The most complete depiction of the arms and armour of the Seleucid cataphract is located on the Balustrade Reliefs of the temple of Athena Polias Nikephoros at Pergamum. One of the most impressive features shown among the armament is a metal mask with an incredibly detailed face, including a sculpted beard that was attached to the helmet of the rider. The rest of the cataphract armour included a Hellenistic-style cuirass with traditional pinions and pteruges (strips hanging from the shoulders and lower edge respectively) attached, as well as laminated armour that covered the entire arm (manica) that was made of articulated metal or rawhide hoops that overlapped down the limb and were often riveted to inner straps.
The Seleucid Empire
Shortly after King Arsaces conquered Parthia and seized it from the Seleucid Empire, the rebel governor of Bactria, Diodotus II, named himself the new king of his province around 235 BC. The Bactrian ruler then also entered into a peaceful agreement with the Parthian king, because both men knew they would soon face the wrath of the Seleucid emperor. The two new kings did not have to wait long, for later in the year King Seleucus II (r. 246-225 BC) launched a campaign in the east to reclaim his lost territory. Unfortunately for the Hellenistic ruler, his attempts to reclaim Parthia and Bactria ended in failure and he was forced to return in order to deal with a turbulent Babylon. A couple of decades later, Seleucus’ son, Antiochus III (r. 223-187 BC), was ready to succeed where his father had failed. After stabilizing the western half of the empire, Antiochus the Great made extensive preparations for an eastern campaign. His aim was to either completely retake land or at least force the eastern rulers to submit and become client kings as well as give tribute to their acknowledged overlord. In 209 BC, the Seleucid emperor carried out a campaign against the fledgling kingdom of Parthia with a large army of around 15,000 heavy infantry, 6,000 cavalry and over 12,000 peltasts and other light infantry.
Before Antiochus began his eastern expedition, King Arsaces was succeeded by his son, Arsaces II (r. 211-185 BC), whose soldiers attempted to slow or halt the Seleucid invaders by first preventing them from gaining access to all of the wells or other sources of fresh water in their path, and then by sending men to raid and harry the Hellenistic forces as they marched. None of these actions stopped the Seleucid army from advancing further into Parthia. Antiochus continued to overcome further resistance, then successfully besieged more than one fortified settlement and captured several towns before he and the Parthian king agreed to meet and make peace terms. In the agreement, Arsaces was allowed to keep his kingdom as long as he became a vassal and paid tribute to the Seleucid emperor. Additionally, the Parthians lost the important city of Hekatompylos, along with much of the former region of Hyrcania, to the Seleucids.
With Parthia made into a client kingdom, Antiochus moved on to deal with Bactria next. Yet before he reached the former province of the empire, the new rebel ruler of the Greco–Bactrian kingdom, Euthydemos, confronted the Seleucid army at the Arios River on the border. The Bactrian forces consisted primarily of cavalry that may have numbered as many as 10,000 men; thus, Antiochus proceeded with his horsemen, especially his 2,000–strong royal guardsmen, supported by many light infantry peltasts. Even though they were outnumbered, the Seleucid cavalrymen achieved victory against the Bactrian horsemen, forcing Euthydemos to retreat back to his capital city of Bactra. After a lengthy siege of two years, along with further violent encounters, Antiochus eventually gave in and expressed his desire to make peace with the Greco–Bactrian king. Similar to the terms made with Arsaces, Euthydemos was allowed to retain his kingship in exchange for a pledge of loyalty and the payment of a large tribute. Antiochus also confirmed his control over the regions of Margiana and Aria. Parthia and Bactria were the primary targets of Antiochus’ eastern expedition and, although he did not fully recover the lost territories, he forced their rulers into a state of vassalage, which was enough to satisfy the Seleucid emperor. Antiochus was then free to return to the west in order to settle unfinished business with a rival Hellenistic kingdom ruled by the Ptolemies in Egypt.
Earlier in his reign, several years before he left for his campaigns in the east, Antiochus had been defeated by Ptolemy IV Philopator (r. 221-204 BC) at the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC. The news that a rebel– lion had broken out in Egypt reached Antiochus in 206 BC, which was one of the reasons that the Seleucid emperor wished to end the siege of Bactra. In 204 BC, the death of Ptolemy only fueled Antiochus’ desire to seek revenge against the rival kingdom while it was weak and vulnerable. As he prepared in the years before his ultimate confrontation with the Ptolemaic Kingdom, Antiochus the Great created a new type of mounted warrior inspired by his combat experiences in the east, which later became known as the cataphract.
Although the Parthians and Bactrians that Antiochus faced in his eastern campaigns certainly utilized heavily armoured cavalry like their predecessors, it is unknown whether one or both regions had begun fielding riders and steeds armoured to the extent of the new Seleucid cataphracts. Whether Antiochus simply copied Parthian or Bactrian troops or innovated by developing the idea further, the new cavalry that would fight the Ptolemaic Egyptians at the Battle of Panion were definitely the first to be called cataphracts.
The events leading up to the confrontation at Panion resulted from Antiochus’ moves to reclaim the region of Coile–Syria from the Ptolemies in 202 BC. The Seleucid emperor began his campaign with the seizure of the city of Damascus, which was accomplished in the first year. By 201 BC, Antiochus had not only captured Gaza, but he had also taken much of the land in between the two cities, which gave him control over Palestine, a large part of Coile–Syria. However, by the end of that year, the Aetolian mercenary commander of the Ptolemaic army, Skopas, managed to recruit a large number of mercenaries, which he combined with the native Ptolemaic forces. Then, early in 200 BC, Skopas launched a campaign to retake Palestine during winter in the hopes of catching the Seleucids off guard. The ploy worked; the region was soon back in Ptolemaic hands because the Seleucid army was still away in its winter quarters. In response, Antiochus quickly gathered the largest army he could muster and then marched south from Damascus until he met the Ptolemaic forces near Panion later in the summer.
Within the ancient written records, there is one description of the Battle of Panion in Book XVI of the Histories written by Polybius. However, the account is not a full description of the events but rather a criticism of the report written by Zeno of Rhodes that described the conflict. Yet the information that the critique of Zeno’s account has provided, combined with the study of the local topography where the battle most likely took place from scholars such as Bezalel Bar-Kochva, is sufficient to construct a rough outline of the major events that occurred during the battle. The Seleucid army, comprised of as many as 60,000 sol– diers, reached the site of the battlefield first. As the Seleucids travelled the route to Gaza, Antiochus halted the southward march of his forces to the south of Mount Hermon, near the town of Panion. After making a camp for the baggage, most likely located adjacent to the settlement, the army divided into two groups so that it could occupy the entire field to the southwest of the town because the Banias River cut through the level ground. One contingent, consisting of some of the infantry– men, cavalrymen and elephants, remained on the rougher terrain of the same side of the river as Panion in order to guard the camp. It was in this southern arena that Antiochus’ son, Antiochus the Elder, took an elevated position atop the hill of Tel–Fakhr. Meanwhile, the majority of the army crossed the Banias River so that it could occupy the more level ground of the Banias Plateau on the north side of the waterway.
In the northern arena, King Antiochus the Great commanded most of the Seleucid phalanx and the elephant line in front of the infantrymen located in the centre, while he sent his right–wing cavalry to take control of the hill of Tel–Hamra to the north, `among which were the cataphracts, under the sole command of the younger of the king’s sons Antiochus’. Polybius used the Greek words kataphraktoi hippoi to describe the new cataphract troops, which is the first time the term has appeared in the historical record. While in his account of the earlier Battle of Raphia, the ancient writer uses the term hippoi for all of the cavalrymen in the Seleucid army, the fact that Polybius added the word kataphraktoi to describe a specific unit of cavalrymen at the Battle of Panion suggests that the heavy horsemen were covered with more extensive armour than was ever worn before by the Seleucid cavalry. Opposing the Seleucid troops north of the river were the main body of the Ptolemaic phalanx, along with every elephant in their army because the Egyptian kingdom had fewer of the huge warbeasts than their eastern Hellenistic rival. Like Antiochus, Skopas led from the centre and sent the majority of the Aetolian mercenary cavalry to the left wing in order to face the horsemen of Antiochus the Younger, which included the unique unit of cataphracts. The Aetolian horsemen were considered the best cavalry of Greece at the time, thus Skopas hoped they would be able to overcome their more heavily armoured opponents. In the southern area, on the other side of the Banias River, the Aetolian mercenary infantrymen, supported by further Ptolemaic cavalrymen, were placed there in order to attempt to break through the Seleucid lines defending the route to Panion and try to seize the Seleucid army camp that contained the valuables of the baggage train.
The combat commenced to the north when the Indian elephants of the Seleucids engaged the Ptolemaic African elephants and drove them off, allowing the Seleucid phalanx to slam into the front lines of the Ptolemaic infantry. Meanwhile, Polybius also states:
Antiochus the Younger and the cataphracts charged down from the high ground and put to flight and pursued the cavalry under Ptolemy, son of Aeropus, who was in command of the Aetolians in the plain on the left wing.
After the cataphracts managed to drive off the formidable Aetolian horsemen, the young prince then led his cavalry in a charge against the rear of the Ptolemaic phalanx as they were fighting the Seleucid infantrymen. The Ptolemaic forces had much more success in the southern arena for they managed to rout both the Seleucid cavalry and infantry, yet the wall of elephants stationed as a rearguard behind the Seleucid troops then successfully blocked the Ptolemaic advance. Unable to break through the elephants and capture the Seleucid camp in the southern arena, the Ptolemaic army was ultimately defeated, for their main phalanx was surrounded and crushed on the northern side of the river. Skopas was able to escape with 10,000 of his men, mostly Aetolian infantry from the southern arena, and reach the refuge of Sidon. However, King Antiochus was not far behind and soon put the city under siege, until it was taken by the summer of 199 BC and Skopas was forced to surrender. Antiochus had won a spectacular victory at Panion that more than made up for his humiliating defeat at Raphia nearly twenty years before. The emperor’s new creation, the cataphracts, were the main component contributing to the Seleucid success, which would not be forgotten by Antiochus who used the unit in much the same manner in his next major battle a decade later.
By 198 BC, Antiochus the Great had conquered all of Syria, but the conflict was not yet over with Ptolemaic Egypt, because the fighting merely shifted to Asia Minor and Thrace to the north. The Seleucid Empire eventually defeated the Kingdom of Egypt but their actions in the northern territories soon threatened the expanding Roman Empire that just recently had begun to take a major interest in the region. Rome publicly desired to protect its Greek allies who felt endangered by the encroaching actions of Antiochus near their borders, but it is also safe to assume that the imperial aspirations of both the Seleucids and the Romans meant that an eventual war was unavoidable. As both sides prepared for their inevitable clash, it became clear that the Seleucid Empire was far superior in terms of cavalry; a fact that was exploited in attempts to intimidate the Romans, as stated in the account of Livy:
The ambassador of Antiochus was heard before the Aetolians. He, a boaster like most who are maintained by a king’s power, filled seas and lands with an empty sound of words: an uncountable number of cavalry was crossing the Hellespont into Europe, partly equipped with breastplates-these they call the cataphracti-partly those who use arrows from horseback, and as a result of which there is no protection against them, since they aimed quite accurately backwards while fleeing on their horses.
The cataphracts were a major part of the threatening propaganda used by the Seleucids because their heavy metal armour made them look nearly invincible on the battlefield and they had already proven their worth against the Aetolian cavalry that was renowned throughout the ancient world. The fact that they were a new creation of the Seleucids probably only added to the fear they invoked before they were actually seen in person, for such heavily equipped horsemen were a rarity in the west. However, according to Plutarch, the Roman’s responded in typically arrogant fashion to the threat of the new cataphracts and the rest of the enormous Seleucid army:
When King Antiochus was coming upon Greece with great forces, and all men trembled at the report of his numbers and equipage, he [Flaminius, the Roman consul] told the Achaeans this story: `Once I dined with a friend at Chalcis, and when I wondered at the variety of dishes, my host said, “All these are pork, only in dressing and sauces they differ”. And therefore be not you amazed at the king’s forces, when you hear talk of cataphracts and men–at–arms and choice foot– men and horse–archers, for all these are but Syrians [Seleucids], with some little difference in their weapons’.
Although obviously propaganda, these quotes do not portray the fear and doubt that was probably felt by many on both sides for each empire had already proved to be extremely dangerous to their enemies. What is important to note regarding the cataphracts in both of these statements though, is that the latest addition to the Seleucid cavalry was quickly seen as one of the most lethal units in the imperial army. The History of Rome of Livy was also the first time that the cataphracts were written about in Latin, therefore, the Roman historian changed the Greek words kataphraktoi hippoi into the Latinized spelling of cataphracti in order to describe the revolutionary unit of horsemen to his Roman readers.
After Antiochus failed to invade Greece in 190 BC, he retreated with his army back to Asia Minor. The Roman response was quick for they sent an army under the command of the renowned general, Scipio Africanus, and his brother Lucius Scipio, which reached the Seleucid forces at Magnesia. Both armies were roughly the same size, especially regarding the infantry of each side, at around 50,000 men each; however, the Seleucid army certainly had a significant advantage in the number of cavalry with around 12,000 horsemen compared to around 3,000 cavalrymen in the Roman army. The centre and the left wing of the Roman army was comprised of heavy infantry legionaries with their left flank protected by the ancient course of the Phyrgios River, while nearly all of their cavalry was placed on the right wing. The Seleucid forces that opposed them were arrayed with the heavy infantry pikemen in the middle, which were supported by cavalry and light infantry on either side of them. Among the cavalry, there were 6,000 cataphract troops that were divided evenly between each wing, as stated by Livy:
On the right side of the phalanx, he placed five hundred Gallograecian horsemen. To these he joined three thousand horsemen clad in complete armour, whom they call cataphracti.
And in his description of the left wing:
Then, three thousand cataphracts; then, one thousand other horsemen, being a royal cohort, equipped with lighter coverings for themselves and their horses, but, in other respects, not unlike [the cataphracts].
As his son did at Panion, Antiochus led the cataphracts and the rest of the cavalry stationed on the right wing.