When he [Alexander the Great] was not more than eight or nine – perhaps in 347, on the occasion of Philip’s [his father’s] ‘Olympian’ Games at Dium – a Thessalian horsebreeder, Philoneicus, brought the king a pedigree stallion, which he offered to sell him for the vast sum of thirteen talents. (Modern equivalents are misleading: this sum, in the fourth century B.C., would have lasted one man as a living wage for about a hundred years.)
The stallion was black, except for a white blaze on its forehead, and branded with an ox-head, the mark of Philoneicus’ ranch: hence his name, Bucephalas. To command such a price, Bucephalas must have been in his prime – that is, about seven years old.
Philip, together with his friends and attendants, went down to the open plain to try the horse out. Alexander followed. The king’s grooms soon found that Bucephalas was quite unmanageable. They could neither coax nor mount him; he reared and plunged, seemingly deaf to all words of command. Philip lost patience, and told Philoneicus to take his horse away. This was too much for Alexander. ‘What a horse they’re losing!’ he exclaimed. ‘And all because they haven’t the skill or courage to master him!’ The boy’s distress was genuine and obvious; and his father, alert as always, had caught his muttered comment.
’Oh,’ he said, eyeing his eight-year-old son, ‘so you think you know more about managing horses than your elders, do you?’
’Well, I could certainly deal with this horse better than they’ve done.’
Philip’s one eye twinkled in his seamed and bearded face. ‘All right, then. Suppose you try, and fail, what forfeit will you pay for your presumption?’
’The price of the horse,’ Alexander said boldly. A ripple of laughter ran through the group round the king.
’Done,’ said his father.
Alexander ran across to Bucephalas, took his bridle, and turned him towards the sun. One thing he had noticed was that the horse started and shied at his own shadow fluttering in front of him. He stood there for a little, stroking and patting the great stallion, calming him down, taking the measure of his spirit. Then he threw off his cloak and vaulted lightly on to Bucephalas’ back, with that dynamic agility which was so characteristic of him as a grown man.
At first he held the stallion on a tight reign; then, at last, he gave him his head, and the powerful steed went thundering away over the plain. Philip and those round him were ‘speechless with anxiety’, Plutarch tells us; but Alexander soon wheeled around and came cantering back to them. There was cheering from the crowd. Philip, half-proud, half-resentful, said jokingly: ‘You’ll have to find another kingdom; Macedonia isn’t going to be big enough for you.’
Boy and horse became inseparable. Bucephalas carried Alexander into almost every major battle he fought. He died at the ripe old age of thirty, soon after his master’s last great victory, over the Indian rajah Porus (Paurava) on the Jhelum River.
For Philip’s celebration of games at Dium in 347 see Demosth. Fals. Leg. 192-5. In assessing the Bucephalas story I am much indebted to the expert advice of Major E. N. Barker, M.C., general manager of the Lazarina Stud Farm at Trikkala in Thessaly. For the reputation of Thessalian horses in antiquity see Hamilton, PA, p. 15 and reff. There cited. We have no instance on record of a higher price being obtained for any horse in antiquity. The nearest is the 100,000 sesterces (about 4 talents) paid by Dolabella: see Aul. Gell. NA 3.9.
Green, Peter. “The Gardens of Midas.” Alexander of Macedon: 356-323 B.C.: A Historical Biography. Univ. of California Press, 2005. 43-4. Print.
Original Source(s) Listed:
Plut. Alex. 6.1.
Pliny NH 8.154.
cf. A. R. Anderson, AJPh 51 (1930), I ff.
Φίλιππος Β΄ ὁ Μακεδών (Philip II of Macedon)
Βουκέφαλος (Bucephalus or Bucephalas)
Alexander III of Macedon / Ἀλέξανδρος ὁ Μέγας (Alexander the Great)
Πλούταρχος (Plutarch) / Λούκιος Μέστριος Πλούταρχος (Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus)
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