(Inspired by this question.)

The common English understanding of Caesar's famous "alea iacta est" is "the die is cast", using a metaphor from the throwing of a (physical) die.

The Lewis & Short entry for alea, though, defines an alea as the game itself:

I. A game with dice, and in gen., a game of hazard or chance.

II. Transf., any thing uncertain or contingent, an accident, chance, hazard, venture, risk

Further confirmation of this is that I cannot find a single recorded instance of alea in the plural, at least in a classical corpus.

So, can alea refer to an actual physical die? If not, how do I refer to one?

  • 1
    Firstly, I'd have said that, to us as to Caesar, the words are normally understood as a metaphor for initiating an irrevocable action : certainly not to the throwing of a physical die. Secondly, your being unable to find an example using alea in the plural is, to me at least, a case of absence of evidence not being evidence of absence — though I wish that here were otherwise. In fact, the whole thing is pretty obscure, but you might get something from a glance at Smith's Antiquities under the heading 'Alea'(p.74 in the first edition).
    – Tom Cotton
    Jun 2, 2017 at 19:45
  • I edited the post to clarify the first point. As for absence of evidence, the point was not intended to be conclusive, but I certainly think it is relevant, considering that words like tessera have many recorded plurals.
    – brianpck
    Jun 2, 2017 at 20:45

3 Answers 3


To add to what Alex B. has already said about tesserae, there's a passage near the end of Seneca's Apocolocyntosis (14.4) that uses alea specifically to denote the game, whereas tesserae denotes the objects that you use to play it:

tum Aeacus iubet illum alea ludere pertuso fritillo. et iam coeperat fugientes semper tesseras quaerere et nihil proficere:

Then Aeacus ordered him [Claudius] to play dice using a dice-box with a hole in it. And Claudius was already beginning to chase the ever-receding dice, and was getting nowhere. [trans. Eden]

As for other terms for more than one die, Ovid's Ars amatoria (2.204) offers the lovely periphrasis numeri eburni for, I presume, tesserae:

riserit, adride; si flebit, flere memento;
imponat leges vultibus illa tuis.
seu ludet, numerosque manu iactabit eburnos,
tu male iactato, tu male iacta dato:

She laughs, you laugh: remember to cry, if she cries:
she’ll set the rules according to your expression.
If she plays, tossing the ivory dice in her hand,
throw them wrong, and concede on your bad throw: [trans. A.S. Kline]


Brill's New Pauly mentions tesserae (as well as talus) - see http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=tesserae&la=la#lexicon "a die for playing, numbered on all the six sides"


Suetonius quotes a letter written by Augustus that says

"Inter cenam lusimus geronticos et heri et hodie; talis enim iactatis, ut quisque canem aut senionem miserat, in singulos talos singulos denarios in medium conferebat, quos tollebat universos, qui Venerem iecerat."

"We gambled like old men during the meal both yesterday and to-day; for when the dice were thrown; whoever turned up the ‘dog’ or the six, put a denarius in the pool for each one of the dice, and the whole was taken by anyone who threw the 'Venus'" (transl. by ?).

Martial writes the following:

non mea magnanimo depugnat tessera talo,

senio nec nostrum cum cane quassat ebur:

haec mihi charta nuces, haec est mihi charta fritillus:

alea nec damnum nec facit ista lucrum.

("My dice do not contend with highhearted knucklebones, nor do sice and ace shake my ivory. This paper is my nuts, this paper my dice box; such gambling brings neither loss nor gain." - translated by D.R. Shackleton Bailey)


"Hac mihi bis seno numeratur tessera puncto"

Also, I've been able to find at least one example of the plural for alea (in the Loeb Classical Library):

"aut pugnaciter aleis certant, turpi sono fragosis naribus introrsum reducto spiritu concrepantes" (Ammianus Marcellinus)

"or they quarrel with one another in their games at dice, making a disgusting sound by drawing back the breath into their resounding nostrils"(translated by J.C. Rolfe)

For further details, see "Literate games: Roman society and the game of alea" by Nicholas Purcell (Purcell 1995).

We should also consult the TLL. The entry you need is https://www.degruyter.com/view/TLL/1-0-07/1_0_07_alea_v2007.xml (no access from home)

Incidentally, this is what Klaus Bartels writes in Brill's New Pauly (in the entry "dicta"):

"Caesar's “Alea iacta est(o)”, regularly misconstrued as "the die is cast", is more correctly translated as: "the die is (or is to be) thrown". This phrase, a verse of Menander's that was already proverbial, does not refer to the decision made by the fall of the die, but the decision for the boldness of casting it in the first place."


If I may dissent from the previous answers: "alea iacta est" surely means "the die (physical object) has been cast". Even if there is no other attestation in classical Latin literature. Once is enough to secure a place in the dictionary.

  • 1
    I wonder if this is why L&S offers the translation, "Let the game be ventured." I agree, though, that this does seem to refer to a physical die.
    – brianpck
    Jun 6, 2017 at 2:23
  • 3
    This is supported by the fact that the Latin phrase seems to be a translation of ἀνερρίφθω κύβος, which definitely refers to the physical object. It is a little odd if this is the only attestation of that sense, though.
    – TKR
    Jun 6, 2017 at 2:55
  • 1
    For the record, I agree that alea must mean the physical object in Caesar's line. My answer was merely to provide other words that denote dice and that have attested plural forms. I also agree, though, that it's odd that this use of alea seems pretty much to start and end with Caesar – at least in the literary evidence. I can't help wondering why he would use alea rather than tessera. Perhaps he just liked the sound of 'alea iacta est' better than 'tessera iacta est.'
    – cnread
    Jun 6, 2017 at 3:47
  • 1
    As a brief aside: the phrase from Suetonius is actually "iacta alea est." I'm curious why it has come down in the canon in a different order.
    – brianpck
    Jun 6, 2017 at 16:03
  • It is very possible that Caesar never said "Iacta alea est" - just like he never said "Et tu, Brute". The most feasible explanation is that this is how Suetonius translated the Greek phrase he found in Plutarch, Ἀνερρίφθω κύβος.
    – Alex B.
    Jun 7, 2017 at 1:07

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