I've always wondered how an infantry soldier, without a pike (which cavalry wouldn't charge into normally), deliver a fatal blow to a Cataphract?

What I know is that Cataphracts were used as heavy shock troops that were used to break enemy lines. After they smash into any unit, some sort of hand to hand fighting would take place.

What I want to know is how during that fight, a cataphract knight could be killed. In other words, how would an infantry soldier overcome difference in height, weapon reach and maximal armor with little holes and deliver a fatal blow?

There are many forms of armor for Cataphracts across history, but they all were very heavily armored. Persian/Sassanian Cataphracts riders' heads were even entirely armored. I can't imagine a swordsman or a spear-man being able to deliver a fatal blow when faced with such a fearsome opponent.

Any idea or historical evidence of how very heavy cavalry were defeated?


During the course of history, many battles took place where armies composed/contained Cataphracts were defeated, such as:

  • In the Battle of Tigranocerta, a small inferior Roman force defeated an Armenian force with some Cataphracts, by flanking them and attacking their rear.

  • In the Battle of Yarmouk, the brilliant Khalid managed to beat the Byzantine cavalry with his much lighter cavalry, again by superior tactics. He managed to beat Persian armies that had heavy cavalry too at many other occasions.

  • Alexander crushed the Persians (Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela) with their superior heavy cavalry, by using a clever combination his Macedonian pikemen and his personal Companion cavalry.

All the battles and sources I can find states that the heavy cavalry were defeated by superior tactics and flanking. However, I cannot find any reliable source stating the defeat of a Cataphract in a hand to hand fight.


Following the excellent answer by @Mynott95, I was recently reading about the Battle of Strasbourg also known as Battle of Argentoratum between the Western Romans and the Alamanni confederations. It describes how the Germans dealt with the heavy Roman cataphracts head on:

The Roman heavy cavalry now charged the German horsemen. In the ensuing mêlée, Chnodomar's stratagem paid dividends. The interspersed foot warriors wreaked havoc, bringing down the horses of the cataphracts and then killing their riders on the ground.

  • 11
    Knock them off the horse and then stab them thru any convenient gaps in the armor.
    – Steve Bird
    Jul 10, 2017 at 11:04
  • 2
    Not my area, but my recollection is that (a) exhaust them, (b) mob them with numbers (converging with @SteveBird's answer), (c) missile fire. Why do you assume that infantry didn't have pike? The question would benefit from evidence that infantry killed cataphracts in large numbers. Why can you imagine a pikeman against a cataphract, but not a spearman?
    – MCW
    Jul 10, 2017 at 11:04
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    Why would a cataphract engage in a head to head fight? They weren't solo fighters. What is it that you actually want to know?
    – MCW
    Jul 10, 2017 at 12:14
  • 1
    Cataphracts are expensive, peasants with pikes are cheap. One on one, the cataphracts probably didn't lose - but they charged against much worse odds than that, and no armor is 100% effective.
    – SPavel
    Jul 10, 2017 at 14:44
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    I am not sure that Persian cavalry that fought against Alexander would qualify as cataphracts. To my knowledge, they didn't have stirrups, and so would be much more vulnerable than proper mediaeval cavalry. (Persian preferred shock units were heavy chariots with blades in their wheels; the Makedonian/Greek defeated them by basically getting out of their way and then profiting from their low manoeuvarability and attacking from behind.) Jul 11, 2017 at 12:42

2 Answers 2


Lighter, Faster Cavalry. The heavier the cavalry, the harder it is to maintain speed and perform sharp maneuvers. At the battle of Turin, Constantine used light cavalry with iron-tipped clubs to attack the flanks of Cataphracts. Ancient cavalry rode horses without Stirrups, meaning clubs or weapons with blunt force behind them stood a fair chance of knocking the rider from his horse, if the blow did not incapacitate him in the first place.

Constantine's more lightly armoured and mobile cavalry were able to charge in on the exposed flanks of the Maxentian cataphracts. Constantine's cavalry were equipped with iron-tipped clubs, ideal weapons for dealing with heavily armoured foes. Some Maxentian cavalrymen were unhorsed, while many others were variously incapacitated by the blows of clubs.

No armour is impenetrable.

Cataphract armour was famous for being extensive, even having their name derive from "Completely covered", but that doesn't mean impenetrable. The horses legs and face were still exposed, both of which are accessible to a well placed spear thrust or sword swing. The horse could throw off the rider, or even crush him in a fall. This of course would be much easier post-charge.

Chinese Statue of a Cataphract

Soldiers in great numbers

Shock cavalry are intended for the express purpose of one large initial charge, to break the enemy lines and with any luck, their morale. After the initial charge, shock cavalry could find themselves surrounded by hostile soldiers if the charge doesn't successfully break the line. In a large group, attacking from all sides, soldiers without pikes could attack either the horse or the rider in vulnerable spots in the armour, any mounted soldier that cannot turn to face every attacker will eventually receive a fatal blow.

Battlefield Defences

Caltrops could hinder the charge of a cataphract when used in great amounts. Wikipedia describes caltrops as:

"an antipersonnel weapon made up of two or more sharp nails or spines arranged in such a manner that one of them always points upward from a stable base".

These are primarily used to disrupt the movement of both foot soldiers and cavalry by slowing their advance. These date back to roman times, known then as 'tribulus', and have been used throughout history since.

In addition to that shallow trenches with outward facing, partially buried, wooden stakes also provide cover against cavalry, and will effectively prevent a charge.

  • 1
    Caltrops have been in use in the last 60 years in the UK and they are still very effective against mounted troops.
    – Solar Mike
    Jul 12, 2017 at 19:46
  • Great, insightful, well laid and researched answer. Makes perfect sense! Thanks very much. Jul 16, 2017 at 9:20
  • You're very welcome, glad I could help.
    – Mynott95
    Jul 17, 2017 at 8:32

Disciplined infantry, whether armed with spears of swords or pikes, will almost always break the charge of heavy cavalry if they are well motivated and organised. The Romans came to know the devastating effect of properly timed charges from cataphracts and thus adapted their military greatly as a response to the lance armed cavalry fielded by both the Parthians and Sassanids. It is worth noting that the Persians relied on swarming missile fire in order to force the Romans into tight formations, whereby their cataphracts could charge successfully. The initial impetus of the charge would be devastating without doubt, but provided the Romans could loosen up and reorganize the Parthians would be forced to retreat (Those who didn't would be surrounded and killed.) Its also worth noting that most cataphracts had armor attaching the horse to the rider, meaning if the horse went down so to did the rider (game over) That being said, this combined arms use of cavalry was extremely effective against infantry, so the Romans had to come up with no ways to counter heavy cavalry.

Publius Ventidius Bassus is someone worth mentioning in this regard. In his campaign against the Parthians, Publius made sure his infantry was organised atop a slope or hill before battles. This would both negate the Cataphracts ability to outflank as well as severely reducing the charge impact. Any horsemen who tried to charge this formation was doomed. He also made sure his slingers were packed in close order behind his infantry (mainly as a response to horse archers) thirdly he made sure he had a sufficient force of light cavalry to harass the enemy cataphracts, as they were to slow to catch the unarmored roman cavalry. Publius's campaign was an embarrassment to the Parthians who had previously crushed the Romans at Carhae. In three separate battles he managed to trick the cataphracts into head-on charges against infantry, and the result was disaster for the cavalrymen. Another neat feature is that the Roman slingers were frighteningly effective against armored cavalry, more so than archers, as the blunt force was often enough to break bones through the cataphracts steel. Indeed the Parthian prince Pacorus took a led bullet from a sling to the helmet, and his skull was shattered (he died) Clearly Roman infantry, on its own terms could defeat Parthian cavalry, even being armed with swords. This was far from the only method, so I'll list a few historical scenarios quickly.

-At the battle of Nisibis, the Romans used caltrops to hamper the charge of cataphracts, where they then broke against the legions.

-At the Battle of Satala, the Romans stormed the Sassanid camp, Killing the horsemen in their sleep, and destroying the Royal Persian army.

  • At the battle of Ctesiphon (363) Julian ordered his infantry to charge, dive under the lances of the cavalry, and slice open their stomachs, which was one of the only unarmored parts of the cataphract

  • Emperor Carracalla managed to force the Parthian cataphracts to retreat from their own homeland after informing them that he had armed his infantry with pikes.

  • Aurelian managed to trick the Palmyrene cataphracts into chasing his lighter cavalry. once the cataphracts were exhausted, the Roman cavalry turned and charges, using spiked maces to break the armor.

-Ventidius Bassus managed to surround Pacorus's cataphracts, but instead of closing in with his infantry, he unleashed volleys of led bullets from slings, which reduced the armoured regiments to nothing.

there are many more examples, which i obviously don't have time to go into detail. Countering cataphracts was a matter of combined arms effort. A mixture of light cavalry, light infantry, and heavy Infantry proved more than capable against armoured horsemen.

or you could do what the Byzantines did. fight fire with fire, get your own cataphracts.

  • Intuitively it seems that spearmen would be better suited to deal with Calvary charges so why did Romans abandon the triarri?
    – Hao S
    Jul 24, 2018 at 1:33
  • To keep mounted units far enough away, very long spears, aka pikes, are required, as the Hellenes and later the Swiss did. However, such units have difficulties to retain proper formation, and thus cannot move quickly. Also, they are still vulnerable to archer fire. It might be difficult to maintain a testudo formation together with pikes.
    – MauganRa
    Dec 2, 2018 at 12:09

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