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For the branding mark anciently used on horses, see Bucephalus .

Bucephalus or Buchephalas (Ancient Greek: , from bous, "ox" and kephalē, "head" meaning "ox-head") (c. 355 BC – June, 326 BC) was Alexander the Great's horse and one of the most famous actual horses of antiquity. Ancient accounts state that Bucephalus died after the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326 BC, in what is now modern Pakistanmarker, and is buried in Jalalpur Sharifmarker outside of Jhelummarker, Pakistanmarker.

The taming of Bucephalus

A massive creature with a massive head, Bucephalus is described as having a black coat with a large white star on his brow. He is also supposed to have had a "wall", or blue eye, and his breeding was that of the "best Thessalian strain." Plutarch tells the story of how, in 344 BC, a ten-year-old Alexander won the horse. Philonicus the Thessalian, a horse dealer, offered the horse to King Philip II for the sum of thirteen talents, but, since no one could tame the animal, Philip was not interested. His son Alexander, however, was, and promised to pay for the horse himself should he fail to tame it. He was given a chance and surprised all by subduing it. He spoke soothingly to the horse and turned it towards the sun so that it could no longer see its own shadow, which had been the cause of its distress. Dropping his fluttering cloak as well, Alexander successfully tamed the horse. Plutarch says that the incident so impressed Philip that he told the boy, "O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee." Philip's speech strikes the only false note in the anecdote, according to AR Anderson, who noted his words as the embryo of the legend fully developed in the History of Alexander the Great I.15, 17.

The Alexander Romance presents a mythic variant of Bucephalus's origin. In this tale, the colt, whose heroic attributes surpassed even those of Pegasus, is bred and presented to Philip on his own estates. The mythic attributes of the animal are further reinforced in the romance by the Delphic Oracle, who tells Philip that the destined king of the world will be the one who rides Bucephalus, a horse with the mark of the ox's head on his haunch.

Alexander and Bucephalus

As one of his chargers, Bucephalus served Alexander in numerous battles. His legend fired the imagination of many an artist from the ancient to the modern world. Paintings of Labrum's Alexandrine subjects, including Bucephalus, survive today in the Louvremarker. One in particular, The Passage of the Granicus, depicts the warhorse battling the difficulties of the steep muddy river banks, biting and kicking his foes.

Like his hero and supposed ancestor Achilles, Alexander felt that his horses were
known to excel all others — for they are immortal.
Poseidon gave them to my father Peleus, who in his turn gave them to myself.

Arrian states, with Onesicritus as his source, that Bucephalus died at the age of thirty, a good age for a horse even today. Other sources, however, give as the cause of death not old age or weariness, but fatal injuries at the Battle of the Hydaspes (June 326 BC), in which Alexander's army defeated King Porus. Alexander promptly founded a city, Bucephala, in honour of his horse. It lay on the west bank of the Hydaspes rivermarker (modern-day Jhelummarker in Pakistanmarker). The modern-day town of Jalalpur Sharifmarker, outside Jhelum, is said to be where Bucephalus is buried.

The legend of Bucephalus grew in association with that of Alexander, beginning with the fiction that they were born simultaneously: some of the later versions of the Alexander Romance also synchronized the hour of their death. The pair forged a sort of cult in that, after them, it was all but expected of a conqueror that he have a favourite horse. Julius Caesar had one; so too did the eccentric Roman Emperor Caligula, who made a great fuss of his horse Incitatus, holding inane birthday parties for him, riding him while adorned with Alexander's breastplate and planning to make him a consul.

Cultural references

References to Bucephalus may be found in many cultural areas such as books, films, computer games and other art forms.
  • In the 1988 Terry Gilliam movie The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the Baron's white stallion is named Bucephalus, and is capable of fantastic feats.
  • One interpretation of the ancient statue group The Horse Tamers in the Piazza del Quirinalemarker in Romemarker is "Alexander and Bucephalus".
  • The Black Stallion is the title character from author Walter Farley's best-selling series of classic young adult novel. In 1979, the original 1941 novel was adapted to a film: see The Black Stallion . In the beginning of the movie version, Alec's father describes a small figurine of a stallion as being a statue of Bucephalus, and tells the tale of his taming, drawing a parallel between young Alec and Alexander the Great at the same age. This, of course, foreshadows Alec's taming of the wild Black Stallion, just as Alexander tamed Bucephalus.
  • The 2006 Katherine Roberts novel I am the Great Horse recounts the exploits of Alexander from Bucephalus's point of view.
  • In the 1991 computer game Leisure Suit Larry 5 the eponymous character, Larry Laffer, refers to his manhood as 'Bucephalus' whilst mudwrestling with Lana Luscious in front of 900 spectators.
  • Franz Kafka writes about Bucephalus in his short story, "A New Advocate". He imagines the horse as transforming from Alexander's warhorse into a great lawyer, studying law books in his afterlife.
  • In the 2004 film Alexander, Bucephalus is portrayed by a Friesian.
  • Martin Bresnick's Second String Quartet of 1984 is subtitled "Bucephalus". A theoretical article, "Beating a Dead Horse", analyzes motivic and formal elements of the piece.
  • The electronic music artist Richard D. James, commonly known as Aphex Twin, has a song titled "Bucephalus Bouncing Ball" on the 1997 EP, Come To Daddy.


  1. Aside from mythic Pegasus and the wooden Trojan Horse, or Incitatus, Caligula's favourite horse, proclaimed Roman consul.
  2. The primary (actually secondary) accounts are two: Plutarch's Life of Alexander, 6, and Arrian's Anabasis Alexandri V.19.
  3. Other sources put him at twelve.
  4. Arthur Hugh Clough (editor), John Dryden (translator), Plutarch's 'Lives', vol. II, Modern Library, 2001. ISBN 0-375-75677-9
  5. Anderson 1930:3 and 17ff.
  6. Homer, The Iliad, Book XXIII.
  7. Rolf Winkes, "Boukephalas", Miscellanea Mediterranea (Archaeologia Transatlantica XVIII) Providence 2000, pp. 101-107.
  8. Michael Wood, "In the footsteps of Alexander the Great".
  9. Andrew Runni Anderson, "Bucephalas and His Legend" The American Journal of Philology 51.1 (1930:1-210.
  10. Larry says, "Oh Lana, I just don't understand! I suppose it's because Bucephalus has never performed in front of 900 people before!"
  11. Kafka, Franz. "A New Advocate." A Country Doctor. Trans. Kevin Blahut. 7-8.

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