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Heavy cavalry – queen of battlefield

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Rough driving
The history of the heavy cavalry probably dates back to the steppe regions, where it developed among the Turkestan nomads.

The history of the heavily armed cavalry probably dates back to the steppe areas, where it developed among the Turkestan nomads. Herodotus, known as the “father of history”, mentions in his work the heavy Massagec cavalry fighting in the army of the kings of the Achaemenid dynasty. Heavy cavalry was the basis of the Persian military power, and the main role was played by the Median cavalry.

Media, one of the historical lands, currently located in modern Iran, has been famous for breeding wonderful horses since early antiquity. And the Medes themselves, as vassals of Assyria, one of the first and greatest military powers of antiquity, were required to provide horses as a tribute to the Assyrian kings. After the fall of Assyria and a short period of power, the Median state became part of the Persian Empire. As subjects of the Achaemenid Persian dynasty, the Medes attained high state and military positions. They were mainly cavalry commanders in the armies of the Persian kings, contributing to the expansion of their military power. The Persians initially did not have a strong cavalry, only with time as a result of a confrontation with the steppe peoples and thanks to the activity of the Medes, they developed valuable cavalry units, as the subject expert M.J. Olbrycht writes:

(…) The cavalry of the Persians themselves was not initially their strongest weapon. Even under Cyrus II and Darius I, the cavalry of the indigenous Persians did not belong to the elite royal formations. In the fight against the Lydians, Persian cavalry was inferior to its opponents and Cyrus II had to use camels and infantry to defeat the enemy. Likewise, the European Scythians towered over the Persian cavalry. Only with time did the Persians develop a brave cavalry.

In the initial period, the Persian cavalry did not use any protective weapons, only after the experience of fighting the Greeks and Massagetae, stronger armour was introduced, both for people and horses. The reforms introduced were modelled on the Massagetae horsemen, who were to use breastplate for horses and thorax for horsemen.

Greeks and Persians

The development of Achaemenid cavalry was so dynamic that already in the 4th century BCE it was able to successfully fight against the cavalry of the Greeks and other peoples of Central Asia. However, the advent of Philip II and Alexander in Macedonia with long spears, capable of breaking the enemy’s formation with a massive blow, presented the Persians with a new challenge. Darius III and his staff tried to carry out reforms so that their cavalry would be able to resist Aleksander’s cavalry. As a result of these reforms, a ride was developed that combined the armour of the horse and rider with a long copy of the Macedonian type. This reformed Persian heavy cavalry was quite successful at the Battle of Gaugamela. MJ Olbrycht puts forward the thesis that the way of fighting and the armament of Darius III’s heavy cavalry allows saying that heavy riders called cataphracts fought at Gaugamela:

(…) It is noteworthy that under Gaugamela the Iranian cavalry was able to break through selected enemy formations or push the Macedonians to a deep defensive on both wings and in the center. The Persians did not have such fighting strength before. It is this circumstance that implies that Darius III already had a new type of cavalry at his disposal – armored riders with long lances on armored horses. They were supported by a select horse of archers. (…) Both the armament of Darius’ cavalry (including the use of armor for horses and riders and long pikes), as well as the tactics of combat (charges aimed at breaking through selected cavalry and phalanx units, as well as connection with horse archers) allow to speak of the presence of under the cataphracts of Gaugamela.

A sculpture from Iran showing a cataphract rider of the Sassanid Empire.

At this point, you should ask yourself who were the cataphracts? It was commonly perceived as hard-driving, but not all types of hard-driving can be described as cataphracts. Cataphracts should be defined as heavy cavalry using protective equipment for both horse and rider and using a long spear as the main offensive weapon. In addition to armament, in the case of cataphracts, attention should also be paid to their combat tactics, based on two premises: firstly, the strength of the cataphracts consisted in fighting the attacking units in a tight formation, secondly, the cataphracts could only be effective in cooperation with light offensive cavalry, preferably with horse archers.

The Persian cavalry experience had a direct impact on the Hellenistic battlefield, where heavy cavalry was used extensively in the armies of the diadochi, especially the kings of the Seleucid dynasty. The Seleucids were greatly impressed by heavy party cavalry when they began to come into contact with their military. After all, they themselves decided to create such units in their own army. Cataphracts first appeared in the army of Antiochus III (223-187 BCE) after his eastern expedition, and from then on were widely used by successive Seleukid rulers. Since then, they have been used to perform crushing blows to expose the enemy infantry’s flank and to capture their camps and carriages. The cataphracts were riders much heavier than the Hellenistic cavalry.


These riders were armed with a long spear, kontos, 4-6 meters long. This spear was the main riding weapon, after losing it, the riders would reach for a sword, axe or hammer, but due to the weight and stiffness of their weapons, they did not use these weapons very efficiently. It is true that the iconographic sources do not confirm that the cataphracts had any other melee weapons except spears. However, the sidearm was widely known in Iran and on the steppes, so it is difficult to imagine that heavy cavalry would not have this type of armament. Against infantry, cataphracts used tactics in close formation, and the technique of using a spear was to apply shallow thrusts to prevent the weapon from getting stuck in the body of the pierced enemy. Riding, on the other hand, was attacked at full gallop, which resulted in people and horses being pierced right through, as described by the ancient historian, Plutarch.

Heavy rider on an armored camel.
Author: Sebacalka | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

The body was protected by an armour made of metal scales sewn onto a leather base or plate armour. The lower part of this armour reached up to mid-thighs. Various types of helmets were used, the most common was the conical type helmet. Cataphract horses wore dots sewn on with metal, steel or brown scales, protecting their bodies. Neck and head guards were also often added. The tactic of cataphracts was to arrange this formation in a linear formation, not exceeding a few ranks in depth. The armoured cavalry was divided into divisions, most probably organized in the decimal system. So characteristic of the steppe peoples, it was also used earlier in the Achaemenid army.


For most of their history, the Romans did not give the horse the main role on the battlefield. Until the 3rd century CE, the legion’s infantry was the main force that determined the victories of the “sons of the she-wolf”. It is true that there was a cavalry, which until the time of the reforms Gaius Marius was aristocratic. However, its combat strength diminished over time. During the Punic Wars, Roman cavalry was the weakest link in the republican army. Decisively contributing to the defeats in the battles with the Carthaginian commander Hannibal. An example of such a battle can be, one of the most famous clashes of antiquity, the Battle of Cannae, in which the defeat of the Romans was decided by defeat and driving away from the battlefield. The low combat value of the aristocratic cavalry made Gaius Marius, carrying out a reform of the army at the end of the 2nd century BCE, decided to liquidate it completely. From then on, cavalry in the Roman army was recruited from the allies of the “eternal city” or barbarians for the formation auxiliares.

However, as time went on, the role of driving on the ancient battlefield grew. The decisive factors here were the confrontations between Rome and the Eastern monarchies of the Party and later the Sassanid Empire, as well as the use of cavalry by the barbarian tribes of Alemans, Sarmatians, Goths or Huns in the European theatre of combat.

The emperor Gallienus (253-268 CE) significantly increased the number of cavalry for the first time. It was a reaction to the changes that took place in what was then Iran. The Parthian Arsacid dynasty was overthrown by Ardashir, the founder of the Sassanid dynasty. Who was crowned king in 226 CE? A warlike dynasty sat on the Persian throne, which for the next several centuries would invade the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. One of Ardashir’s first moves was a wax reform and the establishment of heavy cavalry units clibinarii. The reformed Persian army had much success over its western adversary. In 231 CE, Ardashir defeated the Romans heading towards the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, and in 253 CE, Shapur I defeated the Romans at Barbalissos. The consequence of these successes was the occupation of Mesopotamia by the Persians. Only the reforms of Gallienus made the Roman army able to go to the counteroffensive and regain Mesopotamia in 265 CE.

Clibanariuswas a late Roman rider. He looked like a “shiny statue” due to the chain mail tightly covering his body and the mask on his face.

The next emperors who significantly increased the number of cavalries were Diocletian and Constantine the Great – in the middle of the 4th century CE, the number of cavalries reached 1 of the total Roman forces. In heavy riding, the main role was played by heavily armoured cataphracts, modelled by the Sarmatian heavy riders, and cilbanarii units modelled on Persian riders who, in addition to traditional weapons, also used a bow.

Such formed heavy Roman cavalry survived until the end of the 4th century CE. The event that determined the gradual decline of the cavalry and the entire Roman military was the defeat at Adrianople on 9th of August 378 CE, suffered against the Goths. By the 5th century CE, the traditional Roman military organization was already going down in history, and the emperors relied heavily on mercenary barbarian troops.

Author: Łukasz Bazentkiewicz (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Olbrycht M. J., Konnica wielkiego króla. Uwagi na temat taktyki jazdy irańskiej w epoce Achemenidów, [w:] Materiały Konferencji PTH, pod red. R. Kuleszy, Warszawa 2011
  • Olbrycht M. J., Aleksander Wielki i świat irański, Rzeszów 2004
  • Plutarch, Żywoty sławnych mężów, przeł. M. Brożek, Wrocław 1997
  • Plutarch z Cheronei, Cztery żywoty, przeł. i oprac. M. Brożek, Warszawa 2003
  • Roth J. P., Rzymska sztuka wojenna, 2011
  • Warry John, Armie świata antycznego, Warszawa 1995
  • Woźniak M. A., Armie starożytnej Persji. Od powstania Państwa Achemenidów do upadku Imperium Sasanidzkiego, Zabrze 2010

Quotes are translation from Polish.

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