In 1831, under a mountain of volcanic ash in the ancient city of Pompeii, a mosaic was uncovered. This mosaic, one of the most important pieces of art to ever be rediscovered, covered the floor of one room in the House of Faun.
Dubbed the “Alexander Mosaic”, it was remarkably well preserved, and while parts of it are damaged, two figures stand out among all the others–Alexander, and his favorite horse, Buephalus.
Bucephalus and Alexander
In 334 B.C., a horse dealer called Philonicus the Thessalian led a black stallion into an arena in Macedonia. He hoped to sell the horse to King Phillip II, but while the horse was tall, well-formed, and strong, it was also ill-tempered.
Considering that Philonicus the Thessalian wanted 13 talents, a tremendously exorbitant amount for a horse, Phillip was not impressed by the way the horse bucked and reared and commanded that it be taken away.
In the audience, his son Alexander was watching as these events unfolded. He stood before the stallion could be dismissed, calling out “What an excellent horse do they lose for want of address and boldness to manage him!”
Phillip, used to his son’s brashness, initially ignored this comment, but Alexander would not be swayed. His son’s outbursts increased in distress until finally Phillip addressed the boy of 12, asking, “Do you reproach those who are older than yourself as if you were better able to manage him than they?”
Indeed, Alexander thought he could win the horse’s trust, unlike the horse dealer or his father’s grooms. Finally, Phillip relented once Alexander promised to pay for the horse if he could not tame it. What Phillip didn’t know was that his son had observed what was spooking the massive horse the whole time: its shadow.
The crowd jeered as Alexander descended towards the arena, approaching the horse slowly. He gently turned the horse towards the sun, putting the horse’s shadow behind him, and the stallion allowed Alexander to take his reins. Then, as the jeers morphed into cheers, Alexander mounted the horse and with a firm hand and voice, rode him.
It is said that Phillip was overcome by his son’s talents, kissing him and telling him, “O my son look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.”
Alexander named the steed Bucephalus, a combination of the Greek words bous, for ox, and kephalos, which means head. Whether the horse was named such for his giant head or his stubborn temper is up for debate, but Pliny the Elder spoke of Bucephalus and his unique name in The Natural Histories,
“King Alexander had also a very remarkable horse;328 it was called Bucephalus, either on account of the fierceness of its aspect, or because it had the figure of a bull’s head marked on its shoulder.”–Pliny the Elder, The Natural Histories
Alexander the Great and the Legendary Steed
After his taming, Bucephalus belonged to Alexander and only Alexander. He wouldn’t tolerate other riders and a friendship formed between man and horse that was unlike any other. To Alexander, Bucephalus was more than a companion–he was loved.
Alexander rode Bucephalus into many battles, and it is said that the steed was braver than most, owing to his bond with his rider. Bucephalus would kick and bite at enemies, fighting almost as hard as Alexander himself.
We know Bucephalus was extraordinary, but why?
Bucephalus’ Origins and Breed
Although the breed is almost extinct today, Thessalian horses were quite popular as war horses back in the days of Alexander the Great. When the horse dealer introduced Bucephalus to Alexander and Phillip, he told him that the stallion was from the best Thessalian bloodlines around.
Most historians believe Bucephalus was an Akhal-Teke, a type of Thessalian horse that still exists to this day. They are known for their supreme intelligence, as well as being one of the oldest breeds of horses on Earth. Today, the Akhal-Teke are renowned for their beauty, and accounts of Bucephalus certainly make him out to be a stunning horse, too.
Although he’s described as a black horse with a white star on his forehead, it’s also possible that Bucephalus was a dark, or even standard, bay horse. This could be because of errors in translation or just the difference in language from so long ago, but the few pieces of art picturing Bucephalus have him as the color brown, or bay.
Bucephalus was also known to have a “wall-eye”, or blue eye.
No one is sure whether Bucephalus was an adult when he was presented to Phillip, or if he was just a young steed. Some legends suggest that Alexander and Bucephalus were born on the same day, but this is more than likely just a myth.
Bucephalus in Battle and His Kidnapping
Alexander the Great had several chargers, but his preference for Bucephalus was clear. He rode Bucephalus into every battle possible, making the horse a symbol of the man’s conquests. Bucephalus was said to be Alexander’s steed during his battles in the Greek cities, Thebes, and even into India.
Again, Pliny the Elder comments on Bucephalus and his bravery,
“A memorable circumstance connected with it in battle is recorded of this horse; it is said that when it was wounded in the attack upon Thebes, it would not allow Alexander to mount any other horse.”–Pliny the Elder, The Natural Histories
Soon enough, everyone knew about Alexander’s bond with Bucephalus. After the Battle of Issus, where Alexander defeated King Darius III, he left Bucephalus behind while he went on a brief trip. When he returned, though, Bucephalus was kidnapped.
Alexander was, in short, enraged by this. Not only was he bonded strongly to the horse, but it was a blatant threat against Alexander. The world knew Alexander loved Bucephalus, so how was it possible that he could be taken?
No one quite knows the details of Bucephalus’s kidnapping, but we know that Alexander issued a promise that, if his horse was not returned, he would raze the land and kill every inhabitant. Chastised and begging for mercy, the kidnapper returned the horse posthaste.
The Death of Bucephalus, and the Birth of Bucephala.
Like so many aspects of Alexander the Great’s life, mystery shrouds the death of his beloved Bucephalus. Most accounts tell of the horse dying in battle, but a few have Bucephalus instead passing away from old age.
The most common recollection of Bucephalus’s death has him dying at the Battle of Hydaspes in 326 B.C., almost certainly fighting with Alexander on his back.
Losing Bucephalus devastated Alexander, and he mourned him intensely and publicly. Bucephalus was given a state funeral with full rights, with Alexander laying his steed to rest in a purpose-built tomb, in the city that would soon bear his name.
The honor Bucephalus, Alexander founded the city of Bucephala, so the name of the horse that he tamed as a child with intelligence and a gentle hand, would be remembered into eternity. Alexander must have had a soft spot for animals because he also named a different city after his Greek hunting dog Peritas who also accompanied him during his military conquests.
Whatever the reason the bond between Alexander and Bucephalus was so strong, there’s no questioning that their friendship was a source of strength and comfort for Alexander during some of his toughest battles. A beloved animal can sometimes settle even the souls of kings.
“The Nature of the Horse,” http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D8&force=y