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: