Molon labe (Ancient Greek: μολὼν λαβέ, translit. molṑn labé, lit. 'having come, take'), meaning "come and take [them]", is a classical expression of defiance. According to Plutarch, Xerxes I—king of the Achaemenid Empire—demanded that the Spartans surrender their weapons and King Leonidas I responded with this phrase. It is an exemplary use of a laconic phrase.
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When properly transliterated with diacritics, the spelling becomes molṑn labe. The literal translation is "having come, take". While English normally requires an explicit object in a transitive imperative construction ("Take them!" or "Take it!"), Ancient Greek does not; the object them is understood from context.
The first word, μολών molōn, is the aorist active participle (masculine, nominative, singular) of the Greek verb βλώσκω blōskō "to come", meaning "having come". The root is evidently ΜΟΛ, so that βλώ-σκ-ω is apparently a contraction for μ(ο)λώ-σκ-ω, where the cluster *μλ- regularly becomes βλ-. Where English would put two main verbs in two independent clauses joined by a conjunction: "come and take", a strategy sometimes called paratactic, Ancient Greek, which is far richer in participles, subordinates one to the other, a strategy called hypotactic: "having come", take". The first action is expressed with a participle with adverbial force. In this structure, the participle gives some circumstance (the coming) attendant on the main verb (the taking).
The aorist participle may be used where the action is completed, called the perfective aspect. That is: the action of the participle occurs before that of the main verb. Thus the Greek provides a nuance similar to the English translation (come and [then] take it), making clear that the coming must precede the taking (i.e., "having come, take"). The latter λαβέ is in second person singular, and therefore is not being spoken to a large group of people, but rather to an individual. King Leonidas spoke to Xerxes personally, and not to the Persians en masse.
A better Greek designation of the relationship between the participle and the imperative verb is to view the participle not as adverbial (circumstantial) but rather as a verbal participle of attendant circumstances. The indicators of this usage are that the participle typically precedes the main verb and is in the aorist tense while the main verb is in either the indicative or imperative mood (here the imperative). Finally, the usage normally (but not always) occurs within narrative literature (Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 640–45). With these structures in mind, the participle then "borrows" the mood of the main verb and then adds the conjunction "and" after translating the participle. "Come and take!"
When a more refined understanding of aspect is introduced (see, for example, Stanley Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood, Peter Lang, 1993, a work covering Homeric through NT Greek), the translation of the aorist participle may be seen as devoid of time (the participle here not as temporally "first"). Instead, the use of the aorist form with the present-form imperative conveys the speaker's conception of a process, not a sequence. (Time in ancient Greek is marked by different feature called deixis.) Thus, the aorist form gives completeness (not completion) or a view of the "coming on" process by wide-angle lens, whereas the present form conveys immersion in the process of "taking"--a semantic framework alien to time-based English, hobbled by the time-term "tense." In aspectual terms, the aorist is thus designated perfective (not perfected) and the present as imperfective (not imperfect, and designates incompleteness and intimate immersion); this arrangement is referred to as "binary opposition" (perfective-imperfective), permeating ancient Greek. The result is a pithy saying that to the ancient Greek speaker conveys the sense, "Come on, take them!" as a conceptual singularity (no sequence, no conjunction). Note that the so-called circumstantial participle is actually an integral feature of the imperative itself, its head word. The speaker integrates the two elements while preserving the force of their individual aspects (not moods) essential to framing his mental picture. This process strategy sets the semantic stage: the aorist giving the broad context within which resides the intimacy of an envisioned clash.
The phrase was reportedly the defiant response of King Leonidas I of Sparta to Xerxes I of Persia when Xerxes demanded that the Greeks lay down their arms and surrender. This was at the onset of the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC). Instead, the Greeks held Thermopylae for three days. Although the Greek contingent was defeated, they inflicted serious damage on the Persian army. Most importantly, this delayed the Persians' progress to Athens, providing sufficient time for the city's evacuation to the island of Salamis. Though a tactical defeat, Thermopylae served as a strategic and moral victory, inspiring the Greek forces to crush the Persians at the Battle of Salamis later the same year and the Battle of Plataea one year later.
Molon labe has been repeated by many later generals and politicians to express an army's or nation's determination not to surrender. The motto ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ is on the emblem of the I Army Corps of Greece and the Second Infantry Division of Cyprus, and is also the motto of United States Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT). The use of the phrase in the new world is first noted in 1778 at Fort Morris in the Province of Georgia during the American revolution, and later in 1835 at the Battle of Gonzales during the Texas Revolution where it became a prevalent slogan.
Molon labe has been used once again in Greek history, on 3 March 1957, during a battle in Cyprus between members of the EOKA organization and the British Army. After someone had betrayed his location, the British forces surrounded the hideout of the second-in-command of EOKA, Grigoris Afxentiou, near the Machairas Monastery. Inside the hideout were Afxentiou and four of his followers. Realizing he was outnumbered, Afxentiou ordered them to surrender themselves while he barricaded himself for a fight to the death. The British asked Afxentiou to come out and surrender. He replied with the phrase Molon labe, imitating the ancient Spartans. Unable to get him out, and after sustaining casualties, the British set fire to the hideout, and he was burnt alive. The British buried his body in the yard of the central jail of Nicosia, where it lies today.
In the United States, the original Greek phrase and its English translation are often heard as a defense of the right to keep and bear arms. It began to appear on websites in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In the Second Amendment or firearms freedom context, the phrase expresses the notion the person uttering the phrase is a strong believer in these ideals and will not surrender their firearms to anyone, especially to governmental authority.
- Noli me tangere
- Come and take it
- From my cold, dead hands
- Anthony McAuliffe
- They shall not pass
- Ohi Day
- Plutarch, Moralia 225D, "Sayings of Spartans", Leonidas, Son of Anasandridas, saying 11 original Greek in the Perseus Project
- See, e.g., entry βλώσκω at Liddell & Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon.
- A Greek–English Lexicon: The two words function together in a grammatical structure (not as common in English as in Greek) called the circumstantial participle. Different ways to phrase this name are in use. For simplicity, the one used here comes from Alston Hurd Chase and Henry Phillips Jr., A New Introduction to Greek (ISBN 978-0196111704), Lesson 21. Chase and Phillips is an elementary textbook on Ancient Greek.
- See the top of the page for the two logos and their motto usage.
- "Fort Morris State Historic Site". Georgia Department of Economic Development. Retrieved 15 August 2018.
- "Senate To Vote On Legislation That Allows U.S. Military to Detain Americans". setup.rightwingamerica.com. Retrieved 2012-07-31.
- "Signatures of the gun culture". ESR. www.enterstageright.com. 3 June 2002. Retrieved 10 March 2012.
- Hecken, Phil (15 October 2011). "Molon Labe... or 'Come and Get Them'!". Uni-Watch.