A Roman die, made from lead

Ālea iacta est ("The die is cast") is a variation of a Latin phrase (iacta alea est [ˈjakta ˈaːlɛ.a ˈɛs̺t]) attributed by Suetonius to Julius Caesar on 10 January 49 BCE, as he led his army across the Rubicon river 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, either in the original Latin or in translation, is used in many languages to indicate that events have passed a point of no return. It is now most commonly cited with the word order changed ("Alea iacta est") rather than in the original phrasing. The same event inspired another idiom with the same meaning, "crossing the Rubicon".

Meaning and forms

Caesar was said to have borrowed the phrase from Menander, the famous Greek writer of comedy, whom he appreciated more than the Roman playwright Terence.[1][2] The phrase appears in Ἀρρηφόρος (transliterated as Arrephoros, or possibly, The Flute-Girl), as quoted in Deipnosophistae, paragraph 8.[3] Plutarch reports that these words were said in Greek:

The motto of the Hall family from Shackerstone reads jacta est alea.

Ἑλληνιστὶ πρὸς τοὺς παρόντας ἐκβοήσας, «Ἀνερρίφθω κύβος», [anerríphthō kýbos] διεβίβαζε τὸν στρατόν.[4]

He [Caesar] declared in Greek with loud voice to those who were present "Let a die be cast" and led the army across.

— Plutarch, Life of Pompey, 60.2.9[5]

Suetonius, a contemporary of Plutarch writing in Latin, reports a similar phrase.

Caesar: "... iacta alea est," inquit.[6]
Caesar said, "The die has been cast."

— Suetonius, Vita Divi Iuli (The Life of the Deified Julius), 121 AD, paragraph 32

Lewis and Short,[7] citing Casaubon and Ruhnk, suggest that the text of Suetonius should read iacta alea esto (reading the third-person singular future imperative esto instead of the present one est), which they translate as "Let the die be cast!", or "Let the game be ventured!". This matches Plutarch's use of third-person singular perfect middle/passive imperative of the verb ἀναρρίπτω,[8] i.e. ἀνερρίφθω κύβος (anerríphthō kýbos, pronounced [anerːípʰtʰɔː kýbos]).

In Latin alea refers to a game with dice and, more generally, a game of hazard or chance. Dice were common in Roman times and were usually cast three at a time. There were two kinds. The six-sided dice were known in Latin as tesserae and the four-sided ones (rounded at each end) were known as tali.[9] In Greek a die was κύβος kybos.[10]

See also


  1. ^ Grillo, Luca; Krebs, Christopher B., eds. (2018). The Cambridge Companion to the Writings of Julius Caesar. Cambridge University Press. pp. 208–209.
  2. ^ Magnelli, Enrico, Opinioni antiche sullo stile di Menandro, in Casanova Angelo (ed.), Menandro e l’evoluzione della commedia greca: atti del convegno internazionale di studi in memoria di Adelmo Barigazzi, Firenze 2014, pp. 147-148.
  3. ^ Book 13
  4. ^ Perseus Digital Library Plut. Pomp. 60.2
  5. ^ See also Plutarch's Life of Caesar 32.8.4 and Sayings of Kings & Emperors 206c.
  6. ^ Perseus Digital Library Suet. Jul. 32
  7. ^ alea. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary on Perseus Project.
  8. ^ ἀναρρίπτω. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  9. ^ alea. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary on Perseus Project.
  10. ^ κύβος.