The Story of Bucephalus

Alexander_&_Bucephalus_by_John_Steell
Statue of Alexander and Bucephalus by John Steell                                                                               photo Stefan Schäfer via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

The Story of Bucephalus (Bucephalas) and Alexander The Great became a romanticized story handed down over the centuries of historical recounting and story telling. There is some uncertainty to the exact dates of Bucephalas’ birth, meeting of Alexander and Bucephalas and Bucephalas’ death. Here is what I found among the several history sources found in books and websites when you Google Bucephalas.

 Did Bucephalas and Alexander Really Exist?

Yes. Here are the dates generally agreed upon.

  • Bucephalas born 355 BCE died 326 BCE age 29
  • Alexander  born 356 BCE died 323 BCE age 32
  • Alexander and Bucephalas met during 344 BCE
    • Alexander was 13 or 14 years old
    • Bucephalus was an 11 year old stallion

Fun Facts about Alexander the Great (Alexander III of Macedon)

  • Father was King Phillip II of Macedon
  • Aristotle was Alexander’s tutor until he turned 16
  • Alexander succeeded his father to the throne at the age of 20 when his father was assassinated
  • During his 13 year reign with Bucephalus as his war horse, he overthrew Persian KingDarius III and conquered the Achaemenid Empire in its entirety. At that point, his empire stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River. (Wikipedia)
  • Alexander died (possibly of typhus) at the age of 32

What’s in a name?

Bucephalus: bous, “ox” and κεφαλή kephalē, “head” meaning “ox-head” (wikipedia)

However in a book by /N._G._L._Hammond The Genius of Alexander the Great

Bucephalus was named after a branding mark depicting an ox’s head on his haunch. (wikipedia)

Hammond writes a description of Bucephalus:

“A massive creature with a massive head, Bucephalus is described as having a black coat with a large white star on his brow. He is also supposed to have had a “wall eye” (blue eye), and his breeding was that of the “best Thessalian strain”.

Other sources conjecture that Bucephalus was a dark bay and not black.

The website http://www.pothos.org/content/indexaf1c.html?page=bucephalus

offers more information on the possible bloodline of Bucephalus.

“Few horses have captured the imagination like Alexander’s horse Bucephalus. Though not much is known about him, we do know he was a dark stallion, somewhat temperamental. Though he is described as black, it is likely he was the more common standard bay, which is usually described as “black”. And though most people imagine a tall stallion, the truth is probably somewhat less grand.

Breeding Stock

The best breeding of Greek horse stock took place in Thessaly, where prime existing stock was often crossed with Scythian, Persian (Nisean) and Ferghana horses. Philip of Makedon (who built on-going cavalry developments enough to be considered by many to be responsible for developing the cavalry as an effective fighting unit) is said to have imported 20.000 Scythian mares to Makedon. His son, Alexander, claimed a tribute of 50.000 Persian horses, which continued the infusion of Scythian, Nisean, Jaf, Ferghana and possibly Caspian and other blood into the Makedonian horses. Since the Persian Arab is thought to have been introduced into Persia around 2000 BC, it is likely that this bloodline was included.

Few of these horses were tall by modern standards, averaging 13.2 – 14.2 hands, with the possible exception of the Ferghana crosses and some of the Iberian stock. We know that the Iberian horses mentioned by Homer were famed for their movement, size and spirit; the Nisean horses were known for speed and stamina, the Ferghana was noted for stamina, endurance and the ability to withstand hard conditions in desert lands. Along with imported stock, Philip had access to the native breeds such as the Pindos, Skyros, Pineias, Messara and Andravidas, horses known to be small but tough. Looking at the stock Philip used in breeding programs, one can easily imagine a hardy horse with stamina, endurance and longevity. It was from these bloodlines that Bucephalus may have been bred, in the fertile pastures of Thessaly.”

Read more here: http://www.pothos.org/content/indexaf1c.html?page=bucephalus

Fun Fact: Horses at that time were shorter. This made “leaping lightly up” with out a saddle a little easier especially when you are in a tunic and underwear (loincloth) was not common and tunics were common.

 How did Bucephalas come to King Phillip II?

Here is one account from the website  https://www.ancient.eu/Bucephalus/

“Bucephalus was brought to Macedonia and presented to King Phillip II (Alexander’s father) in 346 BCE by Philoneicus of Thessaly.  With a price tag almost three times the norm (13 talents), the beautiful black horse stood taller than the normal Macedonian steed but was considered too wild and unmanageable, rearing up against anyone who came near him. Phillip ordered him led away.

But Alexander bargained with his father for the horse. When Alexander successfully rode Bucephalas in front of his father and the crowd of attendants, Alexander demonstrated the true character of one of the greatest generals in all of history.”

What happened when Alexander and Bucephalus met?

Here is one account:

“Feeling the bit gently with the reins, he (Alexander) restrained him (Bucephalas), without whipping or hurting him, until he saw that the horse had given up all threatening behavior, and was only hot for the course; then he let him go, and urged him on by raising his voice and using his heel. The attendants of Philip (Alexander’s father) were anxious and silent at first; but when he turned and came back full of just pride and pleasure, they all raised a cheer, except his father. But he, they say, wept for joy; and after Alexander had dismounted, said, ‘You must go look for a kingdom to match you, my son; Macedonia is not large enough for you.’

Quote from Plutarch recounted in the book The Art of Horsemanship translated and edited by M.H. Morgan. Page 101.

Bucephalus and Alexander, ten years together. 

https://www.ancient.eu/Bucephalus/ continues the tale:

“Bucephalus and Alexander were inseparable; only Alexander could ride him, and indeed he did, into every battle from the conquest of the Greek city-states and Thebes through Gaugamela and into India. After the final defeat of Darius, Bucephalus was kidnapped while Alexander was away on excursion. Upon returning and learning of the theft, Alexander promised to fell every tree, lay the countryside to waste, and slaughter every inhabitant in the region. The horse was soon returned along with a plea for mercy.

Although historians disagree on the cause of the horse’s death – some claim he died from battle wounds – most agree he died of old age after the Battle of Hydaspes River (326 BCE). While Plutarch spoke of both possible causes of death, he cites Onesicritus, a historian who accompanied Alexander on his conquests, as stating the horse died of old age. However Bucephalus died, in mourning, Alexander founded a city in his beloved horse’s memory and named it Bucephala. It is also interesting that Alexander built another city after his favorite dog Peritas.”

Another possibility of Bucephalus’ death is reported in the website http://www.pothos.org/content/indexaf1c.html?page=bucephalus

“Others debate that Bucephalus was of a younger age and died of severe battle wounds he received at the Battle of the River Hydaspes, 326 BCE. What is known, however, is that Alexander gave him a state funeral and founded a new city, Bucephala (now modern day Jhelum/Djemoul) in Bucephalus’ honor.”

 

One thing is certain.

…The man loved his horse.

blogBucephalus paid
                                                                                                       shutterstock

“The Alexander Mosaic, dating from circa 100 BC, is a Roman floor mosaic originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii.[1] It depicts a battle between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia and measures 2.72 by 5.13 metres (8 ft 11 in × 16 ft 10 in).[2] The original is preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. The mosaic is believed to be a copy of an early 3rd-century BC Hellenistic painting.[3] ”  wikipedia