This painting, by the French artist Edgar Degas (c. 1834 – 1917), was inspired by ancient stories about the first meeting of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE) and his primary warhorse, Bucephalus. It was around 344 BCE when twelve-year-old Alexander met Bucephalus, the horse that would carry him on conquests stretching from Greece to India. Before the powerful and stubbornly independent horse came into the possession of Alexander, it was said to have been owned by a Thessalian horse breeder named Philoneicus. The merchant reached out to the royal family of Macedonia while they were traveling through the town of Dion, nestled underneath Mount Olympus. Philoneicus convinced King Philip II of Macedonia and his son, Alexander, to inspect his wares, especially his prized possession, Bucephalus.
King Philip sent out his groomsmen to assess the beast, but he did not like what he saw. Bucephalus 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. To up the ante, Alexander proclaimed that he, personally, 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.
According to legend, much of Bucephalus’ 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. Such is the tale that is being re-created in Edgar Degas’ painting.
After Alexander became king in 336 BCE, he and Bucephalus campaigned from Greece through many distant lands, including Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Bactria and Sogdiana. Finally, around 327 BCE, they invaded the borderlands of India. The ancient sources agreed that Bucephalus 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 Bucephalus 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 obtaining Porus’ surrender, 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
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- Plutarch’s Life of Alexander in The Age of Alexander: Ten Greek Lives by Plutarch, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert and Timothy E. Duff. London: Penguin Classics, 1973, 2011.