Genius through observation: Alexander & Bucephalus

The other day, I was reading to my kids from a children’s book about Alexander the Great, which caused much merriment and took much time because, as you would expect, I had to embellish every sentence with the real or the full story.

But honestly, what inadequate storytelling! Here is how that book delivered the famous anecdote about Alexander taming his horse Bucephalus:

There is a story about a black stallion that one day started running wildly through the courtyard. Five trainers chased it but were unable to mount it. All of a sudden the horse stopped short. Not a soul dared to approach except young Alexander, who moved swiftly, mounting and mastering the steed. Henceforth the proud horse belonged to Alexander and was called Bucephalos, which means “The One with the Head of an Ox.”

I had to intervene. So I closed the book and said, “OK, kids, here is what really happened, and it is much more interesting.” (And the next day, I checked my memory against Plutarch, as you can do here.)

The real story, and the lesson

Alexander was only 12 or 13 at the time, and he had quite a tense relationship with his father, a bit as Hannibal and Hamilcar later did, and as most successful sons and fathers do.

In any case, Alexander’s father, Philip, was given a splendid horse. But nobody could tame it, and everybody, including Philip, was making rather a fool of himself.

Alexander, meanwhile, was just watching. Really observing. Because that’s what the adults were not doing. They were too busy being brave to observe the horse.

And so Alexander noticed that the horse was not angry, and was not even fighting against the Macedonian men. No, the horse was afraid and panicking. It was scared of its own shadow.*

So Alexander stepped up and dared his dad to let him try to tame the horse. He looked precocious and arrogant, and the men had a good laugh.

Alexander then took the stallion by its bridle (much more gently than the painting above suggests) and turned him to face into the sun, so that their shadows were now behind them. At this, the stallion calmed down a bit. Alexander then (and I quote from Plutarch now), let

him go forward a little, still keeping the reins in his hands, and stroking him gently when he found him begin to grow eager and fiery, he let fall his upper garment softly, and with one nimble leap securely mounted him, and when he was seated, by little and little drew in the bridle, and curbed him without either striking or spurring him.

Philip and his friends

all burst out into acclamations of applause; and his father shedding tears, it is said, for joy, kissed him as he came down from his horse, and in his transport said, ‘O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.’

So, you see, the story is really about Alexander’s finesse and, more, about his genius of observation. (And kids get that! They can handle the real story.)

In this sense, I believe Plutarch chose this anecdote for the same reason he chose the other famous vignette about Alexander: his untying of the Gordian Knot. As I argued in this post, that story, too, was proof of Alexander’s superior powers of observation. In that case, Alexander espied a simple solution to a complex situation.

But we can, as Plutarch would urge us to do, extend this much further. What made Alexander so great?

In his major battles, Alexander was usually the last to arrive at the battlefield. His enemy was already waiting, and had prepared his army for a particular battleplan. Alexander, by arriving late and keeping his mind supple, could observe that situation and infer his enemy’s plan, thereby devising his own, superior, plan on the fly.

In his administration of the conquered lands, from Egypt to Mesopotamia, he again observed the locals and their customs. He observed how they differed from Macedonian and Greek customs. And he observed how the Macedonians and Greeks were reacting to his observation. So Alexander ruled Egypt as a divine Pharaoh, the former Persian Empire as a Persian king, the Greek city states as a Philhellenic “first among equals”, and his own Macedonians as a brother in arms.

The man’s greatness — and the lesson in all these anecdotes — is found in his powers of observation.

Oh, and Bucephalus became Alexander’s beloved charger. When the stallion died from battle wounds (in what is today Pakistan), Alexander named a city after him, Bucephala, and died three years later.


* A famous autistic woman, Temple Grandin, has vividly described how cows and other animals, like autistic people, do sometimes get frightened by such things, whether a colored piece of plastic or a moving shadow.

My other posts about Alexander so far:

17 thoughts on “Genius through observation: Alexander & Bucephalus

  1. Before I arrived at the mention of the Gordian Knot, I was reading the “real story” of Alexander’s taming of the stallion and thinking, “he does it again with the knot.” The greatest generals, perhaps the greatest thinkers (and most heroes), are very good at observation, adapting to changing conditions, and observation. Perception is not only reality, it is the key to it.

    • A Macedonian Celt, whose red-haired mother reputedly slept with snakes (rather like my own stepmother — I am not kidding around — but that is another story).

      Alexander seems to have grasped the importance of dealing with people, or animals, in terms they could appreciate. I wonder what he would make of some of today’s nations..

    • “I wonder what he would make of some of today’s nations.”

      Sledpress, Alexander was arguably the only one ever to solve the problem of the Middle East, from Egypt to Pakistan. However briefly.

      “A Macedonian Celt…”

      Were the Macedonians Celts? I thought we had no idea who they were (as with “Thracians”).

      Alexander’s mother was verifiably Greek (from Epirus, allegedly descended from Achilles.) Philip’s case was more interesting. Either he or his father had somehow bribed the relevant authorities to allow the family to participate at the Olympic Games. And that was the definition of “Greek”. So technically, Philip’s family was officially Greek, even though the Macedonian people was barbarian.

  2. The story of the taming of Alexander’s horse can be understood psychologically as a story that nurtures a child’s understanding of how to deal with adults, especially parents.

    From the child’s point of view the horse is a power figure — i.e., a parent — with the child himself in the role of Alexander. Under this interpretation Alexander (child) regards the horse (parent) as a powerful but irrational being. By careful observation, however, Alexander (child) can calm the horse (parent), rein in the horse’s (parent’s) irrational impulses, and thereby gain some control of the horse’s (parent’s) will, a very good outcome from the child’s point of view.

    The child is all the more likely to achieve this outcome if he first heard this instructive horse-taming story (parent-taming story) directly from an unsuspecting horse’s (parent’s) mouth.

    • I had never thought of it that way, but it works. Even the bit about the shadow: The irrational parent is usually just being irrational because of whatever he or she fears at that moment.

    • very clever interpretation jim m., makes me wonder if philipe was inspired by the taming of the horse or by alexander’s genius?

      also children, in general, are gifted with an ability to perceive wisdom and beauty “out of context”.

      when joshua bell played incognito in a washington subway, the experiment yielded only one constant – the children always recognized the beauty and tugged on their parents hand to stay and listen.

      Andreas, if you are looking for another yarn there is the Turkish folk tale “Eat, My Fine Coat!”

    • A good tale, dafna. (I just looked it up.)

      Man goes to banquet in plain clothes, is ignored. Goes home to change into snazzy suit, goes back to banquet. Suddenly, the center of attention.

      Seen giving his fancy clothes food and drink. What are you doing?, asks host.

      ‘When I came before, dressed in my usual clothes, I was ignored. When I came again in this suit, I was popular. I can only conclude that it is the suit, not I, who is the guest. So I am feeding it.’

    • Dafna,

      It is interesting to compare the story of Alexander and the horse, with that of Alexander and the Gordian knot. In the first story Alexander’s father is on hand to cheer his son’s accomplishment, but in the second, Alexander’s father makes no such appearance. 

      Is this purely a matter of chance? 

      If the first story is meant to encourage children to feel free to “tame” the father’s/horse’s behavior, then it is logical that it should include an approving father looking on. The second story, which lacks this hidden message, gains nothing from an approving father.

    • “Is this purely a matter of chance?”

      In the Bucephalus story, Philip was still alive. In the story of the Gordian Knot, he was already dead, and so could not have been present.

      So it’s a bit like the stories of other semi-divine heroes: First you need some stories that make the PARENTS realize they have an unusual child (Baby Hercules strangling Hera’s snakes in the crib, say) and later the child keeps reproving its own special destiny.

  3. Alexander demonstrates the essence of the scientific method – observation, hypothesis and experiment. Form and verification.

    The devotion of Alexander to Bucephalus is a living metaphor for the durability of scientific truth.

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