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What’s in a name: Bucephalus, Alexander’s Horse

When you mention the Hellenistic period, people immediately think of Alexander the Great. This is no surprise as his military conquests and travels shaped the Hellenistic era in a way which no other individual has done. Yet far fewer people know the name of one of his most trusty companions, his horse Bukephalus. In a series of posts, guest writer Michelle Simon is going to tell us a little more about Alexander’s trusty horse. In this first part we start with his name. Why was he even called Bukephalos? 

Bukephalos, the famous steed of Alexander the Great, is by far one of the most renowned horses of classical antiquity. Praised for his strength and beauty, he supposedly rescued his renowned rider more than once from harm on the numerous battlefields they entered. Curiously, his name, meaning ox-headed (βουκέφαλος), is far from glamorous.

Contemporary sources about the Macedonian ruler are far less abundant than the extent of his legend might make you believe. None of them offer an answer as to why such a noble (and expensive) stallion would bear such an uninspiring name. Arrian, writing in the middle of the second century BC (almost 200 years after the original events!) has two explanations for its name. First, it could stem from the brand the horse bore: an ox-head marked him as a famous breed from ancient Thracia. Or it could have been the white marking on the otherwise black animal which reminded people of a horned bovine (Arr. Anab. 5,19,5). The first theory seems to be more likely, as several other findings in unrelated sources mention the ox-head brand as a sign for horses of good quality. It would still make for a rather uninspired name, but after all we are talking about someone who named more than fifteen cities after himself.

Bukephalos in Chains

But the stories did not stop there and soon another explanation made its way into the books: Bukephalos got his name from having actual horns. The Byzantine encyclopaedia Etymologicum Magnum (written roughly 1400 years after Alexander) has explained that Alexander put gilded horns on his horse as a kind of adornment. Other sources speculate even further. The famous Alexander Romance, more a literary genre than a single work, happily informed the reader that the horse was called Bukephalus either because of his breed or the horn quite literally protruding from his head. It does not matter which one is more likely and centuries later even Marco Polo tells us about the far-off province of Balascian where horned horses were bred and those being the descendants of Alexander’s Bukephalos.

Silver tetradrachm minted by Seleukos I showing the horned horse on the obverse and an elephant on the reverse – Altes Museum

Of course, modern scholarly research does not follow the idea of Alexander riding a horned horse into battle, but the legend stuck.  In the 1990s two renowned numismatic experts described coins of the type shown above as depicting Bukephalos. Their identification is based on the presence of the “famous” horns. Portraying the noble steed on such a small scale as a silver coin must have been challenging and thus a play on the name Bukephalos by adding horns to the horse depicted on the tetradrachms was one solution. But why would he be featured on this coin type? Who minted these coins? What was the point of the horns? Check back for the answers to these questions in the next post!

Michelle Simon studies Ancient History in Marburg (Germany). When she isn’t following the traces of the representation of Makedonian rulers (and their horses) on coins and in writing, she spends much of her time playing D&D, teaching archery or in the persuit of stuffing even more books into her already overflowing bookshelves.

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