When thinking about bodyguards of Roman emperors, the Praetorian Guard always comes to mind. They were one of the most famous and powerful military units in history. They dominated the Italian peninsula and brought down emperors, with some of their leaders almost gaining the imperial purple. This has been reflected in contemporary scholarship, as countless books and articles have been written about them. However, in part because of this, another massively important and fascinating Roman military unit has been neglected.
The Germanic bodyguard of the Julio-Claudian Emperors served as the more personal bodyguard and soldiers of the emperor and his family. They were a unit of elite horse guards, though they were often on foot when in Rome itself. Yann Le Bohec described them as “a private militia” and estimated that the unit was comprised of 100-500 men. They were called the Germani corporis custodes (henceforth corporis custos, as they referred to themselves). Heinz Bellen believed that the corporis custos had no relation to slavery and that they instead fitted within the convention of Roman commanders having foreign bodyguards in the late-Republic. Roman emperors were concerned with salus imperatoris, personal safety, and fides exercituum, the loyalty of the soldiers. Along with the Praetorian guard, the corporis custos fulfilled these needs by protecting the emperor and occasionally serving as officers in campaigns, helping to maintain the army’s loyalty. They were well trained in both German and Roman cavalry tactics, giving them an advantage in battlefield situations. The corporis custos seem to predate the Augustan era. Bellen said that they had to exist in some form by 36 BCE as Octavian, the future Augustus, was accompanied by a Germanic cavalry unit in Sicily at that point. Micheal P. Speidel went even further and argued that the corporis custos had their origin in the Germanic guard that belonged to Octavian’s adopted father, Julius Caesar, from the Gallic Wars to the end of his life.
When fighting the Gallic resistance under Vercingetorix at Noviodunum in 52 BCE Caesar had sent in his cavalry. When they were about to be pushed back, Caesar sent in his equites Germani. In Caesar’s own account they were described as ‘some four hundred horsemen he had with him from the beginning’. They broke the Gauls and forced them to flee. For 400 men to make such a difference they must have been ‘huge, unbelievably bold and expert fighters.’ Since Caesar describes them as ‘with him’, and the fact that they were kept until the end as a reserve, Spiedal has concluded that they were Caesar’s guard.
In 58 BCE, during the first year of his Gallic War, Caesar allied with the German Ubii tribe. In 57 BCE some of the tribes east of the Rhine offered to physically join Caesar in his campaign. The Ubii were probably amongst them and he may have asked them for horsemen as Roman field marshals often had foreign bodyguards. From this point onwards, the Ubii remained in contact with the Julio-Claudian emperors and, along with the Batavians – descendants of the Chatti who also joined Caesar – supplied most of the horse guards in the corporis custos. Caesar’s equites Germani followed him into the Civil War to Spain, Greece, and Egypt. When Caesar faced his former friend Labienus in the African war of 46 BCE, both sides had German horsemen. Some of Labienus’ men had been spared after Curio’s defeat in Africa in 48 BCE. In return they had joined the Pompeians. When Labienus’ cavalry fled it was the Germans who held their ground and fought to the last man. Having been spared by the Pompeians, they repaid the favour by keeping faith
with them no matter what. This German idea of being true until the bitter end would be demonstrated by the corporis custos until their eventual disbandment. At the same time, in the African War, the author describes Caesar as procuring his equites Germani with ‘money and promises’. The promises were probably cash awards at the ends of campaigns. Before he was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BCE, he dismissed his Spanish guard and the equites Germani became his only bodyguards. This was because, in his planned Parthian War, he would need expert horsemen and the Spaniards were primarily foot soldiers. In Speidal’s eyes, Caesar’s equites Germani were the original imperial horse guard.
After Caesar was assassinated, the equites Germani joined Octavian. Once he took the title Augustus, we have very few references of his horse guard. This is because horse guards were a monarchical symbol that Augustus was unable to glorify. They symbolised tyrants oppressing free people, used by men like the Athenian Peisistratos and the Spartan Pausanias. We know that Augustus’ corporis custos served the members of the imperial family, such as under Germanicus in Dalmatia in AD 9. One, called Pusio, is reported to have hurled a rock at the walls of Splonum that broke part of the wall and scared the defenders into running away. Augustus exiled his horse guard in AD 9 after the massacre of the Roman army in Teutoburg Forest as the German guards still held loyalties to their home tribes.
By the time of the reign of Augustus’ successor Tiberius, the corporis custos were back. Tiberius needed them to help him fight wars on the Rhine and in the Balkans. They were filled with soldiers from the loyal Batavi and Ubii tribes. When the legions in Pannonia mutinied after Augustus died, many of the German horse guards accompanied Tiberius’ son Drusus to quash the riots. They proved invaluable in protecting their commander and dealing with the worst of the mutineers. Two years later, many of the same men protected Tiberius’ adopted son Germanicus as he fought against the Cherusci tribe in Germany. In both these examples, many of the horse guards fought on campaign even though the emperor was not with them.
Once Caligula took power, the corporis custos became more important. The defining moment of Caligula’s childhood was when he was two years old and the legions mutinied after Augustus died. Rebellious soldiers had taken Caligula and his mother as hostages and had almost forced his father, the aforementioned Germanicus, to commit suicide. But, whilst the legions had revolted, the German horse guards had remained loyal. Caligula never forgot this and only ever felt safe with them around him. He spoiled his corporis custos with rich gifts, in the tradition of German kings and of Julius Caesar who procured his equites Germani with ‘money and promises’. When a conspiracy in 39 CE attempted to start a revolt amongst the legions posted in Upper Germany, Caligula needed an excuse to go there without raising suspicions. The Clitumnus oracle was made to say that Caligula should go there to raise Batavi and bolster his horse guard. This sort of expedition was unprecedented, and so would only have been viable if everyone knew that the horse guard mattered immensely to the emperor. Caligula went to Upper Germany to deal with the planned revolt, then to the lower Rhine, where he may have hired Batavi, as if it had been his main intention. Whilst he should have used the Praetorians as his main, immediate bodyguard whilst in Germany, Caligula used the corporis custos because he saw his fellow Romans as ‘enemies’ – the memories of his childhood doubtless pressing on his mind. When Caligula was murdered, the historian Josephus describes the horse guards on duty going on a rampage led by their commander, the gladiator Sabinus:
Whilst Caligula had placed the corporis custos under the control of slaves and gladiators, his replacement, Claudius, placed a freedman, called Nero in charge. This Nero also appointed gladiators as officers. As under Caligula, the German horse guards were lavished with gifts. This, however, did hurt their discipline and, if the gifts were withheld, the guard’s mood was immediately affected. This jump in wealth is demonstrated by the headstones given to the members of the horse guards who died in Rome. Whilst they had once used small grave markers like the poor, they now used massive, finely engraved, limestone slabs, like those used by the Praetorians.
Whilst previous emperors had used the corporis custos for shows, the emperor Nero took it to a new level. In one show they killed 400 bears and 300 lions. However, they also became his personal henchmen. When dealing with the Pisonian conspiracy in 65 CE, they were willing to round up and murder many high-born citizens who regular troops refused to kill. As a reward, the German guards were each given 500 denarii and free grain forever, the same as the praetorians. They were also given Roman citizenship. When Galba revolted against Nero and the senate persuaded the Praetorians to join them, it was only the corporis custos and their commander, the gladiator Tiberius Claudius Spiculus, who remained loyal. Nero’s reign was only over when the Germans finally changed sides and handed over Spiculus to the senate. Why they changed sides is unknown, but Speidal suggested that their morale had been destroyed by the news that the legions in Lower Germany had taken up arms against Nero.
It is not surprising that Galba did not trust the corporis custos. They had remained more loyal to Nero than almost anyone else. He alleged that they supported a conspiracy led by Cnaius Dolabella, who had gardens next to their camp and banished them back to Germany. This saved him a lot of money, including the cash award they were owed at the end of their service, which he refused to pay. After the Year of the Four Emperors, the winner, Vespasian, did not need a large household bodyguard since he was fully supported by the legions. He could not reinstate a small unit of Batavi because one of the first things he had to do as emperor was fight a war against them. They were also despised at this point by almost everyone else in Rome.
The corporis custos left a legacy that could be seen well into the Middle Ages. Many future Roman emperors had horse guards, and the Byzantine emperors had the Varangian guard, made up of Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. But these future units were never quite the same as the horse-guards of the Julio-Claudian emperors. What started as a group of allied mercenaries became one of the most infamous groups of soldiers in the Roman empire, renowned for their skill, brutality, and loyalty. They stood by the sides of emperors when no one else would, even if it meant committing atrocities. By the end of their existence, the very loyalty that defined them, meant that they were hated by the entire city of Rome.
Written by Alex Smith
LJF. Keppie. “Die Germanische Leibwache der Römischen Kaiser des Julisch-Claudischen Hauses by Heinz Bellen Review by: LJF. Keppie.” The Journal of Roman Studies, 72 (1982), p.187
PRC. Weaver. “Die Germanische Leibwache der Römischen Kaiser des Julisch-Claudischen Hauses by Heinz Bellen Review by: P. R. C. Weaver” Gnomon 55. Bd., H. 5 (1983), pp. 436-441
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