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Numismatics and the legend of horned Bukephalos

In her last post, Michelle simon introduced us to Alexander’s horse bukephalos. One of the most famous horses of the ancient world. Despite his famed beauty and nobility, he had a rather common name, since boukephalous in greek means ‘ox-headed’. According to tradition, there were several explanations for his name, the most interesting of which was that the horse had actual horns. coincidentally , several coins were minted in antiquity with a horned horse on them. Is there a link between the two? 

by  Michelle Simon 

Silver Coin of Seleucus I Nicator, Pergamum, 281 BC. The obverse shows a horned, bridled horse head right and the reverse shows an elephant walking right with the inscription BAΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΣΕΛΕΥΚΟΥ. (c) Seleucid Coins Online

In the 1990s two renowned numismatic experts described coins of the type shown above as Bukephalos. Their identification is based on the presence of these “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. To assume they depict Bukephalos would suggest two things. First that the legend of the horned Bukephalos must have been around during and shortly after the reign of Alexander for people to even understand this symbolism. Secondly, that awareness of this legend must have been widespread. As we learned from a previous article, coins were an important part of creating and representing identity – and Bukephalos seems to be an odd choice for this purpose. Whoever minted these coins did so with a plan in mind: a political agenda, a commemoration of an important event or some kind of connection towards this horse.

In fact, the authority behind these coins was none other than Seleukos I, a Makedonian general under Alexander III. He later became the founder of both the Seleukid Empire and the Seleukid Dynasty. The connection between Alexander III and Seleukos I could explain his knowledge of the horse (and maybe a certain fondness towards it), but not the reason for it being used in his coinage. Seleukos I was a powerful figure in his own merit: being at war with the other Diadochi and forging his own empire. Given the importance of coinage as a form of representation, why would he lean this heavily on Alexander’s horse instead of the king himself? The coins themselves are confidently engraved with BAΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΣΕΛΕΥΚΟΥ – Seleukos, the King, and nothing more.

Silver Coin of Seleucus I Nicator, Susa, 301 BC – 295 BC showing the head of a hero right (assimilating Seleucus, Alexander, and Dionysus), wearing helmet covered with panther skin and adorned with bull’s ear and horns on the obverse. The reverse shows the inscription BAΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΣΕΛΕΥΚΟΥ and Nike standing right, crowning trophy. (c) Seleucid Coins Online

The answer might be found when considering his other coins, which show the basileus himself (as some suggest) or a hero formed by merging Seleukos I, Alexander III, and the god Dionysos, adorned with the horns of a bull, sometimes even with additional bull’s ears. They are different from the curled ram’s horns given to those portraying themselves (or being portrayed by their descendants) as favourites of the mighty god Zeus-Ammon, but they do bear a similar message: I am a mighty ruler, blessed by the gods and gifted with extraordinary power. This is a message Seleukos I’s new subjects would easily understand, because he was drawing on symbolism which had been in use within ancient Near East art and iconography for centuries.

As we said before, coins were an important tool for both the spreading of propaganda and the creation of identity. Seleukos I, as a foreign ruler, carefully used the horns as something most of his local now-subjects would recognize as a sign of royalty and even divine blessing. Coins may be the first and only “direct” message these people ever received from their new ruler. Combining local symbolism with the Greek inscription and Hellenistic-style portrait might have been a successful attempt at reaching as many of his subjects as possible, while creating a strong image for any outsider. Seleukos I required legitimacy for his new position as ruler as he was not the descendant of a long-ruling dynasty but rather an outsider to many of his Middle Eastern subjects, constantly threatened by the fierce competition and fighting between the Diadochai. As part of this iconography, the horns are paired with other well-known and mighty animals, such as war elephants and horses. The war elephant being an animal used by the Persians (and later by Alexander III), the horse an old and well-known symbol for both royalty and military prowess for any Makedon, used heavily by Philipp II, the father of Alexander III. The use of these images seems to have done its job as Seleukos I’s son Antiochos I employed it again, showing his own portrait on the obvers, with the steer-horned horse on the reverse, now additionally bearing an almost flame-like mane.

Silver Coin of Antiochus I Soter, Ai Khanoum/Bactra, 280 BC. The obverse shows the diademed head of Antiochus I right while the reverse has the inscription BAΣΙΛΕΩΣ ANTIOXOY together with a horned and bridled horse head right. (c) Seleucid Coins Online

So, what can we learn from this? The discourse about these coins has not come to a definite end, but there is a high probability that they were never intended to reference the myth of the horned Bukephalos. Furthermore, it does not seem likely that the myth of the horned Bukephalos even existed at this time due to the absence of any contemporary reference to the myth, and it seems equally unlikely that these coins supported the propagation of this myth later on because the coins themselves were not far spread and our ancient and medieval sources most likely did not know of their existence. It was only after they were “re-discovered” by the orientalist scholars of the 19th and 20th century that the link between the coins and the myth was created, misreading Seleukos I’s usage of local religious symbolism as a way of forging a connection to Alexander III through his famous steed. Scholarly tradition then carried this theory well into our present day, where even the Wikipedia article about Seleukos I still features a coin “depicting Alexander’s horse Bukephalos”. It is a wonderful example of how the interpretation of such coins can change over the decades and one thing is for sure – the horned horse has not given up all its mysteries.

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 pursuit of stuffing even more books into her already overflowing bookshelves.


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