Latin Words and Grammar

Mihi Aqua Haeret: Cicero at a Stand

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Some­times when we are hav­ing doubts, or do not know what to do, it feels like every­thing stops. You hit a metaphor­i­cal brick wall, not know­ing where to go next. At times, you real­ly phys­i­cal­ly stop. In Eng­lish, you could say that you are at a stand or per­haps at a loss.

The Romans would instead say that the water stopped for them.

Cicero’s Stand

Cicero used this expres­sion of water stop­ping for him as he wrote to his broth­er Quin­tus in May 56 B.C. He told Quin­tus that he did not attend the sen­ate dur­ing a cer­tain day as Cam­pa­nia (a region in south­ern Italy, sur­round­ing Naples) was sup­posed to be dis­cussed and:

“in hac causa mihi aqua haeret ”

— Cicero, Ep. Q.

i.e. “In this ques­tion the water stops for me.” (or: “In this ques­tion, I am at a stand.”)

The debate Cicero did not want to attend most like­ly had to do with Caesar’s dis­tri­b­u­tion of pub­lic land in Cam­pa­nia, which had cost the repub­lic a major source of income. This, how­ev­er, is anoth­er story.

Down­load a record­ing of the passage Down­load an audio file of Cicero’s let­ter to his broth­er Quin­tus by click­ing here.

Cicero also used the expres­sion in De Offici­is, saying: 

“sed aqua haeret, ut aiunt”

— Cicero, De offici­is, lib III

Why Water?

But, why would Cicero say that the water stopped for him? What does water have to do with being in doubt?

Well, there are two expla­na­tions: The first is in allu­sion to water stop­ping in pipes or aque­ducts. The idea is that just like pipes can be clogged up so that the water can­not get through and hence stops, so does your flow of thoughts at times – bring­ing them, and you, to a stop.

The sec­ond expla­na­tion has to do with time: 

As the water in the expres­sion stops, time or the flow of ideas stops. It is a com­mon feel­ing that time stops when you are clue­less as to what you should do next. You black out, you get stuck, or if you are Roman, your water stops.

The rea­son for the water to stop is sim­ply explained by the fact that time in Rome was not rarely mea­sured in water.

Clocks for the Court

In the more com­mon­ly known hour­glass­es, one mea­sures time in sand, but there used to be clocks where water was used as well. The so-called water clocks were com­mon in Greece, and due to the Romans’ fas­ci­na­tion with the Greeks, they adopt­ed the use of water clocks. There were sev­er­al kinds and were reg­u­lar­ly used in court proceedings.

Cte­si­bius’s Clep­sy­dra from the 3rd cen­tu­ry BC. “Clep­sy­dra”, lit­er­al­ly ‘Water Thief’, is the Greek word for “Water Clock”.

Apuleius described one of these water clocks in his Meta­mor­phoses:

“Sic rur­sum prae­co­nis amp­lo boatu cita­tus, accusator quidam senior exsur­git et, ad dicen­di spatium vas­cu­lo quo­dam in vicem coli gra­ciliter fis­tu­la­to ac per hoc gut­ta­tim defluo infusa aqua, ”

— Apuleius, Meta­mor­phoses, lib. III

i.e. ”Next there was a loud shout of sum­mons from the crier, and an elder­ly man stood up as speak­er for the pros­e­cu­tion. In order to time his speech, water was poured into a small jar which had been fine­ly pierced like a colan­der to let the water flow out drop by drop.” (transl. Han­son, 1996)

A loss of Water

As water was used to mea­sure time, if you lost your water it meant the same as loos­ing your time. Hence Aquam per­do means to loose your time.


Apuleius. Meta­mor­phoses (The Gold­en Ass), Vol­ume I: Books 1–6. Edit­ed and trans­lat­ed by J. Arthur Han­son, 1996.

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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