Amid the banners, flags and symbols displayed on the Jan. 6 insurrection, it was unusual, particularly for a classicist like myself, to see some in historical Greek. The phrase molon labe, “come and take [them]”—a phrase attributed to King Leonidas of Sparta, in reply to calls for he lay down his arms—was on full show there, because it has usually been elsewhere, together with on the face masks of Marjorie Taylor Greene. Dozens of merchandise—T-shirts, decals, epaulets, bumper stickers, tattoo templates, and, oddly sufficient, noise-canceling headphones—now bear the slogan.
Above all, the terse Greek sentence—its brevity exhibiting why Sparta, located within the area known as Laconia, has given us the English phrase “laconic”—adorns weapons of each dimension and outline. Pistols bear it on their grips, rifles on their shares, semi-automatic weapons on their barrels and ammo clips. One gunmaker, the Swiss-German agency Sig Sauer, markets a handgun with molon labe inlaid in pure gold, as a part of its “Spartan” line of personal-carry weapons.
Leonidas allegedly spoke these newly distinguished phrases within the slender go of Thermopylae, 2,500 years in the past this month. He and his corps of 300 Spartans, together with members of different Greek states, had held the go for days in opposition to a vastly extra quite a few power of Persian invaders. However the Persians discovered a means round to the rear of the go, shortly surrounded the Spartans, and reduce off all hope of retreat. At that time, in keeping with Plutarch, an alternate of written messages came about. King Xerxes, head of the Persian military, demanded the Spartans give up their weapons. “Come and take them,” Leonidas replied. Xerxes then worn out the Spartan power and did precisely that.
For the subsequent two millennia, nobody paid a lot consideration to the phrase molon labe, at the same time as different Thermopylae tales bought broadly retold. (In one of many better-known ones, a Spartan soldier, warned that the volleys of Persian arrows would blot out the solar, replied that he was glad of the prospect to combat within the shade.) Then out of the blue, throughout this nation’s early historical past, it re-emerged from the obscure essay through which Plutarch, alone amongst surviving Greek writers, had recorded it.
A Revolutionary Warfare colonel defending Fort Morris in Georgia, John McIntosh, discovered himself outnumbered and surrounded by redcoats in 1778. The British commander despatched him a written demand to give up the fort. McIntosh returned what he known as “a laconic reply: Come and take it!” Evidently, he’d learn his Plutarch. The British, deterred by his bravado, declined to storm the fort. Later, the state of Georgia awarded McIntosh a sword engraved with the phrases “Come and Take it,” the beginning of the present craze for inscribing the phrase on deadly weaponry.
Texan settlers later gave the phrase even higher forex by placing it on a now-famous flag, beneath the picture of a cannon. The cannon had been lent by Mexico to settlers within the city of Gonzalez, and when a Mexican colonel demanded it again, in 1835, the settlers replied with the phrases of Leonidas. Two ladies of Gonzalez sewed the enduring flag as a strategy to encourage the rag-tag settler militia as they skirmished with Mexican troops, in a conflict that signaled the beginning of the Texas Revolution. Molon labe thus graduated from spears and swords to a gun.
The Gonzalez cannon, retained by the Texans, was delivered to the fortress on the Alamo and fired within the famously unsuccessful protection of that fort. “America’s Thermopylae,” because the Alamo siege has been known as, introduced new layers of that means to the phrases “come and take it,” or fairly reinvigorated previous ones. As soon as once more the phrase grew to become linked to a bloodbath and a defeat, by the hands of a foe thought to be overseas invaders. Its potent combination of militarism and martyrdom appeared to completely match the destiny of the Alamo, even when nobody there may be recognized to have used these phrases.
Quick-forward to latest occasions, when Laconophilia—admiration of Sparta as an ethical and political mannequin—has gained floor on the American proper and Thermopylae has taken on new relevance, particularly after the 2006 movie 300, an adaptation of a graphic novel by Frank Miller. “Come and take it” in the meantime has migrated from gun-rights placards, developed within the Nineties out of the Texas flag, to a extra common right-wing rallying cry. Alongside the way in which the unique historical Greek wording has been resurrected, giving the phrase added efficiency, as if it have been a type of incantation.
A lot could possibly be mentioned on the subject of 300, a movie that continues to generate debate lengthy after launch. In interviews its director, Zack Snyder, has denied having any political agenda, however followers of the movie have usually taken its musclebound Spartans as macho nativist heroes, particularly since they do battle with a grotesque, androgynous Xerxes and dehumanized Persian hordes. The movie turns the Greek defeat at Thermopylae into the prelude to a later victory; a ringing remaining speech delivered by Dilios, a Thermopylae survivor, evokes the Spartans to a decisive victory over the Persians (on the battle of Plataea in 379, which drove the Persian military from Europe for good).
Remarkably, Snyder made no use of the molon labe episode, however fairly gave Leonidas an identical second of defiance, additionally based mostly on historic sources, and an equally punchy tag line. In one of many movie’s extra troubling sequences, a Persian messenger—depicted, incongruously, as Black—delivers an ultimatum: Spartans should undergo Xerxes or face all-out battle. Leonidas ponders his reply throughout an extended, tense pause, then attracts his sword on the envoy. “That is Sparta!” he cries, as he kicks the Persian down a properly to his demise. The road has since change into a preferred meme.
The Spartans actually did kill two Persian envoys by throwing them down a properly, in keeping with Herodotus. However they later regretted that deed and acknowledged that they’d angered the gods by violating spiritual taboos. To appease the divine, they despatched two envoys of their very own to the courtroom of King Xerxes to supply up their lives in alternate for the lives that have been taken. What Herodotus presents as a grave, impulsive mistake is proven within the movie as a triumphalist taunt, with vaguely racist, or a minimum of xenophobic, overtones. It’s the spirit of molon labe taken to a brand new emotional stage.
The context behind molon labe might not be recognized to all who deploy the phrase, however many little question are conscious, partly due to Snyder’s 300, that it stems from a Greek battle in opposition to overseas invaders. Texans’ use of “Come and take it” of their combat in opposition to Mexico added a brand new layer of nativism to the unique legend, and the Alamo siege bolstered its connections to martyrdom. These overtones are what makes the phrase’s rising forex, whether or not in Greek or in English translation, a supply of deep concern. It’s a bitter-ender’s slogan, invoking a back-to-the-wall combat with no quarter provided. It casts one’s opponent as an outsider, maybe a barbarian, who should be scorned and defied, even when that outcomes, because it did for Leonidas, in self-destruction.
Possibly it’s becoming, in any case, that the phrase is discovered on noise-canceling headphones.