Byzantine Kataphraktoi

First up are the ancient world’s greatest chock calvary, the Byzantine Kataphraktoi. The Kataphraktoi featured below are hail from the middle to high Byzantine empire, or from roughly 700 a.d -1204 a.d. Emphasis will be placed on the Kommenian era Cataphracts.

Long Range: Hunnic composite bow (toxton), sling

While their earlier Roman forefathers did not consider the bow to be a weapon any true warrior should use, the Byzantines thought otherwise. The Byzantines learned from Attila’s reign of terror across Europe, learned that the Hunnic bow was as a weapon to be embraced. Just a century later Byzantine archers were deciding battles in Belisarus’s reconquest of Italy and a treatise of military strategy was written which focused only on the bow. This so called “Anonymous Treatise of Byzantine strategy”, written by a retired combat engineer, would define Byzantine archery for the next three centuries. Subsequent emperors would demand that their soldiers train with the bow, and this resulted in the Byzantines having a higher amount of skill then alot of their neighbors.

The Byzantine bow was a composite weapon 45 to 48 inches long, with a 160 pound draw weight and was descended from the Hunnic model. By the time of Leo ” the wise” heavy calvary had been reorganized so that every 2 of 5 was an archer, meaning the Byzantines will have four archers in this battle.bow was slung from the saddle, from which also was hung its quiver of arrows. Armor Piercing arrows did exist, and given the high draw of this bow this weapon may pierce hussar armor. More about such arrows here and here. Each quiver could hold 34 arrows.

Surprisingly, the bow seems to be one of four weapons that would be limited in a group (the other being the axe, sling and darts). The Lance, the maces and the two swords would all be carried holstered on their saddles or on their person.

(Persian expert Ardeshir Radpour demonstrating the mounted archery technique of the Persian Cataphract)

The Sling:


The Sling was still in use by the Byzantines all the way into the tenth century, and was often given as a backup for archers. Now admittedly it is rather unclear if Cataphracts were specifically given slings, but the article doesn’t seem to differentiate between horse archers and regular archers so its quite possible the Cataphract may have used a sling.

The Byzantines also seem to have their own style of slinging, which was depicted on a marble relief in Constantinople. It is characterized by a fast throw overhead with only one revolution. This allows for greater power and a faster rate of fire then other method of slinging. On horseback this probably wouldn’t have interfered with the horse movements. Their ammunition would have been specifically crafted lead bullets, which allow for a more powerful and lethal impact then a basic stone.

…And lets not forgot in slow motion

Mid range: Marzobarboulon , Kontarion lance

The marzobarboulon otherwise known as Plumbata were lead weighted darts that heavy Byzantine Calvary carried in a case in at the saddle. The Cataphracts would have undoubtedly carried multiple of these and with the exception of possibly being barbed these were very much like what the Roman Legions would have used.
from the site linked at the bottom.
“For distance darts must be thrown under arm. In terms of weight Comitatus darts seem to be between 60-120g (2-4oz). Our standard short dart weighing around 120g achieves distance of around 80m. Those of 60g struggle to reach such a distance. Those of 170g or even 200g (6 or 7oz) can reach out to a respectable 70m, but do have great penetrative power. If you increase the length of the dart, in my experience the distance thrown actually reduces, since while the distance travelled by the head during the throwing motion is increased the speed of the throw is much reduced. Longer versions get progressively heavier with length. An over arm throw, even when assisted by a thong lopped around the end of the dart, will give the dart a greater distance of up to 60m with a very light head. But a short dart well thrown easily can exceed such a throw.For close range you need power and accuracy. Members raise the darts above their shoulders and thrown them downwards at the target with great power and reasonable accuracy. At close range a blunt dart used for displays will shatter on impact, and a sharp one penetrate a shield all the way up to the lead weight.
Some of us have been the targets for blunt darts in the past. Darts delivered by cavalry feel like they could take your helmet off with your head in it. Darts thrown at close range on foot also give you very little time to react. ”

While they may not be able to pierce Hussar armor, they will be able to inflict blunt force damage and may knock the Hussar off his horse.

For a great demonstration of Roman weapons(including Plumbata) click here

Kontarion Lance:

The main weapon of the Cataphract was the Kontarion or Kontos lance. The lance was defined by a longsword-like blade and a butt spike at the other end, with a length varying from 2.9 meters to 4.0 meters (although the former seems to have been more common). They seem to have held the lance like a Knight would; underarm and sticking out. This frees up their other hand to carry a shield or possibly even another weapon. It could be carried over shoulder by an archer until it comes time to charge in. The lance was topped with a small flag the same color as the helmet. Some Cataphracts carried two lances.

While the lance is the man weapon, it doesn’t seem to have been given the importance that other cultures place on it, and the duration of its use was rather brief before the Cataphracts discarded it for another weapon; either by dropping it or chucking it at the enemy. Still they would have had a lot of training with the lance, and would be experts with it.

Close Range: Spathion, Paramerion


The Spathion is a descendant of the Roman Spatha and if one goes even further back, the Celtic longsword. By the 6th century this sword could be found on every corner of the Byzantine military and remained a staple weapon all the way to the Empire’s fall. . It was around thirty six inches and double edged, with the blade narrowing as it gets closer to a point.

This and the next sword could have been hung either from a shoulder strap or waist belt across the thigh. The Shoulder strap’s scabbard hung down to the hip so it has a vertical draw, while the thigh belt allowed for a horizontal draw. Every Cataphract carried both this and the next sword.

( This is close to what the spathion would have looked like with the only noticeable difference was the tip being narrower.)


Part two of the Byzantine sword combo was the Paramerion. This was roughly the same length as the Spathion but the blade is where the differences lie. It was curved and one-sided, like a saber, which allowed for faster slashing and more efficient hacking. Unlike the Spathion it seemed to be more a calvary weapon then anything else.

This sword would have been held horizontal at the waist allowing for a fast draw. Like the Spathion it would have been used after the lance had fulfilled its purpose.

Another great picture of Byzantine soldiers, and some Paramerions, here

Extremely Close Range: Dagger

For obvious reasons this would be a weapon of a last resort for the Byzantines, as using such a small weapon on horse would be even harder then using it effectively on ground. Historically this was the favored weapon of assassins in the Byzantine state.

Specialized/Rare weapons: tzikourion(axe), Bardoukion and other maces

The Tzikourion was a one handed battle-axe with a blade on one side and a hammer, spike or knife on the other. It was light axe, and one that was carried as a side arm by missile troops and heavy calvary. The steel blade of the axe could be used to hack, crush or even pry away an enemies shield, while the spike on the end can be used to pierce through enemy armor.

This would have been carried under the saddle or on holsters by some of the Kataphraktoi, along with two other maces. This would have been a great boon to carry while mounted as it was easy to swing and could be used to knock your opponent off his horse or even chop through his neck.

(What Could happen)


The Byzantines seem to have used a variety of different matzoukion(maces) and had many different names for this weapon. The Bardoukion (translated to sledgehammer) seems to have been the most prominent mace. It was described as a heavy flanged mace, and the shaft was around 2 feet in length with the head being 2 inches.

The mace was the weapon that the Kataphract was most skilled at. At least two, maybe three were carried on every rider , and the soldiers were taught to throw them with bone-shattering accuracy. This is perhaps the greatest anti-armor weapon in the entire Byzantine arsenal, and the one most suited to deal with Hussar armor.
Great site for Byzantine Maces can be found here

Bonus : *Horse Breeds*:Nisean Warhorse

The Nisean Warhorse(named after the town it was later bred in) or as its sometimes called the “Persian horse” was the super-horse of the ancient and medieval world. It had “not the slender Arabian head but a more robust one that was characteristic of the great warhorse”. The horse was very tall and very swift, making it ideal for a heavy calvary role. The breed came in many colors; red, leopard, golden and the royal white among a few other varieties. The back was smooth, which made it ideal for riding without stirrups.

This horse had reached superstar status even before the Roman empire had come into being. It was said to have been the signature horse of the Persian empires, and when Alexander the Great invaded in nearly every peace settlement/tribute negotiation he would demand some of these horses. The Nisean charger likely helped the Parthians achieve victory in Carhae whereupon the breed was then captured by Romans during their numerous forays into Parthian lands. By 400 A.D. Romans were breeding them and in 518 A.D. the Byzantine emperor Justinian established a breeding center for this horse in the town of Nisea. This horse seems to have been the sole stock of the Byzantine Cataphract, making the success of the two interlinked. Unfortunatly Turkish raids and tainted stocks took a massive toll on the breed, and the last vesteiges of it became exctint as a result of the Sack of Constantinople(1204)


Head: Phrygian cap helm, double layer mail coif

The so called “Phrygian cap” helmet was used by the Byzantines in the 11th century. The design would allow for glancing blows off the top of the helmet, and mail could be easily attached to the inside of it. Historically the Phrygian cap had been a symbol of freedom ever since Roman times, and the cap was a revolutionary icon during the French Revolution.

Double Layer Mail Coif

The Cataphract would have Mail hanging from his helmet to give maximum facial and neck protection. This mail would have been double or even triple layered, and would cover everything save two small eye slits that were necessary for vision. The only drawback to this style is that you sacrifice clear vision for protection

Body: shirt, padded jacket, mail,Lamellar, padded coat known as Epilorikion (see description below)

I am extremely lucky to have come across a piece that describes the process of armoring a Cataphract in its entirety. So instead of me talking about the various components I am going to publish the entire quote here:

“The detailed description given by General (later Emperor) Nikeforos Fokas in the Composition on Warfare (traditionally known by its Latinized title Praecepta Militaria) represents an outstanding compromise between protection, minimal encumbrance and weight, and ease of supply. The arming sequence followed here is from an earlier manual which sought to ensure that the donning of each piece of armour was not obstructed by any previous piece, and that a man could arm himself unaided as much as possible. (1) First was the peristhethidion or zoupa, a padded jacket with short sleeves, which closely matched the size and form of the cuirass that was to go over it. Sources show these could be either button-up or pull-over types. Then came the podopsella or greaves (1 A). These are most likely to have been splinted, although there are some indications that, at least in the latter part of the period, they could be solid tubes. Next came the kremasmata, a pair of padded skirts faced with mail (2A). How these, and other similar items, were attached is unknown, but a practical method in keeping with known practices of the region would be to lace them to the bottom of the zoupa. Kremasmata were later made of scales (2B) or inverted lamellae (2C). The klivanion was next (3). Lamellae was known, but was of marginal importance, in the early imperial Roman army. When it returned, probably in the later eighth century, its potential was rapidly realized, and Byzantine artisans introduced a series of technological refinements unique to the Eastern Roman Empire which made it cheaper and more serviceable. The pattern shown here was the second generation of those innovations, which has rows of plates fixed to a leather backing by riveting top and bottom before hanging by the traditional laces. The precise method by which the klivanion was secured is unknown, but the author’s experiments show that a poncho arrangement fastened with straps and buckles at the sides is viable, although it does require assistance at both ends of the arming process. After this came the manikellia; the upper sleeves were originally also splinted (4A), which is why in the stylization of religious art they could pass for the antique Roman pteruges. Initially they were most probably laced directly to the klivanion, but as the armouring progressed a shaped shoulder-piece was fitted (4C/4D). Like the kremasmata, later manikellia could be of scales (4B) or inverted lamellae (4D). Next would normally come the helmet (5). Fokas decrees that the mail skirt hanging from the helm should be two layers thick and cover everything but the eyes. All the body armour was enclosed in an epildrikion, a padded surcoat probably identical in form to the kavadion worn by the archers (see plate [D] on page 35). Finally, when everything else was buckled, laced and buttoned, the kheiropsella or forearm defences (6) were put on. The general suggests that they should be made, like the kremasmata, of mail laid over padding. Again, these were probably laced to the sleeves of the zoupa, a point at which the trooper would need some assistance, either from his ‘spear companion’ or the groom they shared.”

For those that were to lazy to read all of that the armor for the torso is as follows: a padded leather coat( peristhethidion) underneath that extended to the elbows and then a layer of steel Lamellar scales known as the Klivanion were put on over that. Other sources indicate that one or two layers of mail were put in between the jacket and Lamellar, but whether this was adopted before or after the general above is unknown to me. On top of all this armor was a padded and highly decorated coat known as the Epilorikion. The Byzantine armor was so effective against lances and other piercing/slashing instruments that in the battle of Dyrrakhion the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Commenus sustained several lances to various parts of his body which only managed to slightly unseat him. When he finally fled he many of the lances were still stuck in him, giving him the appearance of a pincushion.

Arms: Shirt, Upper Arm(manikellia): Steel Lamellar with possible mail undercoat and leather padding , Lower Arm: Mail(kheiropsella) with padding underneath.

The Arms were extremely protected, yet made to allow enough maneuverability to swing a weapon with ease. The shirt comes first to prevent the mail/Lamellar from touching the skin. Next comes the padded leather armor that extends down to the elbow. A layer of mail may have been then placed on top of the leather, but sources differ on this subject. On top of the mail/padding, a layer of steel Lamellar is placed .
For the lower arms kheiropsella or forearm defenses are put on. These consist of a layer of padding followed by a layer of mail. Gauntlets were described as being used by the Byzantines but most pictures of the Byzantines that I have seen showed a bare hand.

Legs: leather boot, greaves(podopsella) , solid steel Lamellar skirt(kremasmata)

The boots of the Cataphract seem to have been made out of leather, and as mounted units they didn’t seem to have put much attention. The greaves were made of solid metal(iron or possibly steel) and could be splintered or solid(splintered version is shown above). Next the Double layered mail skirt was put on. This extended from the lower stomach to the knees, meaning that from his head to his boots the Cataphract was fully enclosed in his armor.
*In total the armor would way 106 pounds.

Shield: Kite shield

In early ages a small iron round shield was used, however this changed when Manuel Commenus ascended the throne. After observing the crusaders that passed through his kingdom in action, he decided to adopt the Norman style of using Kite Shields with Calvary. While mounted the Cataphracts would have had these shields either strapped to the forearm or slung from the waist.

Horse Armor: Stirrups, Basic Saddle, Lamellar(Iron, Steel or Ox-hide),plate headpiece

The standard stirrup and saddle were both used by the Cataphract, allowing for more powerful lance attacks and making it a bit harder to knock him off his saddle. Reflecting the nature of heavy calvary, the horse was covered in Lamellar armor that extended down to its knees, giving the horse protection for when charges were made against dense formation. It’s head was enveloped in a plate headpiece. From front to back, there was not a place above the knees left uncovered.

X-factor Categories:

Tactics: heavy calvary charge!,wedge formation, “hammer blow”, constant harrying attacks with archers, trot until within a close distance, tire rather quickly, avoidance/avoidance relationship with other calvary, multiple Byzantine military manuals.

The Kataphraktoi were famous for their powerful charge, which was quite capable of smashing through heavy infantry lines(usually in a wedge formation) and routing engaged troops of any type. They, like all heavy calvary, were at a distinct disadvantage when engaged in prolonged combat with heavy infantry however, and to make up for this the so-called “Hammer blow” tactic was conceived. The Hammer blow tactic where the Cataphract lancers would charge the enemy, disengage, and charge again and again until the enemy broke and routed, all the while supported by Cataphract archers who continually pelted the enemy with missile barrages. The Cataphract archers would pelt the enemy with arrows for as long as they had arrows in their quiver, after which they would finally take out their lances and move into the fray.

Byzantyne catafracts charge
Byzantyne catafracts charge

It usually took a while to get to the point where they could charge though, and until they go close enough they would trot in order to conserve energy. While the Nisean horse is a strong breed, there are limits to its strength, and carrying a ___pound man with 106 pounds of armor on, in addition to the shield, various weapons and the horses own armor will be pretty taxing. In part because of this tendency to get tired quickly they would generally avoid other calvary, a policy that the enemy would generously reciprocate out of fear for the Kataphraktoi. They were equipped to handle calvary battles though and their heavy armor and powerful bows would make them ideal at defeating a lightly armed horse archer brigade. They could smash through calvary lines almost as easily as infantry.
At least ten Byzantine military manuals were written over the course of the Byzantine empire. Perhaps the two most important were Strategicon by Emperor Maurice and Tactica by Leo the Wise. The Former dealt with various types of foes , such as the heavy Calvary of the franks and the horse archers of the Avars, while the second dealt with military preparations, discipline and heavy Calvary formations.

Clibanarii attack
Clibanarii attack

Morale/Motivation: Made peace with god before battle, System of rewards and punishments, warrior-saints, Army and emperor

On the eve of battle, the very religious Byzantines would gather for a very long and heartfelt prayer with a heavy emphasis on repentance for sin and making peace with God in the hope that a man might go into battle unconstrained by unfinished spiritual business. After battle the awards would be alloted to men who merited it(for actions such as heroism) and punishments to those that deserved it (for cowardice). Rewards include a public acknowledgment of the heroism and more war spoils, while punishments include flogging and in extreme cases execution. Warrior saints such as Saint Merkourios were much admired among the soldiery and common citizenry, and there may have been some pressure/desire among the individuals Byzantine soldiers to emulate them. Every Byzantine owed loyalty to their emperor, the army in which they served and the Byzantine sate. The rewards system was only meant to be a bonus.

Rules of Combat: Pre-battle: Last Prayer, Last Meal, trot until within a close distance, charge only at last possible moment.

Pre-battle, the Byzantines would ideally gather for the long prayer described above and a final meal. After these last rites were complete they would trot down the field towards their foe, firing arrows as they moved.Only when they got within less then a 50 meters from the enemy would they charge.

* Fun Fact: The Byzantines were one of the first to have military hospitals directly behind their lines, and had specialized divisions in the medical department for horse and man. They even had ambulances!

Discipline/Training/Quality of enemies: System of Rewards and punishments, Relied upon to persevere while others route, Would have had Equestrian experience before joining, Theme System, Men assigned based on ability and equipment, Intense state training, Mock battles expected to train in between campaigns , Quality of enemies: Very High

As mentioned previously the rewards/punishments system would have been used to both encourage good behavior and discourage morale threatening bad behavior(Emperor Leo advised against excessive cruelty in the latter area though) . This often wasn’t necessary for the Cataphracts, as they were the very elite of the Byzantine society.

The Theme System demanded military service from landowning families, and the men selected for heavy calvary duty would have likely already had significant equestrian experience, being the Byzantine equivalent of nobles. The requirement for military service would be passed on from generation to generation, resulting in military families. The new members of these families would have been told of their future occupation and given some intra-family preparation for their future service. Nikeforos II decried that any family whose estate is worth more then 16 gold is eligible for the Cataphract division. At the recruiting station men were assigned what to calvary divisions based on their equipment and ability (for example both a very rich man that brought his own heavy armor and a rather brave poorer man could expect to see service in the Kataphraktoi divsion).

The Kataphraktoi received the best training that the Byzantine state could afford(in addition to having been already prepared by their families) and by the end of their training the recruits could expect to have been proficient with nearly every weapon listed above. They were expected to switch weapons quickly at any given time, they were taught how to operate in a cohesive unit, they were taught Byzantine military tactics and finally how to operate in rugged terrain. Mock battles were staged to pound these points in. finally they were also expected to maintain this training during their “off-time”.

The Byzantine state was surrounded on all sides by hostile nations, and a active soldier could be expected to fight a variety of foes from the heavily armored Normans, to the horse archers of the steppes, to the rugged Russian states, to internal Byzantine usurpers, to rebels, and finally to the various Muslim states that were their most constant enemy.

Martial Arts/fighting Style: Eclectic fighters, War Sports, Some evidence of classical Greek martial arts still in use

The Byzantine fighting style could best be described as eclectic, as they did not rely on any one style. If they run out of arrows then they’ll put their bow aside and rush in with a lance. If that fails then they will switch to their swords, if still that fails then axes and maces will be brought out, both of which could be thrown. The individual Byzantine could be expected to be quite active when not in the military. He hunted and participated in various sports, the most notable of the two were hippika gymnasia and tzikanion. The former was a game where blunt darts or javelins were thrown around in a sort of skirmish game while the latter was a much more violent version of Polo. This sport actually claimed the lives of two Byzantine emperors in its history.

There is some evidence that some martial arts of the classical Greece era- I.E. boxing, wrestling and Pankration- still existed in Byzantine society after it was banned in the 4th century A.D. If the Cataphract’s did have training in any of these martial arts forms it is likely to have been minimal at best. The contribution of martial art styles to this will likewise be minimal, as they are rather difficult to utilize when you are A.on horse and B. as heavily armored as these two combatants. Also there is little to no evidence that the Byzantine state afforded anything more then a very basic bare handed training regimen to its soldiers.

The Byzantine Kataphraktoi was the epitome of the entire Cataphract class of calvary, and may have been one of the foremost reasons behind the Byzantine State’s long survival (Wonderful Navy and Greek Fire were two other reasons). Their armor makes most forms of melee weapons useless, and they may be able to emerge from a primitive gunfight unscathed. The tactics of this calvary regiment has been refined over centuries and the their training was the best the Byzantine state could afford.

Kataphraktoi sources:

Byzantine armies, 886-1118
The encyclopedia of warfare: from earliest times to the present day
Swarming on the battlefield: past, present, and future
Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man
Cataphracts and Clibanarii of the Ancient World
Warhorse: cavalry in ancient warfare
Calvary The history of the Fighting Elite
The Development and Decline of Romano-Byzantine archery from the fourth to the eleventh centuries Here
BYZANTINE cataphracts
Warfare, state and society in the Byzantine world, 565 -1204
Byzantine Battle Tactics
Slinging Org
Guidelines For The General Use Of Plumbatae
The Horse Lancers
Cataphract Armored Calvary War Horse with Armored Rider
Comitarus: Recreating Roman Calvary
Description of kontos
Byzantine Cavalryman C 900- 1204 Here and readable in its entirety
Byzantine Roman maces
Horse : A history
The horse in history
Martial arts of the world: en encyclopedia. A – Q, Volume 1
Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World: Equipment, Combat Skills and Tactics
Sports of the Byzantines
Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Byzantine Civilization by Lars Brownworth (book)

Πηγή ‘Deadliest Warrior Deathmatch’

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