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Precursor to Arthur's Knights?

PostPosted: Wed Nov 29, 2006 8:43 pm
We know from Anciient texts that the Roman Army in the East slowly began to adopt Heaviliy amored horsemen. (Cataphracts)

The pictures are from wall paintings at Doura Europos, a city destroyed by siege and preserved by time.

It is a safe bet that the subjects of the paintings did not live long afterward their images were laid down as the Sassanid Persians destroyed the City .


The Light horseman is pictured first and is in keeping with the general concept of Roman Cavarly or Gallic Auxiliaries up to the 2nd Century.


As to the Fully armored Cataphract (called by the Roman the 'clinibarus") his armor is relatively new in Roman use, as Infantry remained was the Arm of Decision. Nonetheless, after several negative encounters with the Parthian and Sassanid heavy horse, (despite the fact that the Romans often beat them), I am not surprised at the adaptation of the Persian Style Horse armor, although the "4 posted" saddle remains. (No stirrups yet.)

Tacitus tells us that this military saddle gave great stability and a point of leverage from which the mounted soldier man could use his weapons well.

Note the Helmet, which retains a bit of the flavor of the Imperial Gallic Helm, althought it appears riveted and not forged.

The Methods of the Fabrica (state owned arms factories) had begun to change.

It is rumored that the Emporer Julian may have stopped at the City during his expedition againt the Sassanid Persians.

The material I have does not go into great detail about the equppage of his cavalry, but perhaps the perhaps the best evidence of Cavalry Equipment is as shown.


PostPosted: Wed Jun 27, 2007 3:11 pm
by Hugh
First, have you read the two Osprey books, by Simon MacDowall? They are Late Roman Cavalryman 236-565AD and Late Roman Infantryman AD 236-565, both available from Amazon.

It is my opinion that Arthur's knights were more probably an evolution of the Sarmatian cataphracti sent there by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius around 270 CE or so. He had hounded the nomadic Sarmatians in a winter campaign very similar to the one in the winter of 1876-1877 that broke the Sioux after the Battle of the Little Big Horn and they finally agreed to a treaty and part of that was that they would supply him with a regiment of their heavy armored cavalry. He sent them to Britannia to serve out of Eboracum (York) as a mobile force along the Wall. Now, they had largely been absorbed by the locals by the middle of the 4th Century when the Barbarian Conspiracy* occurred bringing the Master of Horse, Count Theodosius**, into Britannia in 368 CE with a Field Army to sort things out. He reorganized things and then left behind a reasonably solid defense that lasted until the garrisons were again stripped by the pretender to the throne, Magnus Maximus, when he sailed for Gaul in 383 to make his play for the imperial purple. The garrison never really recovered from that and, by 410, the Emperor Valentinian sent the Britons word that they must look to their own defenses, that Rome could no longer defend them.

During the period following the collapse of Roman authority in the West, it was the practise of a warlord to have a group of bully-boys swear oaths of loyalty to him and they were frequently called his "companions" much as Alexander the Great called his personal guard troops his "Companions." The Welsh word for that is "cambrogi" and that is what I envision the local warlord Arthur as using, a group of trained professional heavy cavalry in the cataphract mold who had sworn oaths of loyalty to him. In the case of Arthur, I would posit that he tried to maintain a level of discipline that prevented his "cambrogi" from becoming simple bully boys and running wild over the locals and that is why he is remembered in a favorable light.

As a matter of usage, generally the term "cataphracti" is applied to the heavy armored cavalry as used in the West and the term "clibanarii" is applied those in the East. There seemed to have been some differences with those in the West following the Sarmatian pattern more than the steppe archer pattern of the Parthian/Persian clibanarii. BTW, the term "clibanus" is Latin for "oven" and the koinee Greek for it is "klibanion." If you ask me, that name must have been applied to the clibanarii as a result of wearing full armor in the desert heat. :lol:

* and, from Ammianus Marcellinus:

** Father of the Emperor Theodosius who actually went to Britannia with his father in 368.

Osprey et al.

PostPosted: Wed Jun 27, 2007 6:18 pm
Hi Hugh:

I have those two books on the Late Roman Cavalryman and Infantry man.

Yet the wall paintings at Dura Eurpos are fascinating.

My understanding of the Cataphract and Clinibarus is as you say, but your memory is better.

The last "Comes Biritannicus' (count of Briton)(Ambrosius?) allegedly gave Excalibur to Artos the Bear. I may have been a simple customized 'Spatha'.

The name of the sword itself is an amalgam of language coming to mean "Out of the Mold". Thus other scenarios about Arthur have conjectured that it was a weapon cast and finished for him.

Sutcliffes' "Sword at Sunset' follows the first thought.

Another painting is have seen shows a mounted Arthur leading a largely infantry force. At the very least mounted cavalry comprised the Heart of Arthurs' army, but it may have been a very small force. Perhaps two or three hundred strong..

I beleive the Romano-Britons were eventually forced into Wales.
this did not mean that Britain fell into a deep Dark Age, it is just that we have little to see in our customized and limited History texts tht, for example, neglect to mention Cawdor, Mercia, Wessex and other PRe Medieval Kingdoms.

Of course Wessex was allegedly the Kingdom that gave birth and power to the only King of England called "Three Great" meaning "Alfred the great of 'the good right line of Cerdic (the Saxon).

So, Alfred gathered his own forces and those of such allied Kingdoms and he might to fight the incursions of the Danes, much as Arthur allegedly fought the Saxons, beating them badly, at least once, at Badon where it is rumored that Arthur took a mortal wound.

I do recommend "Sword at Sunset" and the "Shield Ring" by Rosemary Sutcliffe as purely fun reads. Also A. Duggan wrote "The Good Right Line Of Cerdic (not cedric)" and, delving into another time "The Eagle of The Ninth" and "Three's Company" (not the comedy show) about the second Triumvirs.

Since Roman cavalry had already begun to emulate the Clinibarii in the 3rd Century, I cannot truly understand why Sarmatians might have been brought to Briton. Althoughit is as likely a theory as any.

Perhaps veterans who settled in Britain were late Roman Heavy Cavalry who just didn't turn their stuff in.

PostPosted: Wed Jun 27, 2007 7:08 pm
by Hugh
The historians recorded the sending of the Sarmatians to Britain. It was mentioned in that silly recent film, "King Arthur," which placed Arthur as a Late Roman cavalry commander along the Wall. The one best part in the whole film was the portrayal of a Wall fortress. There was a nice bit with a battle on a frozen lake that was taken directly from Eisentstein's classic, "Alexander Nevsky" which shows what the Russians call the "Miracle of the Ice" when Nevsky met the Teutonic Knights in a battle on the frozen Lake Priepus and the Ice gave way beneath the heavily armored Teutonic Knights, drowning the lot of them.

Please understand that the presence of the Sarmatians in Britain is well documented and known in history. If you would like to read a fun novel based upon that piece of history, try Island of Ghosts by Gillian Bradshaw. I read it years ago and enjoyed it immensely, but I do suggest that you read her commentary at the end of the book BEFORE you read the book as you will spend rather less time gnashing your teeth if you do.

Another great series of books on the subject of the evolution of Arthur and his military force is Jack Whyte's excellent 'Camulod Chronicles." They start with a Roman legate and a centurion at the time of the Barbarian Conspiracy in 367 CE and take you up through the death of Arthur in the late Fifth Century. You see Camulod as a Roman colony established out in the foothills of the Cambrian mountains and the Romans allyng themselves with the local clans under the leadership of the Pendragon Clan.

BTW, you cannot cast a sword and make it work. Cast steel is too brittle. In the time of Arthur, the only way to make a sword was to forge it and that is, IMO, the best way to go about it today, although people can argue that stock reduction will work as well. But I don't believe that, not when you make something a long as a sword.


PostPosted: Fri Jun 29, 2007 4:32 am
Well, truly if you say it is so Hugh, then it is so.

If the presence of Sarmatians is well documented then they were there.

I felt it necessarry to point out that Roman and Byzantine Cavalry, as shown on the wall Paintings at Dura, a city probably destroyed in reprisal for the destructive, if unsuccessful campaign by Julian into Persia.

So we can intuit that Cataphracts and/or the knowledge of heavy cavalry tactics would have been available to Briton.

The Cataphract shown in the opening post is from Dura, where there was a substantial Roman army fortress. Although romans and italian are generrally regarded as indifferent horsemen, the Design of the Helm alone speaks strongly to the fact tht the cataphract might have been Roman or an Auxiliary. The sword carrying cavarlyman, of course, may have been Gallic or German.

But the point is that, in the latter days of the empire information about cavalry tactics should have reched Briton.

I have to research all the dates in my mind.

I will try and get the book you recommended.

PostPosted: Mon Jul 02, 2007 1:22 pm
by Hugh
The cataphracti and clibanarii both used helmets of several designs. They used the heavier cavalry helmets as shown in that illustration, but they also used spangenhelms, the helmets made of four or more segmets or spangens held in a frame as in the Dar el Medinah helm*, and they also used the the ridge style helmets such as the Duerne helm, the Berkasovo Helm, or the Burgh Castle helm.** There is a grafito in Dura Europa that shows a clibanarius wearing a very pointed spangenhelm of the Dar el Medinah type which clearly came from the Sarmatians while the ridge style of helmet apparently was derived from the Sassanid Persians.

* ... edinah.jpg Do away with the silly SCA required bars and you have a pretty good replica of the Dar el Medinah helm.
** See the first and the last five of the helmets.

PostPosted: Mon Jul 02, 2007 8:48 pm
by Hugh
The Notitia Dignitatum lists six cavalry units under the command of the Comes Britanniarum, the Count of Britain, commander of the Field Army in Britain and of the troops on the Wall: Equites catafractarii iuniores, Equites scutarii Aureliaci, Equites Honoriani seniores (ie. a vexillationes comitatenses unit), Equites stablesiani, Equites Syri, and Equites Taifali. The first is obviously a heavy cavalry unit in the cataphract style. The others appear to be light cavalry and light medium cavalry, the difference being that they light cavalry had helmets and shields but no armor while the light medium cavalry had some armor as well. Both were used as scouting units and were not supposed to engage other cavalry units or infantry if it was formed up. Those tasks were left to the heavy cavalry. There is some suspicion that the Equites Honoriani seniores is a vexellation of the Equites Taifali unit. The Equites Syri are thought to be a horse archer unit.

The Comes Litores Saxonici per Britanniam, commander of the limitanei troops staffing the forts along the Saxon Shore, is shown as having two cavalry units under his command: Praepositus equitum Dalmatarum Branodunensium and Praepositus equitum stablesianorum Gariannonensium.

For this and all other Notitia Dignitatum listings and some rather interesting discussion thereof, please see: ... terns.html

Thanks Hugh

PostPosted: Sat Jul 07, 2007 8:15 pm
I have been triying to find a way into the Notiitia for a long time, and I appreciate this info.

I mentioned the helmet designs on the wall paintings as I thought helms of the Roman cavalry of the time would have been to be more likely of the design of the Spagenhelm as the latter would seem more easily manufacuted than the copies of the Imperial Gallic Helm shown.

I rather enjoyed the Movie "King Arthur' and, of course, I would not gainsay that Sarmatians were present I meant only to point out that the tactics of Cataphract Cavalry would probably have been absorbed by the Romans, or their auxilia.

The many of the shield patterns noted in the referred to wabsite as set forth in Barker's "Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome".

I was, any many still remain, rather ignorant of the evolution of Shields, weapons and armor in and of the later Empire.

Helmets in Imperial service obviously seemd to gravitate towards more easily prodiced designs as the fabrica suffered a gradual loss of skills.

The "Gallic" helm is reputed to have been the most dificult to manufacture and it is perhaps no coincidence to find that Gallic armorers were possed of high levels of skill and a tendency toward both beauty and utility.


PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2007 2:02 pm
by Hugh
For information on the development of Roman military equipment, you cannot do better than to buy [i]Roman Military Equipment: From The Punic Wars To The Fall Of Rome (Paperback), by M. C. Bishop (Author), J. C. N. Coulston (Author), Amazon's Price: $37.20 & it ships free if you choose "Super Saver Shipping." As I have said elsewhere, this is THE definitive book on the subject and well worth the price. I have a review on Amazon's page that sums up my opinion.