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The Worst Bodyguards in History

Andrew is an avid reader who enjoys researching and discussing history with others.

Read on to learn about some of the worst bodyguards in history, including the Praetorian Guard, the Janissaries, and the Streltsy.

Read on to learn about some of the worst bodyguards in history, including the Praetorian Guard, the Janissaries, and the Streltsy.

What Were the Benefits of Being a Bodyguard?

The job of an imperial bodyguard was never safe, the reason for their very existence was the fact that people, often times a lot of them, were intent on killing the ruler who hired these bodyguards. Yet despite the obvious dangers, ambitious men were always eager to fill these positions. Being close to the ruler always had its advantages, one was close to the decision making for example, and was able to form important relationships. If these bodyguards saw an advantage in it they would often kill the man who they were supposed to protect and put a puppet in his place.

This article covers three famous historical examples of bodyguards going rogue:

  1. The Praetorian Guard
  2. The Janissaries
  3. The Streltsy
One example of the Praetorians turning into kingmakers was in 41 AD, Caligula succeeded in enraging enough men, his guard included to have himself murdered. His uncle Claudius hid,when the Praetorians found him they proclaimed him Emperor

One example of the Praetorians turning into kingmakers was in 41 AD, Caligula succeeded in enraging enough men, his guard included to have himself murdered. His uncle Claudius hid,when the Praetorians found him they proclaimed him Emperor

1. The Praetorian Guard

One good example of imperial bodyguards going rogue is the Praetorian Guards of the Roman Emperors. They were established as the personal escort troops of the Princeps by Augustus Caesar, it is believed that at first they were handpicked veterans, and were one, if not the most, elite troops of Rome. The first time the Praetorians turned on the emperor was in 41 AD when they assassinated Caligula and elected Claudius as his successor. Until the dissolution of the guard, they assassinated many more rulers, and even put up the title for auction in 193 AD, when the highest bidder Didius Julianus bought the title emperor for himself.

The guard was finally dissolved by Constantine the Great after he defeated the Praetorians and their emperor, Maxentius, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD.

The increased role the guard played in the political life of Rome led to the creation of the term Praetorianism, which in short is referred to the situation when the armed forces wield excessive political influence.

The first Ottoman sultan the Janissaries deposed was Osman II

The first Ottoman sultan the Janissaries deposed was Osman II

2. The Janissaries

The Janissaries were another example of household troops turning against their masters. Their number was initially quite low, however as time passed it greatly increased, thanks to their proximity to the Sultan they started to influence the ruler's decisions more and more.

At first, Janissaries were recruited through the devshirme system, this meant that the future soldier was originally of Christian origin, but throughout their training, they were converted to Islam. Strict discipline was enforced in the corps during the first few hundred years of their existence, they were forbidden to marry before the age of 40, they were also forbidden to hold other occupations besides being the Sultan’s soldiers.

The corps lost this iron discipline as time passed, starting from the latter decades of the 16th-century Janissaries were allowed to marry, to enlist their sons and relatives into the corps, to hold other occupations, by the middle of the 17th century the devshirme system was largely gone.

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There are theories that try to understand these developments. It is known that Europe was going through a price revolution during the 16th century thanks to the precious metal that was flowing in from the Americas, which led to inflation, which in turn meant that all those who were relying on wages to make a living were affected to a certain degree.

The Janissaries starting to take up side occupations in exactly this period can be explained by the price revolution. Their increased number and reduced time of training were explained by the widespread use of firearms starting from the second half of the 16th century.

The 16th and 17th century is known as the pike and shot era of warfare, both these weapons revolutionized warfare, in comparison to the sword or bows, pikes and muskets required a lot less time to train new recruits, which in turn led to an increase in the number of soldiers all throughout Europe.

The first Sultan the Janissaries deposed was Osman II. Osman blamed the Janissaries for the failure of his Polish campaign and was planning on recruiting a new army. The Janissaries got wind of his plans and moved against Osman, they seized the young Sultan, locked him up, and killed him soon afterward.

From this point on the Janissaries became the Praetorians of the Ottoman Empire and deposed numerous rulers who threatened their position. They were finally disbanded by Mahmud II in 1826.

 Streltsy mutiny in Moscow in 1682 by   Alexei Korzukhin

Streltsy mutiny in Moscow in 1682 by Alexei Korzukhin

3. The Streltsy

The Streltsy were the Russian version of the previously mentioned troops. They were founded by Ivan the Terrible during the middle of the 16th century. The Streltsy were divided into the Streltsy who were stationed in Moscow, and the municipal Streltsy who were stationed in different regions of Russia and were performing garrisoning duties, these were also the armed hands of the local administrations.

Just like in the case of the Janissaries, the number of Streltsy rose as time passed, by the late 17th century there were more than 50,000 of them, more than 20,000 of these were stationed in Moscow. Thanks to their great number in the capital the Streltsy became a Praetorian element of Moscow in the second half of the 17th century as different groups vying for power tried to use them to their own advantage.

One such incident occurred in 1682 when Tsar Feodor died, two noble factions were struggling for power, either of them trying to use Feodor’s young siblings as their own puppets. One of the children was the young Peter the Great, the other his half brother Ivan, when it seemed that Peter might emerge as the new Tsar Ivan’s supporters incited the Streltsy into a riot. The riot lasted for days and the incited Streltsy lynched many important noblemen, some in front of the 10-year-old Peter.

The Streltsy revolted once again in 1698 when Peter was away from Russia, the revolt was put down by Peter’s general Gordon before the Tsar returned. This revolt was the last straw for Peter who eliminated the remaining Streltsy elements from Moscow. Due to the war with Sweden, some units were incorporated into the regular army, however, they never regained their positions as Imperial Guards.

Who Were the Praetorian Guard?

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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