In my continuing research into the Late Roman army, I’m now plowing through the works of Julian and Libanius.
Both Ammianus and Julian graphically describe the armour of Late Roman heavily armoured cavalry, and the descriptions are so similar that we must presume that they are describing the same thing (of course both writers saw what they were describing at close hand and therefore are excellent witnesses)-
‘And there marched on either side twin lines of infantrymen with shields and crests gleaming with glittering rays, clad in shining mail; and scattered among them were the full-armoured cavalry (whom they called clibanarii), all masked, furnished with protecting breastplates and girt with iron belts, so that you might have supposed them statues polished by the hand of Praxiteles, not men. Thin circles of iron plates, fitted to the curves of their bodies, completely covered their limbs; so that whichever way they had to move their members, their garment fitted, so skilfully were the joinings made.’
Amm XVI 10, 8
‘Your cavalry was almost unlimited in numbers and they all sat their horses like statues, while their limbs were fitted with armour that followed closely the outline of the human form. It covers the arms from writs to elbow and thence to the shoulder, while a coat of mail protects the shoulders, back and breast. The head and face are covered by a metal mask which makes its wearer look like a glittering statue, for not even the thighs and legs and the very ends of the feet lack this armour. It is attached to the cuirass by fine chain-armour like a web, so that no part of the body is visible and uncovered, for this woven covering protects the hands as well, and is so flexible that the wearers can bend even their fingers.’
Julian ‘Panegyric In Honour of Constantius’ pg97
Ammianus also appears to confirm that the horses were also armoured-
Now that had happened for the reason that while the order of their lines was being re-established, the cavalry in coat-of‑mail, seeing their leader slightly wounded and one of their companions slipping over the neck of his horse, which had collapsed under the weight of his armour.
AMM XVI 12, 38
The above passage appears to indicate that the horses were armoured as well as the riders.
I have postulated that the terms ‘catafract’ and ‘clibanarii’ were a reference to the rider and horses i.e. the riders were the ‘catafractarii’, whilst the armoured horses were the ‘clibanarii’. I base this on some part on the description of what may be the ‘Currus Drepanus’ in action within Vegetius, where the Latin text calls the chariot horse riders ‘catafractos’, and the armoured horses ‘clibanarious’. Other Latin works I have call infantry in armour ‘Catafractos’, which to my mind states men in heavy armour, as other troops within the same works are quoted as just wearing ‘lorica’. I think that where ‘catafracts’ are mentioned then the writer is talking about heavily armoured men probably on unarmoured horses, when they talk about ‘clibanarii’ they mean heavily armoured men on equally armoured horses. This would make clear the passage in Ammianus where at the Battle of Strasburg he talks about ‘catafractarii et clibanarii’ i.e. there were heavily armoured riders on both armoured and unarmoured horses.
As to the arms of the heavily armoured cavalry, well, this passage within Julian’s works throws up a very interesting question-
‘So they charged again as though the battle had only just begun, and gave a wonderful display of daring and heroism. For some hurled themselves full on the enemy’s swords, or seized the enemy’s shields, others, when their horses were wounded and the riders thrown, at once transformed themselves into hoplites. The usurper’s army meanwhile did the same and pressed our infantry hard. Neither side gained the advantage, till the cuirassiers by their archery, aided by the remaining force of cavalry, who spurred on their horses to the charge, had begun to inflict great loss on the enemy, and by main force to drive the whole army before them.’
Julian ‘Panegyric In Honour of Constantius’ pg95
So, the ‘cuirassiers’ (the typical term for clibanarii by most translators) were armed with bows and do not appear to have charged into contact, rather caused a large loss of life by archery alone. Is there evidence that Late Roman Clibanarii were armed also with a lance?