Mythic Monday: Bucephalus

I’ve been completely enamored with horses since (literally) before I could walk. It’s probably not a terrible surprise, then, that one of my favorite ancient legends is the tale of how Alexander the Great came to win a horse so great his name is still remembered in some circles nearly 2,500 years later.

Walter Farley based The Black Stallion on his story. The horse that conquered the world.

Bucephalus as depicted in Greek history. Photo courtesy of Bing.

So, the quick version of Alexander’s story (because really, one post would never cover the legend, myth, and reality of Alexander). Alexander of Macedonia, son of King Phillip II, was (of course) a remarkable child born in 358BCE or so. Over the course of his relatively short life, Alexander conquered all of Greece, Egypt, and the Persian Empire (including pretty much everything below Russia and China between the Mediterranean and India). By all historical and legendary accounts, Alexander was an intelligent, precocious, and extremely talented child. The story of how he wins his mount only adds to the legend.

In 346 BCE, a horse trader, Philonecius of Thessaly, brought an untamable beast to the amphitheater for Phillip, thinking the stallion’s imposing stature and tough reputation would make him an excellent warhorse. The price of this giant black beast was three times the normal cost. This is a time when warhorses are supremely prized and very expensive. Xenophon wrote his treatise on horsemanship not long before Alexander was born, and horses were extremely valuable in war tactics. (Xenophon’s rules on horsemanship, warhorses, and the relationship between rider and horse are part of what developed eventually into modern day Dressage…although today it’s in a MUCH diluted form). So…what I’m saying here is that Philonecious was trying to sell Philip a Bugatti Veyron.

Anyway, Phillip after seeing the completely crazy, dangerous behavior of this unruly horse, refused the offer and ordered the stud led away.

Alexander, apparently a rather entitled smartass even at 12, heckled his father from the crowd, calling the King of Macedonia a coward. The crowd was shocked, I’m sure, but Philip mocked his son in return, offering to buy the boy the Bugatti Veyron (yes, that is the equivalent. A multi-million dollar supercar)…IF Alexander had the balls (at 12) to prove his own courage by taming a horse that required multiple handlers to control. Philip didn’t think the kid would take him up on the offer.

Alexander, though, had been watching while everyone else laughed at him. This giant, muscular monster who endangered everyone around him in the ring only shied and ran when confronted by shadows. Specifically, by his OWN shadow. No one else saw it. Alexander ordered the ropes removed and the handlers back, then he quietly approached Bucephalus and spoke his name, catching his attention. Carefully and quietly, Alexander turned the horse until he faced the sun, rescuing him from the terror.

The laughter of the crowd turned to raucous cheers when the boy mounted the untamable badass horse and rode him around, then out of the arena. Bucephalus and Alexander were utterly inseparable from that moment. No one else could ride the stud, and Alexander’s enemies were pounded into red mud under Bucephalus’ hooves. Oh, incidentally, Bucephalus’s name literally means “Head like an ox.” He reportedly had a huge, thick head. Believe me, the physical descriptions are fascinating to a person who’s written articles on the history of (now extinct) Medieval warhorses. In every way, this horse was an intimidating terror to everyone except Alexander.

After the battle of Gaugamela (in modern day Iraq, north of Kirkuk), Bucephalus was kidnapped (um…ok, horsenapped) by the Persians. Alexander promised to cut down every tree, burn every crop, kill every living thing in the region until he was returned. Nobody fucked with his horse, seriously. Bucephalus was returned with a plea for mercy by his captors.

Bucephalus carried his master from Greece to India, where he died in 326 BCE. The manner of his death is disputed: some historians say it was due to wounds after battle. Some say it was simply old age (after all, he would’ve been over twenty by then, and that’s getting fairly elderly in horse years). Either way, Alexander mourned Bucephalus so strongly he named a city after his longtime companion. Alexandria Bucephala was somewhere (historians don’t know exactly where) near the border of what is now Pakistan and India, on one of the Indus tributaries.  It’s a little hard to tell: Alexander named THOUSANDS of cities some form of “Alexandria” all over his empire. Some of them still survive today. Unfortunately, not Bucephala.

Where is the line between myth and reality? It’s impossible to tell, particularly since Alexander himself is surround by myth and legend. That horse is so famous the name of random horse trader who sold him is still known. Walter Farley even told the story of Bucephalus in the beginning of The Black Stallion, before essentially modernizing the tale for the 1940’s.

You can still, to this day, buy statues of Bucephalus…I know. I have one.

And he’s goddamned legendary.

My Bucephalus. Photo courtesy of Bing.

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