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.
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!
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.)
But how did they fight?
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.
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….