Alea iacta est
Alea iacta est ("The die is cast") is a Latin phrase attributed by Suetonius (as iacta alea est [ˈjakta ˈaːlea est]) to Julius Caesar on January 10, 49 BC as he led his army across the River Rubicon in Northern Italy. With this step, he entered Italy at the head of his army in defiance of the Senate and began his long civil war against Pompey and the Optimates. The phrase is still used today in Italy (Il dado è tratto) to mean that events have passed a point of no return, that something inevitably will happen.
Meaning and forms
The historian Frances Titchener has given a stylized description of the context of Caesar's pronouncement:
We know from [Caesar's journals] that Caesar is not taking this lightly. He knows that if he marches on Rome with his armies, then he is a public enemy, and that he will either have to win, or die. For a Roman patrician like Julius Caesar there is no life without military service; there is no life without service to the state. He cannot simply 'go native' and stay in Gaul, and he does realise that if he goes back to Rome, he would be killed. At this time the northernmost border of the Roman territory in Italy is the River Rubicon. Once someone crosses the River Rubicon, he's in Roman territory. A general must not cross that boundary with his army - he must do what the Romans call lay down his command, which means surrender his right to order troops, and certainly not be carrying weapons. Caesar and his armies hesitate quite awhile at this river while Caesar decides what to do, and Caesar tells us that he informs his soldiers that it's a little tiny bridge across the river, but once they cross it they'll have to fight their way all the way to Rome, and Caesar is well aware that he's risking not just his own life, but those of his loyal soldiers, and he might not win. Pompey is a formidable enemy. It's also impossible to avoid the fact that Caesar was attacking the state, and as a patrician Roman this would have been very difficult for him, equivalent to beating up your father. He wouldn't have done any of this lightly. Finally he makes a decision, it's time to go, and he uses a gambling metaphor: he says 'Roll the dice', 'Alea jacta est'. Once the dice start rolling they cannot be controlled, even though we don't know what it is as the dice roll and tumble. Julius and his men swiftly cross the river and they march double time toward Rome, where they almost beat the messengers sent to inform the Senate of their arrival.
— Titchener, To Rule Mankind and Make the World Obey
Caesar was said to have borrowed the phrase from Menander, his favourite Greek writer of comedy; the phrase appears in “Ἀρρηφόρος” (Arrephoros,) (or possibly “The Flute-Girl”), as quoted in Deipnosophistae, Book 13, paragraph 8. Plutarch reports that these words were said in Greek:
Ἑλληνιστὶ πρὸς τοὺς παρόντας ἐκβοήσας, «Ἀνερρίφθω κύβος», [anerriphtho kybos] διεβίβαζε τὸν στρατόν.
He [Caesar] declared in Greek with loud voice to those who were present 'Let the die be cast' and led the army across.
Suetonius, a contemporary of Plutarch writing in Latin, reports a similar phrase.
Caesar: '... iacta alea est,' inquit.
Caesar said: "... The die has been cast."
Lewis and Short, citing Casaubon and Ruhnk, suggest that the text of Suetonius should read Iacta alea esto (reading the imperative ESTO instead of EST), which they translate as "Let the die be cast!", or "Let the game be ventured!". This matches Plutarch's third-person aorist imperative ἀνερρίφθω κύβος (anerrhiphtho kybos).
By the first century AD alea refers to the early form of backgammon that was played in Caesar's time. Augustus (Octavian) mentions winning this game in a letter. Dice were common in Roman times, and generally known as cubus.
- On a possible alternate form of Caesar's pronouncement, the perfect imperative form: drweevil.org
- “To Rule Mankind and Make the World Obey,” Roman History course on tape/CD, for Barnes and Noble/Recorded Books. 2003.
- Perseus Digital Library Plut. Pomp. 60.2
- See also Plutarch's Life of Caesar 32.8.4 and Sayings of Kings & Emperors 206c.
- Perseus Digital Library Suet. Jul. 32
- Online Dictionary: alea, Lewis and Short at the Perseus Project. See bottom of section I.
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