to legend, Alexander first encountered a Unicorn when he was about thirteen
years old and one was presented for sale to his father Philip,
king of Macedonia, by a Thessalian named Philonicus. Called
Bucephalus on account of its horn (the name meaning literally, if not very
poetically, Ox-head), the beast lashed out so furiously
at every attempt to mount it that soon Philip's champion riders gave up
and it was led away as wholly useless and intractable.
Alexander protested that they were missing a wonderful opportunity, for
want of the skill and courage, to manage the creature properly.
At first Philip
ignored him but, when he persisted, the king finally said a little angrily,
'Do you think you know so much better than all these grown champions?'
'I could manage this creature better than they have done,'Alexander said
Now Philip had not made the attempt himself because of a leg injury but
he took his son's defiance personally and thought maybe it was time to teach him
a lesson in humility, 'And if you fail,' he said, 'what will you forfeit
for your rashness?'
'The whole price of the beast,' Alexander replied.
'No, but I will get it.'
'Very well, and if you succeed in taming Bucephalus you can have him as
Laughter spread through the assembly with news of this wager and there
was much debate over whether Alexander was wonderfully brave or simply
mad. Many side bets were exchanged as Bucephalus was led on to the field,
and not a few of them were on whether the boy would survive
his wager, let alone win it.
Trumpets brayed for silence as Alexander strode confidently out on to the
field. Small for his age, he looked a child beside the large Unicorn, but
his confidence was not just bravado. He had taken notice of several ways
in which, it seemed to him, previous attempts to tame the beast were misguided.
Their biggest mistake was approaching Bucephalus as a horse whose will
needed to be broken. In contrast, Alexander recognized that the Unicorn
could only be ridden with its own consent. They had also thrown their cloaks
over the creature's head before trying to mount it. So to prove he had
no intention of doing this, Alexander unfastened his cloak and dropped
it on the ground. He also made it obvious to Bucephalus that he carried
no weapon, whip or rope on his person.
Another thing Alexander had noticed was that Bucephalus seemed nervous
of the long shadows being cast by those around him. So when he took the bridle
Alexander dismissed the handlers and turned so the low sun was directly
in the Unicorn's eyes. Then, bowing from the waist, he said, 'Greetings
noble beast. I come in friendship. Only permit me to ride on your back
today and you may choose your freedom.'
Thus he remained, totally defenceless. The Unicorn stepped closer and lowered
its head so the gleaming horn almost touched the skin over the boy's
heart. There was a shifting in the crowd and a drawing of - strings by
those bowmen posted by Philip to protect his son, but all knew that should
the beast strike, nothing could save Alexander.
After what seemed a long while, Bucephalus suddenly lowered the point of
his horn to the ground and, trembling, allowed the youth to spring on to
his back. Once there, Alexander sat still for a while as they accustomed themselves
to each other. Then Bucephalus leapt forward in a gallop that carried them
away into the distance swifter, it seemed, than the wind. Many in the crowd
feared never to see their impetuous prince again, but at last he turned
in the distance and came riding back to cheers and rejoicing. The king,
it is said, shed tears of joy and pride and, kissing the boy as he climbed
down from the beast, cried, 'Oh my son, look out for a kingdom equal and
worthy of you, for Macedonia is too small to contain you.'
Bucephalus remained with Alexander almost to the end of both their lives
and was ridden by him into every major battle in his conquest of Egypt and the
Persian Empire. Something of the Unicorn's temperament seems to have rubbed
off on Alexander too. The young hero became famous for his fairness, restraint
and clemency towards enemies who submitted to him.
In fact, the story of Bucephalus' capture during an expedition near the
Caspian Sea is a perfect example of Alexander's noble behaviour. As he
was in the habit of only riding the Unicorn when going into battle, Bucephalus
was usually transported in style in a cage designed to prevent reckless
soldiers from trying their luck in riding him. On this occasion,
while Alexander was off exploring with the majority of his army, some raiders
from the northern steppes carried off Bucephalus and his escort as prisoners.
Alexander was so incensed that he sent word that if they were not returned,
every man, woman and child of that nation would be put to the sword.
The raiders, who had now seen the enormous size and might of the returning
army, realized this was not an empty threat. They returned Bucephalus and
his guards immediately, and also surrendered all their cities into Alexander's
hands. Alexander's noble response was to treat them with all kindness
and even to pay a ransom for Bucephalus.
Alexander also had connections with other Unicorns. One such beast, notable
for the gem at the base of its horn, was presented to him on his travels
by Queen Candace. There are also numerous Eastern accounts of him
hunting the fierce Karkadarm, usually shown as a one-horned ox or rhinoceros.
On occasion he also had to do battle with demonic Unicorns that were the
manifestations of hostile spirits. With all these Unicornic associations
it is ironic that Alexander should have survived all his battles only to
succumb to poison at the tender age of thirty-two, but
by then Bucephalus was no longer with him.
Legend and history agree that Bucephalus died in Alexander's last great
battle with King Porus of India on the banks of the Jhelum or Hydaspes, one of
the five great branches of the Indus River. Only the cause of his death
is disputed, whether it was from wounds, age or simple exhaustion.
Whichever it was, his demise marked a change in Alexander's fortunes. His
legendary luck seemed to desert him and his character,
which had begun to show signs of instability, took a rapid turn for the
Alexander won the battle against Porus, but only just. It was his last
great victory and after it his army refused to go any further. He was forced to turn
back, but his decision to explore the coast on the way led to thousands
of his troops perishing as they crossed the Makran desert in what
is now southern Pakistan. Plutarch puts the number at 80,000 men and, although
Alexander faced all hardships on equal terms with his men, the death toll
did much to undermine support for him.
Back in the heart of the Persian Empire he set about restoring order. He
employed some of his old magnanimity, but it was tempered by a good deal of
new harshness which shocked many Greeks and Macedonians. Then, tiring of
administration, he began organizing an expedition to circle
Africa round to the gates of the Mediterranean. it was at this point he
caught a fever which hardly seemed serious at first, but after ten days
of steady deterioration he died.
After all he had risked it was an ignoble death, and rumours of poisoning
soon began circulating, with the finger even being pointed at Aristotle as one
of the instigators. Alexander's mother had many suspects put to death,
but the full truth of the matter was never disclosed. And, sad to say,
not that many people wanted to know For all his astonishing achievements
it came as a relief to most of his generals and followers when Alexander
died. It meant they could settle down to enjoy the fruits of their labours
and carve up his empire just as described in Daniel's vision.