Taxi-drivers tell you all sorts of myths about history. (‘Yes, Blackheath got its name from the plague pits they dug there in the Black Death). The internet, it strikes me, is like a taxi-drivers’ convention. I’ve just come across this: ‘The phrase “the die is cast” has nothing to do with gambling or dice; instead, it refers to a mould (die) which has been cast (made).’
That would have come as a surprise to Suetonius, who recounts that when Caesar crossed the Rubicon he declared alea iacta est. Philemon Holland translated it, ‘The dice be thrown’, which would help modern readers unaware that the singular of dice is die. Indeed, confusion about dice as a plural or singular is constant in English, from the time of Caxton, who in his book on chess uses dice in the singular.
I fear to trespass on Peter Jones’s territory, for I would soon sink into a Grimpen Mire, but when Plutarch gives Caesar’s remark (in Greek) he uses the word kubos for ‘die’. Kubos gives us Mr Cube, the sugar mascot, and the Kaaba at Mecca, which is a little stone house 36ft by 42ft square, and 43 feet high, looking quite cubical in its smart black silk cover, the kiswah.
Suetonius’s word alea really seems to mean a game played with dice, rather than one of the dice thrown. There is a fine discussion of the social meaning of alea by Nicholas Purcell in Past and Present (1995). The die itself was called talus and the counters used were called tesserae. Cicero in his Cato Major says talos relinquant et tesseras, ‘leave dice and counters’.