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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking


Ancient horse statue - image used under a Creative Commons licence and is by Visual Media

Ancient horse statue - image used under a Creative Commons licence and is by Visual Media

Take a second to imagine Alexander the Great’s horse. It may help to know he was named Bucephalus which translates as Oxhead. It conjures a mental image of a warhorse with a battering ram of a head, with a diminutive (his true height remains a subject of debate) young conqueror astride it bowling his adversaries over in the middle of a dust and blood battlefield.

You probably haven’t pictured his ugly equine atavism, vestigial toes.

Toes on a horse are an evolutionary legacy akin to human tailbones and gills in womb. Embryos of modern horses develop the rudiments for three toes in utero. Ordinarily, the middle toe will eventually outgrow the outer ones which then become splint bones. This central toe is then the one which will support the horse through contact with the ground, ie the hoof. Bucephalus’ atavism made him a polydactyl, which means having more than one toe; his toes toes did not develop in the normal manner during gestation.

The legend of Bucephalus’ mutation was nurtured, imbuing the horse and his owner with mythical properties. The toes, in some way, embodied the outstanding nature of his master’s life, as if everything he touched was extraordinary. Centuries later Julius Caesar hung on the coattails of this myth by sourcing a three-toed horse and protesting that it would let none other than the man himself ride it.

The horses of these two ancient potentates were propagandistic symbols – the contemporary equivalent of an armoured Hummer or Obama’s Beast. They were chosen simply to show how unique their riders were, as tangible, physical symbols that could be woven into their legacy while simultaneously pointing toward their destiny. Horses were, until the twentieth century a powerful symbol. They were a weapon of war, a means of transport and an expensive possession.

Would Alexander have been Great if he had ridden a lovely piebald mare called Flossie?

Caesar’s Horse from a Triumph of Caesar (1514), Attributed to Jacopo di Stefano Schiavone, tin-glazed earthenware maiolica dish, Fitzwilliam Museum

Caesar’s Horse from a Triumph of Caesar (1514), Attributed to Jacopo di Stefano Schiavone, tin-glazed earthenware maiolica dish, Fitzwilliam Museum

Caesar, in particular understood, the use and power of symbols, in creating his own myth. To show his being born into wealth and power he told of how he was born on his family’s lands. This also curried favour in a state concerned with agrarian matters. He chose the horse to relate his own intentions and capabilities to Alexander’s. Julius Caesar told how the horse could only be ridden by himself, he was the anointed one, Rome could only succeed through him. This again echoes the Alexander myth – the story was put about that Alexander had to tame Bucephalus himself because no-one else could.

In his sword-in-the-stone moment Alexander learns that it has been prophesised that the tamer of the horse will rule the world. Handy, that.

Incidentally, a quick search online reveals an astonishing number of people believing horses still had not evolved toes by Alexander Great’s time. Or even that they had “extra toes”. This is a slight miscategorisation by these extra digit fanatics; they are categorising the entire hoof structure as a single toe, as that is its evolutionary origin. On the other hand, those who believe that hoofs have only evolved within the last two and a half millennia, simply defy belief and would be better off ignored in the hopes that they will pack up and leave the internet.

Choosing a footloose, fancy-free mount was more common than you might suppose. Other supposed examples include:

  • The Duke of Wellington’s famed charger Copenhagen
  • Napoleon Bonaparte’s Marengo
  • Robert E. Lee’s horse Traveller

Also worth a mention was Caligula’s horse Incitatus. This poor horse was the lamest example of an exalted equine. In celebrating his horse Caligula simply copied his predecessor, Caesar, fully realising that he in turn had only copied the Macedonian king. Caligula’s horse was fed gold flakes at his own dinner parties. Incitatus even had normal hoofs, the poor proletarian.

Galis, F. and R.A. Jenner (2001). The evolution of individuality and conflict mediation. Trends Ecol. Evol.16, 541.
Twelve Emperors – Suetonius
Atavisms – The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Hoxd-13, Evolutionary Developmental Biology
Ancient Times blog on Caesar’s Fables
Bucephalus has his own Wikipedia entry
Caligula’s polydactyl horse

This article was posted by on Thursday, July 28th, 2011 at 16:12.
It is archived in Culture, History, Myth, Wild Places and tagged , , , , , , , .

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