Skopje’s Bronze Posse: Another Urban Myth Debunked

Big, bold and massively over-budget, the controversial city-wide improvement project “Skopje 2014,” forever changed the look of the North Macedonian capital.

A revitalized river walk and new, flashy museums and government buildings were the main focus. But a third emphasis was the construction of what seems an almost unlimited number of monuments depicting historical figures from North Macedonia’s past.

After looking at a plethora of these statues, we’re  convinced that most of these dignitaries did their work on horseback. It’s hard to walk a block without seeing a mounted patriot with his sword unsheathed, hat doffed or hand raised high in salute.

It would take a North Macedonian historian to figure out who all these characters were, and we made a stab at it on the internet. But the best we could come up with was an urban legend about equestrian statues. According to the legend,  the number of raised legs in an equestrian statue indicates the way the rider died.


Supposedly: if the horse has all four hooves on the ground then the rider died of natural causes.

One hoof raised means death caused by battle injuries. 


Both hooves raised means the rider died directly in battle.

And given the bronze posse, where better to check the veracity of this theory than Skopje’s beautiful main square? Because dominating this beautiful plaza is a colossal statue of North Macedonian’s favorite son Alexander the Great and his rearing war horse Bucephalus?

Alexander the Great astride Bucephalus

With Alexander’s brandished sword and Bucephalus’ raised forelegs, the pair must have been a fearsome opponent in battle. And because both legs were pawing the air, according to the legend, Alexander died in battle. This would have been an honorable end for one of the best military leaders of all time, but according to historians, it just didn’t happen that way.


The actual cause of Alexander’s death has been debated for centuries; the most popular being poison, malaria, or typhoid fever. But conspicuously absent from this list is being killed in battle.

Of course, this is only one example of a sculptor that doesn’t follow the rules, but this tradition has been investigated in both the US and Europe, and proven to be false.


So the next time that you see an equestrian statue there’s a good chance that the rider is dead. But you’ll have to look at the history books to find the cause of death, not how many of the horse’s legs are in the air.

Do you know of an equestrian statue that confirms or negates the myth? We’d love to hear.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri



We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

40 thoughts

  1. Who knew that Macedonia had so many historical figures? 🙂 It all looks a bit shiny and new for my liking but I wouldn’t mind a closer look. And I do like a good yarn, James. 🙂 Love to Terri!

    1. Thanks Jo. Some might say that tiny Macedonia, surrounded by much larger neighbors, is polishing its image. Well if statues of national heroes accomplishes this, then they’re well on their way. ~James

    1. Anita, while writing this post and reviewing the photos, I had a “duh” moment. When I was taking all these equestrian photos, I didn’t notice the no feet, one foot, or two feet aspect. I wonder if it all comes down to the sculptor’s skill at balancing a horse on 3 feet or two, or having to leave all four on the ground. ~James

  2. There’s the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on Rome’s Campidoglio, with one hoof raised, but he is meant to have died of natural causes, though he was away on battles.

    1. Bea, thanks for the perfect example further proving the point. Apparently, Washington, DC has more equestrian statues than any city in the world, and only 30% of these accurately portray the cause of death of the rider. ~James

  3. It does look a bit garish. Maybe it’s the sunlight on those gold accents? I like statutes but being surrounded might feel as if someone were breathing down my neck. 😀 😀
    Still, it would be a treat to visit in person. Thanks for sharing. Fabulous photography.

    1. Tess, opinions on the project are polarized, and as usual, lots of it has to do with politics. The thrust of the new building is right along the river, which is just next door to the old Muslim Quarter, so the contrast is stark. I don’t have a dog in this hunt, but as a tourist, even though it was very Vegas, I thought it was fun and interesting. ~James

  4. Looks like it might be the Calgary Stampede! I have never heard about the relation of legs raised to cause of death James. I can’t help chuckling at the thought of a sculpture with a horse statue on its back with all four in the air. Either a catastrophic event or an itchy back. One or the other. 🙂

    1. The Calgary Stampede is a great analogy Sue. There are cities with lots of equestrian statues spread out all over town. The difference in Skopje is that it’s a relatively small place and the statues are concentrated. BTW, Macedonia is an off-the-track destination that you and Dave would enjoy. ~James

      1. I bet we would James. Waiting to see if Dave has a job in the months ahead with this oil and gas down turn here. Could soon have lots of travel time on our hands for exploring. 🙂

  5. What a great story! I don’t think there are any equestrian statues here in Oaxaca – probably the only guys with horses were the conquistadores.
    I always wonder why (I’m sure I really know the answer) governments everywhere spend so much money on useless stuff instead of something that actually improves people’s lives.

    1. Marilyn, your point about horses and the conquistadores is right on. From what I’ve read, there were two significant things that enabled 65 Spaniards to conquer 65,000 Meso-Americans. One was guns, and the other was horses. The invaders were gods on earth, riding fearsome beasts with magic at their fingertips. Very sad but true. Thanks for bringing this perspective into the post. ~James

  6. All I could think was, “Those sculptors were spin-meisters extraordinaire. Who cares how he really died? We’re going to pretend he died in battle. Hooves up!”

    1. You’re right Linda. It’s just a bit of innocent posthumous marketing. The Macedonian government is making a statement about its past, and all these macho studs on horses certainly sends a message. ~James

  7. I’ve heard of that tradition in sculpture, the horses stance indicating the rider’s demise. So they don’t adhere to the tradition – good to know.

    1. Leslie, this was totally new for me. All these obscure Macedonia patriots were a struggle to sort out. And out of nowhere, comes the horse-leg code. As bloggers, we look for this meat every day … and it was good. ~James

  8. I love the story! Too bad it is more legend than truth. Giving some meaning to the amount of legs raised would create some order in understanding things. But, there is but little order – or sense – in this world. 🙂 I see that you are still following the horse topic!

    1. Looking for order in the universe: we humans are good at that Liesbet. And actually, this post wasn’t planned to continue the horse theme. I usually have a few posts that wander around in the back of my mind, and the eventually they bubble to the surface. The multiple horse photos were the subject, and the leg code was just a lucky discovery. ~James

    1. Alison, you’ll love this. You know there’s lots of contentious issues in this part of the world, and Alexander is one of them. He was born in Macedonia, but Greece and Macedonia are feuding about the use of the name “Macedonia” for their country. The Greeks claim that when Alexander was born, Macedonia was part of Greece. Soooo, to avoid conflct, the Macedonians call this statue “Warrior on a horse,” when everyone knows its meant to be Alexander. ~James

  9. I’d never heard this one! I see in another comment that DC has a bunch of these statues and, now that I think about it, there are several right here in my neighborhood! I’ll have to keep an eye out for (the many) others.

    1. Yep Lexie, according to what I read, you’re living in the equestrian-statue capital of the world. I’m sure there’s a book somewhere that has photos of all the statues with a bit of history of each. If there isn’t, there should be. That’s your free book idea for the day. 🙂 ~James

  10. “So the next time that you see an equestrian statue there’s a good chance that the rider is dead.” This set me to chuckling, James and Terri. I had never heard the legend before about number of legs in the air reflecting on the how the hero died. I can only imagine if the horse is on his back with all four legs up in the air. Squished would be the answer, I guess. Fun post. Thanks. –Curt

    1. Glad you liked the post Curt. Skopje really is a quirky place to visit, and this posse made it even more interesting. And BTW, you’re a curious guy, so you might like to know something else I learned while writing this post. A statue with a horse and rider is equestrian while a riderless horse is simply equine. You might need this at your next trivia contest. ~James

  11. Skopje’s centerpiece statue is officially called “Warrior on a Horse” and doesn’t necessarily depict Alexander the Great. There is much controversy between Greece and Macedonia and their claims on Alexander, among other things. I was told they don’t officially credit it as him, but everyone naturally assumes it is. The National Archaeology Museum in your pictures beautifully explains the rich past of this fascinating place with eons of history. It’s also a country of great contradictions, terrible pollution, poverty, and controversial leadership. Most of the people I talked to there were angry and resentful of the money spent on the “beautification” of Skopje. I was lucky to spend a year there teaching at the American School. The people are lovely, the food and wine delicious, and the countryside is stunning. It’s definitely a place to visit if you’re interested in “off the beaten path” adventures.

    1. Thanks for the comment Gail, and for dropping by the blog. And thanks for your personal perspective on Skopje 2014. We picked up on some of this resentment when we did our original post on the project. But I’m sure that living there for a year provided lots of these opinions first hand. It really is a massive building project, and so much of it is concentrated in the center that it does seem a bit over the top. Time will tell if it pays off for increased tourist dollars into the economy, which hopefully, will trickle down to help solve problems in the rest of the country. And I agree with you about the people. Everyone that we encountered was friendly and anxious to help. Also, we got totally addicted to the ajvar, and it’s become a regular part of our diet at home. ~James

    1. Sorry I let your comment slip through the cracks LuAnn. As you might expect, we have tons of equine statues in our neck of the woods, but it seems that equestrian statues have fallen from favor – probably with good reason. In Lexington, the horse is MUCH more important than the rider. ~James

  12. very interesting post again….but what I want to know is what if all four hooves are off the ground…I’m pretty sure, if I’ve done my research properly, that means they were abducted by a UFO. And you know what they say about people writing/rewriting history, eh…it happens.

    1. Sorry I let your comment slip through the cracks BF. I’m not sure of the exact quote, but it goes something like this: There’s what actually happened, and then these’s the history that gets written, and frequently, they’re not the same thing. ~James

  13. An interesting take, but we found a lot of those statues to be quite horrible.

    Sure, there were a few quirky ones (such as the lady diving into the river) which we took a liking to, but in the whole, it really came across as quite trashy…

    1. Not to everyone’s taste, that’s for sure Chris. In addition to the diving lady, there were some neat modern sculptures in the park near the Alexander statue (just through the mini-Arc de Triomphe). But most of the others were self-aggrandizing to say the least. ~James

    1. Joanne, writing this post got me to wondering who exactly decides how the statue will be done. Is it the artist or does a committee meet and say: Ok guys, how many legs do we want in the air? 🙂 ~James

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