Sometime around 10 January 49 BCE, Julius Caesar, with just one of his legions from Gaul, crossed the Rubicon, the river that marked the northern boundary of Italy. The exact date is not known, nor even the location of this most historically significant of rivers. It was more likely a small brook than the raging torrent of popular imagination, and – despite the efforts of ancient writers to embellish them with dramatic appearances of the gods, uncanny omens and prophetic dreams – the reality of the surroundings was probably mundane. For us, ‘to cross the Rubicon’ has come to mean ‘to pass the point of no return’. It did not mean that to Caesar.
According to one of his companions on the journey – Gaius Asinius Pollio, historian, senator and founder of Rome’s first public library – when he finally approached the Rubicon after some hesitation, Caesar quoted in Greek two words* from the Athenian comic playwright Menander: literally, in a phrase borrowed from gambling, ‘Let the dice be thrown.’ Despite the usual English translation – ‘The die is cast’, which again appears to hint at the irrevocable step being taken – Caesar’s Greek was much more an expression of uncertainty, a sense that everything now was in the lap of the gods. Let’s throw the dice in the air and see where they will fall! Who knows what will happen next?
27 February 2017
Words mean things, Julius Caesar edition
From Mary Beard's SPQR:
*Ἀνερρίφθω κύβος (anerriphtho kybos)