Alea Jacta Est word balloon, also with Caesar's head

The Asterix Agenda: “Alea Jacta Est” – What Does It Even Mean?

This one goes out to all you word nerds out there. This takes a sudden turn halfway through into extreme nit-pickiness.  You’ve been warned, all ye who enter here.  

One of the Latin phrases that is repeated in the Asterix books is “Alea jacta est.”  It’s invoked by the Romans on numerous occasions.

The phrase is originally attributed to Julius Caesar, who is to Asterix what the Shredder is to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: the always-present antagonist, though not always the bad guy in every story.  Actually, Caesar is a little more likable than Shredder.  Caesar has the occasional show of respect for his enemies, and often shows them some degree of mercy (when it’s politically expedient).

Shredder is just a meanie.

In any case, “Alea jacta est” means “The die is cast.”  You’ve probably heard that phrase.  It’s not uncommon since Caesar coined it.

Or did he?

But Is It Historically Correct?

Yes, “Asterix” is not an historical novel.  It’s a comedy book.  It plays fast and loose with things, and can occasionally be downright anachronistic.

Julius Caesar is quoted as saying “alea jacta est” in 49 BC.  Remember, these years are counting down to the year 1 B.C. (which is followed by 1 A.D.).  So the year 49 BC came a year after 50 BC, which is when “Asterix” supposedly takes place.

Or maybe not.  “Asterix the Legionary” is clearly set after that, perhaps as late as 46 BC.  Depending on the time scale of “Asterix,” it’s possible that all instances of him saying the phrase are chronologically correct.

Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, a/k/a Suetonius, born in 69 A.D., wrote biographies of twelve different Caesars in his life. Some chapters of his Julius Caesar book are lost, sadly, but what remains gives us lots of juicy details.

Of course, they’re all written nearly 100 years after the fact, so there might be some shades of truth to some of the facts, but it’s what we have. So, we shall run with it.

Wait, What Was Happening in 49 BC?

The Gallic Wars were over. Vercingetorix laid down his sword to Caesar in 52 BC.  The last of the battles finished over the following year.  The Romans now controlled most of Europe.

Ave, Caesar!

But things had changed in Rome while Julius Caesar was marching across Europe and winning the Gallic Wars.  For starters, his biggest political pal, Pompey, defected to the opposition in the Senate. A third pal in that relationship had recently died, as had Caesar’s daughter, who had married Pompey.

Caesar, being a fan of good customer service, then offered a niece to Pompey in exchange, but it was too late.  Pompey had defected and wasn’t coming back. (In fact, he married the daughter of another political rival to Caesar.)

The Roman Senate stood against Caesar.

They ordered him to step away from the military he had led in the war and return to Rome, where his term as governor had ended during his march across Europe.

Julius Caesar was stubborn.  He didn’t return home to lose his job.  Instead, he started a civil war.  Perfectly reasonable and understandable. When politicians stand against you while you control an army that just killed a million people, why would you listen to politicians?

So Caesar went to Pompey’s home town and started a war.  Hell hath no fury like a Caesar scorned.  (I think that’s another Shakespeare saying…)

Of importance to this article’s love of language, I should mention the name of the river Caesar crossed over to enter Italy from the North.  The Rubicon. Yes, this is also the birth of the phrase, “Crossing the Rubicon,” which has a meaning very similar to “the die is cast.”

By the way, Caesar won that Civil War. And Egypt’s leader, Ptolemy, beheaded Pompey and presented it to Caesar.

Uderzo completely disregards this timeline in “Asterix and the Actress.”

In Context

Caesar is said to have said “alea jacta est” as his troops crossed through the Rubicon River.

Here’s a translation of that section of “The Lives of the Twelve Caesars”.  To set it up: Caesar stands at the Rubicon, wondering whether he should cross it with his troops and start a civil war or not.

Then, this happened:

While he was thus hesitating, the following incident occurred. A person remarkable for his noble mien and graceful aspect, appeared close at hand, sitting and playing upon a pipe. When, not only the shepherds, but a number of soldiers also flocked from their posts to listen to him, and some trumpeters among them, he snatched a trumpet from one of them, ran to the river with it, and sounding the advance with a piercing blast, crossed to the other side. Upon this, Caesar exclaimed, “Let us go whither the omens of the Gods and the iniquity of our enemies call us. The die is now cast.”

Or, from another translation:

“Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast.”

I sometimes wonder if he consulted the sacred chickens before making this decision…

The Shocking Twist!

Asterix the Gaul begins "Alea Jacta Est"
Asterix the Gaul” — the first time the phrase is said in the series

Caesar didn’t say it first.  He was quoting a much older Greek saying.  The Greek gentleman’s name was Menander, who died in 290 BC. As a dramatist, he wrote lots of good quotes:

  • “Let bravery be thy choice, but not bravado.”
  • “He who labors diligently need never despair; for all things are accomplished by diligence and labor.”
  • “I call a fig a fig, a spade a spade.”
  • “Whom the god love dies young.”
  • “Bad company corrupts good character.”  (Was he referring to YouTube comments?)
  • “It is not white hair that engenders wisdom.”  (I was counting on that.  Crap.)

The list goes on.  They might not be familiar, but they’re rather good.  The BrainyQuote site has a good listing.

So it’s possible that Asterix and his group knew it from there. They’re very well-traveled, after all.  Maybe they traded grape leaves or olive oil or something?

Or, maybe — just maybe — it’s a bit of an anachromism.

It Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

“The die is cast” indicates that the situation has passed the point of no return.  The situation has gone so far that there is no going back.

But that’s not what Caesar meant when he said it in 49 BC.  When he said it, he meant something close to “the game is afoot.”   That phrase, by the way, did not originate with Sherlock Holmes.  It came from Shakespeare, of course.  Specifically, it can be found in “King Henry IV, Part 1,” which is everyone’s favorite play, right?

“Before the game is afoot, thou still let’st slip.”

Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?

In other words, the game is just starting, not that it’s too far to go back.  It’s a different degree of the same thing, so close enough, I suppose.

But, Wait, It’s Still Wrong?!?

It might be a bad translation on Suetonius’ part.

If Caesar was quoting his favorite Greek poet, then the correct phrase translates to “Let the die be cast” and the proper Latin expression of that is “acta alea esto”.

Just doesn’t have the same ring, though, does it?

There are several theories for what Caesar actually said, and you can read this Quora answer for a summary of some of them.

I’m Not Done Nit-Picking Yet

There was no letter “J” in the Latin alphabet at the time of Caesar.

They only had an “I”, which did double duty (as we see it now) for sounds like “I” and “J”.  The “J” was added hundreds of years later, around 1500 AD, in German.

So Iulius Caesar would really have said “alea iacta est.”  It’s pronounced the same — pronouncing the letter in its proper context — but looks different because the letter was still 1500 years away.

For more fun with the letter “J”, listen to this “J”-centered episode of Omnibus, the podcast hosted by Ken Jennings and John Roderick

One Last Thought for the Gamers In the Crowd

Yes, this means the Ancient Romans had dice for some of their games.  The Greeks claim to have invented dice around 400 B.C., but India, China, and Egypt have older claims. So does Iraq.

What is “alea,” though? It’s an ancient form of the game we know today as backgammon.  It was created by a Greek soldier from the Trojan War by the name of Alea.  Naturally.

It got to be quite popular in Ancient Rome, even after they outlawed gambling.

Trivia For My Musically-Inclined Friends

“Alea Jacta Est” is also the name of the 2004 album from Spain’s favorite power metal band, War Cry.

Rawk! \m/

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