Heavy Cavalry: An Introduction

During the late years of the Roman Empire, the two halves of the Empire were split and essentially ruled by different leaders.  While the western part dealt with Visigoths and other incursions into the northern border, the eastern half dealt with constant fighting with the Persians.  Between the 500s A.D. and the 700s, much of the fighting between the Persians and the Byzantines was done from horseback.  And the armor of the cavalry on both sides became more and more similar over time, coming to look something like this artistic piece:

Image courtesy of http://jpchapleau.blogspot.com/2011/10/easily-oldest-of-states-of-exodus-is.html

The armaments of a Byzantine Cataphract, (a name given to the heavy cavalry, literally meaning “armored” from the Greek, Kataphraktos) would include some or all of the following: two bows, a lance, a spear, a sword, a mace, an axe, a sling, full plate armor, full barding armor and in some cases a banner.  Because of the wide variety of their armaments, these warriors likely spent much of each year training in the use of each of their weapons.   They were the elite fighting force of their time.

The horsemanship of each man was as important as his familiarity with his weapons.  The Cataphracts rode in units and were capable of intricate movements to gain advantages on the field, and this was only possible because of expert horsemanship.

The advantage gained by this kind of a fighting force is that the riders could ride in deep (8-10 deep) ranks and punch through an entire rank of enemy infantry without losing all momentum.  They were as much a weapon of fear as an effective fighting force.  This tactic was emulated through history up to and even slightly beyond the development of gunpowder weapons.

Part of what allowed the extensive use of heavy cavalry was a decision made by Heraclius, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire from 610-641 A.D., who ordered that soldiers of Byzantium would be assigned a parcel of land in reward for their service.  Because land is very necessary for maintaining horses, this allowed many more of his men to keep and train horses for battle.


Saddles and Stirrups, Intro to Cavalry

While the time of the development of saddles and stirrups is difficult to pin down, art and other more permanent depictions of the two suggest that they may have been seen together somewhat commonly starting in the early 500’s B.C.  The idea for each piece may have existed hundreds of years earlier, but the idea became readily available to most cultures starting in this era.


image courtesy of: http://pixabay.com/en/horse-western-saddle-pomel-horn-176990/

It is difficult to describe the importance of horsemanship in early warfare without specifically addressing the advantages gained by particular civilizations because of their use of horses in their armies.  However, there is a useful comparison to make which illustrates how stirrups and saddles provided advantages to early horsemen.

Riding a horse in itself could provide some advantage to a warrior because arriving on the field of battle, he would be less exhausted from the journey.With a good saddle, it is easier to stay on a horse, which provides an even greater advantage in this respect.

Another aspect of advantage occurs after a battle or during a tactical part of a battle.  Horses allow for quicker movement on the field, so a group of riders could take advantage of a tactical situation which allowed them to divide and confuse the enemy (much like Alexander the Great).

Stirrups provide a greater advantage during the battle; they allow warriors on horseback to put more power into the strokes of their weapons, or to rely on the speed and weight of their horses to drive a spear or lance further into a crowd of enemies.  The critical advantage provided is that it is much more difficult to unhorse a rider who has stirrups.