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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2004-04-27)

Here in South Africa we have just endured a General Election, an event entirely lacking in entertainment value. However, it did cause me to think about why we “cast” votes.

“Cast” has a respectable and simple derivation from Old Norse “kasta”, to throw. It has quite a long entry in the Chambers Dictionary, listing about 16 distinguishable meanings in current use, most of them with some connection to the act of throwing, plus two or three archaic or local ones. To consider a few of them, think of casting a line, a play (or an actor in a play), doubt (on something), a shadow, a horoscope, the skin (of a snake) and a spell. There are many more.

One of them is “to shape or mould (metal, plastic etc)”, producing a casting – a chunk of metal or plastic that has solidified from a molten state in a mould of a desired shape. This led me to believe for a long time that the expression “the die is cast” derived from metal-working, since one of the meanings of “die” is “a stamp for impressing coin, etc.” But of course that’s the wrong meaning in this context; the die we want is synonymous with “dice”, the small cube with numbered faces, and “the die is cast” simply means that the dice has, or have, been thrown and the outcome, whatever it is, is now inevitable.

This expression has probably been used countless times over the years, but on one occasion a long time ago it was said with truly momentous consequences.

In the year 50 B.C. Rome was in turmoil. The city was under the nominal control of Pompeius, Julius Caesar’s former ally (and son-in-law), but riotous mobs of Caesar’s supporters fought in the streets with those of Pompeius. Caesar was on the march from his province of Cisalpine Gaul (“Gaul this side of the Alps”). The Senate decreed that Caesar should abandon his command and dismiss his army before entering the city to stand for the office of consul. Caesar replied that he would certainly do so if Pompeius would do the same. Pompeius had no intention of doing anything of the kind.

The dividing line between Caesar’s province and “Italia”, Rome’s immediate sphere of influence, was a small river called the Rubicon. If Caesar crossed the river with an armed force, his action would be regarded as hostile, a direct attack upon the city.

In January 49 B.C. Caesar’s force – a single legion, but with more to follow – reached the bank of the Rubicon and halted, while Caesar weighed up the consequences of what he planned to do. The story goes that a shepherd-boy was sitting on the bank of the river, playing on a reed-pipe that he had made, and some of the soldiers chatted with him, asking him to play for them. Laughing, the boy climbed up to stand in front of the legion and started marching across the river, playing as he went. Jocularly, a few of the soldiers, then more and more, fell into line behind him. Caesar, his decision taken out of his hands, murmured, “Alea iacta est” – the die is cast - and took his army into Rome, and into civil war.

The result? Pompeius had fled with his army, and Caesar’s forces met no resistance. Caesar pursued him and vanquished him at the battle of Pharsalia in Thessaly. Pompeius’s subsequent death left Caesar as the effective ruler of Rome. In 46 B.C. he was proclaimed Dictator for ten years. The Roman Republic crumbled; Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C. and the Roman Empire was born, with Caesar’s great-nephew Octavius as its first emperor.

Five years earlier, the die had indeed been cast.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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