Cataphractarii! (I) – The cataphract cavalry in a period of 2,500 years

1 Comment



The onslaught of a unit of Sassanid or Central Asia Iranian  cataphracts in a marvelous artwork by Mariusz Kozik (credit: Creative Assembly Sega/Mariusz Kozik).

By Periklis  Deligiannis


The following text is a small part of the Introduction of my study: Kataphraktarii and Clibanarii: Late Roman full-armoured cavalry. Along with it I give a gallery of cataphracts from most of the ethnic and cultural regions in which their use was spread over a period of two and a half millennia.

The first cataphracts or clibanarii were rather an invention of the Iranian Saka tribes of the Central Asian steppes – being the ancestors of the Sarmatians, the Scythians, the Dahae and the Massagetae among many others – or the non-Iranian but Indo-European as well Tocharians of the same steppes that is the ancestors of the Wu Sun and the Yuezhi of the Chinese chronicles. The term  cataphract is a Greek word (κατάφρακτος) meaning the ‘fully armoured’ warrior and was adopted by the Romans (catafractarius) while the other almost synonymous Latin term clibanarius is actually the Latinized and originally Iranian term grivpanvar which is possibly analyzed as grivapanabara, meaning the bearer of neck-guard plates being a feature of the early cataphracts. I prefer to use the more correct verbal type kataphraktos which is closer to the original Greek word κατάφρακτος but in this abstract I will use the Latin-originated term cataphract in order not to confuse the reader.




By  Periklis  Deligiannis


King and Queen of a Scythian tribe in  a representation based on the archaeological finds from Central Asia. Since around 300 BC, the Scythians systematically attacked the Bosporan kingdom but a part of them settled in its territory becoming subject to the Bosporan king.  In the  last  centuries of  the  Bosporan  history,  the  Iranians (Scythians and Sarmatians) became the main population of the kingdom.

In this way, the city-state of Panticapaeum turned into an extensive hegemony, which later evolved into a Hellenistic kingdom. Generally speaking, Panticapaeum had the same evolution as Syracuse, the birthplace and capital of the Hellenistic kingdom which was founded in Sicily. The Greeks and the Hellenized Thracians were originally the ruling class of the Cimmerian Bosporus, but the status of the indigenous population and the Scythian/Iranian minority, was also important. The two peoples (Greeks and non-Greeks) supported each other: the natives were Hellenized and the Greeks gradually adopted the spirit and the habits of the natives. This duality is obvious in every aspect of the social life of Cimmerian Bosporus. Thus a special Bosporan Greek identity was formed in the Northern Black Sea coast, based on the Ionians.

King Paerisades I died in 310 BC. His eldest son, Satyros, was proclaimed king but soon faced the rebellion of his younger brother Eumelos who claimed the throne. Eumelos had secured the support of Aripharnes, king of the Thataeans as mentioned by Diodorus Siculus, the people who lived on the region of the river Thatis. This river was probably one of the tributaries of Hypanis (Kuban River). It is almost certain that the “Thataeans” (a name which is not national but geographical) are identified with the Siracae, a major Sarmatian tribe who had settled in the Kuban region during the reign of Paerisades I who made them his tributaries. The Sarmatians were a group of nomadic peoples of Central Asia, belonging to the Northern Iranian (Saka, Sakic) stock together with the Scythians. Since the 4th century BC, most of them began migrating towards the steppes north of the Black Sea, while some of their tribes began to move towards China. The various Sarmatian tribes (Sauromatae, Siracae, Aorsi/Alans, Aspourgi, Roxolani, ‘Royal’ Sarmatians, and later the Iazyges, the Alans, the modern Ossetians etc.) were independent and often fought each other. The Sarmatians fought primarily as horsemen and cavalrymen with a long cavalry spear called ‘kontos’. Other arms used by them were their typical medium and long swords, the daggers and a kind of compound bow, less powerful than the Scythian.

Eumelos and Aripharnes of the Siracae confronted Satyros and his Scythian allies in the great battle of the river Thatis , one of the  greatest cavalry battles in Antiquity, in which 10,000 Scythian and 20,000 Sarmatian horsemen and cavalrymen participated. It is certain that the Siracae were supported by many other Sarmatian horsemen, because the Sarmatians in  general were trying to oust the Scythians from the Black Sea steppe.




By  Periklis  Deligiannis


Map  of  the  Kingdom  of  the  Cimmerian  Bosporus,  the  other  Greek  states  in  the  region,  the  Scythian  territory  and  the  last  refuge  of  the  Scythians  after  their  defeat  by  the  Sarmatians  (Historical  Atlas  of  Ukraine:  Greek  colonies  and  the  hinterland)

Since  the  Mycenaean  Age,  the  Greek  navigators  and  colonizers  expressed  their  interest  in  the  Black  Sea  and  the  rich  countries  that  surround  it.  The  Mycenaeans  had  explored  the  region,  as  shown  by  the  tradition  of  the  Argonauts  and  other  evidence,  philological  and  archaeological.  Before  the  Mycenaeans,  Minoan  Crete  was  never  really  interested  in  the  Black  Sea  region.  Generally  speaking,  the  Black  Sea  was  inhospitable  for  the  Mediterranean  seafarer  because  sailing  in  its  waters  was  difficult  and  the  countries  surrounding  it  were  inhabited  by  savage  peoples,  who  used  to  kill  those  who  landed  on  their  shores.  For  these  reasons,  the  original  Greek  name  of  the  Black  Sea  was  the  ‘Inhospitable  Sea’  (Axeinos  Pontos).  The  chaos  of  the  12th  century  BC  in  which  the  Greek  world  sank,  with  the  devastating  raids  of  the  Sea  Peoples  in  the  entire  area  of  the  Eastern  Mediterranean,  the  destruction  of  the  ‘Mycenaean    Commonwealth’  and  the  collapse  of  the  palatial  sociopolitical  system  and  their  aftermath,  removed  the  Greek  navigators  of  the  Black  Sea.

Since  Early  Antiquity,  since  the  time  of  the  ancient  Tripolye  civilization  of  the  3rd  millennium  BC,  the  modern  Russo-Ukrainian  steppes  were  inhabited  by  sedentary  agricultural  and  stockbreeding  populations.  These  populations  were  subdued  by  the  nomadic  peoples  who  arrived  successively  from  Central  Asia,  moving  north  of  the  Caspian  Sea.  The  Indo-Aryan  or  Iranian  Cimmerians  were  the  first  known  (historical)  nomadic  people  to  arrive  there,  followed  by  the  Iranian  Scythians  and  Sarmatians,  and  then  by  the  Turko-Mongol  Huns,  Avars,  Cumans,  Pechenegs  and  others.  The  nomadic  invaders  considered  the  Russo-Ukrainian  steppe  as  a  very  suitable  environment  for  the  growth  of  their  flocks.  The  resident  population  of  modern  southwestern  Ukraine  was  rather  Thracian  in  origin,  while  that  of  southeastern  Ukraine  and  the  steppe  north  of  the  Caucasus  belonged  to  the  people  of  the  older  Shrubnaya  (Timber-grave)  culture.  The  lands  of  the  natives  were  relatively  rich  in  agricultural  production,  so  they  could  pay  without  much  difficulty  the  taxes  imposed  on  them  by  the  nomad  rulers.  Various  nomadic  tribes  retained  as  long  as  they  could  their  power  on  those  lands,  substantially  as  long  as  their  military  superiority  against  external  threats  lasted.


THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER THATIS – PART III Scythians, Sarmatians and Greeks struggling in the Cimmerian Bosporus



A masterpiece from the land of the Scythians. A golden comb depicting a battle on its back: Scythian horseman and infantry fighting (from the royal tomb of  Solokha).




By  Periklis    Deligiannis

Eumelos suggested a compromise to his brother, Prytanis, based on the division of the kingdom into two territories, which they would share. But his brother rejected his proposal. Prytanis went to Panticapaeum to ensure his control on the kingdom. The aristocrats and the citizens of the Greek cities could exploit the power vacuum which was created by the dynastic war, overthrowing the tyranny of  the Spartocids. Prytanis’ absence gave the opportunity to Eumelos and his allies to capture the small city Gargaza and other towns, which were probably in the modern Taman peninsula (May 309 BC). When Prytanis secured his authority on Panticapaeum, he returned to the Kuban region joining again his army. But his military forces were already highly stressed by Eumelos’ army, and were finally defeated in a new conflict. Eumelos clustered the enemy army in the region of Lake Maeotis (modern Sea of Azov) and thereby he forced Prytanis to resign the throne. Eumelos was proclaimed king but his brother made a last attempt to regain the throne when he returned to Panticapaeum. Prytanis failed, bringing about the wrath of his brother because of his attempt. Eumelos executed him along with his family and Satyrus’ family (June 309 BC).

The new king was murderous, ordering the killing of many friends of his dead brothers. Thus he ultimately caused the counteraction of his subjects, who were sick and tired of his atrocities. Eumelos realized that he would face a revolution and so he called the people of the capital in a popular assembly, in which he announced economic measures favorable to the merchant class, whose support he was intended for. Thereby he consolidated his authority. The kings Paerisades and Satyrus were active and capable rulers. Eumelos proved worthy of them in his five years of rule. The indigenous peoples of the northern and eastern shores of the Black Sea region, especially the Tauri (Taurians), the Heniochi (‘charioteers’) and the Achaeans (not to be confused with the Greek Achaeans) were conducting piracy against the Greek merchants of the Bosporus, damaging seriously its economy. Eumelos used the Bosporan fleet against them, which he reinforced, and managed to crush them. Thereby he strengthened the Bosporan trade and gained over consistently the strong middle class of traders. He also strengthened the military forces by recruiting more Greeks from the urban centers, who provided by then only a limited number of men in the royal army.


THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER THATIS – PART II Scythians, Sarmatians and Greeks struggling in the Cimmerian Bosporus


By  Periklis    Deligiannis9a

Map  of  the  three  main  phases  of  the  battle  of    river  Thatis  (copyright:  Osprey  publishing). 

Corrections  in  the  map  according  to  my  point  of  wiew:  Thataeans=  Siraces.  Eumeles=  Eumelos.  The  name  of  Meniskos,  commander  of  the  Greeks  and  Thracians,    should  be  added.  Following  Alan  Webster,  most  of  Eumelos’  troops  were  cavalrymen.  And  In  my  point  of  view,  Satyrus’  left  wing  was  comprised  overwhelmingly  of  light  infantry.



Satyros’  Scythian  army  invaded  the  Thataean/Siracian  territory  supported  by  many  wagons  with  food  and  supplies,  in  order  not  to  face  supply  problems  in  the  hostile  country.  When  they  reached  river  Thatis,  they  found  the  enemy  army  waiting  for  them  on  the  opposite  river  bank.  Satyros  decided  to  cross  the  river  despite  the  threat  by  the  deployed  Siraces.  It  seems,  paradoxically,  that  the  later  did  not  prevent  the  enemy  crossing.  Aripharnes  possibly  wanted  to  fight  the  decisive  battle  at  his  own  territory  and  did  not  attack  the  Scythian  army  during  the  crossing  of  Thatis,  a  move  that  would  bring  perhaps  the  retreat  of  Satyros’  army.  Besides,  Aripharnes  did  not  wish  the  presence  of  a  numerous  enemy  army  for  a  long  time  at  his  territory  (covering  both  of  the  riverbanks  of  Thatis),  that  would  pillage  and  destroy  the  Siracian  lands.  Thus  he  was  aiming  at  a  decisive  battle  and  that  is  why  he  did  not  block  the  crossing.

The  Scythian  army  established  a  fortified  camp  with  its  wagons  near  the  riverbank  of  Thatis,  and  quickly  lined  up  for  battle  in  front  of  the  camp.  Satyros  placed  the  Greek  hoplites  under  Meniskos  (commander  of  the  mercenaries)  at  the  right  wing  of  his  army,  supported  at  the  top  of  the  wing  by  the  Thracian  peltasts.  According  to  the  ancient  sources,  in  the  left  wing  he  arrayed  Scythian  cavalry  and  infantry.  According  to  the  process  of  the  battle,  it  is  most  probable  that  he  placed  there  only  some  Scythian  horsemen  and  cavalrymen  (probably  a  few)  and  a  great  number  of  light  infantry.  In  the  center  of  his  battle  line,  Satyros  placed  Scythian  cavalry  and  infantry  as  well,  but  is  seems  that  in  this  case  the  cavalrymen  were  more  numerous  than  the  infantrymen.  He  also  took  his  place  in  the  center,  commanding  the  bulk  of  the  Scythian  armored  cavalry.

The  composition  of  the  Siracian/Thataean  order  of  battle  is  not  known,  but  the  ancient  quotations  on  the  process  of  the  battle,  provide  enough  data  on  this  composition.  Eumelos  assumed  command  of  the  left  wing,  against  the  Greeks  and  Thracians,  apparently  because  as  a  Bosporan,  he  knew  very  well  their  tactics.  As  it  will  be  discussed  below,  he  rather  commanded  numerous  Sarmatian  cavalrymen,  many  of  whom  would  have  been  elite  troops  (armored  etc.),  in  order  to  ensure  the  disruption  of  the  hoplite  phalanx  and  the  peltasts  that  supported  and  protected  it.  Eumelos  would  also  command  his  few  Bosporan  supporters  (probably  exclusively  cavalry).    Aripharnes  took  his  place  in  the  center  of  his  army,  commanding  Siracian/Sarmatian  cavalry  and  infantry.  It  is  certain  that  Aripharnes’  cavalry  in  the  center,  included  many  elite  cavalrymen  (the  king’s  bodyguard).  The  Siracian  right  wing  included  the  rest  of  the  cavalry  and  light  infantry,  but  it  seems  that  the  infantrymen  there,  were  overwhelmingly  more  numerous  than  the  cavalrymen.


THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER THATIS – PART I Scythians, Sarmatians and Greeks struggling in the Cimmerian Bosporus


By  Periklis    DeligiannisCimmerian  Bosporus
Map  of  the  Kingdom  of  Cimmerian  Bosporus  with  the  stages  of  its  expansion.  The  Scythians  and  the  Siraces  are  noted  in  the  map.  River  Thatis  was  a  tributary  of    the  river  Hypanis  (Kouban).

The  Kingdom  of  Cimmerian  Bosporus  was  founded  in  438  BC  when  Spartocus,  a  Hellenized  Thracian,  had  established  himself  as  a  tyrant  in  the  Greek  colony  of  Panticapaeum  (modern  Kerch  in  Crimea).  Panticapaeum  was  a  colony  of  Miletus  in  Ionia  (Asia  Minor),  and  the  most  powerful  of  the  Ionic  (Greek)  colonies  in  the  northern  shore  of  the  Black  Sea.  Most  of  these  cities  were  colonies  of  Ionic  Miletus,  and  they  were  founded  mostly  in  the  peninsulas  of  Crimea  and  Phanagoria  (modern  Taman).  Spartocus’  Hellenized  successors,  Satyrus  (his  son,  431-389  BC)  and  Leucon  (his  grandson,  389-349),  conquered  many  of  the  nearby  cities,  reducing  sharply  the  Athenian  military  and  political  influence  in  the  area.  Most  of  the  Greek  cities  of  the  Northern  shore  of  the  Black  Sea  were  Athenian  protectorates  until  then,  with  the  exceptions  of  Chersonesus  (a  Doric  colony  of  Heraclea)  and  Olbia.  Satyrus  annexed  the  cities  Nymphaeon  (an  Athenian  military  colony)  and  Kimmerikon  (Cimmerikon),  but  Leucon  was  the  one  who  made  the  Hegemony  of  Panticapeum  a  real  kingdom:  the  kingdom  of  the  Cimmerian  Bosporus.

“Cimmerian    Bosporus”  was  the  Greek  name  for  the  modern  straits  between  the  peninsulas  of  Crimea  and  Taman.  Leucon  annexed  the  Greek  cities  Theodosia  (modern  Feodosiya),  Hermonassa,  Phanagoria,  Gorgippia,  Parthenion,  Athenaeon  (an  Athenian  military  colony),  Myrmenkion  etc.  The  same  tyrant/king  subjucated  also  the  native  Sindians  and  the  native  as  well  Maeotic  tribes  (Dandarii,  Psessae,  Toretae,  Heniochi  et  al.).  Paerisades  I  (348-310  BC),  Leucon’s  successor,  extended  furthermore  the  Bosporan  rule.  During  his  reign,  the  kingdom  of  Cimmerian  Bosporus  covered  an  area  of  about  30-35,000  sq.  Km.  Athens  had  no  other  option  but  to  abandon  her  rights  in  the  area.  The  Spartocid  dynasty  recognized  only  some  commercial  rights  to  the  Athenians.


%d bloggers like this: