Cataphract: Iconic Warrior of Medieval Times

The cataphract was one of the most iconic warriors of ancient and medieval times. These heavily armored cavalrymen were used by various armies throughout history, from the Persians to the Byzantines, and were known for their formidable defensive capabilities and devastating charges.

In this article, we will explore the history of the cataphract, their armor and weapons, and their role in battle.

Cataphract Medieval Soldier on horseback
Cataphract *Medieval Cavalry

“The cataphract was a formidable warrior, feared for their heavily armored horse and devastating charge. They were a decisive force on the battlefield, capable of breaking through even the strongest enemy lines.”

Dr. Peter Frankopan, Professor of Global History at Oxford University.

Origins of the Cataphract

The use of heavily armored cavalry dates back to ancient times, with the Assyrians and Persians among the first to use such troops. The Persians, in particular, are known for their use of the cataphract, which they called “katafraktos”.

The term is derived from the Greek word “kataphraktos”, which means “fully armored”, and refers to the complete suit of armor worn by these cavalrymen.

The Persians used cataphracts extensively in their wars against the Greeks in the 5th century BC, and the concept was later adopted by other ancient civilizations, such as the Parthians and the Sarmatians.

The Byzantine Empire, which emerged from the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD, also used cataphracts extensively in their armies.

Map of the Byzantine Empire
Map of the Byzantine Empire during Middle Ages

Armor and Weapons of the Cataphract

The armor worn by the cataphract was one of their most distinctive features. It consisted of a complete suit of armor, which covered not only the warrior but also their horse. The armor was made of overlapping scales or plates of metal, which provided excellent protection against arrows, spears, and other weapons.

Scale Armour

The armor of the cataphract was not only protective but also decorative. It was often adorned with intricate designs and patterns, and some even had inscriptions or religious symbols engraved on them. The armor was also often painted in bright colors, making the cataphract a striking sight on the battlefield.

“The cataphract was a symbol of power and prestige in ancient and medieval societies. The expense of their armor and training made them elite soldiers, reserved for the most important battles.”

Dr. Kelly DeVries, Professor of History at Loyola University Maryland.

In addition to their armor, cataphracts were also armed with a variety of weapons. These included a lance or spear, a sword or mace, and a bow and arrows. The lance or spear was their primary weapon, used for devastating charges against enemy lines. The sword or mace was used for close combat, while the bow and arrows were used for ranged attacks.

Varangian Guard of The Byzantine Empire

Role in Battle

The cataphract played a crucial role in many ancient and medieval battles. They were used both as a shock troop, charging into enemy lines with their lances or spears, and as a formidable defensive force, protecting the flanks and rear of an army.

Cataphract Medieval Cavalry Soldier
Cataphract *Medieval Cavalry

The charge of a cataphract was a terrifying sight for the enemy. The heavily armored warrior and their equally armored horse would thunder towards the enemy lines, breaking through even the strongest formations. Once they had broken through, they would turn and charge back through the enemy lines, causing chaos and confusion.

“The Byzantine cataphract was the pinnacle of heavy cavalry in the Middle Ages, and their armor was the envy of Europe. They were a formidable force, able to withstand enemy attacks and deliver devastating charges.”

Dr. Warren Treadgold, Emeritus Professor of Byzantine Studies at St. Louis University.

The cataphract was also effective in defensive situations. Their armor made them almost impervious to enemy attacks, and they could hold a position against overwhelming odds. This was particularly useful in battles where the enemy had superior numbers, as the cataphracts could provide a defensive anchor for the rest of the army.

Cataphract Definition

The Cataphract is derived from the Greek word “kataphraktos” which literally means covered or protected and is sometimes also translated as “fully armored” or “close from all sides”.

The term Cataphracts was also used in the Roman Republic for armored cavalrymen of all sorts, although eventually, it came to be associated with cavalrymen having special kinds of heavy armor.

Medieval Lancers - Byzantne Lancers

Cataphract History

The history of the Cataphract soldier extends back to ancient Persia. Various kingdoms such as Parthian, Achaemenid, Scythians, and others used this kind of armor in their armies.

“The cataphract played a crucial role in the defense of the Persian Empire, and their use in battle was a testament to the Persian military’s ability to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances.”

Dr. Kaveh Farrokh, Visiting Scholar at the University of British Columbia.

As a response to the campaigns of Parthians and Sassanids, the Romans also responded with a similar heavy armor. During medieval times in Europe, the same kind of heavy cavalry was used by knights and nobles.

Ancient Persian Empire

Cataphract Characteristics

Cataphract had certain features that distinguished it from other kinds of armor. For instance, the most noteworthy feature was that Cataphract was entirely covered in scale armor and this feature was found in all places.

Rounded plates or bronze or iron could be used to make the scale armor. The extensive use of iron and bronze made it quite heavy and sometimes the weight reached as much as 40 kilograms. Large plates of scales were also used for different parts of the horse.

Cataphract Weapons

Cataphract soldiers used various kinds of weapons but the most important and frequently used weapon was a lance. These lances could be several meters in length and consisted of a capped point of iron or bronze.

scimitar gc72f3bf08 640 e1649935789541

Special kinds of saddles were made for the Cataphract in order to allow the soldiers to be seated firmly while engaging with their lances.

Cataphract Cavalry Soldier

Cataphract Battle Tactics

Cataphracts were considered very valuable during battles and were used as a heavy assault force, thus acting as the most important force in launching the offensive. In some armies, Cataphracts were either wealthy men or hailed from the nobility and thus enjoyed a privileged status.

Varangian Guard Byzantine Empire

“The use of the cataphract declined with the introduction of firearms, which made their heavily armored horses vulnerable to bullets. However, the legacy of the cataphract lived on in the form of heavily armored knights and other cavalry throughout the centuries.”

Dr. Geoffrey Parker, Emeritus Professor of History at Ohio State University.

One of the most important tactics used for Cataphracts was to deploy them along with archers who provided them support against enemy infantry. This tactic was successfully used by the Parthian army against the Romans.

Decline of the Cataphract

The use of the cataphract declined in the Middle Ages with the rise of firearms. The heavily armored cavalrymen were vulnerable to bullets and other projectiles, which could penetrate their armor and kill them or their horses.

Ralamb Janissary Medieval Soldier

However, the concept of heavily armored cavalry continued in various forms throughout history. The knights of medieval Europe, for example, were heavily armored and fought on horseback, although they were not as heavily armored as the cat

Cataphract Summary

A Cataphract was a special kind of heavy armor that was used throughout the history of warfare. The warriors who used this armor were known as Cataphracts and had elite status in the army. However, it was not easy to accompany the Cataphract to the battleground since it had considerable weight.

Cataphracts formed the core assault force of the army and were mostly supported by mounted or un-mounted archers. In certain armies, Cataphract belonged to the noble class and were highly privileged individuals.

Cataphract Warrior Timeline

4th century BCE
The Achaemenid Empire of Persia begins using heavily armored cavalry in battle, known as the “Clibanarii”.
1st century CE
The Roman Empire begins to incorporate heavily armored cavalry, known as “cataphracts”, into their army, likely influenced by the Parthian Empire.
3rd century CE
The Sassanid Empire of Persia develops their own form of heavily armored cavalry, known as “Kust-i-Nihanz” or “New Immortals”.
6th century CE
The Byzantine Empire fully adopts the use of the cataphract, using them as shock troops in battle.
7th century CE
The Islamic conquests of the Middle East and North Africa bring an end to the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires, reducing the use of the cataphract in warfare.
11th century CE
The Seljuk Turks and other steppe peoples incorporate heavily armored cavalry, similar to the cataphract, into their armies.
12th century CE
The Crusades bring European knights into contact with the heavily armored cavalry of the Middle East, inspiring the development of European knights in full plate armor.
13th-14th centuries CE
Mongol armies incorporate heavily armored cavalry into their armies, known as the “Keshikten” or “bodyguard”.
16th century CE
The use of firearms in battle reduces the effectiveness of heavily armored cavalry, leading to the decline of the cataphract and similar types of troops.