All kings and emperors have their bodyguards, and for the imperial Romans that was the Praetorians. However, they became too involved in politics, and so they were dissolved by Emperor Constantine in 312, who replaced them with the Scholae Palatinae, putting them under the direct command of the emperor rather than that of the army. Good information is hard to come by for this unit during the reign of Justinian I (c.482-565), although it is thought that the imperial guard as a whole may have numbered as many as 10,000 by his day. The study of this subject is further complicated by the fact that both Latin and Greek were commonly used in the Eastern Empire at the time, so most things had at least two names, but we have used the terms most commonly found in our sources for this review.
To begin with, the four figures in the top row are all Excubitores, or Excubitae. This was a small unit of 300 infantry soldiers first created by Emperor Leo I (c.401-474) as a palace guard. Their numbers by the time of Justinian are not known, but they were probably outnumbered by the numerous Scholares, which are not included in this set, though the appearance of both may well have been much the same. All are in a guard pose, and all carry an oval shield with horizontal hand bar and the Chi Rho symbol engraved on it. The first three also hold a spear, and wear a rounded helmet with cheek pieces, a nose guard and a hinged flap at the back to protect the neck. Two of these have a very low ridge reinforcement, while the third has a large crest. This style of helmet was somewhat old-fashioned by Justinian’s day, but is perfectly appropriate for a palace guard. The men probably wear a cuirass, though this is largely obscured by the shield, cloak and straps, and have layers of pteruges at the shoulders and waist. Underneath it all is the usual tunic, and they seem to wear trousers and boots on the legs. The fourth man is different, and not just in that he holds a two-headed axe rather than a spear. He has a simpler helmet with no nose guard, and since he wears no cloak we can see his cuirass, which is made of scale armour. He wears the same pteruges and tunic as the others, but has short boots into which he has tucked his leggings. He also has his sword on his right side rather than the left, but we do not know the significance of this (rank?).
Our second row begins with a similar figure who is identified on the box as a scribo. This was an elite unit within the imperial guard, but it is unknown whether they were a separate body to the Scholares or just an officer cadre within them. They were entrusted with the most important and sensitive missions, and the most obvious outward sign of their prestige on this figure is the large crest he has on his helmet. Otherwise, his clothing and equipment is like those in the first row, although he wears a longer garment which looks like it is made of mail. His purse and dagger are also visible at the waist. Again he is in a static, guard pose.
The second man is a standard-bearer, and the main differences in his costume are that his cloak looks to be made of animal skin, and he wears a solid muscle cuirass. He also wears a torque around his neck, and the standard that he holds is clearly inspired by the Labarum of Constantine, which would have been normal for an imperial unit in the 6th century. Like the rest, this man is in a fairly relaxed pose, perhaps attending some ceremony or potentially following the emperor on the battlefield.
The third figure in row two is labelled as a senior officer, and he is clearly not dressed for ceremony, nor for battle. He is bareheaded, and wears a short-sleeved gown over his tunic, which reaches almost to his ankles. He holds a spear, but it is unclear what precisely he is supposed to be doing dressed like this, though he is clearly not in all his finery. Beside him is a strategos, which was a military governor, perhaps a general in charge of an army, or even a dux in charge of a province. This man is in military garb, including a crested helmet, muscle cuirass and typical belt round the waist as the sign of an officer. He has what we can only suppose is some sort of cloak, but this is pinned to his left shoulder and falls as a fairly narrow piece of cloth to the ground, making it hard to see the purpose of such an article (presumably an indication of rank, and not practical).
Now we come to the third row, and here we leave the imperial guardsmen behind and look instead to the court itself. The first figure is a basilikos mandator, a lower member of the court, dressed in a long tunic and cloak, with a headband on his head and a sword by his side. The second is a protomandator, who was a mid-level official in charge of the basilikos mandators, dressed like the other courtiers, although doubtlessly in better clothing as befits his status. Beside him is a strator, dressed like the others but with his cloak pulled right across his front, leaving just his right arm visible. He was effectively a groom, so an attendant to a general or senior official, and might be in charge of his stable. However, this could also be an honorific title, so he may simply be some local official. Lastly we have a ‘lady of the imperial court’, wearing a long tunic with tight sleeves, and a soft hat, with her hair carefully plaited down her back. Although the tunic is decorated, she would seem to be dressed in ordinary everyday clothing, as for special occasions she might wear a dalmatica and other ornamental garments. She holds a long item which we can only think is some sort of stole, but it is much too wide to be so (5 mm, or 36 cm) and also much too long (46 mm, or 3.3 metres). It would look ridiculous worn by anyone, yet it has decorated ends as if it were a stole.
Having described the nature of these figures at some length, we can now turn to the quality of their production. Linear-A have been very consistent with their sculpting quality of late, and this is another good example. The detailing is generally good, although some elements of the armour are difficult to make out. Faces and hands are good, and the fall of the clothing looks natural. There is a medium amount of flash on show here, particularly between the legs of some of the figures with long garments, most notable the senior officer. Things have gone a bit astray with the axe held in the top row, however, because the shaft is nowhere near the middle of the head, so looks strange, but generally these figures look nice.
No one here is really doing anything. The guards are, well, guarding, and not at attention, as we would say now. The court officials are just standing around, and only the lady appears to be doing something, though we are not sure what. As figures in attendance on the emperor and empress these are perfectly sensible poses of course, and are certainly fit for purpose, so we are not complaining. The imperial guard would mainly be distinguished from army troops by the decoration and quality of their clothing, which on small plastic figures is not apparent, so these work well for more general Byzantine troops too. As a group surrounding the emperor and empress figures Linear-A have also produced, these work well and are nicely made with no apparent accuracy issues. While we could not fully comprehend some of the design decisions, this set delivers a nice array of imperial guards plus a high number of ‘bonus’ court figures.