Tales of famous horses from the ancient world are as fascinating and curious as the men who rode them. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Caligula, and Hadrian knew well the importance of their fine steeds. After all, the horse was an indispensable animal in the ancient world, playing a pivotal role in war and peace.
The most famous horses belonged to royalty and the nobility. Valued for their speed, splendor, and spirit, horses were inextricably bound to their owner’s identity and prestige. The accomplishments of famous men were impossible without an equally renowned mount. In wartime, magnificent steeds carried generals into battle, helping to achieve victory. During peace, swift and beautiful horses raced in grand arenas, bolstering the prestige of their owners. Horses could even be used for political gain or to criticize a ruler’s behavior. Thus, it is unsurprising that some horses could, and did, achieve fame in their lifetime.
1. Bucephalus: Famous Horse of the Conqueror
Arguably the most famous horse from the ancient world, and history in general, is Boukephalas or Bucephalus — a beloved horse owned by none other than Alexander the Great. Described as a beast of a horse with a massive head (Boukephalas means cow’s head), the magnificent Thessalian stallion carried Alexander in all his major battles. Thus, Bucephalus’ fate was closely linked with that of his master, the greatest conqueror of antiquity. In fact, Bucephalus was essentially a mirror image of Alexander. According to the first-century historian Plutarch, man and horse were both born on the same day, and the moment they met changed the flow of history.
It was an act of filial defiance that brought the two together. After repeated attempts to calm the newly bought animal had failed, King Philip II of Macedon ordered the young horse to be taken away. However, the king’s son Alexander, struck by the animal’s beauty, intervened, wagering that he could mount the fierce beast. Famously, Alexander realized that the horse had been frightened by its own shadow and he was able and subdue Bucephalus. From then on, the two became inseparable, and when Alexander embarked on his legendary campaign against Persia, he chose Bucephalus as his war horse.
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Bucephalus accompanied Alexander through many battles and became known for his courage and resilience. Both man and horse sustained multiple injuries but managed to reach the end of the known world. It was in distant India where Bucephalus’ journey came to an end. Around 326 BCE, after the Battle of Hydaspes, Bucephalus died from battle wounds or possibly from old age (Alexander’s faithful steed was thirty years old). The great conqueror was bereft, feeling he lost both a comrade and a friend. To honor his horse, Alexander built a city on the banks of the Hydaspes River, naming it Alexandria Bucephala. Only three years later, Alexander the Great would follow his companion, dying in Babylon, leaving his vast empire and, more importantly, the Hellenistic world as his lasting legacy.
2. Caesar’s Unusual Horse
Unlike Bucephalus, the name of Julius Caesar’s favorite horse has been lost to history. We know, however, that Caesar’s horse had a remarkable deformity. According to Suetonius, instead of hoofs, the general’s beloved horse had “almost human toes.” At its birth, augurs had predicted that whoever rode on the horse’s back would rule the world. Unsurprisingly, the polydactyl horse was fierce, not allowing anyone to mount it — no one except Julius Caesar.
Riding his favorite horse, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon to put out the fires of civil war and leave his mark on Roman history. Like most Roman aristocrats, Caesar was a skilled horseman. However, the great general was more than a rider. Julius Caesar understood the visual power of a horse. Whenever the odds of victory in battle looked precarious, like at Munda, Caesar would personally enter the fray, riding on his famous horse, leading by example, and directly addressing his troops, to raise their morale.
Like Alexander, Caesar adored his polydactyl horse. When the faithful steed died, Caesar honored his companion with a statue in front of the Temple of Venus Genetrix, dedicated to the mother of Aeneas, and the mythical ancestor of gens Iulia, Caesar’s own family. Caesar’s nephew and the first Roman emperor Augustus also owned a famous horse. When he died, the emperor erected a tomb on which his grandson Germanicus inscribed a poem, now lost.
3. Incitatus: The Horse That Was (Not) Made a Consul
The favorite horse of Emperor Caligula — Incitatus (which means “swift”) — is also the protagonist of one of the most interesting and enduring tales about this controversial Roman ruler. According to Suetonius (the source for most gossip about Caligula’s depravity and brutality), the young emperor had such a fondness for his beloved stallion that he gave Incitatus his own house, complete with a marble stall and an ivory manger. Another historian, Cassius Dio, wrote that servants fed the animal oats mixed with gold flakes.
This level of pampering might seem excessive to some. But, as with most negative reports about Caligula, it was probably just a rumor. After all, like any other young Roman aristocrat, the emperor loved horses and was a huge fan of chariot races in the Circus Maximus, the greatest racetrack in the Roman world. Further, Caligula was an emperor, so he could provide his prize steed with the best possible treatment.
The most infamous story about this horse is undoubtedly the one in which Caligula made Incitatus a senator. Both historians mention the emperor’s intention to make his prized horse a consul. As the two consuls were the most senior elected officials, this would be quite extraordinary, not to mention offensive to Roman tradition.
Yet, there is no evidence of Caligula making Incitatus a consul. There is no evidence of him even planning to do it. Instead, the story was probably a prank, intended to ridicule and insult the senators for proposing candidates that were less worthy of the honor than Caligula’s beloved horse. Later, decades after Caligula’s death at the hands of the Praetorians, the tale of Incitatus was taken out of context and used by the writers seeking to tarnish Caligula’s name and present him as a madman.
4. Borysthenes the Alan: Hadrian’s Famous Horse
Hadrian was one of the most famous rulers of Rome, known for being one of the Five Good Emperors. He was also Rome’s itinerant emperor, who spent most of his reign visiting the provinces and frontiers of his vast realm. Of course, Hadrian would not have been able to make such long journeys without his faithful steed. Like other famous horses, the emperor’s mount had a catchy name — Borysthenes Alanus or Borysthenes the Alan.
The name of the horse betrayed its origin. Borysthenes came from beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire. Named after the river god of Scythia, located on the other bank of the Lower Danube, Borysthenes was a gift from King Rasparaganus of Roxolani, a neighbor of the Alani, given in return for concessions granted to him by the emperor. If we are to believe the sources, it was a fine gift. Fast and nimble, he was an excellent horse for hunting, Hadrian’s favorite pastime, depicted on the tondo later incorporated in the Arch of Constantine. However, it seems that this is how this splendid horse met his fate.
After Borysthenes perished in a hunting incident, the bereaved Hadrian erected a lavish tomb for his favorite companion at Apta Iulia (near Nimes, France). The inscription, carved in stone, immortalized Borysthenes as one of the finest horses of antiquity:
“Borysthenes the Alan, the swift horse of Caesar that used to fly across water and swamps and the Tuscan hills — no wild boar, when pursued by him, dared to harm him with its white tooth! — spraying his saliva from his mouth to the tip of its tail, as it commonly happens, in unbroken youth, with his limbs intact, deceased at an appropriate age, he now lies here in this field.”
(CIL XII, 1122)
Truly, there can hardly have been a better way to show the love the ancient Greeks and Romans had for their favorite animals and trusted companions — their noble steeds.