By Sarah Wanless
Certain horses throughout history have generated excitement in the entire population. Put simply, they are ‘famous’. These horses may have created a name for themselves because of their rider, their talent, their story – or simply because they were in the right place at the right time. Move over Kardashians – here we meet Bucephalus.
Bucephalus is one of the greatest horses from antiquity. Known as Alexander the Great’s most prized steed, records state that he was a tall, black stallion of the finest Thessalian stock. He is reported to have towered above the Macedonian horses.
There are many theories about the name Bucephalus and why this was given to him. Some believe that he was called this because of his massive head, as the direct translation of the name is ‘ox head’. Others, however, believe his name was derived from the ox head branding on his haunches, given to only the finest breeding stock of the time. Finally, it is also claimed that the name Bucephalus was ascribed to those horses with an unusual naturally occurring feature – a peculiarly shaped white mark on their forehead.
In 346CE Bucephalus was brought to King Philip II (Alexander’s father) by a horse trader named Philoneicus of Thessaly. Philoneicus brought him to the king as he believed him to be a horse fit for a king due to his stature, fierceness and military prowess. The Oracle of Delphi was claimed to have said, “The destined king of the world will be the one who rides Bucephalus.” However, when the horse was presented to King Philip, he was deemed wild and unmanageable, as none of the king’s attendants was able to calm the horse and mount him.
Macedonians were known for their horsemanship and to have a good eye for horses. Alexander, unlike his father, immediately recognised the potential of the unbacked Bucephalus and also noticed what was causing his distress. As the king ordered for the horse to be taken away, the 13-year-old Alexander stood up and wagered his father and the dealer that if he could tame the horse he could have him and that, if he failed to do so, he would pay the 13 talents asking price for him.
When Alexander got into the arena with Bucephalus, he approached him slowly, spoke calmly to the stallion and turned him to face the sun, for Alexander had noticed that the horse’s distress was caused by a fear of his own shadow (a seemingly common problem in horses today!). Bucephalus instantly calmed down and allowed Alexander to mount him and their lifelong bond was sealed.
Bucephalus lived up to his promised fierceness and military prowess and was unfailingly loyal, never allowing another rider to mount him. Bucephalus carried Alexander for an astounding 5,832km from Macedonia all the way to India, through many battles. Even when he was injured Bucephalus refused to let Alexander dismount to ride another horse. Their bond went both ways, as demonstrated when Bucephalus was stolen from camp while Alexander was away on excursion. Upon his return Alexander was so enraged that he issued a decree that he would lay waste to the countryside and kill everyone in the region if the horse was not returned. Bucephalus was returned shortly thereafter.
The reason for his death is not known, but some historians believe that he died in battle in 326BCE, while the majority believe he died at the ripe old age of 30 after the battle of Hydaspes River, after 20 years of loyal service to his master. While in mourning, Alexander honoured his beloved steed by founding a city in his name. He named it Bucephala – this is now modern-day Jhelum.