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Reenactor depicting a Sassanid cataphract of the 3rd century AD with horse armor ( bar-gustuwān )
Armored Parthian camel rider

Kataphrakt ( Greek  Κατάφρακτος Kataphraktos "armored" or "dressed in iron") describes a heavily armored rider of the ancient and early medieval cavalry , who was mainly used in Iranian , late Roman and Byzantine armies.

Since the 1st century BC In addition to the legions, Roman generals also used oriental heavy armored riders in battle. These riders originally came from the northern steppe areas as well as the territories on the border with the Persian Empire and thus continued an old Scythian tradition of using heavy armor or long pushing lances. They fought in compact formation to achieve maximum shock effect on the enemy lines and complemented the conventional Roman light cavalry. Armored troops served throughout the Empire, even in distant Britain. They became more and more important during the wars in the east in the 3rd century, both to withstand the powerful cavalry of the Parthians and Persians and to form a strategic reserve. However, this type of service only acquired a certain importance in late antiquity and, above all, clearly emphasizes the influence of the Parthians on the development of the Roman war system. In military, tactical, logistical and - to a certain extent - also in social terms, the cataphract is considered to be the forerunner of the medieval armored rider .

Historical background

Ancient written sources indicate that armored riders - the so-called kataphracti and clibanarii - were present on the battlefields from the Hellenistic period to late antiquity. The Roman army was no exception here; they too created armored units. These were originally only common in the eastern world. The Romans had a well-documented and long tradition of recruiting non-imperial fighters, learning from their military practices, and then modifying and improving their organization, equipment, and tactics as needed. This was an important factor in their long-lasting military successes. In their efforts to develop a more effective cavalry, the Romans introduced a variety of categories and tactics for this. This also included the establishment of a heavily armored battle cavalry. While they had relied mainly on their well-drilled legionnaires' infantry during the consular period of their empire, they began to experiment with light cavalry and their equipment and tactics in the period of the early empire. Their armored cavalry was very similar to the Persian one with which they increasingly faced. Their use increased significantly in the 3rd century AD, especially in the wars against the Persian Empire, but also in campaigns in the west. So far, nine such units have been identified there that were used between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, although they were never represented in great numbers. It was not until the late Empire that cataphracts and clibanarians formed the core of the Roman cavalry and from then on made up at least half of the Roman cavalry contingents.

Parthians and Sarmatians

Relief of a Parthian cataphract killing a lion ( British Museum )

Cataphracts are first mentioned in ancient sources in connection with the Sarmatians and Parthians . Their name is derived from the Greek name for body armor and is first mentioned on a papyrus from Egypt, which dates from the third century BC. The Parthians had been using armored riders since the 1st century BC at the latest. A. The Romans were confronted with their heavy cavalry in the Parthian Wars of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Their first major - and for them devastating - confrontation with Eastern Panzerriders took place in the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. In addition to the light mounted archers , the heavy armored riders made a decisive contribution to the devastating defeat of the Roman troops. The Sarmatians on the eastern Danube, the Palmyrenians in the Middle East and the Sassanid Persians in Asia Minor (the successors of the Parthians) also used this type of heavy cavalry. A description of Sarmatian armored riders, their social position, their equipment and their - limited - suitability for missions is provided by Tacitus in his Historia, which tells of a battle between the Sarmatian tribe of the Roxolans , who invaded Moesia in 69 AD, and the Romans had inflicted a severe defeat on the defenders. However, an unexpected thaw had just saved the Romans, as the horses of the Sarmatian armored riders found it difficult to advance in the mud and finally collapsed under the weight of their armor.

Cataphracts in the Roman Army

4th century Roman cataphract
Dzis Igor , 2007

Link to the picture
(please note copyrights )

The first Roman cataphract units were set up after conflicts with Sarmatian tribes on the Pannonian-Dacian border with Sarmatia , during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD). The earliest - inscribed - documented unit of the Roman army is an Ala Gallorum et Pannoniorum catafractata, which, however, was not recruited in the east. Since the series of inscriptions about cataphracts does not begin until the reign of Septimius Severus and Severus Alexander is mentioned in connection with armored riders, their installation probably began in Severan times. Because of the expensive equipment and the extensive training they were required, they were probably not represented in great numbers. Despite these circumstances, the number of stone monuments (one altar and twelve tombstones) that have been preserved is relatively high. Until the 3rd century the Roman army was still strongly oriented towards heavy line infantry . Around 258 AD, the military reformer Emperor Gallienus finally created a heavy cavalry based on the Persian model, which was called cataphractarii or clibanarii after its armor and formed the backbone of the Roman army in late antiquity . These special units were mostly in the ranks of the field armies .

There were also more cataphract and clibanarian associations in the eastern Roman provincial armies than in the western ones, as one was confronted in the east of the empire with the well-drilled, equally heavily armed and armored armored personnel of the Sassanids . From the 4th century to the 6th century, however, such armored riders made up the majority of the heavy cavalry in the Roman army of the West.

If one interprets some sources correctly, the cataphracts have only partially proven themselves in battle. In return, however, they are likely to have made a stronger impression on the audience during marches and parades. Here they offered an impressive spectacle that aroused a feeling of trust and security in the audience, as well as poets, speakers and historians to write hymns of praise .


Without exception, the armored infantry units belonged to the Comitatenses . This also led to the view that the later introduced clibinarii may have had more modern, more advanced armor in contrast to the cataphracts.


The main armament of a cataphract consisted of the Contus . A lance with a sword-like tip on a three to five meter long, two-handed shaft. At the lower end there was a pointed lance shoe with which opponents who were already lying on the ground could be impaled. In addition, a long double-edged sword (the so-called was Sarmatic Langschwert or spatha - sword) supported. In late antiquity, as a reaction to the Hunnic equestrian peoples from the east, additional equipment with bows was also widespread. Either a spangle helmet , a bow helmet or a mask helmet was worn as head protection . The cataphracts in the east often carried maces or clubs instead of swords , and there (since classical antiquity) long-range and powerful reflex bows were part of the standard armament. Rarely, however, came mainly in Bactria and battle-axes or skidding used.

Definition of cataphract or clibanarian

Relief on the Trajan Column , Rome: Sarmatian cataphracts flee from the onrushing Roman cavalry

The distinction between heavy and light antique armored riders was made more difficult by remarks in texts of the 4th century in which, in addition to the catafractarius , the clibanarius is suddenly mentioned . The riders protected themselves primarily with scale , chain or lamellar armor , some parts consisting of mixed segments. The heavier armored version of a cataphract may have been referred to as a clibanarius - but to this day it is still a matter of dispute what exactly the difference between clibanarii and cataphracti was. Even if the Persian origin of the term clibanarians can be considered largely certain, it is still unclear whether cataphracts and clibanarians were considered to belong to the same genus of heavy cavalry within the Roman army, or whether they were indeed differentiated from one another.

It seems that the older term cataphract is initially the umbrella term for heavy armored riders and the later Clibanarian just a special force, perhaps fully armored, mainly recruited in the east. Since the term Kataphrakt meant the general and Clibanarian a special form of Panzerreiter, it was assumed that the latter differed on the basis of their equipment, while with the Kataphrakts there were probably several options on this point in the course of time.

This may also have affected the frequency and quality of horse armor. One must also reckon with the fact that the terms cataphract and clibanarian may have deviated from their original meaning over time. The Romans, it seems superficially, should not necessarily have understood the same thing by cataphracts and clibanaries. On the basis of the inscription on a stele found in Klaudiopolis in Asia Minor , M. P. Speidel even assumes that the horses of the cataphracts later also wore armor, which would automatically have turned their riders into Clibanaries.

According to Marius Mielczarek, they do not differ in their armament, but in their special fighting style. Both were heavily armored and armed with the contus , but the Clibanarians were deployed together with mounted archers in mixed formations while the cataphracts operated in closed - that is, unmixed - units. These different procedures were always precisely tailored to the respective opponent: cataphracts were used against the infantry, clibanarians against the cavalry. In a sense, it is always a question of conventional cataphracts, which have been specially trained as clibanaries to enable them to operate side by side with archers in battle. This would also explain why there are no specially designated Clibanarians in the ancient picture sources. This cannot be recorded figuratively either, but it can be stated in the inscriptions, as the stele of Valerius Fuscianus from Klaudiopolis shows.

The equestrian armor

Armor, attachment scheme for metal scales

The masked helmets cited by Ammianus and Heliodorus could not yet be archaeologically proven for the period after the middle of the 3rd century AD; they were certainly no longer forged from one piece as in the 2nd century AD, but probably already clasp or comb helmets . Although there were certainly exceptions here. In 2004, for example, a crested helmet was discovered in the municipality of Biberwier on the Fernpass in Tyrol, the crown of which was driven from one piece. As with Roman helmets from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the cheek flaps were also attached to the bowl with hinges. For the transition period from the mid-imperial helmet to the late Roman crested helmet, some specimens have so far been recovered that showed mixed forms of both types. There were also many hinges on early comb helmets, which were later omitted. The description of the armor parts in Heliodor's work should apply to scale armor or lamellar armor, but the specified side length of around 20 cm would be more suitable for segment armor.

A pictorial representation of a Parthian-Persian (or Roman?) Clibanarius , which roughly matches Heliodor's text, can be found on an incised drawing in the fortress town of Dura-Europos . It shows a mixture of segment armor, scale armor and / or chain armor. While the horizontally pushed, hoop-like splints encompassing the extremities correspond to the usual manica (arm and leg protection), as we know them from other illustrations, the arrangement of two rows of vertically joined long splints around the torso from the waist to the lower one Part of the chest rather untypical. It resembles a mix of a plate belt with a mail shirt, which was used by the eastern tank types well into modern times. Parallels have been drawn with similar tanks from India, in which the Parthian type of clibanarian armor was preserved until the 19th century. Ortwin Gamber thinks it is a mixture of Iranian, old Persian and Greek weapons technology.

This development was probably triggered by the campaigns of Alexander the Great , whose cavalry may have familiarized the peoples of the East with the cataphract armor, which is known from Xenophon's description. The Greek word for “covered” originally only meant the western armored rider. The protective equipment of such a rider with a flap armor, probably lined with metal, masked helmet and pushed armguard can also be seen together with parts of the horse's armor on a frieze in Pergamon, Anatolia . Taking up Eastern traditions, the Parthians then developed their Clibanarians as an answer to the Hellenistic cataphracts, for whom the mixed armor of chain, scale, lamellar and segment armor is also typical.


The standard bearer of a cataphract unit usually carried a Draco standard and was therefore called Draconarius . This "kite" standard with one or more wind bands was also adopted by Sarmatian horsemen .

At the beginning of the 2nd century AD, the traditional field symbols ( vexillum ) of the Roman cavalry were gradually replaced by so-called dragon standards. The drago consists of an open, cylindrical metal body, the front end of which is worked as a dragon's head. A long airbag made of light, dyed fabric was attached to the far end, which inflates when there is a headwind. A well-preserved dragon head was found in the Niederbieber fort . It consists of silver-plated and partly also gold-plated copper sheet. Ammianus Marcellinus describes a scene in which Constantius II is surrounded by dragon standards interwoven with purple threads, which are stuck on gilded lance tips decorated with precious stones (but probably only stones made of glass). According to ancient reports, if the dragon heads were held directly in the wind, they should also have made hissing noises. These noises could have been caused by metal slats or wires inside the dragon's mouth and were intended to intimidate the enemy.

The horse armor

Gravestone of two cataphracts of the alae firmae catafractariae from Stuttgart / Bad Cannstatt (3rd century AD)
Reconstruction of a Roman horse forehead (Vindolanda Museum)

The practice of armoring horses is very old. Already in the 2nd millennium BC The draft animals of the chariots , which were particularly exposed in battle , were provided with protective blankets. In the armies of the Diadochi there was lamellar armor, at least for the part of the horse's trunk in front of the saddle.

In recent research it was often assumed that armored horses did not appear among the Romans until the clibanarii of the 4th century appeared, but it would have been illogical to create a new name for a branch of arms that had been around for a long time Roman army gave. The error arose from the fact that until a few years ago it was assumed that the horsemen depicted on soldiers' grave stones from the 1st century AD and on the Trajan column wore leather armor. In Ammianus Marcellinus's report on the Battle of Strasbourg in 357, it is stated that the cataphract is protected by its armor, but that if he is not on his guard in the battle, it can be quickly knocked over by a stab in the horse's side. This passage of text could also be interpreted to mean that the rider wore armor, but his horse did not. As a rule, the horse armor is also missing from the gravestone images.

However, one can reasonably assume that Roman cataphracts, like their Hellenistic and Oriental predecessors, rode on armored horses. In this sense, Arrian also reports in his work on the art of war that both horse and rider were protected with the cataphracts, the men with chain braid, linen or horn and thigh armor, the horses with face plates and protective covers. In contrast to Greek horse foreheads and front armor, which only shielded the most exposed parts of the horse, the mounts of the cataphracts were almost entirely shielded with metal, leather or horn scales, lamellar or chain armor reinforced ceilings.

The above-mentioned graffito from Dura-Europos, which dates from the 3rd century AD and shows a cataphract galloping up on an armored horse with an inlaid lance, is generally regarded as an image of a Parthian or Persian rider, but it could well be also deal with a Roman, especially since excellent preserved Roman protective blankets were found in Dura-Europos (see below). The armored riders of Maxentius described by Nazarius looked very similar at the Battle of Turin in 312 AD:

“What a terrible, terrifying sight! The horses and the riders are covered with an iron cover in the same way! They are called Clibanarians in the army. "

However, the text is only to be understood as panegyric and not to be taken literally. In Nazarius, the well-armed but tyrannical Maxentius is opposed to the god-fearing Constantine . A little later he calls the same Panzerreiter cataphracts again. The rare image and written sources contrast with a considerable number of excavated specimens. In the Kurganen (burial mounds) of the Scythians , numerous remains of horse armor were found, especially face plates. Greek horse foreheads and breastplates for horses made of bronze have also survived in large quantities from pre-Roman times. Most of them come from Greece , southern Italy and Sicily , further evidence that cavalry contingents played a greater role in the warfare of the western Greeks than in the home country itself. These horse foreheads protected the horse's head from the front, but not the sides and eyes. A purely decorative role is also possible.

The Sarmatians were the main role model for the Romans. Sometimes their horses were armored, sometimes not. Horse armor is also mentioned in the literature, among other things. The images on the triumphal monuments of the 1st century AD, however, are only very schematic and imprecise:

On the Trajan Column , Sarmatians are depicted on their armored horses, while later grave stelae are members of the

  • Equites Cataphractarii Pictavenses and the
  • Equites Cataphractarii Ambianses

again show armored riders on unarmored horses.

The horse armor from Dura

Sketches of the horse armor from Dura-Europos
Iron scales of a Roman tank from Enns (Linz Castle Museum)

Since Roman picture sources - in contrast to the Sassanid ones - hardly give any indications, it is an extraordinary archaeological stroke of luck that in Dura-Europos in Syria three almost complete horse armor covers (one of them was perforated by a sling ball) from the early 3rd century AD . were excavated. Two of them are shown in the adjacent sketch. The left measures 122 cm × 169 cm, the right 148 cm × 110 cm, minus the two appendages that should encircle the horse's chest. They consist of coarse linen on which (left) bronze or (right) iron scales have been sewn. The iron scales are relatively large, 25 × 35 mm. They were also held together with bronze wire through holes in the side. The protective blankets are lined with strips of red leather along the edges and along the spine. An oval recess has been left free for the saddle. Since the armor beneath the saddle recess otherwise runs through without interruption, the rider can only have weakly noticeably pressed the horse's flanks with his thighs. The blankets were almost certainly supplemented by armored neck and head protection. The armored covers were intended for medium-sized and very strongly built horses. Many cataphracts will probably have made do with simpler leather, rawhide , felt or linen blankets.

Finding circumstances

Ortolf Harl disputes whether these finds are actually Roman or not Persian pieces of equipment. It was found in tower 19, which was undermined during the siege of the city by the Sassanids and so partially collapsed, with the roof and the false ceilings also being destroyed. The horse armor in question was found with a hodgepodge of other protective and assault weapons (parts from other horse armor, three feathered arrow shafts, some projectile tips, a painted shield, etc.).

Describing tower 19 as an armory of a cataphract unit is problematic - according to Ortolf Harl - due to the findings, as it was outside the premises of the auxiliary force camp and the houses surrounding it could not be assigned to any military function. In addition, the finds are noticeably heterogeneous and each of them lacks an important component. According to the excavators, the parts had been damaged and were waiting to be repaired. The tower was obviously hotly contested during the siege and it is therefore not unlikely that the equipment was damaged in the course of these fighting. This would also explain the presence of the three armored ceilings in the tower.

In Harl's view, the Romans did not use horse armor at all, since the pictorial representations (tombstones) of Roman cataphracts that have become known so far have no evidence of this. It seems that they were in reality loot and that the defenders used them on the tower crown to protect themselves against the attackers' projectiles. When the tower was evacuated - probably at the last minute - because of the acute danger of collapse, the crew certainly only took usable material with them and left the "repair pieces" behind.

Disadvantages of horse armor

A horse protected in this way was of course far less vulnerable to the effects of weapons, especially the arrow fire that is common in the east, than an unarmored one. The disadvantage, however, was the great hindrance to the animal's mobility. Less because of the mechanical nature, as the armor gave elasticity to the movement. The weight that was added to that of the fully armored rider was more uncomfortable here.

If you put all the dimensions and materials of the bronze dura horseshed armor together and add missing parts for the chest and neck, you come to a total weight of at least 40 kg, together with the metal horse forehead even 45 kg.

The worst thing for the animal was undoubtedly the lack of fresh air and water. If you also consider that cataphracts were mainly used in the Orient, your horses must have started to sweat profusely soon after the attempt. However, high moisture loss, if not immediately compensated for, is very dangerous for an exhausted horse.

The great disadvantage of Kataphraktenreiterei was the logistical effort, i. H. Bringing horses and riders to the place of work in the first place. The Persians therefore also bred particularly strong fighting horses. Like a knight in the Middle Ages, his ancient colleague certainly needed several horses to be able to fight at all:

  • a riding horse,
  • at least one pack horse (or mule ) and
  • two or more fighting horses.

Such favorable conditions were by no means always available locally, which may also partly explain why the achievements of the Roman cataphracts (and probably also those of other peoples) often fell short of the expectations placed on them.


However, once they arrived on the battlefield and were used in the correct tactical way, cataphracts had a devastating effect. The primary task of the Panzerreiter was to break through the enemy's battle line as a shock cavalry, which became even more powerful after the introduction of the stirrup around AD 600. The force of attack from an oncoming cataphract formation was strong enough to break any other kind of cavalry line-up they encountered. Heliodor explains:

"[...] If there is a fight, he lets the horse free the reins, gives him the spurs and roars against the enemy like a man made of iron or a living bronze statue. The lance, inserted horizontally, protrudes far ahead with its tip and is held by a loop on the horse's neck. The end of the shaft hangs in a loop on the horse's thigh and does not give in on impact, but supports the hand of the rider, who only needs to direct the impact. If he lies down in the lance and punches with the full force of his onslaught, he pierces everything that comes in his way and sometimes lifts two people up with one push. "

They were very difficult to put out of action with the long-range weapons used at the time. Before that, however, they had to be adequately surrounded by light troops, especially mounted archers and other skirmishers ( Lanciarii ). Their first attack served to prepare for the attack of the Panzerriders, as the Parthians and Persians had successfully demonstrated to the Romans several times. Similar to medieval knights, the attack was carried out at a slow trot in close formation and was often just a deception to force the enemy infantry into close defensive formations in order to then offer an easy target for the advancing archers. The Parthian tactic consisted in covering the advancing enemy with a vast number of volleys of arrows with the light archers in order to make them so friable and vulnerable to an attack by the heavy cavalry. So the opponent had the choice of either opening up his formation to offer the archers fewer targets, but instead becoming easy prey for the cataphracts or holding out in the hail of bullets. This is what happened at the Battle of Carrhae , 53 BC. Chr .:

“Then the enemy went to work. His light cavalry rode in circles along the Roman flanks and fired their arrows, while the armored riders in the center used the long spears and rounded up the Romans in ever denser space, except for a few who decided to avoid death by arrow shots by using them desperately broke out of formation and attacked the enemy. They did little, however, and only met quicker death from large, terrible wounds. The Parthian lance that they thrust into the horses is heavily clad in steel and often had enough force to pierce two men straight through at once. "

- Plutarch : Life of Crassus, 27

An elite warrior of the cataphracts was well versed in the handling of lances and bows, as it is e.g. B. is described in the Strategikon of the Byzantine emperor Maurikios :

"The rider should shoot one or two arrows at full gallop and then stick the bowed bow into the sheath [...] and now he should grab the lance that he was carrying on his back."

- Maurikios : Strategikon, 1.1

Julian's account of the Battle of Mursa in AD 351 is similar :

"Supported by the other riders who spurred the horses and attacked, the cataphracts soon began to inflict heavy losses on the enemy with their arrow fire."

- Iulianus Imperator : Orationes, 1.30

Due to their weight, Panzerreiter were less or less suitable for the traditional task of the cavalry of chasing and destroying fleeing enemies. Reports that these armored riders were nevertheless relatively easy to put out of action by simply dodging them, then slitting the unprotected bellies of the already exhausted horses from below and then killing the helpless riders lying on the ground with club blows, must be treated with considerable caution . Similar stories are also spread about the knights of the Middle Ages, that they first had to be hoisted onto the horse with cranes and, once they were on the ground, they would not have been able to get up on their own, let alone run. It is certainly not for nothing that the recognized historian and officer Ammianus Marcellinus spoke of a “ formidabile genus armorum ”, a terrifying weapon (16, 12, 7). If the infantry was well managed, a cataphract attack could still be stopped, just as the Romans did in the Battle of the Taurus Mountains in 39 BC. Chr. Succeeded. However, eleven legions were required for this. Often a ruse was used to switch off storming cataphracts. In the Battle of Nisibis in 217, the Roman infantry succeeded in luring the Parthian armored riders to specially prepared terrain:

“The barbarians caused great damage in the Roman lines with the large number of their projectiles and their over-long spears on the armored riders who fought down from their camels and horses. In close combat, however, the Romans were superior to them; but when the numerous cavalry and camel riders harassed them more and more, they faked a quick retreat and threw foot rods (lilies) and other sharp staples behind them. Since they immediately disappeared in the loose sand, they could not be seen by the advancing enemies, which should be their undoing. Because as soon as the horses and especially the camels stepped on these spikes with their sensitive hooves, they lame and fell on their knees, so that their riders were thrown off. "

- Herodian, 4.15. 1-3

Armored infantry units in the late Roman army

After completing their military service, Sarmatian mercenaries were settled in Gaul or Britain , among other places , so the Cataphractarii units they provide have Gaulish or Celtic-sounding uniform names:

  • Biturigenses,
  • Ambianenses and
  • Albigenses.

In the Roman army, however, the number of cataphract and clibanary units was never particularly high. As with the mounted archers, it can be assumed that there were several smaller companies that were assigned to the regular cavalry units only for special tasks and therefore did not appear on behalf of their associations. Far from all of the cataphracts and clibanarians came from the east. The names of their relatives, which were found on tombstones, suggest extensive recruiting in the western part of the empire.

Cataphracts and Clibanary Units in the Late Roman Army (Western and Eastern Empire)
or headquarters
Surname Number of
strength (highest level)
Comes domesticorum equitum Constantinople Schola scutariorum clibanariorum * 01 0500
Magister militum praesentialis I. Nicaea Comites clibanarii *
Equites cataphractarii Biturigenses
Equites I clibanarii Parthi
03 1500
Magister militum praesentialis II Adrianople Equites Persae clibanarii *
Equites cataphractarii
Equites cataphractarii Ambianenses
Equites II clibanarii Parthi
04th 2000
Magister militum per Orientem Antioch (Syria) Comites cataphractarii Bucellarii iuniores
Equites promoti clibanarii
Equites IV clibanarii Parthi
Cuneus equitum II clibanariorum Palmirenorum
04th 1750
Magister militum per Thracias Marcianopolis Equites cataphractarii Albigenses 01 0500
Dux Thebaidos Pambane Ala I Iovia cataphractariorum 01 0250
Dux Scythiae Arubio Cuneus equitum cataphractariorum 01 0250
Eastern Empire as a whole 15th 6750
Magister equitum praesentalis Mediolanum Comites Alani *
Equites sagitarii clibanarii
02 1000
Comes Africae Carthage Equites clibanarii 01 0500
Comes Britanniarum Londinium Equites cataphractarii iuniores 01 0500
Western empire as a whole 04th 2000
Guard units are marked with *.


Chronicle of Johannes Skylitzes , Codex Graecus Matritensis, Byzantine cataphracts attack the Bulgarians ( Biblioteca Nacional de España , Madrid )
Byzantine kataphraktoi of the 9th century

Link to the picture
(please note copyrights )

Emperor Nikephoros II. Phokas (960–969) tried to revive the heavy cavalry of late antiquity by introducing the Kataphraktoi to the Tagmata regiments. These were professional soldiers who were stationed directly in the capital, Constantinople . Nikephorus II waged many wars during his short reign and was particularly successful in the Eastern subjects , which opened up new recruiting areas for riders (they were mainly dug in southeastern Europe, Asia Minor and the Middle East), Byzantium was still up to 1071 very active.

In the Battle of Manzikert , however, most of the armored riders were possibly destroyed or a good part dispersed and were thus lost to the empire. After this catastrophic defeat, the costs of reorganizing the armored cavalry were probably too high to be borne by the now considerably weakened Byzantium.

Emperor Manuel I Komnenos is credited with introducing Frankish cavalry fighting methods in the Byzantine army . The higher European saddle was also introduced along with other Western cavalry equipment, but did not predominate until the 13th century.


The Kataphraktoi carried a sword and a dagger each for his defense. The standard sword also used by the rest of the Byzantine cavalry was the spathion . In combat, however, mainly spears or lances were used.

A combination of chain, scale or lamellar armor was used as armor , supplemented by a small, round wooden shield reinforced with iron straps, which was strapped to the forearm or hung down from the waist. To round things off better, they also wore forearm protection, chain gloves and an iron helmet with a neck guard made of chain mesh. The helmet was usually the same model used by the infantry. The lancers wore a 24-inch round shield , the archers only a 12-inch round shield.

Head and chest of the horses, as well as those of the officers and riders in the front ranks, were additionally armored with forehead shields and iron plates. The horses were otherwise mostly unarmored. In summer they wore a linen tunic , in winter one made of wool. A chain mail shirt was put on over the tunic and usually a breastplate made of lamellas. A brownish fur coat served as protection from the cold and wet. From the 5th to the 9th century there were massive changes in horse bridles, which mostly followed models from Central Asia . Above all, they brought new saddles, horseshoes and the most important thing, the stirrup .


The front four rows used a combination of arrows and bows along with swords and lances, while other, lighter riders, carried a composite bow. In a unit of 300 lancers, there could be up to 80 mounted archers. They were the elite of the Byzantine army and their job was to break through the enemy heavy cavalry or infantry, either massively disrupting them, or breaking their order of battle. In addition, the fallen cavalry and foot soldiers should be largely eliminated. The kataphraktoi of the militia associations were supported by units of similarly armed regular units and the heavily armored battle cavalry of the emperor's palace army, consisting of Germanic mercenaries. In addition, weir farmers who had been trained in the use of the powerful Hunnic reflex arc were used.


There were also cataphracts in the kingdom of Hayasdan ( Armenia ). Here they mostly belonged to the nobility, either the Nahrharar or the less powerful Azat families. They had high social and political influence and were used until the Middle Ages ; the Byzantines, Sassanids, and Turks often recruited them as mercenaries for their elite units.

Other meanings of cataphract


  • 31 BC Chr .: Armored riders from the armies of Cleopatra VII and other eastern allies are included in the army of Mark Antony .
  • 69 AD: The chronicler Josephus mentions oriental armored riders armed with lances who are used by Titus against Jewish rebels.
  • 110 AD: Trajan sets up the first regular cataphract unit of the Roman army.
  • 115–120 AD: List of Ala I Gallorum et Pannoniorum catafracta .
  • 175 AD: The steppe people of the Jazygen make peace with Rome and take 8000 cavalrymen as hostages. 5500 of them are transferred to Britain.
  • 227–235 AD: deployment of eastern armored riders on the Rhine border (under Severus Alexander and Maximinus Thrax ).
  • 234–235 AD: List of Ala nova firma catafractaria .
  • 235 AD: Panzerreiter (archers) from the Osrhoene try to depose Emperor Maximinus Thrax and proclaim the former consul Quartinus as emperor. He is killed shortly afterwards by the former commander of these units.
  • 312 AD: Near Turin , the troops defeat Constantine I Maxentius ’s elite cavalry, the Vexillatio cataphractorium .
  • 337–361 AD: During the reign of Constantius II , the cataphract and clibanary units were raised and strengthened in their status.
  • 380-420 AD: In the state almanac Notitia Dignitatum numerous units of the Cataphractarii and Clibanarii appear.


  • Ross Cowan, Angus McBride: Roman Legionaries. Republic (58 BC - 69 AD) and Empire (161 - 244 AD). Siegler, Königswinter 2007, ISBN 978-3-87748-658-0 , p. 88.
  • Ortwin Gamber : cataphracts, clibanaries, Norman riders. In: Yearbook of the Art History Collections in Vienna. 64, 1968, ISSN  0075-2312 , pp. 7-44.
  • Ortolf Harl: The Cataphractarians in the Roman Army - Panegyric and Reality. In: Yearbook of the Roman-Germanic Central Museum. Vol. 43, Part 2, 1996, ISSN  0076-2741 , pp. 601-627.
  • Ian Heath, Angus McBride: Byzantine Armies, 886-1118. London, Osprey Publishing 2002, ISBN 0-85045-306-2 ( Men at Arms 89).
  • Marcus Junkelmann : The riders of Rome. Volume 3: Accessories, riding style, armament. Verlag Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 1992, ISBN 3-8053-1288-1 ( Cultural History of the Ancient World 53), (4th edition, ibid 2008, ISBN 978-3-8053-1006-2 ).
  • Taxiarchis G. Kolias: Byzantine weapons. A contribution to Byzantine armory from the beginnings to the Latin conquest. Publishing house of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna 1988, ISBN 3-7001-1471-0 ( Byzantina Vindobonensia 17).
  • Mariusz Mielczarek: Cataphracti and Clibanarii. Studies on the heavy armored cavalry of the ancient world. Oficyna Naukowa MS, Lodz 1993, ISBN 83-85874-00-3 ( Studies on the history of ancient and medieval art of warfare 1).
  • Philip Matyszak: Legionnaire in the Roman Army. Translated from the English by Jörg Fündling . Primus Verlag, Darmstadt 2010, ISBN 978-3-89678-822-1 , p. 121 f.
  • Johannes Preiser-Kapeller: The Emperor's tanks. Heavy armored cavalry in late Rome and Byzantium. In: Carbuncle Combat. No. 2, special issue, 2006, ISSN  0944-2677 , pp. 36–39 (overview with citations from sources and further literature; pre-print online: ._Communicating_Science_to_the_Public_ ).
  • David Soria Molina: Cataphractii y clibanarii. La caballería pesada del ejército romano, de Severo Alejandro and Justiniano. In: Aquila legionis. Cuadernos de estudios sobre el ejército romano. 15, 2012, pp. 117-163.
  • Valerii P. Nikonorov: Cataphracti, Catafractarii and Clibanarii: Another Look at the old problem of their Identifications. In Voennaia arkheologiia: Oruzhie i voennoe delo v istoricheskoi i sotsial.noi perspektiven (Military Archeology: Weaponry and Warfare in the Historical and Social Perspective). Sankt-Petersbourg 1998, pp. 131-138.
  • Franz Altheim: Decline of the Old World, an investigation of the causes , Volume 1, Die Ausserromische Welt, Verlag V. Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 1952, pp. 137–142.
  • M. Schleiermacher: Roman equestrian tombstones. The imperial reliefs of the triumphant rider. Bonn, 1984.
  • Raffaele D'Amato, Andrey E. Negin: Roman Heavy Cavalry, Cataphractarii & Clibanarii, 1st Century BC – 5th Century AD, Elite 225, Osprey Publishing, 2018, ISBN 9781472830036 .

Web links

Commons : Kataphrakt  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Kataphrakt  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. Negan / D'Amato 2018
  2. ^ HG Lidell, R. Scott: A Greek-English Lexicon . Oxford 1930, p. 920 .
  3. O. Guevaud: Enteuxeis, Requetes et plaintes adressees au roi d'Egypte au Ille siecle avant . 32 and 45. Cairo 1931.
  4. Historia 1, 79.
  5. CIL 11, 5632 = Inscriptiones Latinae selectae 2735, honorary inscription for M. Maenius C. f. Cor. Agrippa L. Tusidius Campester, who at the time of Hadrian this ala during his command of the cohors I Hispanorum equ. and commanded the classis Britannica .
  6. Historia Augusta Vita Alexander Severus 56, 5.
  7. Hoffmann II 110 note 602, F. Rundgren, Orientalia Sucena 6, 1957–1958, pp. 31–52, J. Becker, grave inscription of a Roman armored rider officer, Neujahrsblätter ver. Gesch., Frankfurt am Main 1868, p. 23
  8. Junkelmann p. 216.
  9. Speidel 1984, pp. 15–156, plate 15 f.
  10. Mielczarek p. 193
  11. Mielczarek pp. 48–50, note 33.
  12. ^ Christian Miks: Late Roman crested helmets with a high crested disc . In: Yearbook of the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum Mainz 55, 2008, pp. 449–482; here: p. 449.
  13. Marcus Junkelmann: The riders of Rome, part III: accessories, riding style, armament , von Zabern, Mainz 1992, ISBN 3-8053-1288-1 , pp. 200-201.
  14. tegminibus ferreis abscondito bellatori
  15. latere forato iumenti incautum rectorem praecipitem agere
  16. Ortolf Harl p. 605.
  17. Panegyrici Latini 10, 22, 4.
  18. Panegyrici Latini 10, 23, 4.
  19. Junkelmann 2008, p. 214.
  20. Ortolf Harl 1998, p. 624 ff.
  21. Ortolf Harl 1998, p. 625.
  22. Matysak 2009, p. 121 f.
  23. Schleiermacher 1984, p. Figs. 88 and 90, CIL 13, 3493 , CIL 13, 3495
  24. Pan. Lat. XII