Byzantine cavalry: chain mail ski masks and tanks.

When someone says the term “Byzantine” you usually think of “sneaky,” “Underhanded,” “Conniving.” Well, the Byzantine heavy cavalry was anything but sneaky, underhanded or conniving. They were as subtle as a jack hammer and hit harder too!
However, I will not be calling them “Byzantine.” The term Byzantine comes from a jealous German historian who thought that the “Eastern Roman Empire” was competition for the “Holy Roman Empire.” After all, if there was a Roman Empire, how legit could a Holy Roman Empire be? So, he called them Byzantines and the name stuck. I’ll be calling them Romans, but keep in mind that this is the Roman Empire AFTER the western half fell.
Now, on to the heavy cavalry of the Roman Empire and its origins. So, from the sixth century Roman Empire, we travel back to ancient Persia when they were fighting the Greeks lead by Alexander the Great. Well, Alexander was whooping up everything from Macedonia to India. To counteract his lethal killing machine, the Persians put on as much armor as they could and charged out Well, it didn’t work for them against Alexander, but nothing really did. The concept stuck though. When the Roman Empire began to be beaten by two bit barbarian tribes with tons of horses, they figured “Hey, maybe we should be some horses!” Before they had been using “Allies” as part time cavalry, but they never cared for it much. But toward the end, they began using heavy cavalry. They even began making armor approaching plate armor that wouldn’t be seen in Europe for hundreds of years.

Full helmet, heavy armor, armored stirrups. Oops!

However, they couldn’t quite use the heavy cavalry to its full potential because they didn’t have stirrups to keep the cav trooper in the saddle. Well, the Eastern Empire had an advantage…it was in the east…where the Sarmatians were. The Sarmatians were a nomadic barbarian nation that loved horses and happened to have invented stirrups. Well, the Romans looked at this and said, “Hey! This is great! Now we can crack skulls AND stay in the saddle!”
Thus was born the Roman (Byzantine) Cataphract!

Here's General Belisarius as an early cataphract. The armored horses prevented them from being wiped out by the arrows that their enemies seemed to love.

The Eastern Empire fought the Persians and Nomads from the Russian Steppes, so they fought a lot of cavalry focused armies in very open, spacious lands. This made the army become more and more about the cav.
The old Roman legions were long gone. Now infantry took a back seat and the cavalry was the weapon of choice! The cataphracts were expensive of course and most came from the professional army units stationed in the capital, Constantinople. The rest of the armies were conscripts and mercenaries.
The armor of the cataprhacts had several layers. First, they had a layer of padding, then chain mail, then lamellar ( a scale mail that points up; protects against attacks from below, just what a cav trooper wants!) And on top of that is a long felt jacket that protects against arrows how cevlar protects against bullets, by absorbing the impact. The jackets were dyed in the colors of their units. (Unit specific colors are something that wouldn’t be seen in Europe for many hundreds of years later.) This combination of armor proved rather effective. When fighting the Normans, Emperor Alexios was surrounded and was struck several times by Norman spears. He managed to escape with spears still stuck in his armor. They had cone helmets that would deflect head blows and not smash through. The cataphrats, though heavy cavalry, often carried bows and acted as horse archers. They’d have small bucklers strapped to their arms. The front line cataphracts would carry oval shields, two swords in a way that Samurai did, one curved, one straight and a mace. The mace was to fight other armored opponents and often marked who was an officer.
To get recruits, the Empire would offer land in stead of money. The cavalry trooper would be given land that he would farm and take care of, sometimes he’d be in charge of a town or even a fort depending on how isolated the land was. This was called a “Theme system.” They would have to keep up their training and the training of whatever other forces they could muster and buy their own arms and armor. Infantry were usually poor people that needed jobs. The cavalry were usually drown from middle class or poor nobility. The officers would be rich nobility.
One thing of note, the Roman army would have combat medics with a field hospital set up two kilometers behind the front lines. One thing in the army I learned was that there were two main types of wounded, ambulatory and non-ambulatory. Those that could walk and those that couldn’t. The Romans had the same idea.
Unlike in Western Europe, anyone regardless of birth could progress up the ranks and several of them even made general and emperor. The Romans were non-judgmental that way.
One thing was the same as ancient Rome, the military camps. Every night they’d set up an elaborate and well fortified camp. Everyone knew their place, by unit and rank. The tents were round and each tent had a servant to cook and clean for them. (I wish I had that when I was in the army.)

They did have heavy infantry and they were quite good, but the cavalry was the power behind the military.

But how did they fight?
Very well.
Oh, want something more specific? Okay, The infantry would usually remain stationary while the cavalry would ride out, charge and pound the enemy and withdraw while firing arrows as they returned. The infantry were more like a mobile base where the cav could return for safety. The infantry were the anvil and the cav was the hammer.

Yeah, they were so scary they had chain mail ski masks. Hard core.

They were very effective and kept the empire alive for thousands of years. They were only weakened by politics. The two factions of the government were the aristocracy and the military. When the military faction was in power, the empire would be successful militarily. When the aristocracy was in power, they’d let the army go and they’d loose land to their enemies. Go figure.

Cataphracts were the tanks of the Roman army.  They were the insperation for the knights of Europe and their concept helped form the Middle Ages.  Speaking of tanks….

Umm...sure! Yes, I'm pro military! Yeah! Ignore my distain for the military and promises to defund it!

12 comments on “Byzantine cavalry: chain mail ski masks and tanks.

  1. cthulhu says:

    So a cataphracts armor was similar in concept to the modern chobham armor: multiple layers that can protect against different types of attacks….outstanding!

  2. Brock says:

    “Byzantine” means “complex” or “impenetrable”; especially regarding bureaucracies – as were those of the Byzantine Empire.

  3. Bob says:

    well, some months ago, I read that as early as the II century AD, in the times of Trajan and Hadrian, the Romans used cataphracts, had several alaes stationed in Pannonia, Dacia, and some eastern provinces, apparently and according to the descriptions were very similar to this cataphract of the low-empire, some diff, like they wearing a 4 grip point saddle, they used a kind of lorica segmentata designed for cavalry and the helmet had a design like this but combined with the imperial gallic design, and also wore a mask. and a heavy spear of 4 meters,also the horse was completely armored.

  4. william says:

    well you live up to your name of more entertaining than wikipedia and more educational than hollywood.

    your more less on the right track
    except stirrups wernt neccesarily essential to keeping you in your saddle when charging.
    the partians were some of the first to use cataphracts, this was around the time of crassus. this was before the sassanids.

    as fo byzantine infantry, a majority of infantry were pikemen as far as i know,
    just google peter beatson he has a ton of stuff on viking and byzantine armies and clothing.
    and byzantine infantryunits.

    btw cataphracts were very scarce i think one figure said about 500-1000 men in an army of nearly 10-15,000 or even less i think.

    • zacharyhill says:

      Well, stirrups were necessary for heavy cavalry that want to charge in with full force. It allowed the rider to hit harder and faster and that changed the nature of the way cavalry was used and equipped. Without stirrups you have to hold tight with your knees but that only works real well if it’s bare skin to horse.
      Cataphracts were the elite of the elite. They had lighter forms of cavalry as well. (I forget the name, I’ll check on that in a bit.) As to actual numbers?

      • Hans Widjaja says:

        You better check your sources again mate. The Parthian cataphracts were transfixing two Roman legionnaires in one lance thrust at Carrhae in 53 BC WITHOUT stirrups. The Seleucid cataphract crushed some Roman infantry at Magnesia without stirrups even earlier at 190 BC. You go tell these ancient gents that it’s impossible to wield a heavy lance from the back of a galloping armored horse without something as silly as a pair of ‘stirrups’ and they’d likely laugh their asses off.

        More and more historian has revised their view on the ‘stirrup revolution’, shock cavalry has been effective before the invention of the stirrup, althouh the stirrup certainly made some things easier. Actually where the stirrup helped the most was in the area of horse archery, not shock combat.

        Check out this link, written by an experimental archaeologist who (unlike most desk-bound history professors) has jousted in period correct armor and equipment. He maintained that the stirrup, while nice to have, was not necessary for armored shock combat on horseback.

      • Hans Widjaja says:

        Oh yeah, about gripping your horse’s side with your knees, any equestrian teacher worth his salt will tell you that regardless of saddle or stirrup you MUST grip your horse’s side at all times with your thighs and knees. Developing this “horseman’s seat” is absolutely vital in learning proper riding, one should never depend on one’s stirrup to keep one’s seat by leaning on it. In fact 19th century European cavalry were taught to ride WITHOUT stirrup first so they can form the proper “seat”.

  5. Keaseh says:

    Clean for them for them? What? Their dirty plates or their buttocks?

  6. Neal Quigley says:

    Great article, except the part about Dukkakis. He didn’t threaten to defund the military, he threatened to defund Star Wars, which every scientist taking the check admitted could not work.

  7. Jason says:

    I really like your blog! I’ve only read a couple of entries so far and feel like I learned something, and it’s enjoyable. (am 42). I am really curious about the Eastern Romans. One hears nothing about them in the media, Hollywood or fiction. It’s all Western Europe all the time. ie., ‘the Tudors, Rome, vikings, king Arthur, french this or that, the Borgia, blah blah, why is there no popular fiction taking place in Constantinople? Why no movies depicting the glitz of it’s royal palace, horse races, or battles with greek fire. etc…?

    • Thank you for the e-mail! As to why nobody pays attention to the Eastern Roman Empire? It has to do with German schools. We Americans get our school system from the Germans and the Germans, The Holy Roman Empire at the time, felt threatened (identity wise) by the actual Roman Empire that had survived. So, they began to call it the “Byzantine Empire” instead. That that way the Germans could hold on to their pretended crown. For the next 200 years, Western scholars ignored or degraded the Eastern Romans to the point that it became systematic. Hollywood doesn’t make movies about them because 1. they’re not well known so won’t draw large crowds. 2.The Eastern Romans are too cool for Hollywood. 3. All that glitz and glamour would cost too much money or would all be crappy CGI. 3. Hollywood would get it so wrong it would be laughable.
      Still, I’d love to see a real Eastern Roman Empire movie. But I’m afraid its a dream that may never come to be.

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