Bucephalus was Alexander the Great’s favourite horse, and apparently, according to many, one of the most famous horses in history.
His story, surprisingly, is similar in nature to most horse stories told by the general public. Bucephalus, a black stallion, was dangerous, unmanageable and of course, unrideable. That was until a young Alexander took hold of the reins.
King Philip II, Alexander’s father, was looking at Bucephalus as a prospect horse for war. However, due to the horse’s unruly nature, the King deemed him unsuitable, not only for war but all else. “Take him away,” the King said to his handlers, and as the horse was about to be led to his death a young Alexander ran to his aid.
He ushered away the handlers and gained control of the stallion. It took mere seconds for Alexander to realize, what the adults failed to notice, Bucephalus was afraid of his own shadow. Alexander, not yet great, turned the horse toward the sun, sprung upon his back and rode away.
It’s the classic tale that has been told repeatedly through many horse books and/or movies. It’s akin to a romance movie where everyone rides off into the sunset.
To be frank, I was hoping to read something different. I was keen to look into this and was dismayed almost immediately. It’s true, I’m cynical and in a slightly grumpy mood; I apologize for that, but honestly can we not come up with a better story?
If I switch my cranky pants for my tolerant pants, then perhaps I can look at this legend as the first true horse story; similar to how we view Shakespeare’s oeuvre, as so many books and movies lean into the well-established and audience-approved themes and plots he created. The old star-crossed lovers routine never seems to get old, and neither does the idea of a wild black steed that can only be wrangled by that of a small boy. It’s the love that we’re all in search of but we always seem to come up a wee bit short. Or at least I do, hence my jaded tone.
Yes, sure, TV’s Heartland deviated from this tried-and-true recipe and opted for a skittish black gelding that only a teenage girl could calm. A horse whispering girl, but it’s the same old song and dance. She tamed the misunderstood gelding and presto, they were united for life. The horse’s name in question here is Spartan, so, I suppose the creators of Heartland are paying homage to Bucephalus since it’s a Greek name from the same general era.
The story of Bucephalus is basically the plot line for The Black Stallion, which Walter Farley clearly knew and decided to tweak into a modern-day account of one boy and one horse forging an unbreakable bond. Bucephalus was brought into the book in the form of Alec Ramsey’s bedtime story and pewter figurine, which is trotted out here and there as a reminder.
The difference between Alec and Alex(ander) is that Alec was just a regular kid and he and his black stallion fought their battles on the racetrack rather than the killing fields. But the story is in essence the same.
Now, I’m not saying that Bucephalus was any less of a horse for I understand he fought in all the major wars with Alexander astride, but I feel there are a few things left out of the original. The very things that strip any romance from this near mythological tale by adding in the obvious practicalities of horse ownership.
Alexander the Great was, understandably, a busy man and it would have been nice to hear from some of Bucephalus’s grooms. If Alexander was the only one that could ride him, how was Buce (can we call him that?) to care for in the barn?
I can imagine the challenge the grooms must have faced.
“You know what’s not so great, Alexander? Pulling Buce’s mane. All that rearing slows things down… Do it in a dark barn, so he can’t see his shadow? Right. Okay, Alex. You know he’s black right?”
“No, Lagus it’s your turn to get the straw out of his tail…. Because I did it yesterday. And no, before you ask, it didn’t go well as you can see by the hoof-shaped bruise on my thigh… Yes, it does hurt, thank you very much.”
“Here, I’ll hold him Thaddaeus and you curry him… Well according to Alex he loves it… No, I know he doesn’t, but you’ve seen that painting where he is all shiny and stuff… Well according to Alex he has to look like that every day now… I know, right?”
Perhaps Bucephalus resigned himself to the fact that he would have to tolerate the hands of mortals that tried their level best to make him presentable. It’s hard to know.
According to some sources, Bucephalus wouldn’t allow Alexander to ride any other horses. How Buce made this known is undocumented.
“Nope, Alexander get off… Because Buce said so… Because he has just kicked his stall down… Look he is not my horse, ergo not my problem. Fixing the barn, however, is. Just get off please.”
One can only speculate that this detail was added later, to heighten the legend.
I think the moral of this story is that Alex (can we call him that?) and Buce loved one another. And as cynical as I am, there is nothing wrong with broadcasting to the world that animals are equally as important and lovable as humans.
When Bucephalus died, Alex founded a new city in his honour and called it Bucephalia. The story may be trite but what I do know is that if we had to power to name a city after our most beloved horses and pets there would be a lot of places called Flame, Fluffy and Spot. Wouldn’t it be grand?
An unromantic side note
I should add that the name Bucephalus means, and this will zap any remaining romance from this story, Ox-head. It’s from the Greek Boukephalos, bous meaning “ox” and cephalo meaning “head”. Ox-head. Some say he was given this name due to an ox-head brand on his haunches and others say it was because Bucephalus had a head like an ox. Again, we don’t know for sure.
At the end of the day this is a love story, and we should all be so lucky to find the kind of love that Alexander and Bucephalus shared. I may be a cynic, but I’m a hopeful one.