Amid the banners, flags and emblems displayed at the Jan. 6 insurrection, it was strange, especially for a classicist like myself, to see some in ancient Greek. The phrase molon labe, “come and take [them]”—a phrase attributed to King Leonidas of Sparta, in reply to demands he lay down his arms—was on full display there, as it has often been elsewhere, including on the face masks of Marjorie Taylor Greene. Dozens of products—T-shirts, decals, epaulets, bumper stickers, tattoo templates, and, oddly enough, noise-canceling headphones—now bear the slogan.
Above all, the terse Greek sentence—its brevity showing why Sparta, situated in the region called Laconia, has given us the English word “laconic”—adorns guns of every size and description. Pistols bear it on their grips, rifles on their stocks, semi-automatic weapons on their barrels and ammo clips. One gunmaker, the Swiss-German firm Sig Sauer, markets a handgun with molon labe inlaid in 24-karat gold, as part of its “Spartan” line of personal-carry weapons.
Leonidas allegedly spoke those newly prominent words in the narrow pass of Thermopylae, 2,500 years ago this month. He and his corps of three hundred Spartans, along with members of other Greek states, had held the pass for days against a vastly more numerous force of Persian invaders. But the Persians found a way around to the rear of the pass, quickly surrounded the Spartans, and cut off all hope of retreat. At that point, according to Plutarch, an exchange of written messages took place. King Xerxes, head of the Persian army, demanded the Spartans surrender their weapons. “Come and take them,” Leonidas replied. Xerxes then wiped out the Spartan force and did exactly that.
For the next two millennia, no one paid much attention to the phrase molon labe, even as other Thermopylae tales got widely retold. (In one of the better-known ones, a Spartan soldier, warned that the volleys of Persian arrows would blot out the sun, replied that he was glad of the chance to fight in the shade.) Then suddenly, during this country’s early history, it re-emerged from the obscure essay in which Plutarch, alone among surviving Greek writers, had recorded it.
A Revolutionary War colonel defending Fort Morris in Georgia, John McIntosh, found himself outnumbered and surrounded by redcoats in 1778. The British commander sent him a written demand to surrender the fort. McIntosh returned what he called “a laconic reply: Come and take it!” Evidently, he’d read 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 words “Come and Take it,” the start of the current craze for inscribing the phrase on lethal weaponry.
Texan settlers later gave the phrase even greater currency by putting it on a now-famous flag, below the image of a cannon. The cannon had been lent by Mexico to settlers in the town of Gonzalez, and when a Mexican colonel demanded it back, in 1835, the settlers replied with the words of Leonidas. Two women of Gonzalez sewed the iconic flag as a way to inspire the rag-tag settler militia as they skirmished with Mexican troops, in a clash that signaled the start of the Texas Revolution. Molon labe thus graduated from spears and swords to a gun.
The Gonzalez cannon, retained by the Texans, was brought to the fortress at the Alamo and fired in the famously unsuccessful defense of that fort. “America’s Thermopylae,” as the Alamo siege has been called, brought new layers of meaning to the words “come and take it,” or rather reinvigorated old ones. Once again the phrase became linked to a massacre and a defeat, at the hands of a foe regarded as foreign invaders. Its potent mixture of militarism and martyrdom seemed to perfectly fit the fate of the Alamo, even if no one there is known to have used those words.
Fast-forward to recent times, when Laconophilia—admiration of Sparta as a moral and political model—has gained ground on the American right and Thermopylae has taken on new relevance, especially after the 2006 film 300, an adaptation of a graphic novel by Frank Miller. “Come and take it” meanwhile has migrated from gun-rights placards, developed in the 1990s out of the Texas flag, to a more general right-wing rallying cry. Along the way the original ancient Greek wording has been resurrected, giving the phrase added potency, as though it were a kind of incantation.
Much could be said on the topic of 300, a film that continues to generate debate long after release. In interviews its director, Zack Snyder, has denied having any political agenda, but fans of the film have often taken its musclebound Spartans as macho nativist heroes, especially since they do battle with a grotesque, androgynous Xerxes and dehumanized Persian hordes. The film turns the Greek defeat at Thermopylae into the prelude to a later victory; a ringing final speech delivered by Dilios, a Thermopylae survivor, inspires the Spartans to a decisive victory over the Persians (at the battle of Plataea in 379, which drove the Persian army from Europe for good).
Remarkably, Snyder made no use of the molon labe episode, but rather gave Leonidas a similar moment of defiance, also based on historical sources, and an equally punchy tag line. In one of the film’s more troubling sequences, a Persian messenger—depicted, incongruously, as Black—delivers an ultimatum: Spartans must submit to Xerxes or face all-out war. Leonidas ponders his reply during a long, tense pause, then draws his sword on the envoy. “This is Sparta!” he cries, as he kicks the Persian down a well to his death. The line has since become a popular meme.
The Spartans really did kill two Persian envoys by throwing them down a well, according to Herodotus. But they later regretted that deed and recognized that they’d angered the gods by violating religious taboos. To appease the divine, they sent two envoys of their own to the court of King Xerxes to offer up their lives in exchange for the lives that were taken. What Herodotus presents as a grave, impulsive mistake is shown in the film as a triumphalist taunt, with vaguely racist, or at least xenophobic, overtones. It’s the spirit of molon labe taken to a new emotional level.
The context behind molon labe may not be known to all who deploy the phrase, but many no doubt are aware, in part thanks to Snyder’s 300, that it stems from a Greek war against foreign invaders. Texans’ use of “Come and take it” in their fight against Mexico added a new layer of nativism to the original legend, and the Alamo siege reinforced its connections to martyrdom. These overtones are what makes the phrase’s growing currency, whether in Greek or in English translation, a source of deep concern. It’s a bitter-ender’s slogan, invoking a back-to-the-wall fight with no quarter offered. It casts one’s opponent as an outsider, perhaps a barbarian, who must be scorned and defied, even if that results, as it did for Leonidas, in self-destruction.
Maybe it’s fitting, after all, that the phrase is found on noise-canceling headphones.