Asterix and Caesar's Gift: Latin Jokes Explained

Book 21: Asterix and Caesar's Gift


The story: A drunken legionary insults Caesar. Instead of punishing him, Caesar grants him a small piece of land in Gaul. Everyone who's anyone knows that the German translation of 'gift' is 'poison', and so it is here with Caesar's Gift: The land contains the village where Asterix and Obelix live! But before the action turns to Gaul, we see the foolish legionary having an epic night out in the sidestreets of Rome.

asterix and caesars gift

Professor Ibrox explains:

"Andrew, I can't read it! Make the text bigger. I lost my magnifying glass in a game of Theistic Scrabble. Those Catholics are rotten cheats. They sneeze vowels and make up words."

vinum et musica laetificant cor

"That's better. Okay, we've got 'Vinum et musica laetificant cor.' That just means 'music and wine gladden the heart.' More of that in a moment.

"The phrase sounded biblical to me. I thought it was from Proverbs being as that's so full of contradictory sayings. 'Marry young, marry old; Treat your slaves well, treat them badly.' It doesn't know what it wants. But I checked and the quote's actually from the Apocrypha - Sirach, whoever that is. I was brought up a Protestant, so I shall refrain from commenting further on Catholic additions to the Bible. Or Catholic additions to the dictionary, which appear to be rife."

de mortuis nil nisi bonum

"In this bit we get a bit more about the wine and music that should gladden our heart. He is singing a Roman version of Little Brown Jug. Here's the original. See?

And when I die don't bury me at all,

Just pickle my bones in alcohol;

Put a bottle o' booze at my head and feet

And then I know that I will keep.

"But then he worries that singing about his alcohol-ravaged corpse might be bad luck, so he says 'De mortuis nil nisi bonum.' It means 'Don't speak ill of the dead.' It reads to me like a reflexive thing the legionary says every time he mentions a dead person. Like a superstitious person says 'touch wood.'

"People are weird about that sort of thing. Once in a museum in York I wanted to take a photo of some old Viking skeleton and the woman stopped me. She asked if I'd like my bones to be photographed a thousand years after my death. I said I was unlikely to mind, because I'd be dead. I said that if I were her, I'd be much more disturbed by the thought of having my bones broken one by one for being an interfering busybody and she started crying and called the police and there was unpleasantness. She was very old, and the incident visibly aged her. She's probably dead by now. Which brings me no sadistic pleasure. De mortuis nil nisi bonum and all that."


The story: Caesar has given the Legionary his gift - some of you might remember that gift means poison in German, because I just said it a minute ago - and the still-hungover old soak is more bemused than offended. His comrades are much more cheerful, having been given gifts they understand, like plots of land in Provence.

qui habet aures audiendi audiat

Professor Ibrox explains:

"The fourth legionary says 'Remember that time I looked the optio straight in the eye and I said to him, Qui habet aures audiendi, audiat? It's just a brilliant pun.

"Girardin, even a heathen like yourself should know the translation: 'he who has ears for hearing, let him hear'. A centurion's second-in-command was called an Optio. So this chap was giving his Optio a dressing down, telling him to pay more attention.

"You'll immediately recognise 'opticus' as the root of various English words, such as optician and optical. So when the centurion says he LOOKED at the OPTIO straight in the EYE you'd expect to ... SEE a bit more of that. Instead, the Latin phrase he uses is all about ears and hearing. Making the centurion either cleverly sarcastic or rather dim-witted. And since he's reliving this as one of the highlights of his career, I think we know which. 

"And talking of being dim-witted, you'd have to be pretty slow on the uptake not to realise that the phrase contains a gerund - audiendi - genitive singular from audio (to hear, not the car, which is Audi), while the main clause is audiat, a jussive subjunctive, let him hear, while the qui bit is a relative clause. Simples."


The story: Caesar's plan has worked well. The Gauls have turned against each other and there is something approaching civil war in the village. Vitalstatistix asks Getafix for magic potion so he can beat up his opponents. Getafix, the village druid, refuses. Asterix supports Getafix, much to the chagrin of his chief.

getafix refuses vitalstatistix
et tu asterix

Professor Ibrox explains:

"The world and his cat know Shakespeare's Et tu, Brute? But what the great unwashed do not know is that if Caesar really did say anything to Brutus, he said it in Greek: 'Kai su teknon', which means 'even you, my child'.

"Et tu... is a phrase which has seeped into contemporary culture like a beer stain on a sofa. A few years ago, during a brief player-led revolt against his training methods and tactics, Jose Mourinho looked around the dressing room at Inter Milan and asked all the unhappy players to raise their hands. One by one, they did, including his star striker.

et tu etoo

"Et tu, Eto'o? He claims to have said. My opinion is that the story is apocryphal. No surprise there - after all, Mourinho's a rampant Catholic."