Bucephalas, Hephaistion, & Olympias

By Linda McNulty, Madison Brazan, Bianca Pulido

When studying Alexander the Great and his empire, many often make the mistake of focusing only on Alexander himself, or upon the Diadochi following his death. However, Alexander did not cultivate significant relationships only with his generals, but with a few other key figures as well. In this section of the Roadrunners’ Guide to the Ancient World, we will explore three of these figures as they are depicted both in history and in myth, in order to form a more complete picture of the relationships that impacted Alexander and his life—his second-in-command, best friend, and possible lover Hephaistion, his mother Olympias, and his horse since childhood, Bucephalas.


Medallion depicting Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, part of a series to honor Roman Emperor Caracalla as the descendant of Alexander

The story of Olympias, wife of Philip II of Macedon and mother of Alexander the Great, is often clouded by myth and accusation if not eclipsed by her son’s own tale of greatness. However, it is important to recognize her individually, as a wife, as a mother, and more importantly perhaps as a calculating statesperson whose position was threatened by her husband’s practice of polygamy.

Olympias was the daughter of Neoptolemus, king of Epirus, and likely enjoyed dominance in Philip’s court because her son, Alexander, was treated as the heir quite early in life.[1] The mental deficiencies of Philip’s older son, Arrhidaeus, and Alexander’s superior education and regency in Macedonia[2] all worked to secure Olympias’ position in court until Philip’s marriage in 337 BC to a Macedonian noblewoman, Cleopatra. [3]A quarrel between Cleopatra’s father and Alexander over his legitimacy caused Olympias to withdraw with her son to Epirus until Philip’s assassination the following year.[4]

Though it is not likely she was complicit in the assassination of her husband, Olympias worked to secure her position and Alexander’s by having Cleopatra and her infant with Philip killed.[5] During Alexander’s invasions, she maintained her position in Macedonia against the current regent, Antipater, until tense relations caused a second retreat to Epirus in 331.[6] Though she was asked to be regent for her grandson, Alexander IV, she did not return until Antipater’s son Cassender, placed Arrhidaeus on the Macedonian throne.[7]

Olympias, whose return was initially supported by the Macedonian army, quickly lost popularity when she chose to secure stability for her family by torturing and ordering the deaths of Arrhidaeus (stabbing) and his wife (suicide by hanging).[8] She continued with the death of a selection of roughly 100 of Cassender’s friends and supporters, but her efforts to undermine Cassender’s leadership in Macedonia ultimately failed in 316 BC when a blockade in Pydna forced her to surrender.[9] There are various accounts of her subsequent death, but tombstone inscriptions indicate that her memory was revered well after her fall.[10]

Mosaic of Alexander the Great

Alexander and Bucephalas at the Battle of Issus, as shown in the famous Alexander Mosaic from the Roman House of the Fawn, c. 100 BCE.

Like a great many normal people, Alexander the Great had a beloved companion animal—his horse, Bucephalas. According to Plutarch, Bucephalas was a Thessalian horse whom Alexander tamed by virtue of his own courage and intelligence when he was just a boy. [1]  He took Bucephalas with him on campaign throughout the East and, again according to Plutarch, would frequently ride him into battle, although Alexander was careful not to tire out the horse too greatly beforehand because of his age—“While he was drawing up the phalanx in formation, reviewing the troops, or giving out orders, he rode another horse to spare Bucephalas, who was by now past his prime; but when he was about to go into action, Bucephalas would be led up, and he would mount him and at once begin the attack.” [2]

Apparently, Alexander so loved his horse that once, when his expedition was near the Caspian Sea, a local tribe captured Bucephalas for ransom and enraged Alexander to the point that he declared he would slaughter their entire village if Bucephalas was not returned safely to him. [3] Again, this source is Plutarch, and his accounts, while highly entertaining, are not always very reputable. However, this anecdote is probably true in conveying how attached Alexander was to his horse.


A coin minted for Roman-controlled Macedonia, c. the 200s AD. On the obverse is a helmeted Alexander, the text reading ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ, or “Of Alexander”. On the reverse side, Alexander is shown with the rearing Bucephalas. The inscription designates it as a Macedonian coin.Alexander did get Bucephalas back, if he had indeed been captured, and the horse lived until he was estimated to be about 30 years old, dying in 326 BCE after the Battle of the Hydaspes. Whether he died of injuries from the battle or from old age is disputed among the ancient sources, but what modern scholars do know is that Alexander’s grief was so great that he founded a city on the banks of the Hydaspes River in present-day Pakistan which he named Bucephalia in honor of his fallen horse. The city remains to this day, and is now thought to be either the town of Phalia or of Jalalpur Sharif.














Hephaestion was born around 356 B.C.E, the same year as Alexander the Great, in the capitol of Macedonia, Pella, to an aristocratic family. Like all Greek boys, he would have been educated and it highly likely that he was educated by the philosopher, Aristotle, alongside of Alexander the Great. This is how some many sources believe the two young men met and became close childhood friends.


The weddings at Susa; Alexander to Stateira (right), and Hephaestion to Drypetis (left). Late 19th-century engraving.

However, childhood friends are not the only thing Alexander and Hephaestion became. They became family by marriage when Alexander the Great gave Hephaestion his wife’s sister, Drypetis. Many historians have found the two men closer to lovers rather than simply childhood friends. He was by far the dearest to the king of all his friends [1] according to the historian, Quintus Curtius. During the campaigns across Greece, Hephaestion and Alexander went to the tomb of Achilles and Alexander laid a garland on his tomb while Hephaestion did the same to the tomb of Patroclus [2]. This is partially why the pair have been compared to the heroic lovers from Homer’s infamous Iliad. Now, the other reason has more to do with Hephaestion’s tragic death.

Around 324 B.C.E, Hephaestion fell gravely ill from a fever and Alexander the Great was absolutely devastated.  While the accounts of Alexander’s grief differs from each author who transcribes it, they can all agree on one thing and that is that his anguish was abundant. There are also different accounts on what Alexander the Great did after Hephaestion’s death. In Plutarch’s Life of Alexander the Great, he writes that Alexander killed the physician, Glaucus, because he believed it was his fault [3]. He also is said to have not appointed anyone else as commander of the cavalry, so that the “division of the cavalry was still called Hephaestion’s” according to Arrain’s The Anabasis of Alexander. While the modern world has no true way of knowing what the friendship of Alexander and Hephaestion truly was like, it’s unlikely the pair were merely friends. Whether they are believed to be lovers or not, Alexander the Great cared for Hephaestion more than any of his men and far more than simply a king to one of his generals.


Busts of Alexander the Great (right) and Hephaestion (left) at the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu, California. Made from Parian marble, dated at about 320 BCE

[1] Plutarch, The Age of Alexander. London and New York: Penguin Books, 2011. “Life of Alexander,” 6. Pgs. 284-5.

[2] Ibid., 32. Pg. 317.

[3] Ibid., 44. Pg. 329.


[1] Carney, Elizabeth, “The Politics of Polygamy: Olympias, Alexander and the Murder of Philip,” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 41 (1992): 171-172, accessed November 28, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4436236.

[2] Carney, Elizabeth, Olympias: Mother of Alexander the Great (New York: Routledge, 2006), 25.

[3] Britannica Academic, s. v. “Olympias,” accessed November 28, 2015, http://academic.eb.com/EBchecked/topic/427989/Olympias.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Carney, Elizabeth, Olympias: Mother of Alexander the Great (New York: Routledge, 2006), 44.

[6] Britannica Academic, s. v. “Olympias,” accessed November 28, 2015, http://academic.eb.com/EBchecked/topic/427989/Olympias.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Carney, Elizabeth, Olympias: Mother of Alexander the Great (New York: Routledge, 2006), 75.

[9] Ibid, 77.

[10] Edson, Charles, “The Tomb of Olympias,” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 18 (1949): 95, accessed November 28, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/146994.

Medallion depicting Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, part of a series to honor Roman Emperor Caracalla as the descendant of Alexander

[11] “Medallion with Olympias” by Unknown – Walters Art Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_-_Medallion_with_Olympias_-_Walters_592_-_Obverse.jpg


[1] Curtius Rufus, Quintus. Histories of Alexander the Great. Trans. Rolfe, John Carew. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard Univ. Press, 1946. Print.

[2] Arrianus, Lucius Flavius. The Anabasis of Alexander. Trans. Chinnock, E. J. Butler & Tanner, The Selwood Printing Works, Frome, and London. 1884. Print

[3] Plutarch, John Dryden, and Arthur Hugh Clough. The Life of Alexander the Great. New York: Modern Library, 2004. Print



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