The Horsemen of the Imperial Guard
Last month, we chatted about the Praetorian Guard, the Roman emperor’s personal bodyguard. One major and recurring problem with the Praetorians, however, was their tendency to murder emperors or be party to successful assassination conspiracies.
What to do about a bunch of deadly Praetorian assassins still hanging about the capital?
Our dear Marcus Ulpius Traianus (Trajan) had a brilliant and effective solution: First, immediately kill the murderous Praetorians and replace them with more loyal veterans. Second, raise the status of the equites singulares Augusti (often referred to simply as the Singulares) or the Imperial Horseguard of the emperor. Unlike the Praetorians, who were typically senior soldiers of Italian stock and definitely citizens prior to enlistment, the riders of the Horseguard were drawn from auxiliary units serving alongside the legions in the provinces and along the frontier borders. That is, the Singulares were technically not Romans but instead fierce and trusted ‘barbarian’ cavalrymen. The Singulares became one of Rome’s most elite fighting forces.
Begun originally by Augustus (with much influence from Caesar), in Trajan’s day the Imperial Horseguard was comprised of mainly Germans, especially German warriors from Lower Germany (the famous Batavi and Ubian tribes) where Trajan had served as Governor (AD 96-98) before succeeding to the throne.
With an overall total of at least 1000 men, those highest ranking and best trained members of the Singulares rode with the emperor everywhere, both in Rome and on campaign. They protected his royal bum from enemy missiles and rogue Praetorian plots. We have many images of them; they appear often in the company of Marcus on the famous Column of Trajan in Rome.
Other auxiliary cavalry troops were also recruited into the Singulares for their specialized fighting skills, included provincials from Syria, Jordan, and the greater Danube region. It is thought that they received citizenship upon joining the Singulares. The Imperial Horseguard wore relatively distinctive armor, helmets, and shields emblazoned with their unique symbol– the scorpion. Over time, the Singulares became so important and so powerful they were eventually disbanded by the Emperor Constantine after his decisive victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (AD 312).
Like the Praetorians, the Singulares had a massive, fortified permanent camp in the capital (Castra nova Equitum singularium Augusti). It was located on the eastern spur of the Caelian Hill in Rome on the grounds of what later became, under Constantine, the Basilca of St. John Lateran.
We will meet a few interesting members of the Singulares in the last books of the Dominus saga. Draft Chapter One of Book 3 will be posted tomorrow! 😀