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Elephants, Peacocks, and Horses: The Amazing Animals of Alexander the Great

Elephants, Peacocks, and Horses: The Amazing Animals of Alexander the Great

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Alexander the Great was apparently fascinated with everything that could be seen as a symbol of power. Stories about his interest in animals are well known too. He was probably intrigued by other species as magnificent creatures of the gods, as possible teachers, and whatever else he could read from their behaviors and appearances.

Powerful Elephants

Alexander likely saw elephants for the first time during the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. The impressive Persian war elephants fascinated the young king. It is believed that Persians brought about fifteen of these animals to the battle. When Alexander won it, he took all of them. He spent some time observing these animals, and it is known that he truly appreciated their strength and intelligence.

14th century illustration of Alexander being presented with elephants.

14th century illustration of Alexander being presented with elephants. ( Public Domain )

Due to his admiration, the image of the elephant was used as a sign of Alexander’s power. He even ordered a series of coins depicting the animals. Eventually, his army gained more war elephants and they were highly respected by his troops. When Alexander arrived to the current territory of Pakistan, his army was already very familiar with elephants.

Alexander the Great silver victory coin c.322 BC.

Alexander the Great silver victory coin c.322 BC. ( Public Domain )

He used elephants to win the battle of Hydaspes in 326 BC. Sadly, many of these magnificent animals died on both sides (King Porus also used elephants in his army), but the battle became one of Alexander’s greatest military achievements.

The phalanx attacking the center in the Battle of the Hydaspes by André Castaigne (1898–1899).

The phalanx attacking the center in the Battle of the Hydaspes by André Castaigne (1898–1899). ( Public Domain )

Bucephalus – Alexander’s Brave Companion

Alexander’s horse is depicted with him in a famous Pompeii mosaic. There is a story in ancient texts that explains how Alexander came to own the horse. Records about ancient rulers’ horses are rare, but Bucephalus was so unique, that even the greatest ancient historians wrote about him. According to Plutarch of Chaeronea (in translation by Mr. Evelyn):

“[6.1] Philonicus the Thessalian brought the horse Bucephalus to Philip, offering to sell him for thirteen talents. But when they went into the field to try him, they found him so very vicious and unmanageable, that he reared up when they endeavored to mount him, and would not so much as endure the voice of any of Philip's attendants.
[6.2] Upon which, as they were leading him away as wholly useless and untractable [sic], Alexander, who stood by, said, "What an excellent horse do they lose for want of address and boldness to manage him!"
[6.3] Philip at first took no notice of what he said; but when he heard him repeat the same thing several times, and saw he was much vexed to see the horse sent away, "Do you reproach," said he to him, "those who are older than yourself, as if you knew more, and were better able to manage him than they?"      
[6.4] "I could manage this horse," replied he, "better than others do."
"And if you do not," said Philip, "what will you forfeit for your rashness?"
"I will pay," answered Alexander, "the whole price of the horse."
[6.5] At this the whole company fell a-laughing; and as soon as the wager was settled amongst them, he immediately ran to the horse, and taking hold of the bridle, turned him directly towards the sun, having, it seems, observed that he was disturbed at and afraid of the motion of his own shadow;
[6.6] then letting 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,
[6.7] and when he was seated, by little and little drew in the bridle, and curbed him without either striking or spurring him.”

‘Alexander tames Bucephalus’ (mid-16th century) by Francesco Primaticcio.

‘Alexander tames Bucephalus’ (mid-16th century) by Francesco Primaticcio. ( Public Domain )

When the brave horse died, he received a burial worthy of a king. It is unsure if the horse died during battle or due to old age and natural causes. However, its death was a huge tragedy for his owner. Bucephalus was buried in a magnificent tomb and Alexander decided to create the city Alexandria – Bucephala on the site where the horse died (now the city of Jhelum).

Alexander taming Bucephalus.

Alexander taming Bucephalus. ( Public Domain )

Alexander's Beautiful Birds

When he saw peacocks for the first time, Alexander was overwhelmed by their beauty. He believed that they had to be birds worthy of the gods’ attention, so their feathers became another symbol of his power. This symbol was later adopted by Christianity to signify the pope’s power. It is still visible in some monuments and in the private coat of arms of several popes.

The peacock was an early Christian symbol of immortality and the Resurrection because the ancients believed that the flesh of the peacock did not decay.

The peacock was an early Christian symbol of immortality and the Resurrection because the ancients believed that the flesh of the peacock did not decay. ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

Alexander took some peacocks from Asia to his homeland. In fact, some authors have suggested that they appeared in Europe for the first time due to his decision to bring them to his palace. However, it is more likely that they arrived in Europe earlier - Alexander just hadn’t seen them before.

Alexander's Adventures with Nature

Humanity’s existence was still very dependent on nature when Alexander was alive. But Phillip II’s son decided to be greater than nature and tried to become a master of animals, companion of horses, and friend of elephants. He also appreciated lions and many other beasts.

Actually, Alexander’s story is full of different creatures. Although he wasn't afraid of getting close to wild animals, nature didn’t kill him. It was a human who poisoned him at age 33. It seems that Alexander was better protected by nature than his own guards.

‘Alexander explores the sea in a submarine.’ (1444-1445)

‘Alexander explores the sea in a submarine.’ (1444-1445) ( Public Domain ) This is one of the medieval ‘Alexander Romances’ detailing some of the adventures Alexander the Great supposedly encountered.

Top image: A statue by John Steell showing Alexander taming Bucephalus. Photo source: CC BY-SA 3.0

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Nicholas J. Saunders, The two Thousand Year Obsession to find the Lost Conqueror, 2006.

Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon: A Historical Biography, 2013.

The Legend of Bucephalus, available at:
www.pothos.org/content/index.php?page=bucephalus

Alexander and Bucephalus, available at:
http://www.livius.org/sources/content/plutarch/plutarchs-alexander/alexander-and-bucephalus/

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