First Knights

European knights can be traced from little known Iranian cataphracts


First Knights
by Nabil Rastani


Cataphracts or cataphracti were a form of very heavy cavalry that served as an elite they also served as an assault force, primarily used for impetuous charges to break through infantry and some forms of light cavalry formations. Some historians refer to them as the first knights because they wore heavy shining amour and were made up of the aristocracy. Iranians used cataphract cavalry for almost 1,200 years from antiquity to medieval era.


The word cataphract comes from the Greek word κατάφρακτοι “Kataphraktoi” meaning “armored” or “completely enclosed”. Other forms of cataphracts include the Grivpanvar the name derives from the Pahlavi griwban "neck-guard", a helmet amour guard, from whence "Grivpan" warrior.

Background and appearances in battle

Iranian armies utilised heavy cavalry since the early 6th century BC throughout the early era of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, it was Cyrus the Great (559-539BC) who realised that cavalry was needed in his armies to effectively and decisively win him victories in the near east and central Asia . His army was made up of army 80% infantry and 20% cavalry. The early Achaemenid Persian armed forces was made up mostly of lightly armed troops .Those who were more heavily armed would have been clad in thick leather and mail armour. With these armies the Persians were able to take over an empire that stretched from India to Thrace and Ionia in the west.

It was not until the era of Darius the Great in 490BC that the Persians lost their first battle at Marathon. And it was not until the defeat of Xerxes (Darius’s successor) during the Greco-Persian wars did the Persian release that they needed to reform their armies. Artaxerxes III of Persia (358-228BC) massively reformed the late Persian armies into being more heavily armoured. The first true cataphract were used during this time, his “cataphracts” were made up of the Persian aristocracy they were a form “special forces”. According to Arrian these warriors were armed with the heavy chainmail and scale armour, the attention-grabbing aspect of these early Iranian cataphracts is that the horse is also armoured, something that seems to have “disappeared” following Alexander it was later revitalized by the Parthians ,Greco-Bactrians and Saka peoples in the late 3rd century BC. Another interesting aspect of these Achaemenid Persian cataphract is that they show large quantities of influence from Scythian and Sarmatian peoples (both of these peoples were nomadic Iranian tribal peoples). The Scythians appear to have been a vassal kingdom of the Achaemenid Empire or at least in its awe-inspiring shadow.

The first use of these cataphract was at the battle of Gaugamela in 331BC in which the Persian emperor Darius III fought against the young, brilliant tactician and King Alexander the great of Macedon. Historian Arrian tells us that during the battle Darius was surrounded by his famed and elite immortal infantry as well as cataphract cavalry who were placed on his right. Despite the use of these “special forces” cavalry the Persians failed to defeat the brave and talented Alexander and his elite companion cavalry who led a fatal charge into Darius’s army with their full might and force. The companions are referred to have been more lightly armed than the cataphracts.The source of the Persian defeat in the hands of Alexander’s warriors was almost certainly because of their limited moral and lack of true discipline in contrast to that of their counterparts. Iranian cataphracts would have to go under more reforms in the next few centuries under the Parthians.

Parthian use

At the tender age of 25 Alexander had crushed the most powerful kingdom on earth. Subsequent to which his following victories took him as far as India, however he withdrew back to the city of Babylon in 323BC upon which he died, most likely of an illness of some sort. Upon his death bed his commanders and officers gathered around him and asked him “to who does you empire go to” reputedly replying “to the strongest!” His mighty realm came into calamity after his demise. His commanders fought against each other in a war known as “the great war of the Diadochi”. The wars ended with the largest part of the Old Persian Empire being owned by Seleucus this incorporated most of Mesopotamia (Iraq) Iran, Syria and parts of Asia Minor. Ptolemy another of Alexander’s generals owned Egypt, Libya, Judea and Cilicia. Cassander’s realm included Macedon and Thrace.

The Parthians(250BC-224AD) arrived in north west Iran around 250BC it was then that they extended their empire into Iran.Parthians were led by a Iranic tribal leader called Ashk who led his army into modern Turkmenistan and Khurassan The Parthian army was an all cavalry doctrine a “shock” tactic was developed, softening up the enemy with a hail of armour piecing arrows from horse archers, then delivering the piece de résistance charge led by the cataphracts,these Parthian cataphracts were clad in chainmail , breastplate and strong scale armour ,as well as this they would have been armed with the famed kontos lance used by many Iranian peoples during antiquity, it is potential that these cataphracts bore some armaments for close quarters such as Iranian long swords and maces (such weapons and armaments makes seem like the later European knights of the Medieval era). Most of the Parthian armies were made up of horse archers whose composite bow and light arrows that could pierce through even shields and amour a like this made the Parthian armies very effective.

The Parthians quickly took much of Iran form the Seleucids; due to the fact that the Seleucids had to deal with other problems, such as the Egyptians and Bactrian’s. Also the Seleucid forces were mostly made up of phalanxes-a slow moving tightly packed formation of soldiers composed of heavy infantry with long sarrisa pikes. These troops were effective in a frontal attack however they were almost unless in the sides and rear-the light Parthian horse archers could easily ride around the flanks slaughtering the pike men. The cataphract could then easily ride into the weakened mass of troops and destroy them. The Seleucid cavalry was also useless against the Parthian forces, the cataphracts could engage in a hand to hand combat with the Seleucid cavalry at ease.

For one their amour was inadequate against the kontos lances weight, even heavy Seleucid cavalry could be crushed, cataphract amour was vitally unbreakable or penetrable. Another interesting fact of the Parthian army was that when the Seleucids deployed war elephants in their battles the Parthians would adopt a simple tactic of firing a barrage of arrows at the elephant’s eyes, feet etc. Until the elephants would panic, their upon to cause the elephants to flee into their own lines the cataphracts would charge at the beasts .Thus encouraging them to move into the Seleucid formations.

The Parthian use of cataphract gained them many victories-the Parthian empire became very rich and powerful during the 1st century BC it was this that caught the eye of the richest man in Rome Marcus Crassus and prompt him to attack and become the “second Alexander” a glorious title that many Romans eagerly wish to have. In 53BC Crassus led an attack into Parthia .Along side him was 35,000 legionaries and 4,000 light cavalry as well as his own son Publius.

As Crassus marched deep into Parthian territory he was met with no resistance, however when he arrived near the town of Carrhae he encountered a relatively small Parthian force led by the young Surena. Surena’ army comprised of 9,000 horse archers and 1,000 cataphracts the battle was known as “Battle of Carrhae”. By this time cataphracts were sometimes referred to as knights, very well armored men and semi armored horse, the Parthians used the powerful Nisean bred of horses, native to the Zargos mountain range of western Iran. These steeds could easily carry the heavily armored man on its back. The cataphracts are also referred to have worn a steel ridged helmet.

The Parthians interestingly went to great lengths to intimidate the Roman army. Firstly they beat a great number of hollow drums and the Roman troops were unsettled by the loud and cacophonous noise. Surena then ordered his cataphracts to cover their armor in cloths and advance forward. When they were within sight of the Romans, they simultaneously dropped the cloths, revealing their shining armor. The sight was designed to intimidate the Romans, but Surena was impressed by the lack of effect it had. Another tactic of the Parthians was to bring thousands of camels with arrows packed on their backs in.

An interesting aspect of this battle was when Publius led his 1,300 light Gallic cavalry to pursue the horse archers. Publius was court by the heavy Parthian cataphracts who slaughtered his light cavalry.

In an act ofdesperation many of the Gallic men attempted to drive up the cataphracts horse, this was notoriously hard to do their was the danger of being impaled upon the cataphracts lances. Another tactic was that many Gaul’s desperately attempted to pull the cataphracts off their horse; again this would have come with unlimited dangers.

During the cavalry battle Publius was slain and his head was mounted on a pole. Crassus was crushed utterly at Carrhae, Roman casualties amounted to about 20,000 killed and 10,000 captured, making the battle one of the costliest defeats in Roman history. . Roman casualties amounted to about 20,000 killed and 10,000 captured, making the battle one of the costliest defeats in Roman history. Parthian casualties were minimal. After Crassus’s his death, the Parthians king Orodes II allegedly poured molten gold down his throat while stating “be satisfied with thy life’s desire!” in a symbolic gesture mocking Crassus' renowned greed.

The remaining Romans at Carrhae attempted to flee, but most were captured or killed. This battle was the beginning of an epic struggle between east and west that lasted over 700 years. The Parthians used cataphracts in numerous battle until their demise in the hands of Sassanians .The Parthians are known to have developed new forms of cataphracts even cataphracts camels.

Sassanian use

The Parthians were overthrown by the Sassanians (224-651AD) in the 3rd century at the fierce jousting battle of Hormuzgan in 224AD it was here the first jousting battle in history occurred Ardashir I of Persia the founder of the Sassanians had a duel with Ardavan V of Parthia were he was slain, and the Sassanians were victorious .

The Sassanians inherited the cavalry warfare traditions already richly developed in the region by Parthia. Since the Sassanid Empire was by far superior organized and trained than the loosely-bound Parthian Empire, their army was by all means effective, and hence created a number of impressions on western sources.

The Sassanians developed and improved on cataphracts yet again, according to numerous Roman sources state that the Sassanian cataphracts were clad in thick iron plates which covered their entire body. This made them look very much like moving iron statues a psychological weapon as well as a shock weapon. Many forms of cataphracts were created such as Pushtigban royal guards and Zhayedan (also known as immortals).Sassanians (like their predecessors) used cataphracts in nearly all of their battles their enemies three examples include the siege of Amida in 359AD.In the 72 day siege led by the king Shapur himself the Sassanians gathered a vast army from across their empire:

Heavy cataphracts are referred to have charged at the gates with full force, the cataphracts however were barrage with a cocktail of arrows, stones, rocks and javelins. This was amazingly able to eventually piece through their armour. Due to the sheer relentlessness of Shapur II and his forces, Amida fell.

Other examples include the battle of Ctesiphon in 363AD were Julian the Apostate marshaled an army of 60,000 Romani troops to invade the Sassanid Territory with the intention of ravaging the Imperial capital of Ctesiphon . The Persian shahanshah, Shapur II, was astute enough a tactician to realize his soldiers' only chance of challenging the well-trained and better-equipped Romans was a clandestine attack. While the Romans were encamped outside the walls of the capital, the Persians launched a surprise assault onto the unsuspecting army leading with a force of heavy infantry force, cataphracts and elephants. Caught unaware, the Roman soldiers fought valiantly but eventually ended up losing the battle .Ammianus Marcellius tells us that this is the first battle that Pushtigban cavalry were used, they were a form of super heavy cataphracts and were indeed very effective apparently they had the ability to impale two men on their lances.

By the 7th century AD the Sassanians were beginning to use clibinarii cavalry, which were given the nickname of “camp oven bearers” (due to the amount of amour they wore that the troops heat up very quickly in the heat of battle).The Sassanians even began to use “cataphracts elephants” who incorporated scale armor and large crested howidah (or large carriages mounted directly on the back) onto the elephants, which effectively turned them into mobile missile platforms that could also charge enemy positions. This is analogous to the Eastern cataphracts horse archers mentioned previously, who carried both bows and lances, and alternated between missile and charge attacks as the terms of a battle dictated. The three to four men manning the howdah, including the driver, known as a mahout, were armed with javelin’s , spears or bows to harass enemy soldiers who attempted to close in and attack the elephants. The tough hide of elephants afforded them considerable protection and the scale and chain mail armor worn made them almost invulnerable to missiles such as arrows.

Despite all of these reforms the armies of Arabia won a decisive victory against the Sassanian commander Rostam Farrokhzād at the battle of al-Qadisiyyah. The Sassanid Persians army, about 60,000 strong, fell in three main categories, infantry forces, heavy cavalry, known as cataphracts armed with lances and clibnarii heavy cavalry and third was elephants, also known as Indian corps. The Muslim Arab force was around 30,000 strong with around 7,000 cavalry.

The battle was spilt into around 4 days. During these 4 days a fierce battle ensued with high casualties for both sides. The Sassanian cataphracts were heavily defeated on the fourth day when Rostam was slain and his head was cut off. The Sassanian cataphracts unaware of the death of their commander continued to fight on until the front line of the Sassanian army began to break after a heroic struggle against the Arabs. Upon hearing that the main Sassanian lines had broken and their general had died the Sassanians fled and Jalinus took command of what was left of the Sassanid army. He got control of the bridge head, and succeeded in getting bulk of the Sassanid army across the bridge safely. The battle of Qaddisiyyah was over, with Muslims stood victorious. The Sassanian Empire was destroyed by the Arabs in 651AD and the final Sassanian king Yazidgerd III was killed by a miller.


Cataphracts continued to be used, this time serving as mercenaries for the Arabs. It is a well known fact that these men were paid more than a standard Arab warrior. The main and most obvious legacy of Iranian cataphracts was their influence on Europe, cataphracts motivated the Europeans to create their own new form a cavalry based on honor, based on great skill and pride-they were known as knights and their roots can be traced from the little known Iranian cataphracts. With very little changes to their tactics or design until the birth of gunpowder in the 1400s.


Some of my readings include some articles on wikipedia such as:




* Note all articles listed above were written by me under the user name Secthayrabe


-- Herodotus: The histories 1,3,5

-- Xenophon:Anabasis books 2 and 3

-- Plutarch's Life of Alexander

-- Quintus Rufus:a history of Alexander

-- Philip Sidnell, Warhorse: Cavalry in Ancient Warfare

-- Herodian, Roman History

-- Rome's Enemies (3): Parthians and Sassanid Persians By Peter Wilcox, Angus McBride

-- Ammianus Marcellinus, (353 AD) Roman Antiquities, Boox XXV

-- Shadow of the desert by Dr Kaveh Farrokh

-- Dio, Cassius. Roman History: Book 40, 22.2.


Recently by Nabil RastaniCommentsDate
Sasanian Society
Feb 01, 2012
The Ancient World War
Jul 31, 2011
May 23, 2011
more from Nabil Rastani


by alimostofi on

How much do you about the story of Alexander, and the Persian version of his life as written in Iskandarnameh? 


Ali Mostofi




Persian chivalry

by Khashayarsha on


It is interesting just how much of Western civilization is derived from Persia. It is particularly ironic that the crusaders of Europe were following the same code of chivalry as that of the Persian knights.

Jahanshah Javid


by Jahanshah Javid on

Thanks Nabil. Can you provide your source(s) as well?