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The Cataphracti

The Cataphracti were Roman horsemen, armored over their entire body who attacked with a lance and charged in compact bodies. Does this sound familiar? It should, these warriors are thought to be the military ancestors of the knights of the Middle Ages.

The Cataphracti saw their most spectacular action at the battle of Mursa, one of the innumerable battles that resulted from various Roman armies declaring their own general to be emperor and pitting him against the currant claimant to the purple. In this case the battle occurred in September of 351 A.D. between Flavius Magnus Magnentius who had overthrown one of the sons of Constantine in the Western Empire and was determined to deal with the last son of Constantine, Constantius, who still ruled the Eastern half of the Empire from Constantinople.

The Western army marched east to take Constantius head on, but what they had not reckoned on was his newfangled armored horsemen. In fact, most in the west had never seen a cataphract. Constantius had actually borrowed the idea of armored horsemen from their Persian and Sarmatian enemies.

Julian, a cousin of Constantius (and later an emperor himself) described them in this manner:

The cavalry was almost unlimited in numbers and they sat their horses like statues, while their limbs were fitted with armor that followed closely the outline of the human form. It covers the arms from wrist to elbow and thence to the shoulder, while a coat of mail protects the shoulders, back and breast. The head and face are covered by a metal mask which makes its bearer look like a glittering statue, for not even the thighs and legs and the very ends of the feet lack this armor. It is attached to the breast-plate by fine chain armor like a web, so that no part of the body is visible and uncovered, for this woven covering protects the hands as well, and is so flexible that the wearers can even bend their fingers.

At Mursa the Cataphracti were lined up on the wings of the army brought by Constantius. As his right was anchored by a river, Constantius concentrated the bulk of this mobile armored force on the left where it could maneuver and crush the light cavalry fielded by Magnentius. The army of Constantius went forward en mass and pushed the army of Magnentius toward the river Drave. Although the partisans of Magnentius fought valiantly they were eventually overcome by repeated charges by the Cataphracti followed by attacks from light cavalry and other archers.

Tens of thousands were said to have died in this battle. The civil wars of Rome were in a large part responsible for the diminution of Roman power and would eventually weaken the Empire so that it could not resist the incursions of the approaching barbarians.

The effectiveness of the Cataphracti would make them feared in the West and eventually copied. The final destruction of the Western Empire is often dated at 476 A.D. The end of the Empire would leave a power vacuum that would be filled by any one with the military might to take control. As mounted armored men could do this in the most efficient manner, considering the technology of the day, it is no surprise that the armored knight would eventually rise to dominate the political and military landscape just as they did the field of battle at Mursa.

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Return to Military History Index
Horse Soldiers: 21st Century Cavalry Charge
Hittites in the Battle of Kadesh

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W.J. Rayment


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