Bucephalus: why is Alexander the Great’s horse famous?

Alexander the Great was famous for many things – including his bond with his horse Bucephalus. Professor Paul Cartledge explains exactly how the Macedonian empire builder came to cherish his steed

Alexander the Great on his horse, Bucephalus

Bucephalus (c355-326 BC) is among the most famous horses in history, and it was said that this he could not be tamed. The young Alexander the Great, of course, tamed him – and went on to ride his beloved equine companion for many years and into many battles. Bucephalus finally died after the battle of the Hydaspes in what is now Pakistan.

Advertisement

Here, Paul Cartledege, AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture Emeritus at the University of Cambridge, explains the bond between Alexander and his steed…


One day Philoneicus of Thessaly brought Philip a horse named Bucephalas, offering him for sale. They went down to the plain to look at him and found him to be apparently unmanageable. He allowed no one to mount him, refused to obey the commands of Philip’s grooms, and reared up against anyone who approached him. Philip was angry at being offered an unbroken and vicious animal and told Philoneicus to take him away.

The young Alexander the Great exclaimed “What a horse they are losing! And just because they lack the knowledge or courage to handle him”. Philip at first kept silent, but, impressed by the distress of Alexander’s repeated exclamations, he asked him: “Do you think you know more than your elders? Do you criticise them because you believe you can manage horses better?” “Yes”, replied Alexander. “At least I can manage this one better”. “And if you cannot”, said his father, “what price are you prepared to pay for your insolence?” “The price of the horse”, replied the boy.

Amid general laughter father and son settled the terms of the bet, and Alexander ran over to Bucephalas, grasped his reins and turned him towards the sun. For he had noticed that the horse was panicked by the sight of his own shadow … When he saw that the horse was over his fears and eager for a gallop, Alexander urged him forward, controlling him with his commanding voice and with a touch of his heels … Philip wept for joy, kissed Alexander and said: “My son, Macedonia is too small for you – you’d better find a kingdom your own size”.

Advertisement

This content first appeared in BBC History Magazine