Cataphracts and Clibanarii of the Ancient World

  By Invictus, August 2006; Revised
In the ancient world, the term cataphract was used by Greek and Roman sources to describe heavily armored cavalry used by Seleucid, Parthian, Sassanid, and Roman armies. Modern interpretation of these units typically takes the form of warriors armored spectacularly from head to toe, equipped with full horse armor and armed with a long pike and other weapons. The term has also been applied by modern authors to describe apparently similar cavalry used by other peoples of western, central, and eastern Asia, even though the use of this term in ancient sources was originally limited to the nations described above. While the use of heavy cavalry was widespread throughout the ancient world, this article will focus on their usage in the Mediterranean area and Western Asia from 200 BC to 500 A.D. Issues that will be discussed include the use of the term cataphract, recorded descriptions of Cataphracts as well as similar units in battles, and finally, some of the ambiguousness presented by ancient sources that has led to controversy among modern readers.

One curiosity involving cataphracts is that the Romans eventually adopted it as an essential component in their army despite being primarily an infantry culture. Another curiosity is that the usage of the term by Greek and Roman has been inconsistent. In the late classical period, “cataphract” units often did not wear the characteristic heavy armor, and another heavy cavalry type, the clibanarius, appeared on the scene. The issue of the difference between clibanarii and cataphracts has been particularly problematic. These topics will be addressed later in this article.


  1. Early development of heavy cavalry
  2. Description of cataphract equipment and tactics
  3. Cataphracts in the Parthian and Sarmatian armies
  4. Heavy cavalry in the Sassanid and Palmyrene armies
  5. Heavy cavalry in the Roman army and the Cataphractarius-Clibanarius issue
  6. Conclusion: Reassessing the Cataphract
  7. References
 Seleucid Cataphracts depicted in full horse armor with less-armored Companion cavalry in the background. Screenshot from Rome Total Realism, modification of Rome: Total War by Creative Assembly

1. Early developments of heavy cavalry

Cavalry has long been used by people of the steppes and parts of central where horses are abundant. One of the earliest known examples of heavy cavalry was discovered in Khwarezm, a region in central Asia near the Aral Sea. Excavations have revealed paintings of warriors clad in armor mounted on an armored horse, carrying a lance and bow. It is estimated that these horsemen were used in that region as early as the sixth century BC. It is also around this time that cavalry gradually began replacing chariots in the near east. Cultures such as the Assyrians, Achaemenids Persians, and later the Macedonians all successfully fielded heavy cavalry in their armies. The Acahemenids, in particular, were known to field heavily armored horsemen along with horse armor.

While heavy cavalry was common, the term cataphract (Latin cataphractus, Greek κατάφρακτος) is conventionally used to describe only the heaviest cavalry, particularly those completely armored and often with horse armor, as opposed to the cavalry armored with only a curiass. The picture above is a possible interpretation of "Cataphract" equiptment: unlike the Companion cavalry (such as those of Alexander the Great), the cataphract is often described to wear an armored mask, along with arm and leg armor. On the other hand, it should be noted that the term cataphract, sometimes given as catafract, originates from a Greek word describing mailed armor and literally does not describe the amount of armor worn. For this reason, the term cataphract in works such as Plutarch's has been translated by some scholars as simply "mailed cavalry," even though modern reintrepretation of these horsemen often extends the definition to include horsemen of a variety of different styles of armor, including lamellar and scale armor. The term “cataphract” was used both as an adjective and as a noun. It was often used in conjunction with the word “horse,” such as in κατάφρακτος ίππος, or cataphracti equites.

After the Macedonians expanded into central Asia, the Seleucids, who come to rule the western territories of Alexander’s conquests, introduced the Cataphract into their army. It is believed that the Seleucid king Antiochus brought them into his army after his campaigns against the Bactrians, whose cavalry must have been successors to those depicted in the paintings found in Khwarezm. (It should be noted that in the picture above, a lot of artistic imagination is used; the equipment of Seleucid cataphracts is mostly speculation). Seleucid cataphracts first appeared in the battles of Panion (200 BC, against the Ptolemaics) and Magnesia (188 BC, against the Romans). At Magnesia, Livy recounts that the Seleucids fielded 3000 Cataphracts, together with 1000 men of the King’s Agema bodyguard who wore similar armor. However, the Seleucids were defeated in this decisive encounter. On the left flank, the Cataphracts were routed by much lighter cavalry of the Romans. According to Livy, a number of Cataphracts were killed being unable to escape due to their heavy armor. On the right flank, the Cataphracts were successful in driving back the Romans, but eventually had to flee when the rest of the battle line crumbled.

While the Romans had no trouble against Macedonian cavalry, the Romans were impressed enough to bring in foreign elements into their own military. Polybius wrote that the (Republican) Romans began arming their cavalry in “Greek” style, including Macedonian-style lance and shield. Fully armored Cataphracts, however, did not appear in the Roman army until at least two centuries later. While cavalry in general were important elements on the ancient battlefield, it is perhaps arguable whether or not heavy armor as those worn by cataphracts had proven to be necessary.


2. Descriptions of Cataphract equipment and tactics

One of the most thorough descriptions of Cataphracts from ancient writers comes from the Aethiopica of Heliodorus of Emesa, who lived in the 3rd century AD. Interestingly, the Aethiopica is not an actual historical account, but a romance story that sets in Ethiopia. Nonethless, it is apparent that Heliodorus incorporated military elements of his current time into the story, most notably Cataphracts, on which he had a lot to say.

According to Heliodorus, Cataphract riders were men of impressive size and physique. The riders wore helmets, neck armor, and metal masks that left only their eyes unprotected. Armor of overlapping metal plates protected the rider from neck to knee, but not for his thighs, which were left unarmored for better control of the horses. The metal plates were designed to allow the rider maximum body movement while providing protection. The horse was also similarly armored, probably to guard it against arrows. The head and legs of the horse are described as completely armored and a coat of mail was hanged from the back of the horse. Notably, the belly was one of the areas that were not armored. For weapons, Cataphract riders carried a long spear (kontus) and often charged at the enemy holding the spear horizontal. The shear momentum of the rider and horse was described as capable of driving the spear through two men (Plutarch, Crassus). Besides the spear, riders also carried hand-to-hand side arms such as swords and bows.

Similar description of the Cataphract also appears in descriptions of other authors, such as Sallust (86-34 BC), who wrote “equites cataphracti, ferrea omni specie” (Cataphract horsemen, iron in the whole appearance), and Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 350 AD), who wrote: “Laminarum circuli tenues apti corporis flexibus ambiebant per omnia membra diducti.” (Thin circles of iron plates, fitted to the curves of their bodies, completely covered their limbs).

The general image presented is a rider nearly entirely covered with armor. Ammanius called the fully armored cavalry of Constantius as “statues crafted by the hand of Praxiteles,” a description that has been passed through time. The armor itself was a spectacular sight on the battlefield. When the Roman Emperor Aurelian met the Palmyrene heavy cavalry, he saw that they “placed great confidence in their armor, which was very strong and secure.” Various other descriptions show us that besides iron, heavy cavalrymen also wore leather and brass armor. Specific armor design variations include scale, mail, and lamellar. A variety of different horse armor have been found, including armor that does not cover the horses head, and armor that only protects the front of the horse. Given the amount of heat and cost, it is likely that not all cataphracts wore complete or any horse armor. However, the riders are almost always described as fully armored.

However, the design of the cataphract also presents some potential weaknesses. Besides requiring expensive maintenance, the heavy armor of cataphracts was at times unwieldy. The excessive armor made it difficult to flee from battle or perform quick maneuvering in battle. The inability to flee from battle due to armor has been mentioned in several occasions. Heliodorus wrote that the armor was so weighty that riders required assistance to mount their horses. This description was probably true, since unlike medieval cavalrymen, ancient cavalrymen did not have the benefit of the stirrup to mount their horses.

The lack of stirrups in ancient cavalry warfare also restricted the effectiveness of cataphracts in melee combat. While stirrups were not essential to charging (for which the saddle would be the most crucial), stirrups were important in providing the rider with stability in melee. In Crassus’ battle against the Parthians, Plutarch describes the vulnerability of cataphracts in maintained melee combat: “For they (the Roman cavalry) laid hold of the long spears of the Parthians, and grappling with the men, pushed them from their horses.” Such accounts may be anecdotal or artificial, but there is no doubt that riders who were unhorsed became easy prey, as they were probably too clumsy to quickly get up to fight in the middle of a melee. Heliodorus also mentions that cataphracts who were unhorsed were like logs on the ground.

The actual effectiveness of the cataphract is somewhat difficult to gauge. Since cataphracts were generally eastern units, in early Greek and Roman sources, we find more accounts of cataphracts “losing” rather than “winning” due to reporting bias. Nonetheless, even among Romans themselves, the trend was a steady move to heavy cavalry warfare. The following sections will present more accounts of the cataphract in the services of various armies in history.

 Graffito of a Parthian Cataphract at Dura Europos. One of the best-preserved evidences of such cavalrymen.

3. Cataphracts in the Parthian and Sarmatian Armies

The Parthians were originally subjects of the Seleucids who declared their own independence c. 250 BC. As the Seleucid Empire crumbled, the Parthians advanced from the east and eventually conquered most of the Seleucid Empire. Originally a nomadic people, the Parthians were well-versed in cavalry warfare. They originally lived east of the Caspian Sea, from where the Seleucids are believed to have borrowed the concept of cataphracts.

In 53, B.C. a Parthian army comprised of 1000 cataphracts and 9000 horse archers decisively defeated an invading Roman army of 40,000 under Crassus near Carrhae. Plutarch describes the melee between the Roman cavalry and the Parthian cataphracts:

“But his (Crassus, the Roman commander) struggle was an unequal one both offensively and defensively, for his thrusting was done with small and feeble spears against breastplates of raw hide and steel, whereas the thrusts of the enemy were made with pikes against the lightly equipped and unprotected bodies of the Gauls.” In describing the Parthian cataphracts, Plutarch mentions that they wore metal helmets and had horses armored with plates. For weapons, Plutarch mentions the kontos, which contrasted with the more “feeble” spears of the Romans.

Cassius Dio, who also wrote about Carrhae, mentions that the Parthian heavy cavalry carried no shield, but were “mostly in full armor.” According to Cassius Dio, The cataphracts and horse archers worked cohesively to defeat the Romans. The horse archers would rain down arrow, forcing the Romans to lock shield, which made them vulnerable to a frontal assault: “Many perished hemmed in by the horsemen. Others were knocked over by the pikes or were carried off transfixed.” Cassius Dio also suggests that the Roman infantry was greatly frightened by the oncoming charge of the cataphracts, which probably played a role in the Romans’ demise.

Parthian success was reversed in 39 B.C. when Prince Pacorus led an ill-fated campaign against the Romans. Interestingly, it appears that Pacorus’ army relied mostly on cataphracts rather than missile troops. In the final battle of the campaign, the Parthian cataphracts attack uphill but were driven back by the Roman infantry. At the foot of the hill, a melee ensued in which Pacorus was killed, leading to the rout of the Parthians. The accounts suggest that while cataphracts were most effective when charging on flat ground while supported by archery. Without a forceful charge or archery to weaken the opponent, cataphracts were much less effective and could be defeated by infantry in melee.

One of the most detailed ancient images of a Parthian cataphract is a Roman graffito excavated at Dura Europos, a site in near the Euphrates which has been a hotbed for archaeological discoveries. The image, dating to the late Parthian period, shows a horseman and his horse completely covered in armor. The rider wears a helmet with a mask of chain mail that extends throughout his torso, which is reinforced with lamellar-like plates. The arms and thighs are covered in metal rings, similar to the descriptions given by Ammianus. The horse is completely protected by scale armor, which extends to the horse’s head. The rider is seen carrying a long pike. Other archaeological evidence dating from the late Parthian period shows the use of lamellar armor and maces. The exact equipment of cavalrymen, especially the extent and quality of the armor, usually depended on the wealth of the warrior. Parthian heavy cavalry were heavily drawn from the noble class of their society.

In terms of battle accounts, the Parthians were involved in numerous wars and encounters with the Romans. Furthermore, according to scholars like Bivar, the percentage of cataphracts in the Parthian army increased through time. However, specific details of pitched battles are lacking.

North of Black Sea was a territory ruled by the Sarmatians, a collection of tribes famous for their heavy cavalry warfare. The Roman writer Tacitus wrote about their encounter against Roman forces c. 69 A.D. and commented on their effectiveness in a massed charge: “when they charge in squadrons, hardly any line can stand against them.”

Tacitus notes the use of an armored coat for senior members of their army and the use of a two-handed lance, but without a shield.

Modern writers often apply the term “cataphract” to Sarmatian heavy cavalry, despite the fact that this term was not used by ancient authors on the Sarmatians. The relief on Trajan’s column shows Sarmatian horsemen and his horse completely covered with scale armor. Other evidence, such as a relief found in Tannais, shows a similarly armored rider, but without horse armor. Regardless, the Sarmatians continued to impress the Romans with their heavy cavalry warfare. The first ever Roman “cataphract” unit was stationed in Moesia to defend against the Sarmatians.

Relief of Sarmatian Horseman at Tanais
Horsemen on Trajan's column depicting heavily armored cavalry.

4. Heavy cavalry in the Sassanid and Palmyrene armies

The Parthians were overthrown by the Sassanids (Sassanians) in the 3rd century. The Sassanids inherited the cavalry warfare traditions already richly developed in the region. Since the Sassanid Empire was better organized the loosely-bound Parthian Empire, their army was by all means effective, and hence created a number of impressions on western sources.

The Sassanid deployed a type of heavy cavalry the Romans called “Clibanarius,” a term thought to be derived from the Greek word Klibanos, meaning oven – metaphorically resembling a suit of heavy armor in the desert. But given its association with the Sassanids, another proposed etymology comes from the Persian word grivpan, meaning “life preserver.” The clibanarius is apparently similar to the cataphract, and precise ancient definitions (of foreign Romans observers) need not spoil the general concept of heavy cavalry. However, the simultaneous usage of both terms, especially in the Roman army, has caused enough confusion that it warrants an in-depth discussion later in the article.

Relieves such as those excavated at Firuzabad show the heavily armored horse-warriors involved in the military overthrow of the Parthians. Particularly notable is the use of lance and chain mail armor reinforced with a breastplate. The apparent predominance of armor over archery in these depictions has led the belief that the early Sassanid army was focused primarily on heavy cavalry armed with lances. As in the Parthian period, such heavy cavalry were units heavily drawn from the nobility. Partly for this reason, the Sassanid noble cavalry (Savaran) has been compared to medieval knights. A Sassanid document of the late 6th century describes a pompous array of equipment required of the nobles when on parade, including mail, breastplate, leg guards, horse armor, sword, axe, lance and mace. The list also mentions stirrups, which was probably not available until the later stages of the empire. Before then, the Sassanid heavy cavalry relied on an especially well-designed four-horn saddle design to give stability to the rider and absorb charge impacts.

Sassanid aggression against the Romans was displayed right after the establishment of their empire. While details are lacking, the superior armor of the Sassanid Clibanarii was highlighted by Alexander Severus, who mentions that their fallen armor was adopted into Roman arms. In the 250s, the Sassanid King Sapor overran a great deal of Roman territory in the east, cumulating in the capture of the Roman Emperor Valerian near Edessa after what appears to be a significant but rather poorly-recorded battle.

However, Sassanid campaigns were halted by the rise of Palmyra, which during the reigns of Odainath and Zenobia, rapidly expanded from its oasis city to encompass northern Mesopotamia and many eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Like other peoples of Western Europe, the Palmyrenes relied on heavy cavalry. Palmyrene heavy cavalry, described by Festus as clibanarii, is recorded in battles against Romans at Immae and Emesa in the early 270s. In the first battle, the Roman Emperor saw the heavy armor of his opponent and ordered his cavalry to avoid combat. As was done, the Palmyrenes became exhausted and was routed in a counterattack by the Roman cavalry. In the second battle, the Palmyrenes were also worn down in pursuit of the Roman cavalry, and thus was subsequently defeated when they encountered the infantry. According to Zosimus, Palestinian units wielding heavy clubs were dangerously effective against the heavy armor of the Palmyrenes.

The battles of Immae and Emesa should not be seen as outright failure of heavy cavalry, since we do not have detailed records of battles in which the Palmyrenes were successful, perhaps due to recording bias of western sources. Nontheless, it gives some idea of heavy cavalry warfare and its limitations in mobility and endurance. The fact that heavily armored cavalry can be defeated by lesser-equipped opponents when sufficiently exhausted is a reoccurring theme.

After the battle of Emesa, the Palmyrene Empire was effectively destroyed. The Sassanids resumed their status as the primary threat to the Romans’ eastern frontier and continued to field large numbers of heavy cavalry. Sassanid heavy cavalry who fought against Julian were well recorded by writers such as Ammianus, who wrote:
“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 skilfully 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. Of these some who were armed with pikes, stood so motionless that you would have thought them held fast by clamps of bronze.”

The emphasis on heavily armored lancers continued until the appearance of nomadic powers on the eastern borders, beginning with the Chionites in 350 A.D. While armored lancers could be deployed effectively against stationary Roman infantry, they were much less effective against the fast and agile nomadic horsemen. As a result, emphasis on heavy cavalry decreased. By the 421, horse archery, which had fallen out of favor since the early days of the Sassanids, returned as a mainstream element in Sassanid cavalry warfare. Horse bows became common even among the heavily armored noble cavalry, who were required to parade with a bow and bowcase.

The impact of Sassanid military can be seen in neighboring and subsequent empires of the region. The nobility class of the Sassanids and their ways of war laid the foundation of later nobilities the Arabs and Indians. Although the Sassanid Empire fell in the 7th century, a great deal of its military doctrines remained in the Byzantines, whose army closely followed the Sassanids in terms of tactics and equipment.

Heavily armored Sassanid Khosrau II and Bahram Chubin horsemen from a manuscript of the 15 century
Prince Saphur at Firuzabad with lance and horse covered with metal designs


5. Heavy cavalry in the Roman army and the Cataphractarius-Clibanarius issue

Cataphracts and heavy cavalry were a distinct feature of Eastern and nomadic warfare. Even in the Macedonian-derived Seleucid Empire, the heavy cavalry was principally recruited from eastern territories. A principal difference between the “traditional” Cataphract described by Helidorous and Roman “heavy” cavalry of Trajan’s time lied in the amount of armor. Roman “heavy” cavalry, while equipped with mail, were only armored at the torso, without armor for arms and without horse armor. However, by the 3rd century, heavy cavalry warfare had made its way into the Romans via the influence of their neighbors.

Cataphracts were introduced into the Roman army due to the influence of neighboring Sarmatian, Armenian, and Parthian armies. The first known “Cataphract” units was the ala I Gallorum et Pannoniorum catafractata (wing one “Cataphractata” of Galls and Pannonians) which appeared in the reign of Hadrian (117-138 AD). This unit was stationed in Moesia, probably to defend against Sarmatians. The was later given citizenship, but subsequently disappeared from records and nothing is known about its equipment. A century later, units called catafractarii made appearance during the reign of Gallienus. However, scholars like Eadie believe that these units were probably similar to earlier Roman cavalry that were lighter than their eastern counterparts with a key difference in the amount of horse armor.

It is around this time in history that the Clibanarius of the Sassanid Empire made its appearance. The term Clibanarius is probably first mentioned in the Historia Augusta on Alexander Severus: “cataphractarios, quos illi clibanarios vocant” (cataphractarii, whom they call Clibanarii). This line suggests that the clibanarius and “cataphractarius” are the same type of cavalry, perhaps called by different names in different regions of the empire. However, evidence that the Roman cataphractarius was apparently not very heavily armored suggests a change in terminology: That the term cataphractarius was used to describe a lesser-armored Roman imitation of the Persian clibanarius, which would be more similar to the old, heavily armored Parthian cataphracts that defeated Crassus. Supporting evidence include the writings of Eutropius (c. 360), who also used the term Clibanarius to describe the Armenian heavy cavalry who fought the Romans in 69 B.C.

Another potential issue is the difference in usage between the terms cataphractus and cataphractarius. The Latin suffix –arius often denotes the meaning of “one who uses.” (For example, a sagitarrius = archer, sagitta = arrow). The original term cataphractus remained in use and can be found in the writings of Ammianus (b. 330), who wrote “cataphracti equites quos clibanarios dictitant” (Cataphract horsemen, whom they keep calling as clibanarii). This line, too, has frequently been in favor of the interchangeability of cataphractus and clibanarios, but cataphracti equites might not necessarily be the same as cataphractarii equites. Another interpretation is that while the late Roman cataphractarius was a lighter variation, the old cataphractus (κατάφρακτος) and “new” clibanarius were the same. Compared to the term cataphractus, the term cataphractarius was the more commonly used and appears as unit names in other official documents such as the Notitia Dignitatum while cataphractus is notably absent from official Roman unit names. However, the reality is that we have so little evidence to examine that few hypotheses are fully provable. It is doubtful that the few ancient authors whose works are still extent, such as those of Ammianus, had extensive knowledge of these cavalrymen.

The Clibanarius made its first known appearance in the Roman army of Maxentius in a battle near Turin (312 A.D.), where he was defeated by the rising Constantine. According to Eadie’s Interpretation (1972), the clibanarii were trapped and destroyed in Constantine’s battle line due to their lack of maneuverability. Clibanarii also appeared decades later in 351 in the Battle of Mursa, where according to Julian’s account, Constantius’ clibanarii defeated the cavalry of the usurper Magnetius. The victorious Constantius marched his heavy cavalry into Rome, a scene written about by Ammianus in one of the most noted passages on the fully armored ancient heavy cavalryman:
“All masked, furnished with protecting breastplates and girt with iron belts, so that you might have supposed them statues polished by the hands of Praxiteles, not men. Thin circles of iron plates, fitted to the curves of their bodies, completely covered their limb: so that whichever way they had to move their members, their garment fitted so skillfully were the joinings made.”

According to Ammianus, Roman heavy cavalry made appearances at the Battle of Argentoratum in eastern Gaul in the army of the future emperor Julian, who campaigned against the Alemanni. In Ammianus’ account, the terms Clibanarii, Cataphracti and Cataphractarii all appear in the battle description and are all used interchangeably. On a battleground unfavorable to cavalry warfare, the Roman heavy and light cavalry fell back against the onslaught of the Germanic infantry. Julian, however, rallied his horsemen to return to battle, while the infantry held their lines to win the day. This battle, considered a failure for cavalry, was one of the last appearances of Roman heavy cavalry before the fall of the Western Empire.

In 378 the Goths crushed the Eastern Romans at Adrianople. Immense credit is given to the Gothic cavalry for their decisive maneuvering in this battle, described by some historians as the battle in which cavalry finally gained dominance over infantry, as would be the case in the middle ages. However, looking at the full story of heavy cavalry development, such characterization is completely ironic if not misleading, since the Romans had already adopted the use of the ultra-heavy clibanarii over seventy years earlier.

Mention of Roman clibanarii or cataphractarii at Adrianople is curiously absent. Nonetheless, such units remained in the Roman army, as they both appear in the Notitia Dignitatum, a document that outlines the political and military structure of the Roman Empires in the early 5th century. A summary of the Notitia Dignitatum for the two units is given below:
Catafractarii: 8 units in the East, 2 in the West, both stationed in Britannia, but are possibly the same unit. Unit with geographic names: Equites catafractarii Albigenses, Equites catafractarii Ambianenses, Equites catafractarii Biturigenses.

Clibanarii: 6 units in the East. 2 Units exist in the West, both stationed in Africa; one of which is an archer Clibanarii unit. Units with geographic names: Primi clibanarii Parthi, Secundi clibanarii Parthi, Quarti clibanarii Parthi, Persae clibanarii, Cuneus equitum secundorum clibanariorum Palmirenorum

Since the Notitia Dignitatum appears to list units distinguished either by equipment or tactical role, the simultaneous appearance of both catafractrii (cataphractarii) and clibanarii suggests that the two were not the same. One peculiarity shown above is that Clibanarii units display geographic names in the east, such as Parthia, whereas Cataphractarii units show geographic names in the west, suggesting a difference in recruiting location. In addition, the Notitia Dignitatum lists three clibanaria, believed to armories that produced clibanarii equptment, located in Antioch, Caesarea, and Nicomedia, all of which were significant cities in the East.

Another observable feature is that the Eastern Roman Empire had more heavy cavalry units than the Western Empire. This is expected since the eastern provinces and its surrounding land were more suited for cavalry warfare and it was through the east that heavily armored cavalry was introduced to the Romans. After the collapse of the western empire, and even after the fall of the Sassanid Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire continued to refine and perfect its heavy cavalry for another six hundred years. While this story is illustrious, it is beyond the scope of this article.


6. Conclusion: Reassessing the Cataphract

The few accounts we have of cataphracts and clibanarii written by ancient authors paint a colorful but difficult-to-interpret picture of the heavily armored horsemen of the classical period in Western Asia and the Mediterranean. While accounts speak impressively of the appearance of these horsemen, their actual performance on the battlefield remains something of a speculation due to the scarcity of sources. Accounts from Greek and Roman sources continuously remind the reader that the heavy cavalry had weaknesses in maneuverability, stamina, and could not always defeat infantry in close combat. Yet on the other hand, the trend of increasing heavy cavalry activity in western Asia, especially among the Romans, is a hint of success for the heavy cavalrymen.

The heavy cavalryman had two archenemies: the disciplined infantryman who stood ground fearless of the oncoming charge, and the fleeting horse archer whom the heavy cavalryman had little hopes of catching. The geography and time period we discussed can in no way give conclusions to these two rivalries, which extended throughout the world far beyond Western Asia and far beyond the classical period. In any case, it was usually the skillful deployment of combined arms and generalship rather than the percise equipment of any single units that determined the fate of battles.

Today, the ancient cataphract is also appreciated in depictions in art and computer games. While most modern depictions seem to overemphasize the amount of armor worn by these men, they nonetheless add another interpretation of these fascinating warriors.



Heliodorus, Aethiopica.Bk IX on description of the Cataphract. Translation available at <> 

Plutarch, Crassus. Quote on melee combat at Carrhae: 26.5:

Tacitus, Histories. Quote on Sarmatians: I.79:

Livy, Bk 37, on the Cataphracts of Antiochus

Cassius Dio. Bk 37.

Notitia Dignitatum, along with analysis on <>

Zosimus, Bk.1, on the Palmyrene cavalry

John W. Eadie, The Development of Roman Mailed Cavalry. The Journal of Roman Studies > Vol. 57, No. 1/2 (1967), pp. 161-173; overview history of heavy cavalry leading to the development of Roman mailed cavalry. The article provides the unit names of early Roman cataphracts and comments on many cataphract/clibanarii accounts, particularly those of the late Romans. The author promotes differentiation between cataphratarii and clibanarii. The author writes that the grafitto in Dura Europhos, as well as Heliodorus’ description are representative of Sassanid cavalry and implies that the Clibanarii was more heavily armored than previous cataphracts.

A. D. H. Bivar, Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier.Dumbarton Oaks Papers > Vol. 26 (1972), pp. 271-291; overview of cavalry tactics of Parthian, Sassanid, Byzantine and other armies. Offers analysis on Sassanid cavalry, including the relieves, their equipment, and horse archery. Provides the list of parade items mentioned in the article.

R. M. Rattenbury, An Ancient Armoured Force. The Classical Review > Vol. 56, No. 3 (Nov., 1942), pp. 113-116; Provides a detailed commentary on Heliodorus’ description.

Farrokh, Sassanian Elite Cavalry. Osprey Publishing (July 13, 2005). (Excerpts) Overview information and information on equipment consulted.

John C. Rolfe, On Ammianus Marcellinus, xxiii. 3. 9. The American Journal of Philology > Vol. 57, No. 2 (1936), pp. 137-139; Comments on the clibanarii, cataphractarii and cataphracti in Ammianus, suggesting the three terms as synonymous.

James E. Seaver, Publius Ventidius. Neglected Roman Military Hero Classical Journal > Vol. 47, No. 7 (Apr., 1952), pp. 275-280; describes the cataphracts of Pacorus.

“Clibanarii.” Wikipedia. Provided the quote on Sassanid cavalry from Ammianus.

Mariusz Mielczarek's, "Cataphracti and clibanarii: studies on the heavy armoured cavalry of the ancient world " (1993) (excerpts)

“Oath of Empire: The Sassanid army.” <>

“Late Imperial Roman” <> Provided the translation of the passage from Ammianus on Constantius’ cavalry (Ammianus: 16.10.8)

“Imperial Seleucids” <> Information about Seleucid cavalry consulted.


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