Around the time Alexander the Great was born in the year 356 BCE, so too was born his trusty steed, Bucephalus. An obstacle, however, blocked the union of this star-crossed pair—Bucephalus was not born in Alexander’s homeland of Macedonia. Instead, Bucephalus was brought up in the herd of a horse breeder known as Philoneicus the Thessalian. Nevertheless, a momentous twist of fate occurred when Philoneicus eventually brought his equine wares to King Philip II (r. 359-336 BCE), the father of Alexander.
King Philip and young Alexander went to inspect the merchant’s horses, and, of course, all eyes were drawn to Bucephalus, the largest and strongest of the herd. As described by the Greek-Roman historian, Arrian (c. 90-173+), Bucephalus was “a big horse, high spirited—a noble creature; he was branded with the figure of an ox-head, whence his name—though some have said that the name came from a white mark on his head, shaped like the head of an ox. This was the only bit of white on his body, all the rest of him being black” (Anabasis of Alexander, 5.19). Besides being tall and spirited, Bucephalus was also incredibly unruly, acting aggressively to anyone who approached him during Philoneicus of Thessaly’s sales pitch. This behavior, in addition to Bucephalus’ exorbitant price tag of thirteen talents, made King Philip II want to reject the horse. That was when, as the story goes, teenage Alexander stepped in to tame the formidable horse. According to legend, Alexander discovered that Bucephalus’ behavior problems all originated from a fear of shadows. Therefore, when Alexander faced the horse toward the sun, so that all the scary shadows were behind them and out of sight, it caused Bucephalus to calm down enough to let Alexander successfully clamber up on the horse’s back. After this feat, King Philip II allowed his son to keep the horse.
Bucephalus would become the much-beloved primary warhorse of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE). The Macedonian king rode Bucephalus into battle before and after his invasion of Anatolia in 334 BCE, and they continued to battle together until Bucephalus died at the ripe old age of thirty not long after the Battle of the Hydaspes (c. 326 BCE) in the Punjab region. To honor his horse, Alexander reportedly founded a city called Bucephala. Historical tales and a city named after him, however, were not all that Bucephalus was said to have left behind as his legacy. According to legend, he also populated Persia and Afghanistan with supernatural horses.
As the story goes, while Bucephalus was trekking across the Middle East and Asia, he spent his rest and recreation time gallivanting with the local female horses. Of the many varieties of horses that Bucephalus interacted with on his long journey, he evidently had a special chemistry with those that he found in the Persian and Afghan lands. According to a peculiar tale, Bucephalus left many of the wild mares in that region pregnant with a rare and supernatural species of horse—unicorns. These unicorns, so the legend claims, were rounded up and the ownership of the rare horses were strictly monopolized by a single royal family in the region. This odd story was existent over a millennia later, when Marco Polo was traveling through the region now known as Afghanistan. He recorded the story in his book, The Travels, stating, “There used to be horses in this province that were descended from Alexander’s horse Bucephalus by mares that had conceived from him…they were all born with a horn on their foreheads” (The Travels, Book 2). As a conclusion to the tale, Marco Polo claimed that the unicorns were destroyed during a dispute between two branches of the royal family that owned the rare breed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Virgin and Unicorn, painted by Domenichino (1581–1641), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- The Travels by Marco Polo and translated by Nigel Cliff. New York: Penguin Classics, 2015.
- 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.