Friday, April 6, 2012


The term "Cataphract" was not exclusive to the Byzantines. Derived from the Greek "κατάφρακτοι" meaning "fully enclosed", the adjective was used to describe the heavily armoured cavalry of most armies in Anatolia and the Near East. The common feature of all was the fact that both rider and horse were covered and protected by scale armour, exposing the least possible amount of their bodies. In general, the role of the cataphract unit was to charge and smash into enemy lines taking advantage of the sheer mass and armour that would have inevitably instilled terror into the hearts of the defending infantry.      

The Byzantine cataphract originated from the late Roman heavy cavalry units which contained a significant amount of cataphracti covered in scale armour, carrying a long, heavy lance called a kontus with some also carrying a bow, possibly copying eastern examples of a more maneuverable cavalry. The first known cataphract  units in the Roman Army was the ala I Gallorum et Pannoniorum catafractata which appeared in the reign of Hadrian (117-138 AD) but whose record and equipment vanished into the mist of historical obscurity. It has been calculated that by the late fourth/early fifth century heavy armoured cavalry made up approximately 15 per cent of the comitatenses or field army, in comparison with lancers and other heavy cavalry (61 per cent) and light cavalry (24 per cent). During the same period, the Notitia Dignitatum, a Roman document recording the administrative organisation of both western and eastern empires mentions 9 units of catafractarii. Parallel to these units there was also the mention of unit of clibanarii. These derived their name from  the Greek word "κλίβανος" meaning furnace, obvioulsy alluding to the heavy armour that effectively covered the soldier in his entirety.

Despite the presence of cataphract units throughout the early period of Byzantine hegemony, their actual period of glory was to coincide with the Byzantine military renaissance of the tenth century. By that time, the cavalry was divided into three arms: the archers, koursores and kataphraktoi. The archers were lighly armed and protected, being therefore the most maneuverable and agile of the cavalry units whereas the koursores were medium troops with the most flexible and far-ranging role, expected to engage in hand-to-hand combat but against other medium/light cavalry and small groups of infantry. The cataphract uit though was destined to fight against the hardest and most critical targets. A vast amount of information concerning the equipment and battle tactics of the cataphract units of the tenth century derives from the Praecepta Militaria written by the Emperor Nikephoros Phocas around 965 AD. The treatise's full Greek title is : "Στρατηγικὴ ἔκθεσις καὶ σύνταξις Νικηφόρου δεσπότου ". It's third chapter deals exclusively  with the cataphract unit.

The armour of the 10th century cataphract seems complex with layer upon layer of scale or mail protecting every apendage of the soldier. Timothy Dawson's illustrious book on the Byzantine Cavalryman of c.900-1204 vividly depicts the details of each layer of armour. In summary, each layer was as follows: the peristhethidion, a padded jacket with short sleeves, the podopsella or greaves, the kremasmata, a pair of padded skirts faced with mail, scales or inverted lamellae. Then came the klivanion, which protected the upper part of the body (chest,stomach, etc). The klivanion was followed by the manikellia or upper sleaves protecting the shoulders. Finally the metal armour would be complete with the addition of the helmet. A mail skirt would hang from the helm covering all the face apart from the eyes. all the body armour was enclosed in an epilorikion, a padded surcoat probably made of cotton wadding in a raw silk cover 'as thick as may be stitched'. Finally the horse would be equipped with an iron headpiece and its chest and neck protected by klivania of ox-hide lamellar, or coverings of laminated felt.

A cataphract reconstruction created by Timothy Dawson
Reconstructing a cataphract by Timothy Dawson

Representation of the lamellar uniform of the cataphracts, taken from a 14th century manuscript

The defensive weapon of the cavalry was originally the round shield "skoutaria" being either domed or conical with a 90 cm diameter. By the 12th century with Western influences permeating Byzantine weapons the kite shield was also adopted. As aggresive weapons, the cataphract would use a relatively short lance (2.5m), two types of sword-the straight, double-edged "spathion" and the slighly curved, single-edged "paramerion" and finally a variety of maces :"sideroravdion" or "spathoravdion".

Battle tactics
The main function of the cataprhact unit was not to battle against enemy cavalry units but to use their heavy armour and sheer mass to smash into infantry formations. Hence during battle the general would have the cataphracts wait until the right moment to charge into enemy infantry formations rose up. Once deployed they would form in a blunt wedge formation twelve ranks deep, as the one described by Nikephoros Phocas. According to the latter, the first four lines were armed with maces while the rest alternating swords and spears. The number of these heavy cavalry was restricted according to Phocas to a mere 500 individuals for the whole of the army.

Finally, the resurgence of the cataphract units during the early 10 century coincides with the transformation of the Byzantine defensive strategy of the previous two centuries to a more expansive and aggressive outlook that would focus on reclaiming the lost territories in the Balkans and the East.

REFERENCES: Two books were used for this post, the mostly general book by John Haldon "Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World 565-1204" (UCL Press, 1999) that links a whole array of political, social, cultural and religious aspects to the development of the Byzantine military and Timothy Dawson's Osprey publication booklet on the Byzantine cavalry (900-1204) that contains a great amount of vivid descriptions and informative illustrations.

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