History and Literature

Hastas Abicere – How to Quit Like a Roman

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

To throw the spears, or has­tas abicere in Latin, is an expres­sion used by the Romans when you they done when you quit in defeat or gave up a contest.

The expres­sion can be used when what­ev­er it is you have done before defeats you and you give up. In Eng­lish, you might say that you throw in the tow­el, or throw up the sponge.

Cicero’s Speech

In 62 B.C. Cicero held a defense speech for Lucius Licinius Mure­na who had recent­ly been was elect­ed con­sul of Rome. But before Mure­na could take office he was accused of bribery by Servius Sulpi­cius Rufus, who had been one of his com­peti­tors in the election.

Mure­na was defend­ed by Mar­cus Licinius Cras­sus, Quin­tus Hort­en­sius Hor­talus, and Mar­cus Tul­lius Cicero himself.

Mure­na was acquit­ted of his crimes.

Mar­cus Tul­lius Cicero

In his speech for Mure­na, Cicero explained to the court why his friend Servius, the accuser – for they tru­ly were friends and had stud­ied rhetoric togeth­er – was the weak­er can­di­date to the consulship:

“‘Videsne tu illum tris­tem, demis­sum? iacet, dif­fid­it, abiecit has­tas.’ Ser­pit hic rumor. ‘Scis tu illum accu­sa­tionem cog­itare, inquirere in com­peti­tores, testis quaerere? Ali­um fac iam, quo­ni­am sibi hic ipse des­per­at.’” - Mur. 45.2

i.e. “‘Do you see him sad and deject­ed? He’s down, he has giv­en up, he has thrown away his weapons.’” The rumour spreads. ‘Do you know? He’s think­ing of pros­e­cut­ing, he’s inves­ti­gat­ing his fel­low can­di­dates, he’s look­ing for wit­ness­es. Vote for anoth­er can­di­date; he has giv­en up hope.’”  (transl. Mac­don­ald, 1976)

In the same speech, Cicero also uses one of the most famous lines in Roman his­to­ry: Nemo saltat sobrius. You can learn more about that expres­sion here.

Throwing Or Thrusting

There are dif­fer­ent kinds of Roman spears, the has­ta was a spear about 2 meters (6 ft. 7) in length and used both as a mil­i­tary weapon as well as in the glad­i­a­tor are­nas. The spear was used not for throw­ing but for thrusting.

I’ll say that again: A has­ta is not to be thrown. It is to be thrust.

Throw­ing your has­ta meant giv­ing up.

(If you’re deter­mined to throw a Roman spear — use the pilum.)

Spears For The Stars

The expres­sion did not dis­ap­pear into obliv­ion after the fall of the Roman Empire:

The Tyger From William Blake’s Songs Of Inno­cence And Experience

The Eng­lish poet William Blake was no stranger to the Latin expres­sion, Has­tas abicere, or so one can sus­pect see­ing that he did­n’t use the Eng­lish equiv­a­lent to the expres­sion, but rather a lit­er­al trans­la­tion of it in 2 of his poems:

In one of Blake’s most famous poems The Tyger, lines 17–20 reads:

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

William Blake, The Tyger, 17–20

Blake also used the phrase in his unfin­ished epic poem Vala or The four Zoas:

I went not forth: I hid myself in black clouds of my wrath;
I call’d the stars around my feet in the night of councils dark;
The stars threw down their spears and fled naked away.
We fell. I siez’d thee, dark Urthona. In my left hand falling.

The Tyger has been ana­lyzed and pon­dered about with­out agree­ment for cen­turies, espe­cial­ly the lines quot­ed here with the throw­ing down of spears. In the sec­ond poem it is how­ev­er quite clear that it is the same expres­sion – Has­tas abicere – with the same mean­ing; to give up. What we don’t know is whether or not Blake was using a ”Latin­ism” on pur­pose or not.

References

Cicero. In Catili­nam 1–4. Pro Mure­na. Pro Sul­la. Pro Flac­co. Trans­lat­ed by C. Mac­don­ald. Loeb Clas­si­cal Library 324. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1976.

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Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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