The Frankish caballarii or protoknights had been modeled directly on the klibanarioi of the Byzantine Empire in southern Italy, who themselves were derived directly from the cataphracti of the later Roman armies, and indirectly from the heavy cavalry of the Parthians and ultimately of the Sarmatians of the third century B. C. The early caballarii resembled their Roman and Byzantine precursors in being nothing more than cavalry soldiers who were provided with the best available armor, arms, mounts, equipment, and training, and who fought in units whose principal purpose was to overwhelm and terrify their enemies through a combination of weight, momentum, and virtual invulnerability. The true knights of the period between 1050 and about 1550 continued to function in the same way, using a greatly improved version of the traditional shock tactics made possible by technical improvements in their equipment, and the core definition of the knight always included an ability to fight in this way.
The cataphract is a latecomer to the Hellenistic battle line. Cavalry of this type, where both horse and rider were covered as completely as possible in armour, developed first among the Iranian peoples. Antiochus III seems to have been the first Hellenistic monarch to employ cataphracts. They would be a significant military development later on, as horses of increasing strength were bred to carry the heavy burden.
Alexander’s Companions were heavy lancers armed with the xyston, and these lances were so effective against the shorter weapons of the Persian horse that Darius apparently re-equipped some of his own cavalry with similar arms. Hellenistic heavy cavalry continued to consist largely of such xystophoroi, and the marriage of the lance with the heavy armour long worn by Scythian nobles and their mounts gave rise to the cataphract lancers fielded by the Parthians and the Seleucids. Old ideas that the lack of stirrups made ancient cavalry incapable of effective shock action have long ago been exploded by practical experimentation, and the very prevalence of such armoured lancers shows how ridiculous the supposition was.
It is probable that from the second century AD the Romans began to use relatively heavily armoured cavalry, whose entire role was to intimidate the enemy by the expected shock of their charge. Under Trajan appears the First Ulpian thousand-man ala of lance-carriers (ala I Ulpia contariorum milliaria). This must have been equipped with a long lance (kontos), which was held in two hands along one side of the horse’s neck. In the reign of Hadrian an ala cataphracta first appeared in which both rider and horse may have been armoured. The value of armoured cavalry was probably in the visual shock of their slow and steady advance (it would be tiring for the horses to move at more than a trot) and their ability to wound from a distance with their long lances. However, there is only limited flexibility in the deployment of this kind of cavalry because horses and riders tire quickly, especially in a warm climate, if clad in heavy armour.
The most conspicuous Roman cavalry units were the heavily armoured cataphracti and clibanarii, but there were never large numbers of these, and it would be a misconception to view the late Roman period as one of unilinear `progress’ towards heavier cavalry. Nevertheless, they were a potentially decisive force in Roman battle tactics. While the precise differences, if any, between cataphracti and clibanarii are disputed, there appears to have been no significant distinction in their combat roles. Their chief weapon was a cavalry lance or contus, usually wielded two-handed, although across the empire there was probably greater variety in equipment than is often assumed. Both cataphracti and clibanarii enjoyed extensive protection against missiles that would otherwise disconcert the cohesion of closeorder cavalry formations. There is some evidence that maces or clubs were regarded as the most effective close-quarters weapons against cataphracti, though their character is unclear. The literary and sculptural evidence for horse armour is ambiguous, perhaps reflecting regional variations; certainly the mounts of the front ranks were armoured, though their flanks, bellies and legs remained vulnerable. These `shock’ units aimed to overwhelm the enemy’s morale rather than clash directly at close quarters, and contemporary descriptions attest their imposing spectacle on the battlefield. 51 They could drive off opposing cavalry, but were particularly effective against infantry already revealing signs of disorder or weakness. Seasoned Roman infantry usually possessed the discipline, morale and armament to withstand such onslaughts by Persian or Sarmatian cataphracti, but few of the empire’s enemies regularly fielded infantry of comparable quality. If the prospect of their approach failed to break the enemy, Roman cataphracti usually drew rein and continued to menace, while accompanying bow- or javelin-armed cavalry further disrupted the enemy line.
There is plenty of evidence throughout this period and well after Adrianople that Roman infantry were able to hold off and defeat barbarian cavalry, and that the proportion of cavalry to infantry units remained approximately the same for the next century: roughly 1:3 in numbers of units, but far fewer in absolute numbers of men, since the unit sizes in the cavalry were smaller. 4 Within the Roman cavalry there was an increase from the late third to the early fifth century in the numbers of very heavily armoured units, and it has been calculated that by the time of the Notitia Dignitatum, a late fourth/ early fifth century document giving the order of battle of the eastern and western armies, heavy armoured cavalry (cataphracti and clibanarii) made up some 15 per cent of the comitatenses cavalry, in comparison with lancers and other heavy cavalry (61 per cent) and light cavalry (24 per cent). Yet there were in turn more of these cavalry units assigned to the limitanei than to the field armies, which suggests strongly that cavalry were still regarded throughout the fourth and fifth centuries as most valuable in scouting and patrolling, or covering the wings and flanks of a mainly infantry army.
While Procopius’ `ideal’ warrior marks a stage in the development of the late Roman `composite archer-lancer’, this type appears as the standard Roman cavalryman only at the very end of this period. In the Strategicon all cavalrymen are expected to be proficient with both lance and bow, switching easily from one to the other (1.1). Cavalry units were trained to deploy as cursores – in open order, harrying enemies with archery – and defensores – in a well-ordered close array which could support the cursores if these failed to break the opposing formation and had to retire to regroup. While cursores and defensores have their origins in the respective roles of Roman shock and missile cavalry of an earlier period, Maurice expects every cavalry unit to be able to perform both roles (3.5.63-76, 86-109). Indeed, `despecialization’ in armament, training and tactics is a defining characteristic of later sixth century cavalry, perhaps reflected in the apparent disappearance of specialist unit designations like sagittarii or cataphracti. A significant influence may be identified in the empire’s eastern enemies, who had for long effectively combined the tactics of horse-archers and cataphracti. The equipment of some sixth-century Persian cavalry, and certainly the panoply required by the reforms of Khusro I (531-79), suggests that they were expected to fulfil both roles (Tabari i. 1.964,5:262-3, Yarshater).
The elite units of the imperial tagmata, and later the heavy cavalry soldiers who made up the small cataphract corps recruited by Nikephros Phocas in particular were much more heavily armoured; indeed, it is likely that the tagmata, equipped and outfitted directly by the central government, had been from the beginning much more heavily armed than the thematic forces, and may have been issued with horse armour as well. The mid-tenth-century heavy cavalryman is described in several sources, and was protected by a lamellar klibanion with splinted arm-guards, sleeves and gauntlets, the latter from coarse silk or quilted cotton. From the waist to the knee they wore thick felt coverings reinforced with mail; over the klibanion was worn a sleeveless quilted or padded coat (the epilorikon); and to protect the head and neck an iron helmet with mail or quilting attached and wrapped around the face. The lower leg was protected by splinted greaves of bronze. Offensive weapons included iron maces with a three-, four-or six-flanged head, the paramerion, and the standard sword or spathion. The mace was a particularly favoured weapon for the heavy cavalry and heavy infantry, and indeed acquired such a degree of notoriety that enemy soldiers were reported to have fled at the sight of mace-bearing Byzantine troops. The horses were also armoured, with felt quilting, or boiled leather lamellar or scale armour, or hides-the head, neck and front, flanks and rear of the animal should be thus protected. Their hooves appear also to have been protected against caltrops by metal plates. In addition to this information, the so-called Sylloge tacticorum gives some details on the bow used by Byzantine soldiers, which together with descriptions and illustrations of the curved Byzantine bows suggests that the basic model remained that of the Hunnic bow, adopted in the fifth and sixth centuries, measuring from 114 cm to 122 cm (45″ to 48″) in length, with arrows of 68 cm (27″).