This painting, by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista [or Giambattista] Tiepolo (1696-1770), was inspired by ancient stories about the first meeting of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE) and his primary warhorse, Bucephalas. 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, who fatefully made contact with the royal family of Macedonia in 344 BCE. Alexander and his father, King Philip II of Macedonia, were at that time traveling through the town of Dion, nestled underneath Mount Olympus, when the horse merchant convinced the king and his heir to inspect the equine wares. Thus, the meeting of Alexander and Bucephalas, the horse that would carry him on conquests stretching from Greece to India, finally was set in motion to occur.
As the story goes, when King Philip sent out his own groomsmen to assess Bucephalas, he did not like what he saw. Bucephalus refused to work with the handlers and was deemed to be untamable. After that, the king showed no interest in the horse, but Alexander quickly 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, Alexander was able to hop onto the back of Bucephalas without any issues or trouble.
This tale of Bucephalas being presented to the royal family of Macedonia is what Giovanni Battista Tiepolo re-creates in his painting. Yet, some curious observations can be made about the painted scene. Despite the artwork being labeled Alexander and Bucephalas, the full-grown and armored man holding the reigns and staring at Bucephalas is probably King Philip II instead of Alexander the Great. As the date of the incident was 344 BCE, Alexander the Great would have only been twelve years old at the time. This means Alexander is likely the young man in the background on the right side of the painting, while the man in the foreground is his father. This fits the story, as the armored man in the painting has Bucephalas directed toward his shadow, which was a mistake that young Alexander would later correct.
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 the borderlands of 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 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.