According to the historical tradition of the ancients, it was around 344 BCE when a twelve-year-old Alexander the Great met Bucephalas, the horse that would carry him on conquests stretching from Greece to India. Before the powerful, but stubbornly independent, black horse came into the possession of Alexander, it was owned by a Thessalian horse breeder named Philoneicus. The merchant intercepted the royal family of Macedonia while they were passing through the town of Dion, nestled underneath Mount Olympus. While there, Philoneicus convinced King Philip II of Macedonia and his son, Alexander, to inspect his wares, especially his prized possession, Bucephalas.
King Philip sent out his groomsmen to assess the beast, but he did not like what he saw. Bucephalas refused to work with the handlers and was deemed to be untamable. When the king showed no interest in the horse, Alexander stepped in and criticized Philip about running away from a challenge. According to the story, Alexander then claimed that he could tame the horse, and if he failed, he would pay the horse breeder’s price with his own personal funds. Simultaneously angered and impressed, King Philip agreed to his son’s bargain.
Apparently, much of Bucephalas’ uncooperativeness originated from an unsuspected source—the horse was afraid of its own shadow. Alexander was said to have noticed this fear, so he repositioned the horse to where no shadows could be seen, and gave the stallion several minutes to calm down. Then, to the surprise of the onlookers, the twelve-year-old Alexander hopped onto the back of the tall horse and directed him about with ease. After Alexander became king in 336 BCE, he and Bucephalas campaigned from Greece through many distant lands, including Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Bactria and Sogdiana. Finally, around 327 BCE, they invaded India.
The ancient sources agreed that Bucephalas died in 326 BCE, around the time of Alexander’s battle against King Porus at the Hydaspes River. A few writers claimed that the old horse (allegedly thirty years of age) simply died of natural causes. The rest, however, wrote that Bucephalas died during the battle that occurred after Alexander smuggled a force across the river to confront King Porus and envelop his army. During the ensuing fight, Alexander’s favorite horse allegedly received a fatal stab wound from an enemy spear, and the one who struck the killing blow may have even been King Porus’ own son. After King Porus surrendered, Alexander honored his fallen horse by founding a new city near the site of the battle—he named the settlement Bucephala.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Alexander taming Bucephalas, by François Schommer (1850–1935), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.
- Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life by Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.