Latin Proverb # 12 – Hastas abicere

If you ever feel like giving up, but want to express that in Latin, you should use the expression Hastas abicere.

Done and Defeated?

Hastas abicere, literally "to throw the spears", is an expression used when you’re done, when you quit in defeat or give up a contest. You use it 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

But where does this proverb/expression come from? None other than Cicero. Most likely he did not invent the expression, but it is from him that we learn it.

In 62 BC Cicero help a defence 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 by Marcus Tullius Cicero himself. Murena was acquitted of his crimes.

Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Marcus Tullius Cicero.

In his speech for Murena Cicero explained to the court why his friend Servius – 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.

Spears for the Stars

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

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?

The Tyger   from William Blake's  Songs of Innocence and Experience

The Tyger from William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience


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 analysed 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.


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.

Hastas abicere in other languages? 

English: Throw in the towel or throw up the sponge

Español: Tirar la toalla.

Português: Jogar a toalha.

What would you say in your language(s)? Or do you have some fun new versions of this proverb? Let us know in the comments below!

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