The genesis of the term cataphract is undoubtedly Greek. Kataphraktos (Κατάφρακτος, or various transliterations such as Cataphraktos, Cataphractos, or Katafraktos). The term first appears substantively in Latin, in the writings of Sisennus: “… loricatos, quos cataphractos vocant …“, meaning “… the armored, whom they call cataphract …”. Cataphract literally meaning “armored” or “completely enclosed“. Historically, the cataphract was a very heavily armored horseman, with both the rider and mount steed draped from head to toe in scale armor, while typically wielding a kontos or lance as their weapon. Cataphract was a form of armored heavy cavalry used in ancient warfare by a number of peoples in Europe, East Asia, Middle East and North Africa. Cataphracts served as either the elite cavalry or assault force for most empires and nations that fielded them, primarily used for impetuous charges to break through infantry formations. Chronicled by many historians from the earliest days of antiquity up until the High Middle Ages, they are believed to have influenced the later European knights, via contact with the Byzantine Empire.
Peoples and states deploying cataphracts at some point in their history include: the Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Parthians, Achaemenids, Sakas, Armenians, Seleucids, Pergamenes, Kingdom of Pontus, Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, the Sassanids, the Romans, the Goths and the Byzantines in Europe and the Mongols, Chinese, and Koreans in East Asia.
The evolution of the heavily armored horseman was not isolated to one focal point during a specific era (such as the Iranian plateau), but rather developed simultaneously in different parts of Central Asia (especially among the peoples inhabiting the Silk Road) as well as within Greater Iran, like the Parthian Empire during the 1st century BC. The Parthians were also noted for their reliance upon cataphracts as well as horse archers in battle. Cataphracts were almost universally clad in some form of scale armor that was flexible enough to give the rider and horse a good degree of motion, but strong enough to resist the immense impact of a thunderous charge into infantry formations. Scale armor was made from overlapping, rounded plates of bronze or iron (varying in thickness from four to six millimeters), which had two or four holes drilled into the sides, to be threaded with a bronze wire that was then sewn onto an undergarment of leather or animal hide, worn by the horse. A full set of cataphract armor could weigh an astonishing 40 kilograms (not inclusive of the rider’s body weight). Less commonly, plated mail or lamellar armor (which is similar in appearance but divergent in design, as it has no backing) was substituted for scale armor, while for the most part the rider wore chain mail. Specifically, the horse and camel armor was usually sectional (not joined together as a cohesive “suit”), with large plates of scales tied together around the animal’s waist, flank, shoulders, neck and head (especially along the breastplate of the saddle) independently to give a further degree of movement for the horse and to allow the armor to be affixed to the horse reasonably tightly so that it should not loosen too much during movement. Usually but not always, a close-fitting helmet that covered the head and neck was worn by the rider. The primary weapon of practically all cataphract forces throughout history was the lance, with a capped point made of iron, bronze, or even animal bone and usually wielded with both hands. Most had a chain attached to the horse’s neck and at the end by a fastening attached to the horse’s hind leg, which supported the use of the lance by transferring the full momentum of a horse’s gallop to the thrust of the charge. The penetrating power of the cataphract’s lance was recognized as being fearful by Roman writers, described as being capable of ‘(…) transfixing two men at once (…)’, as well as inflicting deep and mortal wounds even on opposing cavalries mounts, and were definitely more potent than the regular one-handed spear used by most other cavalries of the period.
Cataphracts would often 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 armor that was primarily frontal: providing protection for a charge and against missiles 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 at all, particularly if they had heavy body armor, as having both hands occupied with a shield and lance left no room to effectively steer the horse. Eastern and Persian cataphracts, particularly those of the Sassanid and Parthia Empire, carried bows as well as blunt-force weapons, to soften up enemy formations before an eventual attack. While they varied in design and appearance, cataphracts were universally the heavy assault force of most nations that deployed them, acting as ‘shock troops’ to deliver the bulk of an offensive manoeuvre, while being supported by various forms of infantry and archers (both mounted and unmounted), while their roles in military history often seem to overlap with lancers or generic heavy cavalry. They should not be considered analogous to these forms of cavalry, and instead represent the separate evolution of a very distinct class of heavy cavalry in the Near East that had certain connotations of prestige, nobility, and ‘esprit de corps’ attached to them.
Fire support 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. The Parthian horse archers and camel troops encircled the Roman formation and bombarded it with arrows from all sides, forcing the legionaries to form the Testudo formation to shield themselves from the huge numbers of incoming arrows. This made them fatally susceptible to a massed cataphract charge, since the testudo made the legionaries immobile and incapable of attacking or defending themselves in close combat against the long reach of the Parthian Cataphracts. The end result was a far smaller force of Parthian cataphracts and horse archers wiping out a Roman cohort, four times their size numerically, due to a combination of fire and movement, which pinned the enemy down, wore them out and left them vulnerable to a concluding deathblow. The cataphract charge was very effective due to the disciplined riders and the large numbers of horses deployed. Cataphracts employed by the Scythians, Sarmatians, Parthians, and Sassanids presented a grievous problem for the traditionally less mobile, infantry-dependant Roman Empire. Roman writers throughout imperial history made much of the terror of facing cataphracts, let alone receiving their charge. Parthian armies repeatedly clashed with the Roman legions in a series of wars, featuring the heavy usage of cataphracts. Although initially successful, the Romans soon developed ways to crush the charges of heavy horsemen, through use of terrain and maintained discipline.