Well-known sayings: “Alea iacta est”

“Alea iacta est” – with these words Caesar crossed the river Rubicon, as legend has it, and this phrase became a well-known saying. Today, we use it in the context of making a tough, non-retractable decision. But what’s the story behind this phrase?

At the beginning of 49 BC the proconsul and general Gaius Julius Caesar returned with his legions from Gaul. He defeated Vercingetorix, the leader of the rebellious Gauls, and conquered a large area from the French Atlantic coast to the North Sea and the River Rhine for Rome. The campaign lasted eight years and cost the lives of many people and even more gold, but in the end it also removed the threat posed by the feared Gauls.

“De Bello Gallico”

Caesar described his campaign against the Gauls in great detail in his book “De Bello Gallico” (‘On the Gallic War’). Up to this day, his book is considered a crucial source on the history of this Celtic people, who also feature in Travian. However, the book was written with a Roman audience in mind, since they paid for the campaign with their taxes and Caesar wanted to win them over for his cause. What he wrote, how he wrote it and also what he didn’t write, was to increase his reputation in Rome and support his political goals.

Upon his return from Gaul, the aspiring Caesar had to make a choice. His term as a consul was about to end and by Roman law applicable at the time, he as a province governor and incumbent general was not allowed to enter the center of the Roman Empire. In order to keep and extend his influence, he would need to be elected as a consul once again.

Since he could only run for the post of a consul in person, he had to lay down all other offices, so that he could enter Rome. This also meant the loss of his immunity and he had to anticipate that his political enemies would put up treason charges against him. Of course that would not be a good premise on which to be elected into the highest office in the state.

Does he or doesn’t he do it?

So Caesar faced a tough decision: Should he advance with his loyal legions and break the law? Or should he forgo his political ambitions and the power of the consular office?

He decided to cross the Rubicon river with his army. Even today we still say “he has crossed the Rubicon” if someone has undertaken an action that brings serious consequences with it and which cannot be taken back.

Lost in translation

Four reports about these events are still available, yet none of them are from a contemporary witness. They are all quoted based on hear-say and in parts have only been recorded centuries later. It is for example possible that Caesar, as an educated Roman patrician, would have made his announcement in Greek. His words could be the quote of a Greek author.

The literal meaning of “Alea iacta est” refers to a situation in which the die is cast, but the throw’s result is not yet known: Caesar has made his move, but the consequences of his actions are not yet clear, so the quote refers to a situation in abeyance. The phrase used nowadays does however emphasize that a decision is final and cannot be changed anymore, rather than a situation hanging in the balance.

On this occasion, his decision had a happy ending: The people welcomed the successful general and elected him as consul. He justified his breach of law with the fact that his political opponent Pompeius breached the law himself. Pomepeius left Rome in a hurry as he found out that Caesar had returned. Civil war broke out, which Caesar was only able to win after a couple of months. As a consequence, Caesar was elected to the office of “dictator” – a single ruler with a particular task and wide-ranging authority – for life.

Think about this when you next start a raid on your neighbors. Maybe you’ll cross your very own Rubicon…

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