cataphract cavalry

Cataphract Historical re-enactment of a Sassanid-era cataphract, complete with a full set of scale armor for the horse. Note the rider’s ex- tensive mail armor, which was de rigueur for the cataphracts of antiquity. A cataphract was a form of armored heavy cavalry used in ancient warfare by a number of peoples in Western Eurasia and the Eurasian Steppe. The word in English is derived from the Greek: κα- τάφρακτος Kataphraktos (plural: κατάφρακτοι Kat- aphraktoi), literally meaning “armored” or “completely enclosed”. Historically, the cataphract was a very heavily armored horseman, with both the rider and steed draped from head to toe in scale armor, while typically wielding a kontos or lance as their weapon. Cataphracts served as either the elite cavalry or assault force for most empires and nations that fielded them, pri- marily used for impetuous charges to break through in- fantry formations. Chronicled by many historians from the earliest days of Antiquity up until the High Middle Ages, they are believed to have influenced the later Euro- pean knights, via contact with the Byzantine Empire. [1] Notable peoples and states deploying cataphracts at some point in their history include: the Scythians, Sarmatians, Parthian army, Achaemenid army, Sakas, Armenian army, Seleucids, Pergamenes, the Sassanid army, the Roman army, the Goths and the Byzantine army. In sev- eral cases the term is used to denote a Parthian chariot. In the West, the fashion for heavily armored Roman cav- alry seems to have been a response to the Eastern cam- paigns of the Parthians and Sassanids in the region re- ferred to as Asia Minor, as well as numerous defeats at the hands of cataphracts across the steppes of Eurasia, the most notable of which is the Battle of Carrhae. Tradition- ally, Roman cavalry was neither heavily armored nor all that effective; the Roman Equites corps were composed mainly of lightly armored horsemen bearing spears and swords to chase down stragglers and to rout enemies. The adoption of cataphract-like cavalry formations took hold amongst the late Roman army during the late 3rd and 4th centuries. The Emperor Gallienus Augustus (253–268 AD) and his general and would-be usurper Aureolus bear much of the responsibility for the institution of Roman cataphract contingents in the Late Roman army. 1 Etymology The genesis is undoubtedly Greek. Kataphraktos (Κατάφρακτος, or various transliterations such as Cat- aphraktos, Cataphractos, or Katafraktos) is composed of the Greek root words, κατά, a preposition, and φρακτός, “covered, protected”, which is interpreted along the lines of “fully armored” or “closed from all sides”. The term first appears substantively in Latin, in the writings of Sisennus: "… loricatos, quos cataphractos vocant …", meaning "… the armored, whom they call cataphract …". [2] There appears to be some confusion about the term in the late Roman period, as armored cavalry men of any sort that were traditionally referred to as Equites in the Republican period later became exclusively designated as “cataphracts”. Vegetius, writing in the fourth century, described armor of any sort as “cataphracts” – which at the time of writing would have been either lorica seg- mentata or lorica hamata. Ammianus Marcellinus, Ro- man soldier and historian of the fourth century, mentions the: "cataphracti equites (quos clibanarios dictitant)" – the “cataphract cavalry which they regularly call Clibanarii" (implying that clibanarii is a foreign term, not used in Classical Latin). Clibanarii is a Latin word for “mail-clad riders”, itself a derivative of the Greek: κλιβανοφόροι Klibanophoroi, 1

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Cataphract cavalry


Page 1: Cataphract cavalry


Historical re-enactment of a Sassanid-era cataphract, completewith a full set of scale armor for the horse. Note the rider’s ex-tensive mail armor, which was de rigueur for the cataphracts ofantiquity.

A cataphract was a form of armored heavy cavalry usedin ancient warfare by a number of peoples in WesternEurasia and the Eurasian Steppe.The word in English is derived from the Greek: κα-τάφρακτος Kataphraktos (plural: κατάφρακτοι Kat-aphraktoi), literally meaning “armored” or “completelyenclosed”. Historically, the cataphract was a very heavilyarmored horseman, with both the rider and steed drapedfrom head to toe in scale armor, while typically wieldinga kontos or lance as their weapon.Cataphracts served as either the elite cavalry or assaultforce for most empires and nations that fielded them, pri-marily used for impetuous charges to break through in-fantry formations. Chronicled by many historians fromthe earliest days of Antiquity up until the High MiddleAges, they are believed to have influenced the later Euro-pean knights, via contact with the Byzantine Empire.[1]

Notable peoples and states deploying cataphracts at somepoint in their history include: the Scythians, Sarmatians,Parthian army, Achaemenid army, Sakas, Armenian

army, Seleucids, Pergamenes, the Sassanid army, theRoman army, the Goths and the Byzantine army. In sev-eral cases the term is used to denote a Parthian chariot.In the West, the fashion for heavily armored Roman cav-alry seems to have been a response to the Eastern cam-paigns of the Parthians and Sassanids in the region re-ferred to as Asia Minor, as well as numerous defeats atthe hands of cataphracts across the steppes of Eurasia, themost notable of which is the Battle of Carrhae. Tradition-ally, Roman cavalry was neither heavily armored nor allthat effective; the Roman Equites corps were composedmainly of lightly armored horsemen bearing spears andswords to chase down stragglers and to rout enemies. Theadoption of cataphract-like cavalry formations took holdamongst the late Roman army during the late 3rd and 4thcenturies. The Emperor Gallienus Augustus (253–268AD) and his general and would-be usurper Aureolus bearmuch of the responsibility for the institution of Romancataphract contingents in the Late Roman army.

1 Etymology

The genesis is undoubtedly Greek. Kataphraktos(Κατάφρακτος, or various transliterations such as Cat-aphraktos, Cataphractos, or Katafraktos) is composed ofthe Greek root words, κατά, a preposition, and φρακτός,“covered, protected”, which is interpreted along the linesof “fully armored” or “closed from all sides”. The termfirst appears substantively in Latin, in the writings ofSisennus: "… loricatos, quos cataphractos vocant …",meaning "… the armored, whom they call cataphract…".[2]

There appears to be some confusion about the term inthe late Roman period, as armored cavalry men of anysort that were traditionally referred to as Equites in theRepublican period later became exclusively designated as“cataphracts”. Vegetius, writing in the fourth century,described armor of any sort as “cataphracts” – which atthe time of writing would have been either lorica seg-mentata or lorica hamata. Ammianus Marcellinus, Ro-man soldier and historian of the fourth century, mentionsthe: "cataphracti equites (quos clibanarios dictitant)" – the“cataphract cavalry which they regularly call Clibanarii"(implying that clibanarii is a foreign term, not used inClassical Latin).Clibanarii is a Latin word for “mail-clad riders”, itself aderivative of the Greek: κλιβανοφόροι Klibanophoroi,


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Relief Taq-e Bostan (Kermanshah Province in Iran) from the eraof Sassanid Empire: One of the oldest depictions of a cataphract.The figure on top in the middle is believed to be Khosrau II. Thefigure to the right is Ahura Mazda, and to the left is the PersianGoddess Anahita. The cataphract is not known, although varioustheories exist on his identity, but he is certainly of royal nobility.

meaning “camp oven bearers” from the Greek wordκλίβανος, meaning “camp oven” or “metallic furnace";the word has also been tentatively linked to the Persianword for a warrior, “grivpan”. However, it appears withmore frequency in Latin sources than in Greek through-out antiquity. A twofold origin of the Greek term hasbeen proposed: either that it was a humorous reference tothe heavily armored cataphracts as men encased in armorwho would heat up very quickly much like in an oven; orthat it was further derived from theOld Persian word *gri-wbanar (or *Grivpanvar), itself composed of the Iranianroots griva-pana-bara, which translates into “neck-guardwearer”.[3]

Roman chroniclers and historians Arrian, Aelian andAsclepiodotus use the term cataphract in their militarytreatises to describe any type of cavalry with either par-tial or full horse and rider armor. The Byzantine his-torian Leo Diaconis calls them πανσιδήρους ἱππόταςpansiderois ippotas, which would translate as “fully iron-clad knights”.[4]

There is, therefore, some doubt as to what exactly cat-aphracts were in late antiquity, and whether or not theywere distinct from clibanarii. Some historians theorise

that cataphracts and clibanarii were one and the sametype of cavalry, designated differently simply as a resultof their divided geographical locations and local linguisticpreferences. Cataphract-like cavalry under the commandof the Western Roman Empire, where Latin was the offi-cial tongue, always bore the Latinized variant of the origi-nal Greek name, Cataphractarii. The cataphract-like cav-alry stationed in the Eastern Roman Empire had no ex-clusive term ascribed to them, with both the Latin variantand the Greek innovation Clibanarii being used in his-torical sources, largely because of the Byzantine's heavyGreek influence (especially after the 7th century, whenLatin ceased to be the official language). Contemporarysources, however, sometimes imply that clibanarii werein fact a heavier type of cavalryman, or formed special-purpose units (such as the late Equites Sagittarii Cliba-narii, a Roman equivalent of horse archers, first men-tioned in the Notitia Dignitatum). Therefore, either sidecan be argued, but given the fact that “cataphract” wasused for more than a millennium by various cultures, itstands to reason that different types of fully armored cav-alry in the armies of different nations were assigned thisname by Greek and Roman scholars not familiar with thenative terms for such cavalry.

2 Iranian origins

The extent of the early Iranian Scythians and Parthians at ap-proximately 100 BC, to whom the first recorded use of true,cataphract-like cavalry can be attributed in classical antiquity

The reliance on cavalry as a means of warfare in gen-eral lies with the ancient inhabitants of the Central Asiansteppes in early antiquity, who were one of the first peo-ples to domesticate the horse and pioneered the devel-opment of the chariot.[5] Most of these nomadic tribesand wandering pastoralists circa 2000 BC were largelyBronze-Age, Iranian populations who migrated from thesteppes of Central Asia into the Iranian Plateau andGreater Iran from around 1000 BC to 800 BC. Two ofthese tribes are attested based upon archaeological ev-idence: the Mitanni and the Kassites. Although ev-idence is scant, they are believed to have raised andbred horses for specific purposes, as is evidenced by the

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large archaeological record of their use of the chariotand several treatises on the training of chariot horses.[6]The one founding prerequisite towards the developmentof cataphract cavalry in the Ancient Near East, apartfrom advanced metalworking techniques and the neces-sary grazing pastures for raising horses, was the evolu-tion of selective breeding and animal husbandry. Cat-aphract cavalry needed immensely strong and enduranthorses, and without selectively breeding horses for mus-cular strength and hardiness, they would have surely notbeen able to bear the immense loads of armor and a riderduring the strain of battle.[7] The Near East is generallybelieved to have been the focal point for where this firstoccurred.The previously mentioned early Indo-Iranian kingdomsand statehoods were to a large degree the ancestors ofthe north-eastern Iranian tribes and the Medians, whowould found the first Iranian Empire in 625 BC. It wasthe Median Empire that left the first written proof ofhorse breeding around the 7th century BC, being thefirst to propagate a specific horse breed, known as theNisean, which originated in the Zagros Mountains for useas heavy cavalry.[8] The Nisean would become renownedin the Ancient World and particularly in Ancient Persiaas the mount of nobility. These warhorses, sometimes re-ferred to as “Nisean chargers”,[9] were highly sought af-ter by the Greeks, and are believed to have influencedmany modern horse breeds. With the growing aggres-siveness of cavalry in warfare, protection of the rider andthe horse became paramount. This was especially true ofpeoples who treated cavalry as the basic arm of their mil-itary, such as the Ancient Persians, including the Medesand the successive Persian dynasties. To a larger extent,the same can said of all the Ancient Iranian peoples: sec-ond only to perhaps the bow, horses were held in rever-ence and importance in these societies as their preferredand mastered medium of warfare, due to an intrinsic linkthroughout history with the domestication and evolutionof the horse.These early riding traditions, which were strongly tiedto the ruling caste of nobility (as only those of noblebirth or caste could become cavalry warriors), now spreadthroughout the Eurasian steppes and Iranian plateau fromaround 600 BC and onwards due to contact with theMedian Empire's vast expanse across Central Asia, whichwas the native homeland of the early, north-eastern Ira-nian ethnic groups such as the Massagetae, Scythians,Sakas, and Dahae.[8] The successive Persian Empires thatfollowed the Medes after their downfall in 550 BC tookthese already long-standing military tactics and horse-breeding traditions and infused their centuries of experi-ence and veterancy from conflicts against the Greek city-states, Babylonians, Assyrians, Scythians, and North Ara-bian tribes with the significant role cavalry played notonly in warfare but everyday life to form a military re-liant almost entirely upon armored horses for battle.

3 Spread to Central Asia and theNear East

The evolution of the heavily armored horseman was notisolated to one focal point during a specific era (suchas the Iranian plateau), but rather developed simultane-ously in different parts of Central Asia (especially amongthe peoples inhabiting the Silk Road) as well as withinGreater Iran. Assyria and the Khwarezm region werealso significant to the development of cataphract-like cav-alry during the 1st millennium BC. Reliefs discovered inthe ancient ruins of Nimrud (the ancient Assyrian cityfounded by king Shalmaneser I during the 13th centuryBC) are the earliest known depictions of riders wearingplated-mail shirts composed of metal scales, presumablydeployed to provide the Assyrians with a tactical advan-tage over the unprotected mounted archers of their no-madic enemies, primarily the Aramaeans, Mushki, NorthArabian tribes and the Babylonians. The Tiglath-PileserIII (745–727 BC) period, under which the Neo-AssyrianEmpire was formed and reached its military peak, is be-lieved to have been the first context within which the As-syrian kingdom formed crude regiments of cataphract-like cavalry. Even when armed only with pikes, theseearly horsemen were effective mounted cavalrymen, butwhen provided with bows under Sennacherib (705–681BC), they eventually became capable both of long-rangeand hand-to-hand combat, mirroring the development ofdual-purpose cataphract archers by the Parthian Empireduring the 1st century BC.[10]

Archaeological excavations also indicate that, by the 6thcentury BC, similar experimentation had taken placeamong the Iranian peoples inhabiting the Khwarezm re-gion and Aral Sea basin, such as the Massagetae, Dahaeand Saka. While the offensive weapons of these proto-type cataphracts were identical to those of the Assyrians,they differed in that not only the mount but also the headand flanks of the horse were protected by armor. Whetherthis development was influenced by the Assyrians, as Ru-bin postulates,[11] or perhaps the Achaemenid Empire, orwhether they occurred spontaneously and entirely unre-lated to the advances in heavily armored cavalry made inthe Ancient Near East, cannot be discerned by the archae-ological records left by these mounted nomads.[12]

The further evolution of these early forms of heavy cav-alry in Western Eurasia is not entirely clear. Heavilyarmored riders on large horses appear in 4th centuryBC frescoes in the northern Black Sea region, notablyat a time when the Scythians, who relied on light horsearchers, were superseded by the Sarmatians.[13] By the3rd century BC, light cavalry units were used inmost east-ern armies, but still only “relatively few states in the Eastor West attempted to imitate the Assyrian and Choras-mian experiments with mailed cavalry”.[14]

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4 Hellenistic and Roman adoption

A stone-etched relief depicting a Parthian cataphract fightingagainst a lion. Housed in the British Museum.

The Greeks first encountered cataphracts during theGreco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BC with theAchaemenid Empire. The Ionian Revolt, an uprisingagainst Persian rule in Asia Minor which preluded theFirst Persian invasion of Greece, is very likely the firstWestern encounter of cataphract cavalry, and to a de-gree heavy cavalry in general. The cataphract was widelyadopted by the Seleucid Empire, the Hellenistic succes-sors of Alexander the Great's kingdom who reigned overconquered Persia and Asia Minor after his death in 323BC. The Parthians, who wrested control over their nativePersia from the last Seleucid Kingdom in the East in 147BC, were also noted for their reliance upon cataphracts aswell as horse archers in battle.The Romans came to know cataphracts during their fre-quent wars in the Hellenistic East. During their earlyencounters, cataphracts remained ineffective against theRoman foot soldier, being decisively defeated in theBattle of Magnesia (189 BC) and in the battle ofLucullus with Tigran the Great near Tigranocerta in 69BC.[15][16] In 38 BC, the Roman general Publius Ven-tidius, by making extensive use of slingers, whose long-range weapons proved very effective, defeated the uphill-storming Parthian armored cavalry, forcing the Parthiansto retreat from all Roman territories occupied since theBattle of Carrhae.[17]

At the time of Augustus, the Greek geographer Straboconsidered cataphracts with horse armor to be typical ofArmenian, Caucasian Albanian, and Persian armies, but,according to Plutarch, they were still held in rather lowesteem in the Hellenistic world due to their poor tacti-cal abilities against disciplined infantry as well as againstmore mobile, light cavalry.[16] However, the lingering pe-riod of exposure to cataphracts at the eastern frontier aswell as the growing military pressure of the Sarmatianlancers on the Danube frontier led to a gradual integra-tion of cataphracts into the Roman army.[18][19] Thus, al-

though armored riders were used in the Roman army asearly as the 2nd century BC (Polybios, VI, 25, 3),[20] thefirst recorded deployment and use of cataphracts (equitescataphractarii) by the Roman Empire comes in the 2ndcentury AD, during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117–138 AD), who created the first, regular unit of auxiliary,mailed cavalry called the ala I Gallorum et Pannonio-rum catafractata.[21] A key architect in the process wasevidently the Roman emperor Gallienus, who created ahighly mobile force in response to the multiple threatsalong the northern and eastern frontier.[22] However, aslate as 272 AD, Aurelian's army, completely composedof light cavalry, defeated Zenobia at the Battle of Im-mae, proving the continuing importance of mobility onthe battlefield.[23]

The Romans fought a prolonged and indecisive campaignin the East against the Parthians beginning in 53 BC,commencing with the defeat of Marcus Licinius Cras-sus (close benefactor of Julius Caesar) and his 35,000legionaries at Carrhae. This initially unexpected and hu-miliating defeat for Rome was followed by numerouscampaigns over the next two centuries entailing many no-table engagements such as: the Battle of Cilician Gates,Mount Gindarus, Mark Antony’s Parthian Campaign andfinally culminating in the bloody Battle of Nisibis in217 AD, which resulted in a slight Parthian victory, andEmperor Macrinus being forced to concede peace withParthia.[15][16] As a result of this lingering period of ex-posure to cataphracts, by the 4th century, the Roman Em-pire had adopted a number of vexillations of mercenarycataphract cavalry (see the Notitia Dignitatum), such asthe Sarmatian Auxiliaries.[18][19] The Romans deployedboth native and mercenary units of cataphracts through-out the Empire, from Asia Minor all the way to Britain,where a contingent of 5,500 Sarmatian cataphracts wereposted in the 3rd century by Emperor Marcus Aurelius(see End of Roman rule in Britain).This tradition was later paralleled by the rise of feudalismin Christian Europe in the Early Middle Ages and theestablishment of the knighthood particularly during theCrusades, while the Eastern Romans continued to main-tain a very active corps of cataphracts long after theirWestern counterparts fell in 476 AD.

5 Appearance and equipment

But no sooner had the first light of dayappeared, than the glittering coats of mail,girt with bands of steel, and the gleamingcuirasses, seen from afar, showed that theking’s forces were at hand.— Ammianus Marcellinus, late Romanhistorian and soldier, describing the sightof Persian cataphracts approaching Romaninfantry in AsiaMinor, circa fourth century.[24]

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Three examples of the various styles of interweaving and wirethreading that were commonly employed in the creation of cat-aphract scale armor to form a stiffened, “armored shell” withwhich to protect the horse.

Cataphracts were almost universally clad in some formof scale armor (Greek: φαλιδωτός Falidotos, equivalentto the Roman Lorica squamata) that was flexible enoughto give the rider and horse a good degree of motion, butstrong enough to resist the immense impact of a thun-derous charge into infantry formations. Scale armor wasmade from overlapping, rounded plates of bronze or iron(varying in thickness from four to six millimeters), whichhad two or four holes drilled into the sides, to be threadedwith a bronze wire that was then sewn onto an undergar-ment of leather or animal hide, worn by the horse. Afull set of cataphract armor consisted of approximately1,300 or so “scales” and could weigh an astonishing 40kilograms or 88 pounds (not inclusive of the rider’s bodyweight). Less commonly, plated mail or lamellar armor(which is similar in appearance but divergent in design, asit has no backing) was substituted for scale armor, whilefor the most part the rider wore chain mail. Specifically,the horse armor was usually sectional (not joined together

as a cohesive “suit”), with large plates of scales tied to-gether around the animal’s waist, flank, shoulders, neckand head (especially along the breastplate of the saddle)independently to give a further degree of movement forthe horse and to allow the armor to be affixed to the horsereasonably tightly so that it should not loosen too muchduring movement. Usually but not always, a close-fittinghelmet that covered the head and neck was worn by therider; the Persian variants extended this even further andencased the wearer’s entire head in metal, leaving onlyminute slits for the nose and eyes as openings. AmmianusMarcellinus, a noted Roman historian and general whoserved in the army of Constantius II in Gaul and Persiaand fought against the Sassanid army under Julian theApostate, described the sight of a contingent of massedPersian cataphracts in the 4th century:

…all the companies were clad in iron, andall parts of their bodies were covered with thickplates, so fitted that the stiff-joints conformedwith those of their limbs; and the forms ofhuman faces were so skillfully fitted to theirheads, that since their entire body was coveredwith metal, arrows that fell upon them couldlodge only where they could see a little throughtiny openings opposite the pupil of the eye, orwhere through the tip of their nose they wereable to get a little breath. Of these some, whowere armed with pikes, stood so motionlessthat you would think them held fast by clampsof bronze.[25]

The primary weapon of practically all cataphract forcesthroughout history was the lance. Cataphract lances(known in Greek as a Kontos (“oar”) or in Latin as a Con-tus) appeared much like the Hellenistic armies' sarissaeused by the famed Greek phalanxes as an anti-cavalryweapon. They were roughly four meters in length, with acapped point made of iron, bronze, or even animal boneand usually wielded with both hands. Most had a chain at-tached to the horse’s neck and at the end by a fastening at-tached to the horse’s hind leg, which supported the use ofthe lance by transferring the full momentum of a horse’sgallop to the thrust of the charge. Though they lacked stir-rups, the traditional Roman saddle had four horns withwhich to secure the rider;[26] enabling a soldier to stayseated upon the full impact. During the Sassanid era, thePersian military developed ever more secure saddles to“fasten” the rider to the horse’s body, much like the laterknightly saddles ofMedieval Europe. These saddles had acantle at the back of the saddle and two guard clamps thatcurved across the top of the rider’s thighs and fastenedto the saddle, thereby enabling the rider to stay properlyseated, especially during violent contact in battle.[27]

Although not as powerful as the impact of the couchedlance of Medieval cavalrymen, the penetrating power ofthe cataphract’s lance was recognized as being fearful byRoman writers, described as being capable of transfix-

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ing two men at once, as well as inflicting deep and mor-tal wounds even on opposing cavalries’ mounts, and weredefinitely more potent than the regular one-handed spearused by most other cavalries of the period. Accounts oflater period Middle Eastern cavalrymen wielding themtold of occasions when it was capable of bursting throughtwo layers of chain mail.[28] There are also reliefs in Iranfrom Firuzabad showing Persian kings doing battle in afashion not dissimilar to later depictions of jousts andmounted combat from the Medieval era.[29]

Equestrian Relief at Firuzabad Iran showing Cataphracts duelingwith lances

Cataphracts would often be equipped with an additionalside-arm such as a sword or mace, for use in the meleethat often followed a charge. Some wore armor that wasprimarily frontal: providing protection for a charge andagainst missiles yet offering relief from the weight andencumbrance of a full suit. In yet another variation, cat-aphracts in some field armies were not equipped withshields at all, particularly if they had heavy body armor, ashaving both hands occupied with a shield and lance left noroom to effectively steer the horse. Eastern and Persiancataphracts, particularly those of the Sassanid Empire,carried bows as well as blunt-force weapons, to softenup enemy formations before an eventual attack, reflectingupon the longstanding Persian tradition of horse archeryand its use in battle by successive Persian Empires.

6 Tactics and deployment

While they varied in design and appearance, cataphractswere universally the heavy assault force of most nationsthat deployed them, acting as “shock troops” to deliver thebulk of an offensive manoeuvre, while being supportedby various forms of infantry and archers (both mountedand unmounted). While their roles in military history of-ten seem to overlap with lancers or generic heavy cavalry,they should not be considered analogous to these forms ofcavalry, and instead represent the separate evolution of avery distinct class of heavy cavalry in the Near East thathad certain connotations of prestige, nobility, and espritde corps attached to them. In many armies, this reflectedupon social stratification or a caste system, as only thewealthiest men of noble birth could afford the panoplyof the cataphract, not to mention the costs of supportingseveral war horses and ample amounts of weaponry andarmor.

The cataphract-style parade armor of a Saka (Scythian) royalfrom the Issyk kurgan, dubbed “Golden Man”. Note the overlap-ping golden scales, which is typical of cataphract armor.

Fire support was deemed particularly important for theproper deployment of cataphracts. The Parthian armythat defeated the Romans at Carrhae in 53 BC operatedprimarily as a combined arms team of cataphracts andhorse archers against the Roman heavy infantry. TheParthian horse archers encircled the Roman formation

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and bombarded it with arrows from all sides, forcing thelegionnaire to form testudo to ensure all around protec-tion from the huge numbers of incoming arrows. Thisthenmade them fatally susceptible to a massed cataphractcharge, since the testudo made the legionnaires immo-bile and incapable of attacking or defending themselves inclose combat against the long reach of the Parthian kon-tos. The end result was a far smaller force of Parthiancataphracts and horse archers wiping out a Roman cohortfour times their size numerically, due to a combination offire and movement, which pinned the enemy down, worethem out and left them vulnerable to a concluding death-blow.The cataphract charge was very effective due to thedisciplined riders and the large numbers of horses de-ployed. As early as the 1st century BC, especially duringthe expansionist campaigns of the Parthian and Sassaniddynasties, Eastern Iranian cataphracts employed by theScythians, Sarmatians, Parthians, and Sassanids pre-sented a grievous problem for the traditionally less mo-bile, infantry-dependant Roman Empire. Roman writ-ers throughout imperial history made much of the ter-ror of facing cataphracts, let alone receiving their charge.Parthian armies thus repeatedly repelled Roman incur-sions across the Euphrates, due in large part to the Ro-mans’ ineptness in dealing with mobile warfare and par-ticularly cataphracts.Persian cataphracts were a contiguous division known asthe Savaran (Persian: , literally meaning “riderof the horse”) during the era of the Sassanid army andremained a formidable force from the 3rd to 7th cen-turies until the collapse of the Sassanid Empire.[1] Ini-tially the Sassanid dynasty continued the cavalry tradi-tions of the Parthians, fielding units of super-heavy cav-alry. This gradually fell out of favour, and a “universal”cavalryman was developed during the later 3rd century,able to fight as a mounted archer as well as a cataphract.This was perhaps in response to the harassing, nomadiccombat style used by the Sassanids’ northern neighbourswho frequently raided their borders, such as the Huns,Hephthalites, Xiongnu, Scythians, and Kushans, all ofwhich favoured hit and run tactics and relied almost solelyupon horse archers for combat. However, as the Roman-Persian wars intensified to theWest, sweepingmilitary re-forms were again re-established. During the 4th century,Shapur II of Persia attempted to reinstate the super-heavycataphracts of previous Persian dynasties to counter theformation of the new, Roman Comitatenses, the dedi-cated, front-line legionaries who were the heavy infantryof the late Roman Empire. The elite of the Persian cat-aphracts, known as the Pushtigban Body Guards, weresourced from the very best of the Savaran divisions andwere akin in their deployment and military role to theirRoman counterparts, the Praetorian Guard, used exclu-sively by Roman emperors. Ammianus Marcellinus re-marked in his memoirs that members of the Pushtigbanwere able to impale two Roman soldiers on their spears

at once with a single furious charge. Persian cataphractarchery also seems to have been again revived in late an-tiquity, perhaps as a response (or even a stimulus) to anemerging trend of the late Roman army towards mobilityand versatility in their means of warfare.In an ironic twist, the elite of the East Roman army bythe 6th century had become the cataphract, modelled af-ter the very force that had famously defeated and slaugh-tered their forebears numerous times more than 500 yearsearlier. During the Iberian and Lazic wars initiated in theCaucasus by Justinian I, it was noted by Procopius thatPersian cataphract archers were adept at firing their ar-rows in very quick succession and saturating enemy posi-tions but with little hitting power, resulting in mostly non-incapacitating limb wounds for the enemy. The Romancataphracts, on the other hand, released their shots withfar more power, able to launch arrows with lethal kineticenergy behind them, albeit at a slower pace.

7 Later history and usage in theearly Middle Ages

A depiction of Sarmatian cataphracts fleeing from Roman cav-alry during the Dacian wars circa 101 AD, at Trajan’s Columnin Rome

Some cataphracts fielded by the later Roman Empire werealso equipped with heavy, lead-weight darts called Mar-tiobarbuli, akin to the plumbata used by late Roman in-fantry. These were to be hurled at the enemy lines duringor just before a charge, to disorder the defensive forma-tion immediately before the impact of the lances. With orwithout darts, a cataphract charge would usually be sup-ported by some kind of missile troops (mounted or un-mounted) placed on either flank of the enemy formation.Some armies formalised this tactic by deploying sepa-rate types of cataphract, the conventional, very heavilyarmored, bowless lancer for the primary charge and a dual

Page 8: Cataphract cavalry


purpose, lance-and-bow cataphract for supporting units.Interestingly, references to Byzantine cataphracts seemedto have disappeared in the late 6th century, as the famedmanual of war, the Strategikon of Maurice, published dur-ing the same period, made no mention of cataphractsor their tactical employment. This absence persistedthrough most of the Thematic period, until the cat-aphracts reappeared in Emperor Leo VI's Sylloge Tak-tikon, probably reflecting a revival that paralleled thetransformation of the Byzantine army from a largely de-fensive force into a largely offensive force. The cat-aphracts deployed by the Byzantine Empire (most notice-ably after the 7th century, when Late Latin ceased to bethe official language of the empire) were exclusively re-ferred to as Kataphraktoi, due to the Byzantine Empire’sstrong Greek influence, as opposed to the Romanizedterm Cataphractos, which subsequently fell out of use.These later Byzantine cataphracts were a much fearedforce in their heyday. The army of Emperor NikephorosII Phokas reconstituted Kataphraktoi during the tenthcentury and included a complex and highly developedcomposition of an offensive, blunt-nosed wedge forma-tion. Made up of roughly five hundred cavalrymen, thisunit was clearly designed with a single decisive charge inmind as the centre of the unit was composed of mountedarchers. These would release volleys of arrows into theenemy as the unit advanced at a trot, with the first fourrows of mace-armed Kataphractoi then penetrating theenemy formation through the resulting disruption (con-trary to popular representations, Byzantine Kataphraktoidid not charge, they advanced at a steady medium-pacetrot and were designed to roll over an enemy already soft-ened by the archers). It is important to note that this for-mation is the only method proscribed for Kataphraktoiin the Praecepta Militaria of Emperor Nikephoros whichwas designed as a decisive hammer-blow which wouldbreak the enemy. Due to the rigidity of the formation,it was not possible for it to re-form and execute a secondcharge in instances where the first blow did not smash theenemy (no feigned flight or repeated charges were possi-ble due to the formation employed). It is for this reasonthat Byzantine military manuals (Praecepta Militaria andthe Taktika) advise where possible, for the use of a sec-ond wedge of Kataphractoi to which could be hurled atthe enemy in the event that they resisted the initial charge.Contemporary depictions, however, imply that Byzantinecataphracts were not as completely armored as the ear-lier Roman and Sassanid incarnation. The horse armorwas noticeably lighter than earlier examples, being madeof leather scales or quilted cloth rather than metal at all.Byzantine cataphracts of the 10th century were drawnfrom the ranks of the middle-class landowners throughthe theme system, providing the Byzantine Empire witha motivated and professional force that could support itsown wartime expenditures. The previously mentionedterm Clibanarii (possibly representing a distinct class ofcavalry from the cataphract) was brought to the fore in

the 10th and 11th centuries of the Byzantine Empire,known in Byzantine Greek as Klibanophoros, which ap-peared to be a throwback to the super-heavy cavalry ofearlier antiquity. These cataphracts specialised in form-ing a wedge formation and penetrating enemy formationsto create gaps, enabling lighter troops to make a break-through. Alternatively, they were used to target the headof the enemy force, typically a foreign emperor.As with the original cataphracts, the Leo-nian/Nikephorian units seemed to have fallen outof favour and use with their handlers, making their last,recorded appearance in battle in 970 and the last recordof their existence in 1001, referred to as being postedto garrison duty. If they had indeed disappeared, then itis possible that they were revived once again during theKomnenian restoration, a period of thorough financial,territorial and military reform that changed the Byzantinearmy of previous ages, which is referred to separately asthe Komnenian army after the 12th century.[30] EmperorAlexios I Komnenos (1081–1118) established a newmilitary force from the ground up, which was directlyresponsible for transforming the aging Byzantine Empirefrom one of the weakest periods in its existence into amajor economic and military power, akin to its existenceduring the golden age of Justinian I. However, even inthis case, it seems that the cataphract was eventuallysuperseded by other types of heavy cavalry.It is difficult to determine when exactly the cataphract sawhis final day. After all, cataphracts and knights fulfilleda roughly similar role on the medieval battlefield, and thearmored knight survived well into the early modern era ofEurope. The Byzantine army maintained units of heav-ily armored cavalrymen up until its final years, mostlyin the form of Western European Latinikon mercenaries,while neighbouring Bulgars, Serbs, Avars, Russian states,Alans, Lithuanians, Khazars and other Eastern Europeanand Eurasian peoples emulated Byzantine military equip-ment.As Western European metalwork became increasinglysophisticated, the traditional image of the cataphract’sawe-inspiring might and presence quickly evaporated.From the 15th century and onwards, chain mail, lamellararmor, and scale armor seemed to fall out of favour withEastern noble cavalrymen as elaborate and robust platecuirasses arrived from theWest; this, in combination withthe advent of early firearms, cannon and gunpowder, ren-dered the relatively thin and flexible armor of cataphractsobsolete. Despite these advances, the Byzantine army,often unable to afford newer equipment en masse, wasleft ill-equipped and forced to rely on its increasingly ar-chaic military technology. The cataphract finally passedinto the pages of history with the Fall of Constantinopleon May 29, 1453, when the last nation to refer to its cav-alrymen as cataphracts fell (see Decline of the ByzantineEmpire).

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7.1 Cataphracts in East Asia

A Chinese terracotta figurine of a cataphract horse and rider,created during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534 AD)

Đại Việt heavy cavalry of the Trần Dynasty (1225–1400 AD)

Horses covered with scale armor are alluded to in theancient Chinese book of poetry, the Shi Jing dating be-tween the 7th to 10th centuries BC—however, these didnot cover the entire horse.[31] Comprehensive armor forhorses might have been used in China as early as theThree Kingdoms period. It was not until the early 4thcentury, however, that cataphracts came into widespreaduse among the Xianbei tribes of Inner Mongolia andLiaoning, which led to the adoption of cataphracts by theChinese armies during the Northern and Southern Dy-nasties era. Numerous burial seals, military figurines,murals, and official reliefs from this period testify to thegreat importance of armored cavalry in warfare. Later,the Sui Empire maintained the use of cataphracts, but theuse of horse armor declined in the Tang Empire (becom-ing limited to ceremonial guards of honor) for reasons

that remain unclear. The use of cataphracts was then re-vived in the Liao, Western Xia, and Jin dynasties—thesuper-heavy cataphracts of the Xia and Jin were espe-cially effective and were known as “Iron Sparrowhawks”and “Iron Pagodas” respectively. The Song Empire alsodeveloped cataphract units to counter those of the Liao,Xia, and Jin, but the shortage of suitable grazing lands andhorse pastures in Song territory made the effective breed-ing and maintenance of Song cavalry far more difficult,in addition to the Song’s vulnerability to continual raidsby the emerging Mongol Empire for over two decades,which eventually vanquished them in 1279 at the handsof Kublai Khan. The Yuan dynasty, successors to theSong, which were a continuation of the Mongolian Em-pire, seem to have all but forgotten the cataphract tradi-tions of their predecessors, and the last remaining tracesof cataphracts in East Asia seems to have died with thedownfall of the Yuan in 1368.Other East Asian cultures were also known to have usedcataphracts during a similar time period to the Chi-nese. Korean cataphracts reached their pinnacle in Ko-rea’s Three Kingdoms period. Meanwhile, the TibetanEmpire used cataphracts as the elite assault force of itsarmies for much of its history.

8 Related cavalry

In addition to ordinary cataphract types, the ByzantineEmpire sometimes fielded a very heavy type of cavalryknown as a clibanarius, literally meaning “boiler boy” (pl.clibanarii), but more properly translating into “camp ovenbearer”, a humorous reference to that fact that men en-cased in metal armor would almost certainly feel incred-ibly hot and perspire rapidly, much like an oven. Theclibinarii are vaguely attested in Eastern Roman sources,but there is dispute over their actual role and differencefrom cataphracts in warfare.The 5th-century Notitia Dignitatum mentions a specialistunit of clibanarii known as the Equites Sagittarii Cliba-narii - evidently a unit of heavily armored horse archersbased on the heavy cavalry of contemporary Persianarmies.An anonymous 6th-century Roman military treatise alsoproposed one unusual, experimental unit of scythed char-iots with cataphract lancers mounted on the chariot’shorses, though there is no evidence that this unit ever ma-terialised.Nations in the East occasionally fielded cataphractsmounted on camels rather than on horses (the Romansalso adopted this practice, calling camel mounted caval-rymen dromedarii), with obvious benefits for use in aridregions, as well as the fact that the stench of the camels, ifupwind, was a guaranteed way of panicking enemy cav-alry units that they came into contact with. Balancedagainst this, however, is the relatively greater vulnerabil-

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ity of camel-mounted units to caltrops, due to their softlypadded soles on their feet, unlike the hardened hooves ofhorses.

9 See also• Knight

• Heavy cavalry

• Lancer

• Clibanarii

• Horses in warfare

• Horse archer

• Sassanid army

• Byzantine army

• Komnenian army

• Late Roman army

10 Footnotes[1] Nell, Grant S. (1995) The Savaran: The Original Knights.

University of Oklahoma Press.

[2] Nikonorov, Valerii P. (1998) Cataphracti, Catafractariiand Clibanarii: Another Look at the old problem of theirIdentifications. In Voennaia arkheologiia: Oruzhie i voen-noe delo v istoricheskoi i sotsial.noi perspektive (MilitaryArchaeology: Weaponry and Warfare in the Historicaland Social Perspective). St. Petersburg:. pp. 131-138.

[3] Nicolle, David (1992) Romano-Byzantine Armies, 4th–9thCenturies. Osprey Publishing.

[4] Leo Diaconis, Historiae 4.3, 5.2, 8.9

[5] Mielczarek, Mariusz (1993) Cataphracti and Clibanarii.Studies on the Heavy Armoured Cavalry of the AncientWorld, p. 14

[6] Robert Drews, “The Coming of the Greeks: Indo-European Conquests in the Aegean and the Near East.”,Princeton University Press, Chariot Warfare. p. 61.

[7] Perevalov, S. M. (translated by M. E. Sharpe) (Spring2002). “The Sarmatian Lance and the Sarmatian Horse-Riding Posture”. Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia41 (4): 7–21.

[8] Farrokh, Kaveh (2005). Sassanian Elite Cavalry, AD224–642. Osprey Publishing.

[9] Farrokh, Kaveh (2005). Sassanian elite cavalry AD 224–642. Oxford: Osprey. p. 4. ISBN 9781841767130. Re-trieved 20 January 2014.

[10] Eadie 1967, pp. 161f.

[11] Rubin 1955, p. 266

[12] Eadie 1967, p. 162

[13] Rubin 1955, pp. 269–270

[14] Eadie 1967, p. 163

[15] Eadie 1967, pp. 163f.

[16] Perevalov 2002, p. 10

[17] Campbell 1987, p. 25

[18] Perevalov 2002, pp. 10ff.

[19] Eadie 1967, p. 166

[20] Rubin 1955, p. 276, fn. 2

[21] Eadie, John W. (1967). “The Development of RomanMailed Cavalry”. The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 57,No. 1/2 (1967), pp. 161–173.

[22] Eadie 1967, p. 168

[23] Eadie 1967, pp. 170f.

[24] Ammianus Marcellinus, (353 AD) Roman Antiquities,Book XXV pp. 477

[25] Ammianus Marcellinus, (353 AD) Roman Antiquities,Boox XXV pp. 481

[26] Driel-Murray, C. van; Connolly, P. (1991). The Romancavalry saddle. Britannia 22, pp. 33–50.

[27] Shahbazi, A. Sh. (2009). Sassanian Army.

[28] Usamah Ibn-Munquidh, An Arab-Syrian Gentleman andWarrior in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Us-amah Ibn-Munquidh, Philip K. Hitti (trans.) (New Jersey:Princeton), 1978. p. 69.

[29] “Equestrian battle reliefs from Firuozabad” Battle scenesshowing combat between Parthian and Sassanian cat-aphracts on horses with barding using lances.

[30] J. Birkenmeier in “The development of the Komnenianarmy: 1081-1180”

[31] Notes on Turquois in the East, Volume 13, Issues 1–2,Berthold Laufer, s.n., 1914, p. 306

11 References

• Bivar, A. D. H. (1972), “Cavalry Equipment andTactics on the Euphrates Frontier”, DumbartonOaks Papers 26: 271–291, doi:10.2307/1291323,JSTOR 1291323

• Campbell, Brian (1987), “Teach Yourself How toBe a General”, Journal of Roman Studies 77: 13–29, doi:10.2307/300572, JSTOR 300572

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• Eadie, John W. (1967), “The Development of Ro-man Mailed Cavalry”, Journal of Roman Studies57 (1/2): 161–173, doi:10.2307/299352, JSTOR299352

• Nikonorov, Valerii P. (1985a). “The ParthianCataphracts”. Chetvertaia vsesoiuznaia shkolamolodykh vostokovedov. T. I. Moscow. pp. 65–67.

• Smith, William; et al. (1890). “Cataphracti”. ADictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (3rded.). The text of this book is now in the public do-main.

• Nikonorov, Valerii P. (1985b). “The Develop-ment of Horse Defensive Equipment in the AntiqueEpoch”. In Kruglikova, I. T. Zheleznyi vek Kavkaza,Srednei Azii i Sibiri. Moscow: Nauka. pp. 30–35.

• Nikonorov, Valerii P. (1998). “Cataphracti,Catafractarii and Clibanarii: Another Look at theold problem of their Identifications”. Voennaiaarkheologiia: Oruzhie i voennoe delo v istorich-eskoi i sotsial.noi perspektive (Military Archaeology:Weaponry and Warfare in the Historical and SocialPerspective). St. Petersburg. pp. 131–138.

• Perevalov, S. M. (2002), “The Sarmatian Lanceand the Sarmatian Horse-Riding Posture”, Anthro-pology & Archeology of Eurasia 41 (4): 7–21,doi:10.2753/aae1061-195940047

• Rubin, Berthold (1955), “Die Entstehung der Kat-aphraktenreiterei im Lichte der chorezmischen Aus-grabungen”, Historia 4: 264–283

• Warry, John Gibson (1980). Warfare in the Classi-cal World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons,Warriors, andWarfare in the Ancient Civilisations ofGreece and Rome. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

• Macdowall, Simon (1995). Late Roman Cavalry-man, 236–565 AD. Osprey Publishing.

• Farrokh, Kaveh (2005). Sassanian Elite Cavalry,AD 224–642. Osprey Publishing.

• Nell, Grant S. (1995). The Savaran: The OriginalKnights. University of Oklahoma Press.

• Marcellinus, Ammianus (353 AD). Roman Antiqui-ties, Book XXV. p. 481. Check date values in: |date=(help)

12 External links• Cataphracts and Siegecraft - Roman, Parthian andSasanid military organisation.

• Image of Sarmatian armored horse detail on the Tra-jan’s column project at McMaster University

• Third century AD graffito of Parthian Cataphractus

• The historical works of Ammianus Marcellinus

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13 Text and image sources, contributors, and licenses

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