Riding for Caesar: The Roman Emperors’ Horse Guards
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Michael P. Speidel
Review by Miriam Bibby
Last summer (2017), the dispersed exhibition “Hadrian’s Cavalry” took place at venues along the length of Hadrian’s Wall, attracting large numbers of visitors. There were not only static exhibits, but also live displays of horsemanship drawing attention to the nature and function of the (almost exclusively auxiliary) cavalry units that occupied the northern Roman frontier.
In contrast, Speidel’s book brings to life a different and perhaps lesser-known aspect of the Roman cavalry – the emperor’s horse guards. Among many interesting aspects revealed in the book is the nature of the close networks that existed between those who served in the frontier cavalry and those who accompanied the emperor in Rome and also on his imperial journeys in peace and war. Whether in gala dress on the parade ground, clearing the crowds (often brutally) for the emperor as he passed through the streets, or skewering his enemies in battle, the elite horse guards of the ruler of Rome were a force to be reckoned with.
The relationship between the emperor and his horse guards offers a great opportunity for political and psychological exploration. Speidel’s examination of this aspect results in some reassessments of well-known incidents such as Caligula’s apparently random behaviour at Puteoli and on the Rhine.
The keynote of the relationship, stressed throughout the book, was loyalty. Members of the horse guard were “tall, fierce and faithful” mounted warriors, drawn originally from the tribes of the lower Rhine, thus giving the guards the descriptive title “Batavi” that would accompany them through various incarnations. Plenty of pay, dispensed frequently, encouraged loyalty, but so did the emperor’s own ability to relate to and inspire his guards, not through words but deeds. Emperors such as Septimius Severus had the capability if not the charisma, but it’s easy to imagine others less able standing white-knuckled in front of their fearsome guard in a display of fake nonchalance.
All the evidence suggests that the horse guards’ reputation, both as skilled horsemen and dangerous foes, was well-deserved. The tribes of the Rhine had a skill at their disposal that was the equivalent of an ancient secret weapon – dauntless courage in crossing rivers alongside their horses. The Rhine remained a psychological as well as a physical barrier during WWII, as Speidel reminds us with a modern description. How this skill proved ultimately to be their downfall makes a gripping conclusion to their story.
Speidel re-examines and reassesses the textual evidence relating to the guards to great effect. It is the funerary monuments of individual guardsmen that will probably prove most compelling to researchers of equine history. Here we see the grooms preparing horses by long-reining, a grizzled-looking trooper with his two horses, heads turned towards him, and observe the guardsmen’s devotion to the goddess Epona.
By putting the focus onto the relationship between the emperor and the horse guards, Speidel gives genuinely new insights into the tense four-cornered game played out between the emperor, the imperial guards, the senate and the populace. Along the way, he also opens up new areas of interest to equestrian historians.