March 18, 2003
What Caesar Really Said

My subtitle promises pedantry, so here goes:

Every educated person knows that Caesar said alea iacta est, "the die is cast", when he crossed the Rubicon. 'Jane Galt' (Asymmetrical Information), PejmanPundit, and Colby Cosh have all quoted it recently in reference to Bush's speech yesterday.

The source of the famous quotation is Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Book I (Divus Iulius), chapter 32. The last I heard, no one had been able to determine which of several small rivers south of Ravenna is the ancient Rubicon, but whichever it was was the border between Italy and the provinces: the Po Valley was still considered part of Gaul. Caesar could not legally bring his army into Italy, but he did not feel safe returning to Rome from the conquest of Gaul without it. Crossing the river with his army constituted a declaration of civil war.

In fact, he almost certainly said alea iacta esto, "let the die have been cast", not a statement of fact but a command, specifically a perfect imperative. Something very like a perfect imperative in English would be "have this done by Monday". It's a command, but with the idea of completion in it. In Caesar's case, completion means irrevocability.

The emendation was made by Erasmus, and was reargued by Robert Renehan in 1969 (Greek Textual Criticism: A Reader, 54-55). As he says, "the rare perfect imperative corrupted to a familiar perfect indicative" is "a trivialization of the commonest sort". (He also says "the general reluctance of editors of Suetonius to this day to print esto is incomprehensible to me". To me, too.) The main point in favor of esto is that Caesar was quoting a well-known Greek proverb which uses a perfect imperative. He most likely said it in Greek, anyway. Plutarch reports (Life of Pompey 60, Life of Caesar 32) that he said it before he crossed the river, and the proverb was a favorite of those about to embark on a risky undertaking. If anyone is wondering, the Greek is anerrhíphthw kúbos (with the W representing long O, that is, omega).

Of course, as I write in the two-day interval between Bush's speech and (we all assume) Gulf War II, alea iacta esto is the more appropriate reading: let's get this over with.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at March 18, 2003 09:51 PM

yow!!!!I love rare perfect imperatives. Although I have to admit to a certain fondness to an overly familiar perfect indicative.
And who says that philology ain't sexy?

Posted by: marduk on March 19, 2003 03:40 AM

This seems to have been a gap in my Latin education hitherto. Is there really a perfect imperative? I had always thought that esto was a future imperative, which is what my Bennet's wants to tell me also. I know Greek has an aorist imperative, but I've never heard a word about any such formation in Latin. What's the scoop?

(By the way, having read some Suetonius, the thought crosses my mind that it might have been he, not some later scribe, who mucked up the quote.)

Posted by: Evan McElravy on March 20, 2003 11:57 PM

"Esto" is indeed a future imperative. The perfect imperative is the periphrastic form "iacta esto", a perfect passive participle + the imperative. Greek often uses this periphrastic form for its perfect infinitives, too: see Smyth 714.

Posted by: DR on March 21, 2003 08:58 AM