Sassanian silver plate showing lance combat
The Tetrarchs, a porphyry statue on Venice's Basilica di San Marco, shows the emperor Diocletian and his three imperial colleagues. To the left, Diocletian and Maximianus, the two Augusti (co-emperors); to the right, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus, the two Caesars (deputy emperors). Note the woollen "Pannonian" caps commonly worn (out of combat) by officers in the late army as a result of the pervasive influence of the Danubian officer class; and the sword grips with eagle-head pommels.
Reenactor wearing the typical equipment of a late 3rd-century foot soldier. The helmet is a Niederbieber type, with cross-pattern reinforcing ridges on the top of the bowl, and cheek-guards which can be fastened together. The sword is a spatha (median blade length 900 mm/36 inches), used by the cavalry only in the 1st and 2nd centuries. This soldier carries a spiculum, a heavy pilum-type javelin. Note the chain mail (lorica hamata) shirt and oval shield. Clothing consisted of a long-sleeved tunic, trousers and boots. The equipment of a 4th-century infantryman was very similar to the 3rd century, save that the spiculum was usually replaced by a heavy thrusting-spear (hasta) and the helmet was predominantly of the "Intercisa type".
Fresco from the synagogue in the Roman fortified frontier city of Dura Europos dating to c. 250 AD. The centre shows unarmoured light cavalry charging with lances, the foreground and background show infantry fighting with spathae (long-bladed swords); they are equipped with knee-length scale armours, some with full-length sleeves.
Roman emperor Valerian (left, kneeling) begs for his life after being captured by Persian Shah Shapur I (mounted) at the Battle of Edessa (259), the most humiliating of the military disasters suffered by the empire in the late 3rd century. Rock relief at Naqsh-e Rostam near Shiraz, Iran
The Aurelian Walls of Rome, built by Aurelian in 270–5. Rome's first new wall since the construction of the Servian Wall after the Gauls sacked Rome 650 years earlier, they symbolised the pervasive insecurity of the 3rd-century empire. Original height: 8m (25 ft). Doubled in 410 to 16m (52 ft) after second sack of Rome in 410. Both walls and towers were originally crenellated, but this has survived only in small sections. Most of the 19km circuit still stands today
The emperor Diocletian (ruled 284–305), who launched wide-ranging reforms of the Roman army and government. Bronze follis coin
The emperor Constantine I (ruled 312–37), who established the first large-scale comitatus (imperial escort army) and divided the army into escort army (comitatenses) and border (limitanei) troops, giving the late Roman army the structure described in the Notitia Dignitatum. Bust in Musei Capitolini, Rome
High command structure of the East Roman army c. AD 395. Commands and army sizes based on data in the Notitia Dignitatum Orientis. Eastern magistri militum, in command of comitatus armies, reported direct to the emperor. Duces are shown reporting to their diocesan magister militum, as suggested by Jones and Elton. Locations given indicate usual winter quarters in this period.
High command structure of the West Roman army c. 410–425. Commands and army sizes based on data in the Notitia Dignitatum. Reporting relationship between duces and comites as in the East, with duces reporting to senior officer in their diocese (whereas the Notitia places them directly under the magister utriusque militiae). Locations given indicate usual winter quarters in this period.
Shield insignia of regiments under the command of the Magister Militum Praesentalis II of the East Roman army c. 395. Page from the Notitia Dignitatum, a medieval copy of a Late Roman register of military commands
Bas-relief of a Sassanian heavily armoured mounted warrior. He is wearing what is probably a chain-mail face-guard. This is possibly the kind of armour denoted by the Roman term clibanarius, probably meaning "furnace man" in reference to the heat that would build up inside such all-encompassing armour. Note the armoured caparison for the horse. From Taq-e Bostan, Iran
Late Roman soldiers, probably barbarians, as depicted (back row) by bas-relief on the base of Theodosius I's obelisk in Constantinople (c. 390). The troops belong to a regiment of palatini as they are here detailed to guard the emperor (left). More than third of soldiers in the palatini were barbarian-born by this time. Note the necklaces with regimental pendants and the long hair, a style imported by barbarian recruits, in contrast to the short hair that was the norm in the Principate
Detail of a 4th-century mosaic showing a hunting scene. The figures are probably Roman military officers, wearing the typical non-combat uniform (i.e. without armour and helmets, but with shield and spear) of late soldiers. (Throughout the imperial era, soldiers were usually portrayed in non-combat mode). Note the off-white, long-sleeved tunics. The swastika embroidered on the left tunic was a mystical symbol, possibly of Indo-European origin, representing the universe and was commonly used by the Romans as a decorative motif. Note also the military cloak (chlamys) and trousers. The pattern on the shield indicated the bearer's regiment. Note the bands embroidered on the sleeves and shoulders. From Piazza Armerina, Sicily
Frieze (bottom) showing Constantine I's cavalry driving Maxentius' troops into the River Tiber at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312). The image proves that 4th-century soldiers wore metal body armour (the Maxentian soldiers are wearing either mail or scale, it is unclear which). The Constantinian cavalry is apparently unarmoured, probably because these were units of Illyrian light cavalry (equites Dalmatae) and mounted archers. Detail from the Arch of Constantine, Rome
Detail of bas-relief on base of former Column of Theodosius in Constantinople (Istanbul). Date c. 390. Roman soldiers in action. Note soldier at centre had an Intercisa-style helmet with iron crest (prob. indicating officer rank) and is wearing chain-mail or scale armour, evidence that Vegetius's claim that infantry dropped helmets and armour in the later 4th century is mistaken. Istanbul Archaeological Museum
Late Roman helmet, called the Deurne helmet. It is covered in expensive silver-gilt sheathing and is inscribed to a cavalryman of the equites stablesiani.
The products of the fabricae, from the Notitia dignitatum. The illustration includes: helmets, shields, mail coats, cuirasses and laminated limb defences, plus various weapons.
Full-scale reconstruction of a 4th-century Roman river patrol-boat (lusoria), probably under the command of the dux of Germania I province. It is based on the remains of one of five late Roman river boats discovered at Moguntiacum in the early 1980s. The boat above, denoted Mainz Type A, had a long (22 m) and narrow (2.8 m) shape for speed and rounded keel to allow access to shallows. It could carry 32 marines, who rowed the boat fully armed (32 oars, 16 on each side). Whilst on board, the soldiers would hang their shields on stands fixed to the gunwales so as to provide cover from missiles launched from the riverbanks. Museum für Antike Schifffahrt, Mainz, Germany
The Walls of Theodosius II at Constantinople, built 408–413, to increase the area of land protected by the original Constantinian walls. Note the massive crenellated towers and surviving sections of wall. The walls actually consisted of a triple curtain, each one overlooking the other. They proved impregnable to even the largest armies until the introduction of explosive artillery in the later Middle Ages
An example of late Roman fortification. Note the protruding towers to allow enfilading fire. The original height of both walls and towers was clearly greater than today, and the crenellations are not the original ones, but crudely cut from the curtain wall itself in the medieval period. The church visible inside the walls was built in the 12th century by the Normans. Portchester Castle, England. 3rd century
Relief with the liberation of a besieged city; Western Roman Empire, early 5th century, Museum of Byzantine Art (inv. 4782), Bode Museum, Berlin. Both cavalry and infantry are shown wearing body armour.
Late Roman cavalry officers (bottom right) in a hunting scene. In combat, most cavalrymen would, like infantry, wear a mail shirt and helmet. Mosaic from Piazza Armerina, Sicily. 4th century
Drawing of Flavius Stilicho, the half-Vandal general who was magister utriusque militiae (commander-in-chief) of West Roman forces 395–408. The general is depicted without armour, wearing a chlamys (military cloak) over his tunic and carrying a heavy thrusting-spear and oval shield. He was made a scapegoat for the barbarian invasions of 405–6, although in reality his military skill may have saved the West from early collapse. Derived (1848) from an ivory diptych at Monza, Italy

The Greek name for a type of long wooden cavalry lance used by the Iranians, especially Achaemenid successors' cavalry, most notably cataphracts (Grivpanvar).

- Kontos (weapon)

Cataphracts carried a long, heavy lance called a contus, c. 3.65 m long, that was held in both hands.

- Late Roman army
Sassanian silver plate showing lance combat

1 related topic


Historical reenactment of a Sassanid-era cataphract, complete with a full set of scale armor for the horse. The rider is covered by extensive mail armor.


Form of armored heavy cavalryman that originated in Persia and was fielded in ancient warfare throughout Eurasia and Northern Africa.

Form of armored heavy cavalryman that originated in Persia and was fielded in ancient warfare throughout Eurasia and Northern Africa.

Historical reenactment of a Sassanid-era cataphract, complete with a full set of scale armor for the horse. The rider is covered by extensive mail armor.
Sculpture of a Sasanian cataphract in Taq-e Bostan, Iran. It is One of the oldest depictions of a cataphract.
The extent circa 170 BC of the Iranian Scythians and Parthians, to whom the first recorded use of true cataphract-like cavalry can be attributed in antiquity.
Chanfron, Northern Yan
A stone-etched relief depicting a Parthian cataphract fighting against a lion. Housed in the British Museum.
Three examples of the various styles of interweaving and wire threading that were commonly employed in the creation of cataphract scale armor to form a stiffened, "armored shell" with which to protect the horse.
Breakdown of a fully armoured Chinese cataphract
Equestrian relief at Firuzabad, Iran showing Cataphracts dueling with lances
The cataphract-style parade armor of a Saka (Scythian) royal from the Issyk kurgan, dubbed "Golden Man". The overlapping golden scales are typical of cataphract armor.
Two heavily armored noblemen dueling on horseback with kontos; Sasanian era silver plate with gold coating, Azerbaijan Museum, Tabriz, Iran
A depiction of Sarmatian cataphracts fleeing from Roman cavalry during the Dacian wars circa 101 AD, at Trajan's Column in Rome

Historically, the cataphract was a very heavily armored horseman, with both the rider and mount almost completely covered in scale armor, and typically wielding a kontos or lance as his primary weapon.

The adoption of cataphract-like cavalry formations took hold among the late Roman army during the late 3rd and 4th centuries.