What did a cataphract look like?

Jul 11 2013

CataphractThe backbone of the Byzantine army when it dominated the Mediterranean was the feared cataphract. But what exactly- as Joseph asks- was a cataphract? The short answer is the Byzantine version of the knight on horseback. The Roman term was clibanarii which somewhat hilariously translates as ‘furnace’- probably an apt description of what it felt like to wear the armor on a sunny day.

There were three protective layers to bake in. The first (peristhethidion) was a padded leather jacket with short sleeves (a pair of greaves covered the arms) and a padded skirt faced with mail or scales to protect the legs. Over that was the klivanion, a mailed covering of the chest and shoulders, complete with a metal helmet hung with mail to cover the face (excepting the eyes). The final layer was the epilorikion, a padded cotton or thickly-stitched silk surcoat which would identify rank or unit. The poor horse- who had to carry this weight- was also covered with an iron headpiece and a thick ox-hide or laminated felt draping.

The cataphract carried a small round shield and a relatively short spear (roughly 8 feet long). In addition to this they carried two swords- one slightly curved, the other straight and double-sided. Some also carried a short bow or various kinds of maces and axes.

For the Roman empire they were never more than a small, peripheral force. The late 4th century document Notitia Dignitatum which records the administrative organization of the imperial armies mentions that there were 9 units of heavily armored knights, which means that they made up roughly 15% of the field army.

They seem to have gradually faded from use (completely vanishing by the 7th century) until their sudden emergence as the preferred troops of the terrifying emperor Nicephorus Phocas. In fact, most of what we know about them comes from the military manual that the emperor himself wrote (Praecepta Militaria) around the year 965 AD. But their renaissance proved short. Nicephorus’ (eventual) successor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer seems not to have used them, largely replacing them with his newly created Varangian Guard. After the military disaster of Manzikert in 1071, the imperial armies were largely mercenary and far less formidable. With the brief exception of the army of Manuel Comnenus, the empire never fielded a significant land force again.

9 responses so far

  1. Fascinating. What did a member of the Varangian Guard look like? Did they remain Scandinavian-seeming, or did they blend in with the Mediterranean milieu due to miscegenation or tanning?

  2. It would very much depend on what time period you were talking about. In the early days (Basil II) they obviously stood out (sort of the point). They were hand picked to be impressive. Also, the many opportunities to get rich meant a steady stream of fresh recruits- like the Norse king Harald Hardrada. They would also fight with their traditional weapons and armor- Norse berserkers with their wolf-skins and spears, or Anglo-Saxon housecarls with chain mail and battle-axes. There was probably a high rate of turnover. The goal for any mercenary was to get rich, so after a few years in the corps when a successful Varangian had amassed a small fortune (they had the bizzare right to plunder the imperial treasury when an emperor died) they would often return home and enjoy the good life of a rich landowner. This kept the Guard from blending in initially, although as the years passed and get-rick-quick opportunities lessened, the ranks had to be filled with local recruits.

  3. Hello,although I’m not Lars I could be of some help.The best and as far
    as I know up to date the only publication that deals with Varangian
    guard with main focus as to what it looked like is this tiny book from
    Osprey
    publishing:http://www.ospreypublishing.com/store/The-Varangian-Guard-988
    with beautiful colorplates and photos.And on your question:they
    retained many of their northern features out of tradition and personal
    preference,but at the same time they adopted many eastern customs and
    must had been more or less supplied from local Mediterranean sources.

  4. Hello,although I’m not Lars I could be of some help.The best and as far
    as I know up to date the only publication that deals with Varangian
    guard with main focus as to what it looked like is this tiny book from
    Osprey publishing:
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Varangian-Guard-988-1453-Men-at-Arms/dp/1849081794
    with beautiful colorplates and photos.And on your question:they
    retained many of their northern features out of tradition and personal
    preference,but at the same time they adopted many eastern customs and
    must had been more or less supplied from local Mediterranean sources.

  5. It would very much depend on what time period you were talking about. In the early days (Basil II) they obviously stood out (sort of the point). They were hand picked to be impressive. Also, the many opportunities to get rich meant a steady stream of fresh recruits- like the Norse king Harald Hardrada. They would also fight with their traditional weapons and armor- Norse berserkers with their wolf-skins and spears, or Anglo-Saxon housecarls with chain mail and battle-axes.

    There was probably a high rate of turnover. The goal for any mercenary was to get rich, so after a few years in the corps when a successful Varangian had amassed a small fortune (supposedly they had the bizarre right to plunder the imperial treasury when an emperor died) they would often return home and enjoy the good life of a rich landowner. This kept the Guard from blending in initially, although as the years passed and get-rick-quick opportunities lessened, the ranks had to be filled with local recruits.

  6. Yes! I was looking on Amazon for more on the Varangian Guard and noticed a couple of biographies of Harald Hardrada (fictional and nonfiction). Thanks for the insights, details are no doubt very hard to come by over their entire career.

  7. Thanks for the suggestion, I am getting it. Amazon also has a few more very interesting-looking books on the topic.

  8. The poor horse- who had to carry this weight- was also covered with an iron headpiece and a thick ox-hide or laminated felt draping.

    So, what is the difference between the heavily armor of the east and the west in the medieval period.

  9. Hey Lars! Magnifique! Can you please explain me more about Jannissary? Why did the christians boys taken as captives not rebel against their islamic masters? Islam prohibits slavery of muslims then how could Jannisssaries claim to be muslims?? I cant understand why the christian jannissaries fought against christian byzantines???

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