Asterix the Gaul: Latin Jokes Explained

Ever wondered what the Latin bits in Asterix were all about?  Didn't go to a good school? Then you're viewing the right blog.  With the help of my friend Professor Ibrox, who speaks perfect Latin, I'll explain the whole deal.

Book 1 - Asterix the Gaul

1.

The story - Asterix has beaten up some legionaries.  They lick their wounds in Latin.

Prof Ibrox explains: 

"Accidence is not a typo; it's a real word. Obviously, the joke is that accidence sounds like accidents. Accidence is the part of grammar where verbs are conjugated: e.g. amo, amas, amat. It also covers words which can be declined (in the grammatical sense)... Declined... Do you see where this is going?

The first legionary says 'vae victo, vae victis', which means 'Woe unto the one who has been conquered, woe unto those who have been conquered.'  Victo is dative singular, victis is dative plural.  In short, he's declining in the grammatical sense.

"So when the second legionary says 'We decline', it brings the whole joke together.  Plus there's a natural association between 'decline' and Romans - as anyone who has tried to wade through Gibbon's seminal Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire will know."


2.

The story - Asterix and Getafix are having fun at the expense of the local Roman centurion, Crismus Bonus. He has threatened to have Asterix tortured if he doesn't give him the secret of the magic potion.

Prof Ibrox explains:

"Aut Caesar, aut nihil! It means 'either a Caesar or nothing'. Crismus Bonus's dream is to get the magic potion and use it to conquer Rome and install himself as Caesar. Through this quote he is saying that he'll stop at nothing to get where he wants - even torture.

"The quote became the personal motto of Cesare Borgia, the inspiration for Machiavelli's The Prince. Borgia had expansionist ideas and even had the ear of Leonard da Vinci - he planned to use da Vinci's ideas to boost his ideas. The main reason I bought Game of Thrones was because the blurb on the back said that the characters made the Borgias look tame."

3.

The story - Getafix has concocted his fake potion and for the Nth time in the book, Crismus Bonus wants a volunteer (this time, to taste the potion).

quid novi sursum corda

Prof Ibrox explains:

"The first legionary goes 'quid novi' which just means, 'What's new?' That's funny because 'I need a volunteer' is pretty much the centurion's catchphrase.

"The second one might be the most confusing Latin quote in the whole of Asterix. He says 'sursum corda,' which is a liturgy that means 'lift up your hearts'.

"It's an odd choice because it doesn't follow the 'what's new?' question. The Sursum Corda dates from the 3rd century. The only think I can think is that it's supposed to link to the way he's raised his head, because neither does it go with the third legionary saying 'so what?' Maybe it made sense in the original French, or maybe one of your readers will be able to solve the mystery."

4.

The story - Asterix and Getafix are still funning with the Romans - they've made some fake magic potion and fed it to the guy in the blue tunic. Crismus Bonus asks for a volunteer to get smacked in the chops (to test the magic potion's efficacy). His troops don't seem to have heard him...

Prof Ibrox explains:  

"The first guy is quoting from, of all things, the Bible in Latin - Ecclesiastes 1:2. Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas means 'Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.' The next guy says 'de facto', which means 'totally, dude.'  They are just making small talk instead of volunteering. 

"As is the 'quomodo vales?' guy.  He simply asks, how are you doing? Personally, I'd have volunteered. As a kid in Glasgae it was normal for complete strangers to give you a friendly uppercut. Just for laughs."

5.

The story - Asterix and Getafix have had enough fun with the Romans at Compendium, and have decided to go home. They are stopped at the gate by a guard - heavy with beard after drinking the fake magic potion.

Prof Ibrox explains:

"You shouldn't call it fake magic potion because it was really magic potion. It just had a different effect than the magic potion the Romans wanted. Anyway, the guard says Vade retro, meaning 'Get back!'

"It's actually short for 'get back, Satan' and was used in exorcisms from the middle ages until the Catholic church decided to enter the modern era and put a stop to such superstitious nonsense - in 1999! Vade retro could be said to invoke protection against any evil - in this case, the weakest Gaul in the village and one of the shortest."