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BUCEPHALAS & Alexander the Great

Bucephalas and Alexander the Great: History site section Logo of ancient snaffle bit. By Cheryl R. Lutring (Horse History article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

Regular historians repeatedly overlook the role of the horse in the lives and successes of ancient heroes. But one horse they rarely omit is Bucephalas, the faithful steed of Alexander the Great of Macedonia.

Alexander and Bucephalas first met when Alexander was just 12 years old in 344 BC. The stallion was brought to the Court of his father, Philip II, by a Thessalian horse dealer who hoped to sell the animal to the King. But, unruly and vicious, even the best horsemen were unable to mount him. Dismissing him as unpredictable and too nervous for battle, Philip was astonished when his young son called for the chance to ride the horse. Scornfully, Philip granted the request, probably imagining the boy would get no closer than the experts had managed. But, even at that early stage displaying his observational skills, Alexander recognized great potential and had noticed that the horse seemed nervous of both his handlers and of his own shadow. He asked to try the horse himself: King and crowd were dismissive, but Philip eventually relented and agreed that if Alexander could manage the horse he would buy it for him. He probably thought the experience of failing with the horse would humble the increasingly proud and confident young prince.

As Bucephalas was already 12 years old himself, it is reasonable to assume that he already knew about being ridden, and probably had already seen battle and maybe been spooked by it. But whatever the horse s past, his confidence in humans had certainly suffered. Approaching cautiously and gently catching hold of the bridle, Alexander turned the horse toward the sun so his shadow disappeared. Bucephalas began to relax and allowed the boy to vault up on his back. They rode off together and from that moment they were inseparable. Bucephalas responded to Alexander s understanding hand and, restored in spirit, became an exemplary war horse.

For more than ten years they campaigned together through strange lands, fierce battles, lengthy sieges, over mountain ridges and arid deserts, traveling through and conquering such diverse and alien regions as Turkey, The Levant, Egypt, Iran and Iraq (then Persia), Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush. Ultimately they reached India.

While in Hyrcania on the borders of the Caspian Sea the valued Bucephalas and the other horses in the string were stolen by Mardian raiders whilst being led through the woods by the royal squires. At this time aged beyond the rigors of hard dangerous work the probable fate of the noble charger was obvious to all! But Alexander had a loyal nature and acknowledged that the horse had saved his life in many battle situations. He knew that in the hands of the Mardians Bucephalas would end up a beast of burden at best and the thought was beyond his own mighty endurance. He sent heralds to warn the Mardians that if the horse was not returned safe and well he would inflict general devastation upon the whole region. It didn t take long the horse was returned and Alexander was so relieved that he gave the robbers a reward!

Alexander s last full on army-to-army battles took place on the Indian border. Soon after the battles with King Porus, Alexander s victory was marred by the loss of Bucephalas in 326 BC. Romanticists (and indeed the recent Oliver Stone film Alexander) portray Bucephalas dying in battle. But this would not have been so. It is hardly credible that the campaigning king in enemy country would have risked his life in battle on the back of an aged horse. It is not credible that Alexander s respect and fondness for the horse would have permitted him to be put at risk. So from his base in Taxila, Alexander performed the funeral rites, according to sources In the plains where the battle was fought and which he set out from to cross the Hydaspes, Alexander founded cities. The first he called Nicaea from his victory of the Indians; the other Bucephala in memory of his horse Bucephalas who died there, not wounded at all but from exhaustion and old age. For he was about 30 years old and fell victim to fatigue; but till then had shared with Alexander many labors and dangers, never mounted except by him, since Bucephalas could bear no other rider. He was tall in stature, and valiant of heart.

The horses in those times were little more than ponies, so for Bucephalas to be called tall would have meant he was bigger than the average but probably little more than 15hh. He also, like most ridden horses of ancient times, would have been easy gaited a big help in the days before saddles and stirrups! Coarser, slower, trotting types would have been used as pack and draft animals.

The legends along the route Alexander took on his way to find the great Encircling Ocean reflect Bucephalas as much as any other facet of the army s passing. To this day in Afghanistan it is claimed that some horses are the descendants of the great Bucephalas. He is depicted in statues and sculptures all around the world ancient and modern including Britain s favorite Victorian mantelpiece replica of boy and rearing horse, and the globally famous mosaic of Pompeii which is now preserved in the Naples Museum in Italy.

History records Bucephalas as a great horse with a special place in the life and heart of a great king. He certainly is unique in having a new city founded in his name. South from the Khyber Pass, in the valley of the mighty River Indus, near the modern city of Jhelum, archaeologists are still seeking the settlement to this day, searching in the soil and silt along the banks of the shifting Hydaspes River.

Alexander had dreamt of everlasting glory and, although unlikely that Bucephalas had such ambitions, two thousand years later he certainly has a permanent place in the collective memory of many nations.

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