Originally, the term (from the κατάφρακτος kataphraktos, plural κατάφρακτοι kataphraktoi, literally meaning "armored", as composed from κατά "completely" plus φρακτός "covered, protected", respectively from φράσσω "to cover, to protect") referred to a type of armour worn to cover the whole body and that of the horse. Eventually the term described the trooper himself. While cataphracts and knights are given differing names, in battle the cataphract's role differed little from that of the knight in medieval Europe, though arms and tactics still separated the two. Unlike a knight, a cataphract was merely a soldier off the battlefield and had no fixed political position or role beyond military functions.
Peoples and states deploying cataphracts at some time in their history included—more or less in order of use—tribal groups, the Parthian dynasty, Iranian Sarmatians, Armenians, Seleucids, Pergamenes, Sassanid Persian Empire, the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire.
The Romans first encountered cataphracts during their wars with the Hellenistic warlord Pyrrhus in the 3rd century BC and first deployed cataphracts in the 2nd Century AD during the reign of emperor Hadrian (117-138). As early as the 1st Century BC but largely during the expansionist campaigns of the Parthian and Sassanid dynasties, Sarmatian and Parthian cataphracts gave the Roman Empire a nasty shock, the Parthians especially at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. The adoption of cataphract-like cavalry formations really only took hold during the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD in response to fast moving barbarian incursions over the northern frontier of the Empire. The Emperor Gallienus (AD 253-268) and his general Aureolus bear much responsibility for this.
The cataphracts deployed by the Byzantine Empire (most noticeably after the 7th century when Latin ceased to be the official language of the empire) were referred to as kataphraktoi.
There appears to be a confusion of the term in the late Roman period; ever since the beginnings of the Roman Empire, armoured cavalrymen of any sort were referred to as "cataphracts". Vegetius writing in the 4th century described armour of any sort as "cataphracts" - in his day this typically would have been lorica hamata or lorica squamata. Ammianus Marcellinus in the 4th century mentions cataphracti equites (quos clibanarios dictitant) – "cataphract cavalry (which they call clibanarii)".
Modern scholars have therefore had trouble determining what exactly cataphracts were in late antiquity, as well as determining whether or not they were different from clibanarii. Some theorise that cataphracts and clibanarii are one and the same type of unit; since most cataphract units bore Western-sounding names and clibanarii bore Eastern-sounding names, those units of heavy cavalry stationed in the west were logically referred to as cataphracts, and those in the east, clibanarii. Contemporary sources however sometimes imply that clibanarii were in fact a heavier type of cavalryman, or sometimes formed specialist units (units such as the Equites Sagittarii Clibanarii). Therefore the argument continues.
Their flexible but strong scale armor (φαλιδωτός) was made from overlapping plates of bronze or iron sewn onto an undergarment of leather, worn both by rider and horse. A close-fitting helmet that covered the head and neck was worn, with only narrow slits for the eyes. Ammianus Marcellinus, writing in the 4th century, describes the sight of massed Persian cataphracts: … all the companies were clad in iron, and all parts of their bodies were covered with thick plates, so fitted that the stiff-joints conformed with those of their limbs; and the forms of human faces were so skillfully fitted to their heads, that since their entire body was covered with metal, arrows that fell upon them could lodge only where they could see a little through tiny openings opposite the pupil of the eye, or where through the tip of their nose they were able to get a little breath.
Most armies' cataphracts would be equipped with an additional side-arm such as a sword or mace, for use in the melee that often followed a charge. Some wore armour that was primarily frontal: providing protection for a charge yet offering relief from the weight and encumbrance of a full suit. In yet another variation, cataphracts in some field armies were not equipped with shields, particularly if they had heavy body armour.
Cataphract lances were usually supported by a chain attached to the horse's neck, and at the end by a fastening attached to the horse's hind leg, so the full momentum of horse could be applied to the thrust. One reason for this was the lack of stirrups; although the traditional Roman saddle had four horns with which to secure the rider, these were largely inadequate in keeping a soldier seated upon the full impact of a charge action.
Many cataphract types were equipped with bows in addition to their lances and heavy armour, to allow them to engage the enemy from afar before charging. Cataphract archery was sometimes used tactically in disciplined formations where half the cataphracts stood facing the enemy as an armoured fence while the other half looped through the line to shoot and then back behind it to reload, increasing their safety against return fire from the enemy.
Cataphracts were the heavy assault force of most nations that used them, acting as shock troops supported by light or heavy infantry and foot or mounted archers. In many armies this reflected social divides as well as only the wealthiest noblemen could afford the panoply of the cataphract, not to mention the costs of supporting several war horses. Supporting archery was deemed particularly important for the proper deployment of cataphracts. The Parthian army that defeated the Romans at Carrhae in 53 BC operated primarily as a combined arms team of cataphracts and horse archers against the Roman heavy infantry. Archery was focused on the dense Roman ranks which prompted the legionaries to loosen formation. This then made them fatally susceptible to a massed cataphract charge.
The cataphract charge was very effective due to the discipline and the large numbers of troops deployed. Roman writers throughout imperial history made much of the terror of facing cataphracts, let alone receiving their charge. Parthian armies were thus able again and again to repel Roman incursions across the Euphrates.
Persian cataphracts remained a formidable force from the 3rd to 7th centuries. Initially the Sassanid dynasty continued the cavalry traditions of the Parthians, fielding units of super-heavy cavalry. This gradually fell out of favour and a "universal" cavalryman was developed during the later 3rd century, able to fight as an archer as well as a cataphract. This was perhaps in response to the nomadic combat style used by nomadic Turks and Huns, as well as the growing power of the Kushans. However as Romano-Persian hostilities grew, changes were again made. During the 4th century, Shapur II of Persia attempted to re-develop super-heavy cataphracts to counter heavy Roman infantry. The very best Persian cataphracts (possibly of the Pushtigban Body Guards) were said by Ammianus Marcellinus in his memoirs to be able to impale two Roman soldiers on his spear at once with a furious charge. Persian cataphract archery seems to have been again revived toward the end of antiquity, perhaps as a response (or even a stimulus, it is uncertain) to a trend of the later Roman army toward mobility and versatility.
In a bizarre and ironic twist, the élite of the Roman army by the 6th century had become the cataphract, modeled after the very force that had crushed his forebears more than 500 years earlier. During the Justinianic Wars of the 6th century it was noted by Procopius that Persian cataphracts were able to fire their arrows very quickly but with little hitting power. The Roman cataphracts on the other hand were extremely skilled, able to shoot to the left and right whether in pursuit or flight, and their shots were extremely powerful if somewhat slow. Cataphracts without bows are sometimes referred to simply as lancers.
Some cataphracts fielded by the later Roman Empire were also equipped with heavy darts (marzobarbouloi) to be hurled at the enemy lines during a charge, to disorder the defensive formation immediately before the impact of the lances. With or without darts, a cataphract charge would usually be "shot in" by foot or horse archers to either side, or by additional cataphracts who would charge in turn after having shot in the first assault. Some armies formalised this tactic by deploying separate types of cataphract, a very heavily armoured bowless lancer for the primary charge and more conventional lance-and-bow cataphracts for supporting units.
Interestingly, references to Byzantine cataphracts seemed to have disappeared in the late 6th century, as the Strategikon (usually attributed to the emperor Maurice) made no mentions of cataphracts or their tactical employment. This absence persisted through most of the Thematic period until the cataphracts reappeared in Emperor Leo VI's Sylloge Taktikon, probably reflecting a revival that paralleled the transformation of the Byzantine army from a defensive into an offensive force.
These later Byzantine cataphracts were a much feared force in their heyday. The army of Emperor Nicephorus II, the 'Pale Death' himself, relied on its cataphracts as its nucleus, coupling cataphract archers with cataphract lancers to create a self-perpetuating 'hammer blow' tactic where the cataphract lancers would charge again and again until the enemy broke, all the while supported by cataphract archers.
Contemporary depictions however imply that they were not as completely armoured as earlier Roman and Sassanid types — horse armour was noticeably lighter than earlier examples, being made of leather scales or quilted cloth rather than metal. Byzantine cataphracts of the 10th century were drawn from the ranks of the middle class landowners through the theme system, providing the Byzantine Empire with a motivated and professional force. An experimental type of cataphract was brought to the fore in the 10th and 11th centuries known as the klibanophoros — literally "bearer of klibanion" (lamellar armour, compare clibanarius), and a throwback to the super-heavy cavalry of earlier days. The cataphracts were to form a wedge formation and penetrate the enemy battle line, enabling lighter troops to make breakthrough. Alternatively, they were to attack the enemy commander-in-chief.
As with the original cataphracts, the Leonian/Nikephorian units might have passed out of use after a time. Their last appearance in battle was in 970 and the last record of their existence referred to their post as garrison troops in 1001. If they had indeed disappeared, then it is possible that they were revived once again when the Komnenian restoration of the Byzantine Empire created a new kind of Byzantine army, which is known as the Komnenian army. Even in this case it seems that the cataphract was eventually superseded by other types of heavy cavalry. The emperor Manuel I Komnenos, for example, re-equipped his elite cavalry in the style of western knights.
It is difficult to determine when exactly the cataphract saw his final day. After all, cataphracts and knights fulfilled a roughly similar role on the medieval battlefield, and the armoured knight survived well into the modern age. The Byzantine army maintained units of heavily armoured cavalrymen up to its last years--mostly in the form of Western European Latinikon mercenaries--while neighbouring Bulgars, Serbs, Lithuanians, Russian states and other eastern European peoples emulated Byzantine military equipment.
As western European metalwork became increasingly sophisticated, the traditional image of the cataphract evaporated. From the 15th century onward, mail, lamellar, and scale armour seemed to fall out of favour with eastern noble cavalrymen as elaborate and robust plate cuirasses arrived from the west. Despite these advances, the Byzantine army, often unable to afford the newer equipment en masse, was left ill-equipped and forced to rely on its existent and increasingly archaic military technology. The cataphract finally passed into history on May 29, 1453, when the last nation to refer to its cavalrymen as cataphracts fell.
Comprehensive armor for warhorses might have been used in China as early as the Three Kingdoms period. It wasn't until the 4th century A.D., however, that cataphracts came into widespread use among ethnicities such as the Qiang and the Xianbei, which led to the adoption of cataphracts by Chinese armies during the Northern and Southern Dynasties era. Later, the Sui and Tang dynasties maintained the use of cataphracts until the large-scale deterioration of the Tang military machine after the mid-8th century brought the gradual decline of these heavy horsemen. Their disappearance was more or less complete by the time of the Sung Dynasty.
Other Eastern Asian cultures were also known to have used cataphracts. Korean cataphracts had their heyday in Korea's own Three Kingdoms period. Meanwhile, the Tibetan Empire utilized cataphracts as the elite shock forces of its armies for much of its history.
The 5th century Notitia Dignitatum mentions a specialist unit of clibanarii known as the Equites Sagittarii Clibanarii - evidently a unit of heavily armoured horse archers based on the heavy cavalry of contemporary Persian armies.
An anonymous 6th century Roman military treatise also proposed one exotic experimental unit of scythed chariots with cataphract lancers mounted on the chariot's horses, though there is no evidence that this unit was ever taken seriously.
Nations in the East occasionally fielded cataphracts mounted on camels rather than on horses (the Romans also adopted this practice, calling camel mounted cavalrymen dromedarii), with obvious benefits for use in arid regions, as well as the fact that the smell of the camels, if up wind, was a guaranteed way of panicking enemy cavalry units that they came into contact with. Balanced against this is the relatively greater vulnerability of camel mounted units to caltrops, due to their having soft padded soles to their feet rather than hooves.
The Seleucid Empire was famous for its armored large war elephants. They were equipped with scale armour and a crested chamfron, carrying between two and four men who were armed with sarissae or bows in a tower on its back. Their ears were dyed red to make them more frightening. The tough skin of elephants afforded them considerable protection and the armour worn made them almost invulnerable to projectiles. Cavalry were also frightened by the smell of the elephants which allowed them to be used as massive organic fortifications against cavalry maneuvers on the battlefield. The Parthians and Sassiands also did this.