Bucephalus

Bucephalus


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Bucephalus was Alexander the Great's horse and is considered by some to be the most famous horse in history. Alexander and Bucephalus' initial meeting was unique but demonstrated the true character of one of the greatest generals in all of history.

The Challenge

Initially, Bucephalus was brought to Macedon and presented to the king, Phillip II of Macedon (Alexander's father), in 346 BCE by Philoneicus of Thessaly. With a price tag almost three times the norm (13 talents), the beautiful black horse stood taller than the normal Macedonian steed but was considered too wild and unmanageable, rearing up against anyone who came near him. Phillip ordered him led away.

Alexander sat in the audience with his mother Olympias watching the spectacle before him. As the attendants tried to lead Bucephalus away, Alexander rose, calling them spineless. According to Plutarch's biography of Alexander, the young prince said, “What an excellent horse do they lose for want of address and boldness to manage him.” At first, Phillip ignored the challenge, but finally, he said to Alexander: “Do you reproach those who are older than yourself, as if you were better able to manage him than they.” Alexander, ignoring his father remark, repeated his challenge and said he would pay for the horse if he, Alexander, were unable to tame him.

Bucephalus & Alexander were inseparable; only Alexander could ride him.

Amid wild laughter, Alexander approached the horse he would name Bucephalus calmly. He had realized something the others had not - the horse was afraid of his own shadow. Turning Bucephalus toward the sun so his shadow was behind him and slowly taking the reins in his hand, Alexander mounted him. The laughter of the crowd turned to cheers as Alexander rode off.

According to Plutarch, as Alexander returned to the arena with Bucephalus and dismounted, Phillip said: “O my son look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.” Historians claim this taming of the wild Bucephalus was a turning point in the young prince's life, demonstrating the confidence and determination he was to show in his conquest of Asia.

Alexander's Companion

Bucephalus and Alexander were inseparable; only Alexander could ride him, and indeed he did, into every battle from the conquest of the Greek city-states and Thebes through the Battle of Gaugamela and into India. After the final defeat of Darius III, Bucephalus was kidnapped while Alexander was away on excursion. Upon returning and learning of the theft, Alexander promised to fell every tree, lay the countryside to waste, and slaughter every inhabitant in the region. The horse was soon returned along with a plea for mercy.

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Although historians disagree on the cause of the horse's death - some claim he died from battle wounds - most agree he died of old age after the Battle of Hydaspes River (326 BCE). While Plutarch spoke of both possible causes of death, he cites Onesicritus, a historian who accompanied Alexander on his conquests, as stating the horse died of old age. However Bucephalus died, in mourning, Alexander founded a city in his beloved horse's memory and named it Bucephala. It is also interesting that Alexander built another city after his favorite dog Peritas.


The favorite steed of Alexander the Great, Bucephalus was believed to have been with the Macedonian monarch from the time Alexander was 12 or 13 years old. He won the horse in a bet with his father after taming the beast.

Bucephalus was a massive horse with one blue eye. His name meant “ox-head” and came from a mark branded on him.

Alexander rode Bucephalus in numerous battles. It is possible that Bucephalus may have died from wounds during the Battle of Hydaspes against King Porus of Paurava. Other accounts indicate he died of old age. Whatever the cause, Bucephalus died during Alexander’s campaign in the Punjab. In 326 BC, Alexander founded a city on the banks of the Hydaspes in his memory, naming it Bucephala.

Bucephalus became one of the most famous horses in classical culture, alongside such mythic beasts as Pegasus and the wooden Trojan horse. Due to his fame and the popularity of Alexander, it became a standard for other generals to make a show of having a favorite horse.

Alexander & Bucephalus by John Steell located in Edinburgh, Scotland. By Stefan Schäfer, Lich – CC BY-SA 3.0


Bucephalus

Bucephalus the favourite horse of Alexander the Great, who tamed the horse as a boy and took it with him on his campaigns until its death, after a battle, in 326 bc . The name in Greek means literally ‘ox-headed’.

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

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.

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.

  • How did Alexander the Great die? Also, where is Alexander the Great buried, and has his tomb actually been found? Professor Paul Cartledge gives his view…

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”.

This content first appeared in BBC History Magazine


Fred Birchmore’s Amazing Bicycle Trip Around the World

Fred Birchmore of Athens, Georgia, belongs to an exclusive club: he’s a round-the-world cyclist. The club’s charter member, Thomas Stevens, pedaled his high-wheeler some 15,000 miles across North America, Europe and Asia between 1884 and 1887. Mark Beaumont of Scotland set the current world record in 2007-08, covering almost 18,300 miles in 194 days and 17 hours.

Birchmore finished his epic two-year, 25,000-mile crossing of Eurasia 75 years ago this October. (North America came later.) And unlike the American Frank Lenz, who became famous after he disappeared in Turkey while trying to top Stevens’ feat in 1894, Birchmore lived to tell of his journey. He will turn 100 on November 29.

Birchmore got his first look at Europe from a bicycle seat in the summer of 1935, shortly after he earned a law degree from the University of Georgia. He was on his way to the University of Cologne to study international law when he stopped in central Germany and bought a bicycle: a one-speed, 42-pound Reinhardt. (It is in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.) He named it Bucephalus, after Alexander the Great’s horse. Before his classes started, he toured northern Europe with a German friend and Italy, France and Britain by himself.

“I had some wonderful experiences that had nothing to do with the bicycle,” Birchmore recalled in a recent interview at Happy Hollow, his Athens home, which he shares with his wife of 72 years, Willa Deane Birchmore. He cited his climb up the Matterhorn, his swim in the Blue Grotto off Capri, and his brush with the Norwegian Olympic skater and future Hollywood actress Sonja Henie. “I just happened to ice skate on the same lake where she practiced,” he said. “Well, I never had skated. I figured, ‘I’m going to break my neck.’ She came over and gave me a few pointers. Beautiful girl.”

Back in Cologne, he attended a student rally—and came face to face with Adolf Hitler. Working up the crowd, Hitler demanded to know if any Americans were present Birchmore’s friends pushed him forward. “He nearly hit me in the eye with his ‘Heil, Hitler,’ ” the cyclist recalled. “I thought, ‘Why you little.…’ He was wild-eyed, made himself believe he was a gift from the gods.” But Birchmore kept his cool. “I looked over and there were about 25 or 30 brown-shirted guys with bayonets stuck on the end of their rifles. He gave a little speech and tried to convert me then and there.” The Führer failed.

Although he enjoyed a comfortable life as the guest of a prominent local family, Birchmore was increasingly disturbed by Nazi Germany. From his bicycle, he saw firsthand the signs of a growing militarism. “I was constantly passing soldiers, tanks, giant air fleets and artillery,” he wrote in his memoir, Around the World on a Bicycle.

In February 1936, after completing his first semester, Birchmore cycled through Yugoslavia and Greece and sailed to Cairo. After he reached Suez that March, disaster struck: while he slept on a beach, thieves made off with his cash and passport. Birchmore had to sell off some of his few possessions to pay for a third-class train ticket back to Cairo. On board, he marveled at how “great reservoirs of kindness lay hidden even in the hearts of the poorest,” he wrote. “When word passed around that I was not really one of those brain-cracked millionaires, ‘roughing it’ for the novelty, but broke like them, I was immediately showered with sincere sympathies and offers of material gifts.”

Fred Birchmore's bike was a one-speed, 42-pound Reinhardt that he named Bucephalus, after Alexander the Great's horse. The bike is currently in the National Museum of American History. (Gift of Fred A. Birchmore / National Museum of American History) Birchmore spent time in the dense jungles of Southeast Asia, where he tangled with tigers and cobras and came away with a hide from each species. (University of Georgia) Birchmore finished his epic two-year, 25,000-mile crossing of Eurasia 75 years ago this October. (University of Georgia)

Six weeks passed before he received a new passport. He had already missed the start of the new semester. Having little incentive to return to Cologne, he decided to keep going east as far as his bike would take him. He set off for Damascus and then on to Baghdad, crossing the scorching Syrian desert in six days.

By the time he reached Tehran, he was in a bad way. An American missionary, William Miller, was shocked to find the young cyclist at the mission’s hospital, a gigantic boil on his leg. “He had lived on chocolate and had eaten no proper food so as not to make his load too heavy,” Miller marveled in his memoir, My Persian Pilgrimage. “I brought him to my house. What luxury it was to him to be able to sleep in a bed again! And when we gave him some spinach for dinner he said it was the most delicious food he had ever tasted. To the children of the mission, Fred was a great hero.”

In Afghanistan Birchmore traversed 500 rugged miles, from Herat to Bamian to Kabul, on a course largely of his own charting. Once he had to track down a village blacksmith to repair a broken pedal. “Occasionally, he passed caravans of city merchants, guarded front and rear by armed soldiers,” National Geographic would report. “Signs of automobile tire treads in the sands mystified him, until he observed that many of the shoes were soled with pieces of old rubber tires.”

While traveling along the Grand Trunk Road in India, Birchmore was struck by the number of 100-year-olds he encountered. “No wonder Indians who escape cholera and tuberculosis live so long,” he wrote. “They eat sparingly only twice a day and average fifteen hours of sleep.” (He added: “Americans eat too much, sleep too little, work too hard, and travel too fast to live to a ripe old age.”)

Birchmore’s travails culminated that summer in the dense jungles of Southeast Asia, where he tangled with tigers and cobras and came away with a hide from each species. But a mosquito got the better of him: after collapsing in the jungle, he awoke to find himself abed with a malarial fever in a Catholic missionary hospital in the village of Moglin, Burma.

After riding through Thailand and Vietnam, Birchman boarded on a rice boat to Manila with Bucephalus in tow. In early September, he set sail for San Pedro, California, aboard the SS Hanover. He expected to cycle the 3,000 miles back home to Athens, but he found his anxious parents on the dock to greet him. He and Bucephalus returned to Georgia in the family station wagon.

Nevertheless, Birchmore looked back on his trip with supreme satisfaction, feeling enriched by his exposure to so many people and lands. “Surely one can love his own country without becoming hopelessly lost in an all-consuming flame of narrow-minded nationalism,” he wrote.

Still restless, Birchmore had a hard time concentrating on legal matters. In 1939, he took a 12,000-mile bicycle tour around North America with a pal. He married Willa Deane later that year, and they honeymooned aboard a tandem bike, covering 4,500 miles in Latin America. After serving as a Navy gunner in World War II, he opened a real estate agency. He and Willa Deane raised four children, and he immersed himself in community affairs.

After he retired, in 1973, he embarked on a 4,000-mile bicycle ride through Europe with Danny, the youngest of his children. Two years later, they hiked the 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail. While in his 70s, he hand-built a massive stone wall around Happy Hollow. He cycled into his 90s, and he still rides a stationary bike at the local Y. A few years ago, he told a journalist, “For me, the great purposes in life are to have as many adventures as possible, to brighten the lives of as many as possible, and to leave this old world a little bit better place.”


Over a period of 13 years, Alexander pretty much changed the face of Europe and Asia, conquering all neighboring enemies and many nations beyond that. With around 43,000 infantry and 5,500 cavalries under his command, he led a fearsome military force on one of the biggest expeditions in history with his empire stretching from Greece to modern-day Pakistan while spreading the Greek culture to the major parts of the world.

However, a 21st century clinical research suggests that Alexander may have suffered from the neurological disorder Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), which caused his death. It also argues that there were no immediate signs of decomposition on the body because Alexander wasn’t dead yet.

We always have more stories to tell, so make sure you are subscribed to our YouTube Channel and have pressed the bell button for interesting historical videos. Don’t hesitate to follow us on all our social media handles and to as well share this article with your friends.


Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Bucephalus was the famed steed of Alexander the Great. As legend has it, Alexander broke the wild horse when no one else dared go near — not by force but by turning the horse's head toward the sun, understanding that Bucephalus was simply afraid of his own shadow. No one but Alexander could mount the horse after. As one history puts it, "Long did this noble animal share the toils and dangers of his master and this was the horse that Alexander delighted to honor." So excellent was Buchephalus in battle that when he was once lost, Alexander is said to have threatened the destruction of an entire country unless he was returned (which he was).


How did Bucephalas come to King Phillip II?

Here is one account from the website https://www.ancient.eu/Bucephalus/

“Bucephalus was brought to Macedonia and presented to King Phillip II (Alexander’s father) in 346 BCE by Philoneicus of Thessaly. With a price tag almost three times the norm (13 talents), the beautiful black horse stood taller than the normal Macedonian steed but was considered too wild and unmanageable, rearing up against anyone who came near him. Phillip ordered him led away.

But Alexander bargained with his father for the horse. When Alexander successfully rode Bucephalas in front of his father and the crowd of attendants, Alexander demonstrated the true character of one of the greatest generals in all of history.”


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.

His achievements

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.

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The Medieval Journeys of Alexander the Great

If you were the king of kings, where would you pick for your travel destination? How would you get there? Surely, it would be something extraordinary befitting your godlike status. If you ever run short of ideas, just look into the vast body of the Alexander of Great materials gathered from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Speaking of pompous travel, there is no doubt that Alexander the Great tops all – after all, how can you expect less from the conqueror of the world?

Even for someone as formidable as Alexander the Great (356–323 BC), he can only go as far as his travel equipment allows. But luckily, Alexander the Great has sufficient imagination, and resources, to get himself wherever he fancies. In turn, everything that he has and does only points to his destiny of becoming the conqueror of the world.

A Man and His Horse

In both medieval literature and reality, the horse is ingrained in a knight’s identity, for what is a knight but a man with a horse? Legendary heroes are always paired with magic or otherworldly horses to foreground their extraordinariness. For instance, Sigurðr the dragon-slayer in Völsunga saga is given Grani, a descendant of Odin’s own eight- legged steed Sleipnir, while Sir Gawain has the golden-saddled Gringolet, the huge and strong steed just as battle-eager as the valiant knight himself.

But, again, Alexander tops them all. He enjoys a special bond with his horse Bucephalus, who is essentially a mirror image of his master. Born on the same day, the horse is more of a monster than a horse, just as the Prince of Macedonia is a lion among men.

Detail of a miniature of Bucephalus kneeling before Alexander, and Bucephalus with his cage. British Library MS Royal 19 D I f. 6

In Pseudo-Callithenes’s version, Bucephalus is said to be, ‘more beautiful and faster than Pegasus’, but there is one tiny problem: Bucephalus is a man-eater and can be tamed by none. For that reason, Bucephalus is put behind bars, feasting on criminals, until one day Alexander chances upon him. Bucephalus bows before him, ‘as if offering a prayer to his own ruler’. The horse’s submission signifies not only Alexander’s future greatness but also that he is now ready to embark on the journey to fulfil that destiny.

Having fought together the battles against Nicolas, Darius, and Porus, Bucephalus dies in the final battle. The horse’s death is a turning point for Alexander he is now moving towards his own end, though his journey and glory are extended a little further with the help of another miraculous horse. It is particularly noteworthy that, in Alexandre de Paris’s Roman d’Alexandre, Alexander trades his warhorse for a hack to complete his disguise as a poor man, so that he may spy on the enemy force. It is on the one hand, certainly comical to see Alexander on such a horse, and having trouble controlling it, but, on the other, considering that Alexander is soon to die an ignominious death, this scene is probably meant to foreshadow the humiliation lying ahead.

With Bucephalus, Alexander ventures into many untrodden parts of the world. But there are places that even a supernatural horse fails to reach. To get to those places, Alexander will have to look elsewhere.

Alexander’s Celestial Journey

One of the famous trips that Alexander the Great makes is his (attempted) journey to heaven. Since Bucephalus does not have wings, Alexander has to resort to some griffins that happen to live nearby. The birds are tied to a chariot with a piece of meat spitted on the top of a lance as bait (in the church of St. Peter and Paul in Remagen, Germany, he is depicted hoisting two puppies). While the unfortunate griffins think they are constantly flying towards the meat (or the puppies), they carry Alexander up, so that he may see for himself if that place, ‘where the sky touches the earth’, is really the end of the world. It is extremely cold up in the air, he describes in a letter to his mother Olympia and as he approaches the heavens, he encounters a figure and, heeding his warning, he returns to earth and lands somewhere seven days’ journey from his camp. But the journey is not entirely wasted, since Alexander gains a glimpse of the entire world below.

This scene, known as ‘Alexander the Great’s Celestial Journey’, is favoured by medieval craftsmen, as it can be found on facades and misericords of many churches in Europe. Although it is a consensus view that the scene is highly symbolic, opinions differ as to exactly what it signifies and why, among so many episodes from the Alexander materials, this one has been chosen as a popular church decoration. Although a positive interpretation should not be ruled out, many see this scene in an unfavourable light, since Alexander, though an exemplar of chivalry and a popular romance figure, is not looked upon fondly by the medieval clerical world. It is likely that the scene is used to convey a moralistic message against pride. Similar interpretations are found in some German recounts – such as Jans der Enikel’s Weltchronik – where Alexander is deterred by a voice, saying that no one can ascend to heaven other than by good deeds in life.

Alexander depicted at St. Peter and Paul, Remagen – photo by Gabriele Delhey / Wikimedia Commons

Under the Sea

Apart from travelling up to the sky, Alexander also journeys to the bottom of the ocean once. In order to explore the world below, he orders a colimpha to be built – a barrel-like device made of glass. Then he is lowered onto the seabed in the ‘submarine’ by chains (never mind the oxygen). According to the German Annolied (‘Song of Anno’, composed around the eleventh century), the conqueror brings a dog, a cat, and a hen with him down to the ocean. When he is trapped down there by the loosing of the chains, he kills the hen and lets out its blood, knowing that the sea will not tolerate the pollution. The trick works Alexander is spit out and, therefore, saved.

Alexander lowered into the sea – British Library MS Royal 20 B XX f. 77v

In other German versions, it is Roxana, Alexander’s queen, who goes down and lets go of the chains in an attempt to murder him. One illustration in Weltchronik shows a stranded and perplexed Alexander looking towards the boat, where Roxana sits with her lover, while chin-scratching the cat.

In the end, what did these sources from the medieval period and late antiquity tell us about how a king travels? For one, whether by mythical horse up to the heavens, or by glass barrel to the depths of the ocean, nothing is impossible. Secondly, Alexander the Great’s travels, while certainly not feasible for the average traveller, are great for one’s image in the afterlife, definitely something to aspire to, and fit for the conqueror of the world.

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: 15th century miniature of Alexander, in a cage, being carried aloft by griffins. British Library MS Royal 20 B XX f. 76v


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