Alexander the Great was the king of Macedon from 336 until his death in 323 B.C.E. He inherited the kingdom from his father, Philip II of Macedon, and his successful military campaigns expanded the Greek world all the way to northwestern India. Alexander's death led to the creation of a number of new kingdoms, including not just the Hellenistic Greek kingdoms of the Mediterranean, but also the Mauryan Empire in India (321-185 B.C.E.) headed by Chandragupta Maurya.
Bucephalus was Alexander's horse and one of the most famous horses in world history. He was described as being black with a large white star on his forehead. The horse's name is a combination of the Greek words "bous," meaning ox and "kephalos," meaning head, perhaps a nod to the horse's intractable nature. According to the 2nd century C.E. author Plutarch in his Life of Alexander (6.1-5), Bucephalus was given as a gift to Alexander's father, Philip II. The horse proved to be too vicious and unmanageable and would not allow anyone to mount him. Alexander, just a boy at the time, undertook the challenge to tame the horse, much to the amusement of the older men around him. Alexander, however, had noticed that the horse was afraid of its shadow and gently turned its head toward the sun and was able to mount him and attach the bridle. Philip II was so impressed and declared that Alexander would secure for himself a large kingdom, as Macedonia was too small for him.
A different story of Bucephalus's origin can be found in the Alexander Romance, probably originally written in the 2nd century C.E. The Alexander Romance is an account of the life and exploits of Alexander the Great and many versions of this text exist in several languages. Over time, it was expanded and revised to include all sorts of fantastical elements and is best understood now as a genre as opposed to as a single text.
Bucephalus is probably the horse depicted in the Alexander Mosaic, which was uncovered at the Roman site of Pompeii in the House of the Faun that was probably based on a 4th century B.C.E. wall painting.
Alexander rode Bucephalus until the horse's death at the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326 B.C.E. In his honor, Alexander named a local city, Bucephala (sometimes identified with the modern Jhelum, in the Punjab province of Pakistan), after him.
Horses were generally important in the ancient Greek world, used not just in warfare, but also in hunting and athletic competitions and as symbols of wealth and status for members of the elite.
This essay was written to accompany a collection of Greek artifacts at the CU Art Museum.
Juliet Clutton-Brock, Horse Power: A History of the Horse and the Donkey in Human Societies (Harvard University Press, 1992): 106-7; Ann Hyland, The Horse in the Ancient World (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003): 161.