Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Riding for Caesar: The Roman Emperors’ Horse Guards by Michael P. Speidel

speidel1Review by Dr. Michael Ng.

There are some works of popular history which do not merit the description of ‘history’ as they are so sensationalised as to be almost devoid of context and understanding of the past. Professor Michael P. Speidel’s work on the Imperial horse bodyguard is not such a work and it is valuable for the layman as well as useful for the expert in illuminating the history of a military unit as set against the the rest of Roman Empire’s history. I mentioned this book in my Soapbox and it has been one of my favourite books through my career thus far. It is a blend of materials that are otherwise not easily accessible to the layperson, particularly epigraphic materials (inscriptions), and also the literary sources.

In popular and academic Roman military history, the soldier is often portrayed as one of a faceless mass. Some find it easier to romanticise or think of the Roman soldier as a cog in the ever moving press of the Roman war machine. Speidel’s work focuses on the Equites Singulares Augusti, who had their origins in the German bodyguard units employed by Caesar in Gaul in the 50s BC and traces their evolution under the Empire until their eventual defeat and annihilation at Milvian Bridge in AD 312 by the army of Constantine the Great.

I talk about epigraphy as a resource that many are not familiar with or have the training to fully understand. When confronted by something like ‘D M | T AVREL SVMMVS EQ | SING AVG CLAVDIO | VIRVNO… (Speidel p. 16, fig. 2), how does this tell us more about the soldier or about the army? If you were to ask a Latin epigrapher, such as myself, I would tell you ‘Oh yes, well… It expands to D(is) M(anibus) | T(itus) Aurel(ius) Summus equites | singulares Augusti, Claudian tribe, from Virunum…’ Useful in itself to know but it does not lead us anywhere on its own and the reader needs more information and context. What Speidel’s work does is to take such materials and use the information from it to create a narrative and to form a context in which we can understand the these materials. Yet, what does this mean to you as a reader?

Speidel uses these material remains and the literary sources to talk about the Imperial cavalry bodyguard and discusses their origins. We first see them in their earliest incarnation as a body of at least several hundred men under Caesar (recruited during his time in Gaul as governor). When Caesar died, they passed on to his heir and participated in the latter’s civil wars. Then, they go by the wayside when Augustus hears of the disaster in Teutoberg Wald. The loss of 3 legions to unfriendly Germans spurs his own dismissal of his heretofore loyal German bodyguards. They reappear under Tiberius and continue on before dismissal by Galba after Nero’s death. Yet, it is their renewal under the Emperor Trajan in the late 1st century AD and the foreign appearance of the bodyguard that could clearly attract attention: ‘In late 99, Trajan came to Rome and thrilled – or frightened – the citizens with the sight of a thousand tall, blond, and blue-eyed horsemen, the city’s new horse guard.’ (Speidel, p. 41)

As one of the emperor’s bodyguard units, they often paid a high price for their increased status and privileges. ‘He [Trajan] had taken off his purple coat so as not to be recognised. But when the gunners on the wall ‘saw his proud grey head and his awesome looks, they guessed who he was and shot at him, killing a horseman of his escort.” (Speidel, p. 45) It is passages like these that remind us of the dangers of soldiering and the demands of such elite status in guarding the emperor’s life at all costs.

The origins of the horse guard at recruitment are not neglected and they came, by Trajan’s time and afterwards, as selected men chosen from the best of the provincial army units. This provided the unit with seasoned veterans to serve as bodyguards for the emperor. We are also reminded of the fact that these men picked up wives and children along the way and, though unofficial until Septimius Severus’ legalised the marriages of soldiers, we see again how these men were remembered by their family and how they often commemorated their family on their tombstones.

Speidel evokes the history of the cavalry guard and his final words on their fate can only inspire our own curiosity about what happened that fateful day in October AD 312. When Constantine’s primarily German army met the Italian army of Maxentius outside Rome at Milvian Bridge. Maxentius’ men were defeated and the emperor drowned but Speidel evokes the final image of these soldiers fighting, ‘When Constantine’s horsemen came up, besetting them with spears and arrows, flight was cut off. They had to surrender or drown. Yet in swimming the river the guardsmen had shown their daring one last time. Faithful to the emperor to the last, they went under in a way that befitted their gallant history.’ (Speidel, p. 155)

Helpfully, Speidel has included a glossary of Roman military ranks and terminology so that one may refer to it at the back of the book as well as a time chart of emperors and a map of the Empire. Even more helpful is the translation of ancient literary citations into English after the Latin so that the layperson, and even academics, can read it without pausing to remember declension. The monograph is written in a form that is narrative but also thematic and there is enough variation in the ordering of such chapters to keep the reader from being bogged down. We read of cavalry bodyguard’s early history, their weapons and training, their social origins and their families, and finally their defeat.

Speidel’s work is an example of how academic history can also be made accessible and into ‘popular’ history. Remember that soldier I mentioned earlier? Titus Aurelius Summus? He tells us that he was a soldier of the Imperial cavalry bodyguard and that his friend and heir saw to it that he was commemorated. His friend, Publius Aelius Severus, dedicated the tombstone to his ‘best friend’ (amico optimo) and he tells us that he took care to have the inscription set up (faciendum curavit) as his friend asked. Speidel tells us about men like Summus and Severus and reminds us that these were men like any others. They do not seem like much in the grand scheme of history but their friends and comrades made their presence felt during the Empire in so many ways and that, in itself, could also lead to ripples throughout the Empire as men played king-maker in the capital. Like the Urban cohorts, my own personal interest, these were men who made their influence felt alongside the Praetorians and Speidel shows us this as well as who these men were.

All references in this article are from Michael Speidel (1994), Riding for Caesar: The Roman Emperors’ Horse Guards (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). 223 pages.

Dr. Michael Ng, Roman Mike to his friends, is a part-time employed Roman historian. He wrote his PhD thesis on the Urban cohorts (try not to get him started on it as he will never stop). If you hire him, he will praise or vilify in 50 years for food today.

5 comments on “Riding for Caesar: The Roman Emperors’ Horse Guards by Michael P. Speidel

  1. Lisa
    December 9, 2008

    Thanks so much for this piece, Michael. It’s an area that I know nothing about and I found myself reading that with great interest. As soon as I came to this line I knew this was a book I’d like to read:

    “We read of cavalry bodyguard’s early history, their weapons and training, their social origins and their families, and finally their defeat.”

    But are you sure it would be accessible enough for the laybookfox?

    P.S I’ve just noticed that I haven’t linked back to your Soapbox. Will do so now.

  2. Michael
    December 9, 2008

    Hi Lisa, I think that this book is accessible enough for the laybookfox (though a few things might have to be Googled or, dare I say it, Wikipediaed (is that even a word?). I think Speidel tries to use some fairly non-academic language and to keep things easily understandable and comprehensible.

    I do think that some things might still need clarification if someone comes to this without any knowledge of Roman history but it is written in a non-intimidating way and there is an element of narrative that encourages the reader to keep turning the page. What’s handy is that there is also a list of emperors at the back to give non-specialists a general idea of chronology as well (from Caesar to Maxentius, around 58 BC to AD 312 to span the history of the guard).

  3. Moira
    December 9, 2008

    Well, I think that if laybookfox is a word, then Wikipediaed certainly is.

    Thank you for this, Michael. You make an admirable Kirsty stand-in. 🙂

    I DO have a little knowledge of Roman history – I live just across the road from the most southerly of the Hadrian’s Wall outliers – the bath house and fort at Ravenglass – with Hardknott Fort just up the valley, so I’m rather surrounded by it .

    I like the fact that the author makes the Romans human … it’s very easy at this distance to think of them almost as nothing more than book illustrations … not living breathing people who thought, felt and bickered just as we do.

  4. Jackie
    December 10, 2008

    What a review, it makes this book positively enticing. The quotes sound quite accessible & I like the well-rounded view of the subject, not merely as military men, but also having a personal and family life. The photo on the cover really captures the mood. I enjoyed Dr. Ng’s Soapbox before and he didn’t disappoint this time, either.

  5. Michael
    December 10, 2008

    Thank you Moira and Jackie for your kind comments. I think it is important, as Speidel does, to emphasise the humanity of the soldier (something brought home to me at a conference by another Roman military historian). It’s something that I see as an epigrapher while looking at inscriptions. One of the most poignant examples of the soldiers’ humanity is that of a fort (I believe it’s Vindolanda but it is one of the Hadrian’s Wall forts) where they found women’s shoes and children’s shoes inside the fort.

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This entry was posted on December 9, 2008 by in Non-fiction: history, Special Features and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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