Cataphract cavalry

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Cataphract cavalry


  • Cataphract

    Historical re-enactment of a Sassanid-era cataphract, completewith a full set of scale armor for the horse. Note the riders 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: - Kataphraktos (plural: 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 elded 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 inuenced 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 eective; 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 (253268AD) 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(, or various transliterations such as Cat-aphraktos, Cataphractos, or Katafraktos) is composed ofthe Greek root words, , a preposition, and ,covered, protected, which is interpreted along the linesof fully armored or closed from all sides. The termrst 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 ascataphracts. 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)" thecataphract 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: Klibanophoroi,



    Relief Taq-e Bostan (Kermanshah Province in Iran) from the eraof Sassanid Empire: One of the oldest depictions of a cataphract.The gure on top in the middle is believed to be Khosrau II. Thegure 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 word, 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 pansiderois 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 dierently 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 o-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 inuence (especially after the 7th century, whenLatin ceased to be the ocial 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, rst 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 dierent types of fully armored cav-alry in the armies of dierent 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 rst 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 rst 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 specic purposes, as is evidenced by the

  • 3large 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 rstoccurred.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 rst Iranian Empire in 625 BC. It wasthe Median Empire that left the rst written proof ofhorse breeding around the 7th century BC, being therst to propagate a specic 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 inuencedmany 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 mili