The Nisean Warhorse in History



Most horse lovers know the story of Alexander of Macedonia and his beloved stallion, Bucephalus, a horse so wild that only he could ride him. While Bucephalus started his life as racehorse of the Thessalonian breed, Alexander turned him into a quality warhorse. The Thessalonian horses were reputed to be the fastest horses in Greece. Xerxes during his conquest of Greece stopped in Macedonia long enough to challenge the legendary Macedonian mares. The Persian horses soundly defeated them. Bas relief of Alexander at the Battle of Indus Mounted on his fiery stallion, Alexander created the first successful Greek cavalry which he used to conquer the Persian Empire. One of his most famous battles, the Battle of Issus in 333 B.C., showed the efficiency of a well-trained cavalry. General Parmenion had to face the Persian cavalry, which was described by one author as having the fluid nature of an avalanche, devastating everything in its path. Alexander and his Companions took the day for the Greeks when he attacked the Persian center where Darius was waiting. Only a screening charge by his brother Oxathres saved the Persian king, who fled from the battlefield and demoralized his troops. The Persian cavalry became unnerved when they heard the announcement that the king was fleeing. In a panic, they turned to follow. The pursuing Thessalonian cavalry cut down 10,000 of them.

Alexander's conquest of Persia is well documented, but one has to look closely for the excerpts that discuss the imperial Nisean. Needing replacement and refusing to ride just any horse, Alexander went looking for the imperial stud farms, even holding towns hostage until they handed over the valuable horses. From Phrygia to Sogdiana, he captured horses and took them with him. Elwin Hartley Edwards in his New Encyclopedia of the Horse even called the famous Niseans of Ferghana, Alexander's Niseans. This may not be entirely wishful thinking. In 329 B.C., Alexander founded Alexandria Eskhata (modern Khojend, Tajikistan) at the mouth of the Ferghana Valley to protect his empire from marauding Scythians. He was closer to Kokand (75 miles away), where the Chinese obtained their horses, than he was to Samarkand, the capital of Sogdiana. In 328 B.C. Alexander was staying in Samarkand and during a drunken rage murdered General Cleitus, a man he owed his life to. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your perspective, his troops prevented him from taking his own life.

In 329, he married the Sogdian princess, Rushnak (Roxane), at a place called Balkh in what is now Afghanistan. In fact, his princess, renowned for her beauty, had been captured at Uoteppa, only forty miles from the future site of Alexandria Eskhata. From there, he took a side trip to Nisa (now in Turkmenistan). Why would Alexander, a passionate horseman, go to the place where the great Persian warhorse was bred? Could it be he needed remounts for his upcoming campaign against the fortress Massaga or his winter campaign in Swat Valley? His ego demanded he ride only the best? How about all of the above?

What about the Sogdian fortresses in the valley? Once Sogdiana became a reliable ally, there was no need to enter the valley and reinforce them with Greek troops. Messengers from those outposts routinely reported the news whereabouts of the wandering nomads to Alexander's generals. When he died in 323 B.C., his kingdom was divided among his generals. Egypt went to Ptolemy, the Middle East to Seleucus, and Antigonus claimed Greece. Farther east was the Greek kingdom of Bactria with its capital at Balkh, technically a part of the Seleucid Empire but quasi-independent since it was not as powerful as the other three. The last Greek king, Meander, died in 145 B.C., and by 130 B.C., the Yeuh-chih (A Tocharian and Scythian alliance) had taken control of the region.

A word about Bucephalus, Ox-head: Much has been made over why he was called that. Bucephalus This is a theory based on some historical facts. In 480 B.C. when Xerxes attempted to conquer Greece, he stopped by Thessalonia to see the famous racing mares of that region. Those much-celebrated mares lost to his horses. Thessalonia and Macedonia did not resist Xerxes' attempt to conquer the region and even helped him on several occasions. Xerxes' Nisean horses had several interesting traits that they passed on to their descendants. One of them was a bony knob on their foreheads often referred to as horns. It was well within Xerxes' nature, flushed with success over defeating this famous breed of racehorses, to leave behind a stallion or two of the Nisean breed to 'improve' the defeated line. The Spartans would do this exact thing after the Battle of Plataea with great success at the Olympics for at least a hundred years. Was Bucephalus called Ox-head because he was stubborn or because he was a handsome ram headed horse with 'horns' like an ox? If he was a descendant of the Thessalonian mares covered by the Persian stallions, it is every bit conceivable that Alexander's favorite stallion was indeed ox headed like the Carthusian, Lusitano, and Spanish Mustang.

Beverley Davis lives in Irving, Texas with her Colonial Spanish Horse, "Zeke."  She graduated with a BA in English from Northeastern University in Oklahoma and a MA in Communications from Louisiana State University.

Author Beverley Davis & Zeke


Bev is a frequent contributor to the Horse of the Americas and American Indian Horse Registries newsletters and websites.  She enjoys researching and writing about the history of the ancient horses and their benefit to mankind. 


Recommended readings: See Clio Reads for enjoyable suggestions on equestrian history.

For a complete list of works cited by Beverley Davis in her essay, email

The Nisean Horse, Part Two

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