How secure is Vladimir Putin? His Presidential Security Service consists of 2,500 personnel, his Federal Protective Service of 50,000 troops and the National Guard, essentially his personal army, of 350,000. What could possibly go wrong? Roman emperors might have had a view.
It was Augustus who invented the Praetorian Guard (27 bc), a personal, prestigious protection force of 9,000 men, based in Rome and accompanying him abroad. It did not start well. The second emperor Tiberius came within an ace of being displaced by his captain of the Guard Sejanus. The next (insane) emperor Caligula was murdered by conspirators, including a Praetorian, and the Guard hauled out a terrified Claudius from behind a curtain and made him emperor. In ad 68 the Guard deserted the next emperor Nero, and as four successors fought for power, played a key role in deciding who would win, often at the flash of a cheque book.
We next hear of them in ad 192, when they connived at the murder of Commodus. They assassinated his successor Pertinax after three months, then auctioned off the post to the highest bidder, Julianus, for a cool 20 times their annual pay each: he lasted 65 days. Septimius Severus replaced them all with trusted legionaries, mainly posted abroad, Diocletian turned them into imperial administrators and in ad 312 Constantine disbanded the lot.
Edward Gibbon saw the problem: ‘Such formidable servants are always necessary, but often fatal, to the throne of despotism … 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 … 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.