 50 years?
Well 50 more years of Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus Caligula was not an option. And no one was more aware of that painful fact than the long-suffering Praetorian lieutenant Cassius Chaerea. The veteran soldier had spent weeks amassing a cross-institutional conspiracy that involved influential Senators and the leadership of the Praetorian Guard.
These would have been very hard conversations to have. For a couple reasons. One, Caligula had spies everywhere. He nursed grievances for years and never let go of a grudge, so once you were on his shit list, you had a bullseye in between your shoulder blades forever. Also, two entirely different assassination plots had already been uncovered and thwarted. So naturally, no one wanted to be overheard saying anything bad about Caligula, much less be suspected of plotting to overthrow him.
When Cassius Chaerea did manage to get someone on board with his plan, it was immediately followed up by another important question. If they managed to kill Caligula – and that was a big “if” – what happened afterward? Would there be a new Emperor? And if so, who? Would they do away with Emperors altogether? And go back to being a Republic, controlled by the Senate?
All questions for a later time. The first and only concern was finding an opportunity to kill Caligula. He was an existential threat to the people of Rome, and he had to be removed.
But it wouldn’t be easy. Because the Praetorians weren’t the only soldiers guarding Caligula. The young Emperor, obsessed with all things military, also had a guard of elite Germanic troops – people the Romans would have called “barbarians”. But because they were foreigners and the Emperor paid them very well, the Germanians were virtually immune to the scheming and factional politics of Rome.
So they needed to find an opportunity where Caligula would be alone and exposed. And they needed to find one fast. Because Caligula was about to go on campaign in the provinces, where he’d be surrounded 24/7 by his legions.
But, as luck would have it – Caligula was set to watch a big theatrical performance literally the day before he left.
Cassius Chaerea and the Senators decide this is it. You can almost see them in a warehouse like a murderous Oceans Eleven, each with their own jobs and specific roles. The plan was to ambush Caligula when he left the theatre at noon for a private lunch. Cassius Chaerea and two other guardsmen would be the ones to do the deed during this brief window of opportunity. If they failed or were exposed, they would almost certainly be tortured to death, and all their friends and families would be killed in retribution.
On January 24th, AD 41 Caligula woke up at dawn with a hangover. By this time, he was 28 years old, and he was excited to leave for the provinces and play commander-in-chief out in the field with his legions. But first he had to preside over this theatrical performance. One last thing to do.
His wife and baby daughter would’ve been close by. No one knows if he said goodbye to them that morning, but shortly after dawn he was out the door and off to the games. He gets there and takes his seat in the Imperial box, surrounded by lapdog Senators and his imposing Germanic guards.
The performances go well, and soon lunchtime rolls around. But Caligula says he’s not hungry. He’s still a little queasy from his hangover. So all good, no lunch for me, thanks.
The plan had hit a snag.
Cassius Chaerea was anxious and infuriated. He whispered to one of the other Praetorians, “I’ve a good mind to go in and kill him in his seat”. But one of the Senators advises patience, and thinking quickly, asks Caligula if he might want to freshen up before the next performance starts. Splash a little water on his face. Maybe he might feel better after that. Caligula agrees that this is a solid idea. And he leaves the theatre.
A few minutes later, Caligula is walking alone down the tunnel to the Imperial bathhouse. He hears a voice call his name behind him. He stops and turns around to find Cassius Chaerea, flanked by two other Praetorians. All of them holding gladiuses, which were the famous short swords used by Roman legionaries. Two-foot long blades designed for stabbing and chopping.
If there were any words exchanged, they didn’t last long. Cassius Chaerea was not going to be caught monologuing. He raises his sword and whips it down into Caligula’s shoulder. The blade is so sharp and the hit was so impactful, it cleaves the Emperor all the way to the breastbone.
Caligula sputters out his last words. A single phrase of surprise: “I’m still alive!” Even with half his chest hacked open, he thought he was a God.
At this point the other Praetorians start chopping at Caligula’s body with their swords. All in all, the emperor was struck about thirty times. At an average of 10 strikes a man and maybe three seconds per strike, these men were hacking at Caligula’s body for half a minute. That doesn’t sound very long, but start your stopwatch and just sit there for 30 seconds. That’s a lot of time to spend stabbing a human body.
Clearly, the Praetorians had a lot of hatred for this man. Years of humiliation, abuse, and pent-up anger. And it was all coming out. When they finally stop hacking at the dead Emperor, Cassius Chaerea and his fellow conspirators step back and take a breath.
They’d done it. They had pulled it off. The insane tyrant Caligula was dead. But their ordeal was far from over.
News traveled fast, and within minutes the crowd at the theatre starts hearing that the Emperor has just been assassinated. The Germanic guards, his well-paid protectors, hear that too, and they completely wig out. They start killing Senators at random, thinking they were *all* behind the plot. Then they hold the entire theatre crowd hostage. Eventually someone from the Praetorian guard is sent to calm them down, and realizing they are definitively unemployed, they release the hostages.
Meanwhile, Cassius Chaerea is tying up loose ends.
Bloodlines held a lot of weight in Rome, and to properly put a definitive end to the reign of Caligula, he needed to sever what was left of his bloodline. So Chaerea sends a Praetorian to kill Caligula’s wife and his infant daughter. No loose ends. When the woman sees the Praetorian, she’s initially overjoyed, thinking he was there to protect her in the chaos. But she quickly begins to grasp that her fate was sealed.
She says “If only he had listened to me.”, referring to her often-ignored pleas of moderation to her husband. Within seconds, the Praetorian cuts her head off, and smashes the baby’s head against the wall.
Caligula’s bloodline was snuffed out. The job was done.
But as the Praetorian Guard continues to move through the rooms, they find someone else. Hiding, Cowering, terrified behind a curtain. As the legend goes, what gave this person away was the fact that the Praetorian could see their feet peeking out beneath the drapes. The curtain is jerked aside, and there they find Claudius, Caligula’s disabled, black-sheep uncle. Seeing a member of the Imperial family as a useful chess piece in the days to come, they snatch him up and take him back to the Castra Praetoria.
This is when things get a little complicated and messy. Regime change is always chaotic. While Caligula’s body was being thrown into a shallow grave, the Senate and the Praetorian Guard were in a fierce debate over the future of the Roman Empire.
Cassius Charea was an old school idealist. He’d killed the Emperor, but he didn’t want to become Emperor. Nor did he want to crown someone else. He wants to see Rome returned to the way it was. Before Caliigula, Tiberius, and Augustus. Before Julius Caesar. To go back to a true Republic, where the Senate had the power.
You think the Senate would be all about this. But they’d spent three generations as Imperial lap dogs, and the men serving in the Senate weren’t even alive the last time Rome had been a Republic. All they remembered was the stories of civil war and chaos, which the first Emperor Augustus, had saved the country from.
Also having second thoughts about this “no more Emperors” idea was a faction within the Praetorian Guard itself. All of their power, their privilege, and their influence flowed from an Imperial figurehead. Without an emperor, the Praetorian Guard would cease to exist. The ideal situation would be an emperor they could control, someone preferably weak and easily manipulated. Well as it so happened, they had a man they believed fit that description, safely tucked away in the Castra Praetoria.
Caligula’s disabled uncle Claudius.
Cassius Chaerea hates this idea. He says to the Senate:
“If you want an emperor. I’ll give you one. If anyone can bring me the Praetorian Camp watchword, I’ll bring you the head of Claudius. It’s amazing to me that, after the madness of the last regime, you want to commit our government to a fool!”
Another Praetorian agrees with him, saying:
“I would rather kill myself here in the midst of you all, than consent to Claudius being made emperor and see slavery returning to Rome.”
But the majority of the Praetorian Guard and the Senate agree, that it was in their best interest to transfer power to Claudius. Everyone, except for Cassius Chaerea and his friends are in agreement. Claudius, with the full support of the Praetorians and the Senate, would be named Emperor. For their trouble, the Praetorian Guard received a massive bonus paid personally by Claudius to cement their oaths of loyalty. It was basically the price he paid to stay alive.
However. It would send a very bad message if the men who’d killed the previous Emperor were allowed to go on serving the next. Cassius Chaerea and his fellow assassins could not be allowed to live. The man who’d put the entire plot into motion, and carried it out, ridding Rome of one of the worst rulers it would ever have, was sentenced to die just days afterward.
Before he was beheaded, Cassius Chaerea asked to be killed with the sword he used to kill Caligula. He’d spent days sharpening it before the assassination, and he knew it would provide the cleanest cut. He even gets one little sardonic barb in at his executioner, likely a fellow Praetorian:
“Are you accustomed to this role? Or, will this be the first time you’ve used your sword in an execution?”
There’s a few ways to interpret what he meant there, but personally I think it was a sarcastic reference to how much arbitrary murder the Praetorians had been forced to carry out under Caligula. Or maybe he was just making sure the executioner wouldn’t painfully botch the job. Whatever the case, Cassius Chaerea, the first Praetorian to assassinate an Emperor, was beheaded in a single stroke.
While the man who’d saved Rome was decomposing in a ditch, the Praetorian Guard and the Senate were swearing oaths of loyalty to the 4th Emperor of Rome: Claudius. He was a man who’d been mocked his entire life, ridiculed for the physical deformities and impediments he’d been born with and reduced to a punchline. Now he was the supreme ruler of the most powerful empire in the ancient world.
In a shocking inversion of Augustus’ original vision almost 100 years before, the Praetorian Guard had selected the Emperor of Rome, and not the other way around. It represented an unprecedented turning point, because after Caligula, the Praetorians would continue to play a hugely significant role in Roman politics until the twilight era of the Empire.
Caligula wasn’t Rome’s last bad Emperor or even its last insane one. And the Praetorian Guard was always there to scheme, supplant, and profit off of any weakness displayed within the gardens and palaces of Rome. It was, in some ways, the logical conclusion of Rome’s “might is right” ethos. It was an empire that lived and died on the point of a sword. And the Praetorian Guard was that political law of nature concentrated into human form.
They would go on to undermine, replace, kill, and hand-pick Emperors several times over the next few centuries. After Caligula, this was the new normal.
But all good things must come to an end.
Around 250 years after the death of Caligula, the Praetorian Guard once again gets involved in the Emperor selection process, and it sparks a civil war. But this time, they back the wrong man.
In 312 AD, at what became known as the battle of the Milvian Bridge, the Praetorian Guard is destroyed along with the would-be Emperor they were supporting. The man who won that battle, the Emperor Constantine, disbanded the Praetorian Guard as an institution immediately after.
And to remove all doubt that the Praetorians were gone forever, he even tore down their infamous fortress, the Castra Praetoria.
Generally, I try and keep the cast of characters in these episodes to a bare minimum. Just for maximum digestibility and to keep the narrative as streamlined as possible. This episode was unique, in that it has a LOT of characters, lots of names, and lots of family trees. So I appreciate you sticking with me through it all.
It was very tempting for me to keep going after Caligula. Claudius had an interesting relationship with the Praetorians. And so did his very famous successor, the Emperor Nero.
But for the purpose of this episode it made sense to stay focused on the first three Emperors of Rome and their unique relationships with the Praetorian Guard, because that tumultuous 100 year period was so, so important in cementing the fundamental nature of that relationship.
Plus, the assassination of Caligula is such a fitting climax to our story.
So what can we take away from all of this? Why does it matter?
It’s certainly a sobering and instructive lesson on the question of where real power comes from. There’s a lot of discussion in modern international diplomacy about “hard power” and “soft power”.
“Hard power” being military power. “Soft power” being the weight of relationships, diplomacy and leverage. The Romans were definitely believers in “hard power”. And the Praetorians were the perfect example of that. When things get really difficult and the fabric of society starts fraying at the edges, the men with swords tend to hold all the cards. It’s a very caveman-type theory of power, but it’s important to remember.
It also reveals something about how profound change can happen slowly but steadily over time. It’s the old “frog in the boiling water” analogy. Could anyone in the Roman Republic have ever conceived of being ruled by a single man with unlimited authority? No. Never. It would’ve been anathema to them. But sure enough, slow and steady, it happened. When people get scared, they cling to expressions of strength and security, no matter how damaging it may be to their liberty in the long-term.
When Augustus came to power, could the Roman people ever have imagined having their Emperors removed, killed, and chosen at will by a state-sanctioned paramilitary organization who’s entire mission statement was to protect him? Absolutely not. It would’ve been laughable.
But things change. And they change slowly, steadily. Norms are broken. Institutions are eroded. And before you know it, you can suddenly find yourself living in a society you don’t recognize.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.