Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Friday, January 1, 2016

Roman and Byzantine Cavalry

Roman Cavalry

The Eternal Question:
Why walk when you can ride?

Bottom line, infantry is relatively cheap to put into the field. Cavalry costs money. After all, horses eat, well, like a horse. They are an expensive military arm to raise and maintain.

Over time there was movement by the Romans to increase the size of their cavalry units. This was a result of pressure on their northern and eastern frontiers from the cavalry of Persian Army and invading mounted barbarian tribes.

Roman Republic Cavalry

Each Republican legion of about 5,000 men contained a cavalry contingent of 300 horse.  The ratio of infantry to cavalry shows how little importance was attached to the cavalry during this period.

The aristocratic class equites were liable to cavalry service in the legion. Equites originally provided a legion's entire cavalry contingent. When the equites numbers had become insufficient, large numbers of young men from the First Class of commoners were regularly volunteering for the service, which was considered more glamorous than the infantry.

Cavalrymen in service were paid a drachma per day, triple the infantry rate, and were liable to a maximum of ten campaigning seasons' military service, compared to 16 for the infantry.

Although there is no pictorial evidence, it is certain from literary accounts that equites carried swords, most likely the same gladii hispanienses (Spanish swords) used by the infantry or the longer spatha sword. There is no evidence that equites carried bows and arrows and the Romans probably had no mounted archers before they came into contact with Parthian forces after 100 BC.

By the time of Gaius Julius Caesar's Gallic War (58-51 BC), it appears that legionary cavalry may have disappeared altogether, and that Caesar was entirely dependent on allied Gallic contingents for his cavalry operations.

As to why the Romans allowed their citizen cavalry to lapse, the main reason is probably the limited pool of available equites and First Class members. The equites had long since become exclusively an officer class, as the empire had become simply too large and complex for aristocrats to serve as ordinary troopers. At the same time, many of the First Class of commoners had developed major business interests and had little time for military service.

Allied Cavalry

Roman always relied on their allies to provide cavalry. These were known as the Foederati.

Most cavalry were provided by allied nations from Numidia, Greece, Thrace, Iberia, Gaul and Germania. Such as at the Battle of Zama where the majority of cavalry were Numidians. Most the cavalry in Caesar's campaigns were Gauls and Germans. These units were not part of the regular Roman army and were bound by treaties. These often were armed with their own native equipment and were led by native chiefs.

Imperial Cavalry

When the Republic transitioned into the Empire, Augustus made a regular Auxilia corp of non-citizen soldiers. 

These professional Roman soldiers, like the Legions, were subjects recruited from the non-citizens in provinces controlled by Rome that had strong native cavalry traditions. These men, unlike the Allied Foederetii cavalry, were a regular part of the Roman army and were paid and trained by the Roman State. A typical cavalrymen of the Ala would be paid 20 percent more than a typical citizen Legionnaire.

The Auxilia were mainly recruited from the peregrini, i.e. free provincial subjects of the Roman Empire who did not hold Roman citizenship and constituted the vast majority of the empire's population in the 1st and 2nd centuries (c. 90% in the early 1st century). The Auxilia also included some Roman citizens and probably barbarians.

Late Roman helmet. It is covered
in expensive silver-gilt sheathing and
is inscribed to a cavalryman of
equites stablesiani.
Roman Auxilia cavalry were usually heavily armored in mail and armed with a short lance, javelins, the Spatha long sword, and sometimes bows for specialist Horse archer units. These men primarily served as Medium missile cavalry for flanking, scouting, skirmish, and pursuit.

The role of cavalry in the late Roman army does not appear to have been greatly enhanced as compared with the army of the Principate. The evidence is that cavalry was much the same proportion of overall army numbers as in the 2nd century and that its tactical role and prestige remained similar. 

However, the cavalry of the Late Roman army was endowed with greater numbers of specialized units, such as extra-heavy shock cavalry (cataphractii and clibanarii) and mounted archers. During the later 4th century, the cavalry acquired a reputation for incompetence and cowardice for their role in three major battles. In contrast, the infantry retained its traditional reputation for excellence.
The Clibanarii were used mostly by Eastern armies; for example, they were used by the Palmyrene Empire, and fought against the Roman cavalry at Immae and Emesa. Sassanids employed Clibanarii in their western armies, mainly against the Eastern Roman empire. They were more heavily armored than their Byzantine counterparts.
In 478, a comitatus of 38,000 men contained 8,000 cavalry (21%). In 357, the comitatus of Gaul, 13–15,000 strong, contained an estimated 3,000 cavalry (20–23%).

Most battles in the 4th century were, as in previous centuries, primarily infantry encounters, with cavalry playing a supporting role. The main qualification is that on the Eastern frontier, cavalry played a more prominent role, due to the Persian reliance on cavalry as their main arm. This obliged the Romans to strengthen their own cavalry element, in particular by increasing the number of cataphracti.

Camel Troops

A unit of dromedarii ("camel-mounted troops") is attested from the 2nd century, the ala I Ulpia dromedariorum milliaria in Syria.

Dromedarii were camel riding auxiliary forces recruited in the desert provinces of the Late Roman EmpireThey were developed to take the place of horses, where horses were not common. They were also successful against enemy horses, as horses are afraid of the camels' scent.

Late Roman Empire Cavalry
(Roman Empire.net)

Eastern Roman Cavalry

January 17, 395 AD was the magic day. It was then that Theodosius I, the last Emperor of a united Roman Empire, died and the independent Eastern Roman Empire was born.

For many decades to come the Eastern Roman Army would not have looked or acted much different from its Western counterpart fighting off the barbarian invasions in Gaul and Italy.  Any changes in unit structure, uniforms and tactics would have been very gradual.  The Eastern Roman military evolution would have been based on changes the economy and the types of enemies they faced.

The Roman Legion would fade and Eastern infantry units would evolve to be more defensive in nature in order to man fortresses and strong points against invaders.  Eastern Roman Cavalry units would mirror their Persian enemies and would grow to become the mailed fist of the army in combat.

Byzantine Cavalry - The Mailed Fist

(Armies in the past) "were so indifferent in their practice of archery that they drew the bowstring only to the breast, so that the missile sent forth was naturally impotent and harmless to those whom it hit. Such, it is evident, was the archery of the past. But the bowmen of the present time go into battle wearing corselets and fitted out with greaves which extend up to the knee. From the right side hang their arrows, from the other the sword. And there are some who have a spear also attached to them and, at the shoulders, a sort of small shield without a grip, such as to cover the region of the face and neck."

"They are expert horsemen, and are able without difficulty to direct their bows to either side while riding at full speed, and to shoot an opponent whether in pursuit or in flight. They draw the bowstring along by the forehead about opposite the right ear, thereby charging the arrow with such an impetus as to kill whoever stands in the way, shield and corselet alike
 having no power to check its force. Still there are those who take into consideration none of these things, who reverence and worship the ancient times, and give no credit to modern improvements." 

(500 to 560 AD)
History of the Wars

The Persian Influence

The more heavily armored Roman cavalry was a direct response to Rome's greatest enemy: The Persian Empire.

For 700 years the Persians and Romans were locked into a series of endless wars both major and minor. Although warfare lasted for seven centuries, the frontier remained largely stable. A game of tug of war ensued: towns, fortifications, and provinces were continually sacked, captured, destroyed, and traded. Neither side had the logistical strength or manpower to maintain such lengthy campaigns far from their borders, and thus neither could advance too far without risking stretching its frontiers too thin. Both sides did make conquests beyond the border, but in time the balance was almost always restored.

Traditionally, Roman cavalry was neither heavily armored nor all that effective; the Roman Equites corps were composed mainly of lightly armored horsemen bearing spears and swords to chase down stragglers and to rout enemies. The adoption of cataphract-like cavalry formations took hold in the late Roman army during the late 3rd and 4th centuries.

Cataphract armored horsemen were almost universally clad in some form of scale armor that was flexible enough to give the rider and horse a good degree of motion, but strong enough to resist the immense impact of a thunderous charge into infantry formations.

The primary weapon of practically all cataphract forces throughout history was the lanceThey were roughly four meters in length, with a capped point made of iron, bronze, or even animal bone and usually wielded with both hands. Cataphracts would often be equipped with an additional side-arm such as a sword or mace, for use in the melee that often followed a charge.

Persian cataphracts, particularly those of the Sassanid Empire, carried bows as well as blunt-force weapons, to soften up enemy formations before an eventual attack, reflecting upon the longstanding Persian tradition of horse archery. 

A modern reconstruction, based on illustrations, of
Late Byzantine 
lamellar armor klivanion

In an ironic twist, the elite of the East Roman army by the 6th century had become the cataphract, modelled after the very force that had famously defeated and slaughtered their forebears numerous times more than 500 years earlier. 

During the Iberian and Lazic wars initiated in the Caucasus by Justinian I, it was noted by Procopius that Persian cataphract archers were adept at firing their arrows in very quick succession and saturating enemy positions but with little hitting power, resulting in mostly non-incapacitating limb wounds for the enemy. The Roman cataphracts, on the other hand, released their shots with far more power, able to launch arrows with lethal kinetic energy behind them, albeit at a slower pace.

Byzantine cavalry were ideally suited to combat on the plains of Anatolia and northern Syria, which, from the seventh century onwards, constituted the principal battleground in the struggle against the forces of Islam. They were heavily armed using lance, mace and sword as well as strong composite bows which allowed them to achieve success against lighter, faster enemies, being particularly effective against both the Arabs and Turks in the east, and the Hungarians and Pechenegs in the west.

Bucellarii (Latin for "biscuit–eater")

The term for a unit of soldiers in the late Roman and Byzantine Empire, that were not supported by the state but rather by some individual such as a general or governor, in essence being his "household troops".

These units were generally quite small, but, especially during the many civil wars, they could grow to number several thousand men. In effect, the bucellarii were small private armies equipped and paid by wealthy influential people. As such they were quite often better trained and equipped, not to mention motivated, than the regular soldiers of the time. 

In the 6th century, Belisarius, during his wars on behalf of Justinian, employed as many as 7,000 bucellarii cavalry. By this time, the bucellarii were well integrated into the main Roman army, and soon the term came to be applied indiscriminately to well-equipped cavalry troops. 

Thus, in the 7th century, when the military recruitment areas formed the basis for the Theme system, one of the first themata was that of the Boukellariōn, in the area of Paphlagonia and Galatia, with its capital at Ankara.

Cavalry in the Komnenian Era 

(11th and 12 centuries)  The earlier Byzantine heavy cavalryman, who combined the use of a bow with a lance for close combat, seems to have disappeared before the Komnenian age. The typical heavy cavalryman of the Komnenian army was a dedicated lancer, though armored horse-archers continued to be employed.

The heavy cavalry were the social and military elite of the whole army and were considered to be the pre-eminent battle winners. The charge of the lancers, and the subsequent melee, was often the decisive event in battle. The lance-armed heavy cavalry of the Komnenian army were of two origins, firstly ‘Latin knights', and secondly native kataphraktoi.

Latin Cavalry

Latin heavy cavalry was recruited from the warriors and knights of Italy, France, The Low Countries, Germany and the Crusader States. The Byzantines considered the French to be more formidable mounted warriors than the Germans. Some Latin cavalrymen formed part of the regular soldiery of the empire and were supported by pay from the imperial treasury and were organised into formal regiments. Regular Latin 'knightly' heavy cavalry were part of the guard, with individual Latins or those of Western descent to be found in the imperial household, others were grouped into a formation later known as the latinikon.Alternatively, bands of mercenary knights were often hired for the duration of a particular campaign.

Anna Komnene stated that "A mounted Kelt [an archaism for a Norman or Frank] is irresistible; he would bore his way through the walls of Babylon."

Equipment included a padded leather coat( peristhethidion) underneath that extended to the elbows and then a layer of steel Lamellar scales known as the Klivanion were put on over that. Other sources indicate that one or two layers of mail were put in between the jacket and Lamellar, but whether this was adopted before or after the is unknown.  On top of all this armor was a padded and highly decorated coat known as the Epilorikion. The Byzantine armor was so effective against lances and other piercing/slashing instruments that in the battle of Dyrrakhion the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Commenus  sustained several lances to various parts of his body which only managed to slightly unseat him. When he finally fled he many of the lances were still stuck in him, giving him the appearance of a pincushion.  (necromoprhvsfellowship)


The native kataphraktoi were to be found in the imperial oikos, some imperial guards units and the personal guards of generals, but the largest numbers were found within the provincialtagmata

The level of military effectiveness, especially the quality of the armor and mount, of the individual provincial kataphraktos probably varied considerably, as both John II and Manuel I are recorded as employing formations of “picked lancers” who were taken from their parent units and combined. This approach may have been adopted in order to re-create the concentration of very effective heavy cavalry represented by the ‘imperial tagmata’ of former times. 

The kataphraktoi were the most heavily armored type of Byzantine soldier and a wealthy kataphraktos could be very well armoured indeed. The Alexiad relates that when the emperor Alexios was simultaneously thrust at from both flanks by lance wielding Norman knights his armor was so effective that he suffered no serious injury.

By the reign of Alexios I the Byzantine kataphraktoi proved to be unable to withstand the charge of Norman knights, and Alexios, in his later campaigns, was forced to use stratagems which were aimed at avoiding the exposure of his heavy cavalry to such a charge.

There is evidence of a relative lack of quality warhorses in the Byzantine cavalry. The Byzantines may have suffered considerable disruption to access to Cappadocia and Northern Syria, traditional sources of good quality cavalry mounts, in the wake of the fall of Anatolia to the Turks.


A category of cavalryman termed a koursōr (pl. koursores) is documented in Byzantine military literature from the sixth century onwards. The term is a transliteration of the Latincursor with the meaning 'raider'.

The koursōr had a defined tactical role but may or may not have been an officially defined cavalry type. Koursores were mobile close-combat cavalry and may be considered as being drawn from the more lightly equipped kataphraktoi. The koursores were primarily intended to engage enemy cavalry and were usually placed on the flanks of the main battle line. Those on the left wing, termed defensores, were placed to defend that flank from enemy cavalry attack, whilst the cavalry placed on the right wing, termed prokoursatores, were intended to attack the enemy's flank.

Being relatively lightly equipped they were more suited to the pursuit of fleeing enemies than the heavyweight kataphraktoi.

Light Cavalry

The light cavalry of the Komnenian army consisted of horse-archers. There were two distinct forms of horse-archer: the lightly equipped skirmisher and the heavier, often armored, bow-armed cavalryman who shot from disciplined ranks. 

The native Byzantine horse-archer was of the latter type. They shot arrows by command from, often static, ranks and offered a mobile concentration of missile fire on the battlefield. The native horse-archer had declined in numbers and importance by the Komnenian period, being largely replaced by soldiers of foreign origins. However, in 1191 Isaac Komnenos of Cyprus is recorded firing arrows at Richard I of England from horseback during the latter's conquest of Cyprus. This suggests that mounted archery remained a martial skill practiced within the upper reaches of Byzantine aristocracy.

Cavalry in the Paliaologan Era

(1261 - 1453)  The Empire and it army was in near free fall by this point. The population base to raise forces dwindled and the economy to pay troops collapsed. The Empire required the use of large numbers of mercenaries.

After Andronikos II took to the throne, the army fell apart and the Byzantines suffered regular defeats at the hands of their eastern opponents, although they would continue to enjoy success against the Latin territories in Greece. By c. 1350 the Empire's inefficient fiscal organization and incompetent central government made raising troops and the supplies to maintain them a near-impossible task, and the Empire came to rely upon troops provided by Serbs, Bulgarians, Venetians, Latins, Genoans and Turks to fight the civil wars that lasted for the greater part of the 14th century.

The Byzantine army continued to use the same military terms with regards to numbers of troops and officers as did the Komnenian army. However there were fewer territories to raise troops from. In Anatolia, the local support for the Ottoman conquerors grew daily, whilst in Greece the ravaging by the Crusaders states, by Serbia, by Bulgaria, and earlier on by the Angevin Empire ended the region's prominence as a of source of Byzantine levies.

After 1261, the central army consisted of 6,000 men, while the number of total field troops never exceeded 10,000 men. The total number of troops under Michael VIII was about 20,000 men; the mobile force numbered 15,000 men, while the town garrisons totaled 5,000 men. However, under Andronicus II the more professional elements of the army was demobilized in favor of poorly trained and cheaper militia soldiers. 

The Emperor decreased the entire army's strength to 4,000 men by 1320, and a year later the Empire's standing army dropped to only 3,000 cavalry. Even though the Empire had shrunk considerably by the time of Andronicus III's reign, he succeeded in assembling an army of 4,000 men for his campaign against the Ottomans. By 1453, the Byzantine army had fallen to a regular garrison of 1,500 men in Constantinople. With a supreme effort, Constantine XI succeeded in assembling a garrison of 7,000 men (included 2,000 foreigners) to defend the city against the Ottoman army.

Byzantine troops continued to consist of cavalry, infantry and archers. Since Trebizond had broken away, Cumans and Turks were used for cavalry and missile units.

By the time the Byzantines had emerged from yet another civil war, they were forced to acknowledge the suzerainty of the Ottoman Sultan, who threatened military action if any repairs were made to the millennium-old Walls of Constantinople. Heavily outnumbered, the walls of the capital provided the defenders in 1453 with 6 weeks of defense.

A reenactor's attempt at a Byzantine cataphract.  He said, "Of course, that's actually Mongol style armour, and a Mongol style helmet. Getting Byzantine stuff has been tough, so I did the best with what I could find."
Bravo.  A good try. You get the flavor of the time period and that is what counts.
(my armoury.com)

(Gutenberg.org)      (Cataphract)      (Bucellarius)      (Auxilia)

(Decurion)      (Roman cavalry)      (Late Roman Army)      (Byzantine Army)

(Cavalry)      (Palaiologan era army)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Roman cavalry lacks proper utility , so they went bigger as needed .
Lacks stoping power on sassanid cathrapht , and mobility on arab raiders .
Nice piece doh. Very well done .