A 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. The English word is derived from the Greek ‘κατάφρακτος Kataphraktos’ (plural: ‘κατάφρακτοι Kataphraktoi’), literally meaning “armored” or “completely enclosed“. Historically, the cataphract was a very heavily armored horseman, with both the rider and mount draped from head to toe in scale armor, while typically wielding a kontos or lance as their weapon.
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, through 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 Chinese, Jurchens, and Mongols in East Asia.
In Europe, the fashion for heavily armored Roman cavalry seems to have been a response to the Eastern campaigns of the Parthians and Sassanids in the region referred to as Asia Minor, as well as numerous defeats at the hands of Iranian cataphracts across the steppes of Eurasia, the most notable of which is the Battle of Carrhae. Traditionally, Roman cavalry was neither heavily armored nor decisive in effect; the Roman equites corps were composed mainly of lightly armored horsemen bearing spears and swords using light cavalry tactics to skirmish before and during battles, and then pursue retreating enemies after a victory. The adoption of cataphract-like cavalry formations took hold among the late Roman army during the late 3rd and 4th centuries. The Emperor Gallienus Augustus (253–268 AD) and his general and putative usurper Aureolus, bear much of the responsibility for the institution of Roman cataphract contingents in the Late Roman army, though this had been questioned by some historians.
At the time of Augustus, the Greek geographer Strabo considered cataphracts with horse armor to be typical of Armenian, Caucasian Albanian, and Persian armies, but, according to Plutarch, they were still held in rather low esteem in the Hellenistic world due to their poor tactical abilities against disciplined infantry as well as against more mobile, light cavalry. However, the lingering period of exposure to cataphracts at the eastern frontier as well as the growing military pressure of the Sarmatian lancers on the Danube frontier led to a gradual integration of cataphracts into the Roman army. Thus, although armored riders were used in the Roman army as early as the 2nd century BC (Polybios, VI, 25, 3), the first recorded deployment and use of cataphracts (equites cataphractarii) by the Roman Empire comes in the 2nd century AD, during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117–138 AD), who created the first, regular unit of auxiliary, mailed cavalry called the ala I Gallorum et Pannoniorum catafractata. A key architect in the process was evidently the Roman emperor Gallienus, who created a highly mobile force in response to the multiple threats along the northern and eastern frontier. However, as late as 272 AD, Aurelian‘s army, completely composed of light cavalry, defeated Zenobia at the Battle of Immae, proving the continuing importance of mobility on the battlefield.
The Romans fought a prolonged and indecisive campaign in the East against the Parthians beginning in 53 BCE, commencing with the defeat of Marcus Licinius Crassus (close benefactor of Julius Caesar) and his 35,000 legionaries at Carrhae. This initially unexpected and humiliating defeat for Rome was followed by numerous campaigns over the next two centuries entailing many notable engagements such as: the Battle of Cilician Gates, Mount Gindarus, Mark Antony’s Parthian Campaign and finally culminating in the bloody Battle of Nisibis in 217 AD, which resulted in a slight Parthian victory, and Emperor Macrinus being forced to concede peace with Parthia. As a result of this lingering period of exposure to cataphracts, by the 4th century, the Roman Empire had adopted a number of vexillations of mercenary cataphract cavalry (see the Notitia Dignitatum), such as the Sarmatian Auxiliaries. The Romans deployed both native and mercenary units of cataphracts throughout the Empire, from Asia Minor all the way to Britain, where a contingent of 5,500 Sarmatians (including cataphracts, infantry, and non-combatants) were posted in the 2nd century by Emperor Marcus Aurelius (see End of Roman rule in Britain).
This tradition was later paralleled by the rise of feudalism in Christian Europe in the Early Middle Ages and the establishment of the knighthood particularly during the Crusades, while the Eastern Romans continued to maintain a very active corps of cataphracts long after their Western counterparts fell in 476 AD.