Book Review: Cataphracts: Knights of the Ancient Eastern Empires


by Erich B Anderson

Barnsley, Eng.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2016. Pp. xx, 188. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1473837987

Ancient Armored Cavalry

Although various books mention their importance in some societies or conflicts, this volume, from independent scholar Anderson, is the first comprehensive survey of heavy armored cavalry – dubbed clibanarii, cataphracti, and more – that played a particularly important role in the military history of Late Antiquity.

Anderson, a regular contributor to Medieval Warfare and other journals, draws upon a broad variety of evidence – archaeological, historical, literary, mythological, and even experimental – to explore the evolution and role of ancient heavy cavalry. He opens with the domestication of horses and their early military uses, initially to draw chariots, and later to carrying warriors, initially probably primarily for mobility, but later acquiring other missions, including mounted combat by archers.

Anderson then examines the gradual introduction of armor to cavalry and the merger of armored cavalry and horse archers. He follows this evolution of armored cavalry, from the Sarmatians and Assyrians on through Alexander the Great and his Successors, on through the Hellenistic age. He then gives us several chapters on the uses of heavy armored cavalry by the Parthians, various smaller middle eastern states, and the Parthian’s successors, the Sassanian Persians. Anderson covers the rather late adoption of armored cavalry by the Romans, and its extensive use by their successors the Byzantines, as well as others in Late Antiquity and the so-called “Dark Ages.

His approach is to show how each society developed its own variations on the basic concept to suit the needs of their military systems, and he illustrates the evolution of tactics with a number of interesting battle pieces.

Cataphracts is a good survey of the history of heavy cavalry in the ancient world, covering arms, equipment, organization, tactics, and battles. Although, unfortunately, it has no maps, this is a good overview of the subject for anyone unfamiliar with it, and even more experienced students of the military history of the period may find it useful.

Note: Cataphracts is also available in several e-editions.
Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close