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Trip Adler

Lit. and Arts B-21

Paper #3

Seeing Oneself in Alexander the Great: A Look at his Relationship with Bucephalus

When people from different societies think of Alexander as “the Great,” the

personal attributes that make him worthy of this title are the very characteristics that are

considered most laudatory in their own cultures. We can understand this phenomenon by

looking at just one of the unique abilities of Alexander the Great, and studying how

people from different societies assign different attributes that allow him to have this skill.

This paper will focus on the ability of Alexander the Great to command loyalty from his

horse Bucephalus, an animal that was wild and unmanageable to all riders except for

Alexander, to whom he could have not been a more obedient horse. While it is clear to

everyone that this compatibility was present, what it was about Alexander that promoted

this relationship is more open to interpretation. This paper will look at three distinct

cultures and their versions of how Alexander commanded such loyalty from Bucephalus.

From each culture will use one image that portrays Alexander riding his rearing horse.

The first piece we will look at is a Byzantine manuscript painting from the mid 1300’s

called “Alexander Tames Bucephalus.” In depicting Alexander taming his horse, it

shows that he was particularly compatible with the animal because he was a Christian

hero. The second image is again a manuscript painting that shows Alexander taming his

fine animal. However, this time it is French and from the fifteenth century. Called

“Alexander Taming Bucephalus,” it illustrates that Alexander’s chivalry gave him his

unique ability. The final piece of art, “Equestrian Statuette of Alexander,” is a bronze

sculpture made in the Roman Empire between 50 BCE and 50 CE. Much smaller than

life-size, this statuette is again of Alexander stably straddling his rearing horse. This ruler

has the talent to ride this animal because he has the features of respected Roman rulers.

By comparing these images of Alexander the Great riding a rearing Bucephalus, we can

see how the Byzantines, French, and Romans see greatness in Alexander for having the

characteristics that are favorable in their own cultures.

Before looking at some artistic portrayals of Alexander riding Bucephalus, it is

important to understand some of the historical information about their relationship, which

can be told in a couple anecdotes. The best story is told by Plutarch and began when

Philoneicus from Thessaly brought Bucephalus to sell to Philip. Everyone agreed that he

was a beautiful horse, even though “he was wild and quite unmanageable, for he would

allow no one to mount him,” rearing up against everyone who tried. However, when

Alexander the Great gave it a try, he went quickly up to the horse and took hold of his

bridle, without the animal rearing. He then turned him into the sun, because he noticed

that the horse was afraid of his own shadow. After running alongside him for a little way,

calming him by stroking his face, he easily jumped into a safe position on the animal’s

back. At first he felt the bit with the reins, being gentle with the horse’s mouth, until he

thought that he was free of fears. With “a commanding voice and a touch of the foot,”

Bucephalus entered a gallop. In full control, Alexander turned and rode back to the other

men (Plutarch: 257-258). From this moment onward, Bucephalus was Alexander’s

favorite horse that he rode into every major battle. While the horse was particularly

trusting of Alexander this first time they met, he continued to be an extremely loyal horse

throughout his whole life. On another occasion during the battle against the Persians at

Granicus River, a Persian crashed his battle-axe down on Alexander’s head. This split his

helmet and caused Alexander to fall across Bucephalus’ neck and lay there stunned for a

few moments. In the middle of much fighting, “if the horse had reared or plunged, if in

the terrible excitement of battle he had run away, it is quite possible Alexander would

have fallen and been trampled or killed.” But because the fine animal was loyal and

stayed steady, Alexander was eventually able to sit back up, just in time to stab a Persian

before he killed him (Blassingame: 14). It can easily be said that Bucephalus’ obedience

to Alexander kept him alive.

Alexander obviously had some sort of special skill in commanding loyalty from

Bucephalus. But what attributes of his made him so talented? We will now look at three

different artistic representations of him riding this animal when he is rearing, and in each

we will see that this great ruler possess the characteristics that are laudatory in the artist’s

own culture.

In Byzantine art, Alexander the Great was always shown as belonging to the

world of the heroes of the Christian God. In a time where this religion was very

important, this was about the most that any individual could achieve. As explained by

George Galavaris, this Christianization of his image often involved artistic

representations of his Ascension to Heaven, almost as if he was a godly figure himself.

The way that griffins were often shown carrying him up suggests that he was a “master of

animals” (Galavaris: 15-16). These themes can easily be seen in “Alexander Tames

Bucephalus” (see Figure 1), a fourteenth-century painting from a Byzantine manuscript.

There are two images of Alexander with his horse. On the left he is shown stroking

Bucephalus’ face, while the horse rears on his hind legs in a wild manner. The way that

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Figure 1

he leans toward the horse and tilts his head to get closer to the animal suggests that he is

calming him and making him feel more comfortable with people. On the right he is

easily riding the animal, as indicated by his steady posture, while another man watches

him. This piece of art gives the impression that Alexander’s religion allows him to tame

the animal so easily. The painting’s background shows Christian Byzantine buildings,

which is a first indication of Alexander belonging to a Christian world. Also, the young

man wears a bight red Christian robe, with gold edges near the ankles, wrists, and neck.

He has a full head of dark hair and his features do not make him look very much like

Alexander. Rather, he looks more similar to the other Christians in the manuscript.

Another important feature of the painting is that in both images Alexander is significantly

larger than the horse, which represents how he is a more godly figure. He commands

Bucephalus as if he is a master of animals, which is a common theme in Byzantine

representations of Alexander. The way Bucephalus is straining to push off the ground

with his hind legs in the second image looks almost like he is trying to rear but cannot

with the weight of Alexander on his back. Therefore, Alexander gains the loyalty of his

horse with his power as a Christian.

Although there were many ways of looking at Alexander the Great in the Middle

Ages, the secular conception of him was popular in the late Gothic Period. According to

this view Alexander was a paragon of chivalry and this is illustrated in representations of

him in which he is shown as a courtly gentleman, an attribute valued in Medieval French

society (Cary: 273). This is the case in “Alexander Taming Bucephalus” (see Figure 2),

another manuscript painting, but from France in the 1400’s. The same way the Byzantine

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Figure 2

image shows Alexander in a Christian Byzantine setting, the background of this French

painting shows Gothic buildings and people watching Alexander who are dressed in attire

that was appropriate for this culture. Again like the Byzantine version, he does not look

like Alexander, but instead looks like a contemporary French citizen. This is apparent

because he has long hair and a top hat and wears a coat that look nothing like what

Alexander would have in ancient times. Showing Alexander as a chivalrous Medieval

European suggests that this is why he has such control over Bucephalus. In the middle of

the painting, the horse is tilted back at a steep angle with all his weight on his hind legs,

while Alexander is evenly balanced with a stiff upright posture that represents his

courtliness. Like the way that the Byzantine Alexander gained the trust of Bucephalus

with his Christian godliness, which is represented by his size, the Medieval French

Alexander does this with his chivalry, represented by his perfect posture. From this

painting we see that, according to the French of the late Gothic period, the reason

Alexander the Great commanded such loyalty from his horse was that he possessed such


The final culture that we will discuss is that of the Roman Empire, in which

Alexander was sometimes artistically portrayed like respected Roman rulers. This means

that they saw greatness in him because he possessed qualities similar to their own leaders.

To understand the image of Alexander that we are about to look at, we must understand

the ways that they showed their own rulers in different time periods, a topic discussed by

Paul Zanker. Early Romans liked sculptures that told the truth about an individual, rather

than showing them as idealized with “a superhuman, godlike quality,” which was the

Hellenistic way of portraying Alexander. This Roman trend was called verism, as

opposed to idealism, and was associated with showing wisdom through age (Zanker: 5-

11). Roman rulers were portrayed this way until a change took place during the rule of

Augustus from 27 BCE to 14 CE, who was usually presented as idealized and godlike.

After his rule, the way rulers were presented was more of a fusion between Hellenistic

idealism and Roman verism. Signs of both styles were present in most sculptures

(Zanker: 43-52). When Alexander was shown as being like a Roman ruler, these trends

applied to him too. Such a mixture of these two styles is seen in the bronze statuette

“Equestrian Statuette of Alexander” (see Figure 3). Made between 50 BCE and 50 CE,

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Figure 3

which is right around the time of the rule of Augustus, it makes sense that this image

might combine idealism and verism, because this was being done in this time period. In

this statuette, Alexander can in general be described as looking like a Roman ruler. Part

of this is simply his clothes, because he is wearing a toga, a breastplate, and sandals. But

at the same time his artistic representation looks Roman because he has a similar blend of

idealism and verism that Roman rulers had in their images. For example, his arms, legs,

and neck look thick and give the impression that he is muscular, and he has a full head of

idealized wavy hair. However, at the same time a careful look at his face will reveal

some wrinkles around his eyes and on his forehead that indicate his advanced age. While

his idealistic features represent his strength and power, his veristic features represent his

wisdom, and this combination gives him the ability to command loyalty from

Bucephalus. Just like Alexander’s size represented his Christianity in the Byzantine

image, and his posture represented his chivalry in the French one, his balance of strength

and knowledge represents his similarity to Roman rulers, and this gives him the ability to

ride Bucephalus. This is indicated in the statue, because it shows Alexander’s strength

giving him the ability to hold onto the horse’s muscular body as it rears on its hind legs.

It also shows how the rider’s intelligence gives him the knowledge to lean into the rearing

body so that he will be more comfortable on the horse. Therefore, Alexander is so

compatible with this animal because of his balance between strength and knowledge, an

attribute with which Roman rulers were portrayed.

Alexander the Great had the unique ability to command loyalty from his horse

Bucephalus. The characteristics that gave him this capability were different according to

the Byzantine, French, and Roman cultures, as we have seen in representative images of

the duo from each of these three groups of people. But in all three cases, these unique

characteristics were ones that were considered laudatory in the culture looking back at

Alexander. Although this paper focused on only a few societies, individuals from any

culture would see themselves in Alexander. Virtually everyone can relate to such a

remarkable individual. While he was the man of his time, he is a man of all time.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. “Alexander Tames Bucephalus.” mid 1300’s CE.

Figure 2. “Alexander Taming Bucephalus.” 1400’s CE.

Figure 3. “Equestrian Statuette of Alexander.” 50 BCE – 50 CE. Originally from the

Villa of the Papyrii, Herculaneum.

Works Cited

Blassingame, Wyatt. His Kingdom for a Horse. USA: Hallmark, 1957.

Cary, George. The Medieval Alexander.

Galavaris, George. “Alexander the Great Conqueror and Captive of Death: His Various

Images in Byzantine Art.” RACAR XVI(1)(1989): 12-18.

Plutarch. The Age of Alexander. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1973.

Zanker, Paul. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Ann Arbor: University of

Michigan Press.