Picture: "Thessaloniki: Alexander the Great overlooking the Mount Olympus " by Panoramio
Let’s kick off this series of articles dedicated to myths and legends with a tale which is rooted in historical fact and real-life events, even if it is more than likely that these have been peppered with a certain amount of poetic license and legend over the course of time.
It is the epic tale of a truly unique and legendary duo: Alexander the Great and his steed Bucephalus.
Picture: "Alexander and Bucephalus", Johan Carl Loth, XVIIth Century
Our story begins in or around the year 341 B.C. at the court of King Philip II of Macedon.
His son, Alexander III of Macedon, is a mere ten years old and yet to grow into the legendary figure now famous all over the world. However, this is soon to change, as this very year will see him make his first conquest.
I – THE CONQUEST
“He was both of unusual size and generous in mettle. The head of an ox had been engraved upon him as a distinguishing mark, and according to some this was the reason why he bore that name*; but others say that though he was black he had a white mark upon his head which bore resemblance to the head of an ox*.”
"Alexander at the sack of Thebes", détail, by Charles R. Stanton (1915)
It was at around this time that a merchant named Philiconus the Thessalian brought a horse by the name of Bucephalus to Philip, offering to sell him for 13 talents: a considerable sum for a horse.
“But when they went into the field to try him, they found him so very vicious and unmanageable, that he reared up when they endeavored to mount him (...). Philip, vexed and believing that such a wild horse could never be tamed, demanded it be taken away. Alexander, who stood by, said, ‘What an excellent horse do they lose, for want of address and boldness to manage him!’”
Painting by Giambattista Tiepolo, "Alexandre et Bucéphale", Paris, Petit Palais Museum.
His father did not take kindly to such arrogance, but Alexander proposed him a deal: if he succeeded in taming the horse, his father would pay the price the merchant asked. In contrast, if Alexander failed, he would pay the price out of his own pocket instead.
The young Alexander was a formidable horseman, an essential quality in Macedon with its long and important equestrian tradition. It was thus imperative for a future king to excel at the discipline.
But he was also particularly observant.
After carefully studying the horse for a long time, the future conqueror realized that Bucephalus was frightened by the movements of his shadow on the ground: He therefore approached cautiously, patted the horse, and slowly turned it around to face the sun before climbing into the saddle.
“...when he was seated, by little and little [he] drew in the bridle, and curbed him without either striking or spurring him. Presently, when he found him free from all rebelliousness, and only impatient for the course, he let him go at full speed, inciting him now with a commanding voice, and urging him also with his heel. Philip and his friends looked on at first in silence and anxiety for the result, till seeing him turn at the end of his career, and come back rejoicing and triumphing for what he had performed, they all burst out into acclamations of applause; and his father, shedding tears, it is said, for joy, kissed him as he came down from his horse, and in his transport, said, ‘O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.’”
And thus Alexander made his first conquest.
And thus his father’s words decided his destiny.
Bucephalus was not merely his first conquest symbolically but would also remain by Alexander’s life for the rest of this days. From that moment on, the king and his steed were completely inseparable.
II – SIDE BY SIDE TO WAR
As of that day, Bucephalus became Alexander’s one and only mount.
He would accept no other rider, and Alexander rode him into battle and launched assaults astride him from Greece to as far afield as India.
Picture: "Alexander and Bucephalus", drawn by Victor Adam
When Bucephalus grew older, Alexander began to rest him more and eventually replaced him, notably at the Battle of Gaugamela.
It would not be long after that this unique relationship ended abruptly.
Alexander was in pursuit of Darius, who had fled.
“Here the barbarians, unexpectedly meeting with those who led Bucephalus, took them prisoners, and carried the horse away with them, at which Alexander was so much vexed, that he sent a herald to let them know he would put them all to the sword, men, women, and children, without mercy, if they did not restore him. But on their doing so, and at the same time surrendering their cities into his hands, he not only treated them kindly, but also paid a ransom for his horse to those who took him.”
In her article “Bucéphale, compagnon d’exception d’Alexandre : la construction d’un mythe” (Bucephalus, Alexander’s Special Companion: The Construction of a Myth), published on October 25, 2015, in the periodical Circé, Emilie Glanowski emphasizes that beyond the political pretext allowing him to subjugate the barbarian peoples, Alexander the Great’s reaction also appears disproportionate to what is in fact merely a “simple” horse theft, and is thus indicative of the great attachment the king felt to his equine companion.
Picture: "Alexander Directing a Battle, from The Deeds of Alexander the Great" by Antonio Tempesta (1608)
III – FAREWELL TO THE WARRIOR
Tragically, Bucephalus’ life would end in 326 B.C.
It is the month of July, and we are on the field at the Battle of the Hydaspes (in modern-day Pakistan) where Alexander is facing Porus, an Indian king.
For the first time, the Macedon army, although it had already come across them, was confronted with an actual and violent charge of 200 war elephants, which decimated its infantry.
Despite heavy losses, Alexander eventually managed to secure the victory.
Unfortunately, Bucephalus, was gravely wounded and departed this life not long after.
“Bucephalus, which died there, not from having been wounded by any one, but from the effects of toil and old age; for he was about thirty years old, and quite worn out with toil. This Bucephalus had shared many hardships and incurred many dangers with Alexander during many years...“
Picture: "Burial of Alexander favourite horse" from "History of India" (circa 1906-07)
Alexander the Great paid homage to him by founding a city on the banks of the Hydaspes (now the Jhelum River) at the point where he crossed the river and where his loyal steed was laid to rest.
The city was named Bucephala in its honor.
And this is how, twenty years after their first and tumultuous meet, the story of this legendary duo ends.
Soon after, Alexander the Great returned to Babylon, where he would die just two years later in unpleasant circumstances.
- Plutarch, “The Life of Alexander the Great”
- Arrian, “Anabasis”