Molon labe (Greek: μολὼν λαβέ), meaning "come and take them", is a classical expression of defiance. When the Persian armies demanded that the Greeks surrender their weapons at the Battle of Thermopylae, King Leonidas I responded with this phrase. It is an exemplary use of a laconic phrase.
When properly transliterated with diacritics, the spelling becomes molṑn labé. The modern Greek pronunciation is somewhat different than the ancient Greek: Ancient Greek: [molɔːn labé]; Modern Greek: [moˈlon laˈve]. The literal translation is having come, take. Whereas the word "them" is required in English to be grammatical, it is not in the original Greek.
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 μολώ-σκ-ω (the suffix -σκ, being a common specialized present stem inchoative suffix). The form λαβέ labe is the aorist active imperative (second person singular) of the verb λαμβάνω lambanō, translated as "you take" with an emphasis since it is in the imperative form. That is to say: it is better represented in English as "Take!" (with you singular understood, "you take").
The two words function together in a grammatical structure (not as common in English as in Greek) called the circumstantial participle. 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: "coming, 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 I of Sparta spoke directly to Xerxes I personally, and not to the Persians en masse.
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 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.
The source for this quotation is Plutarch, Apophthegmata Laconica, 51.11. This work by Plutarch is included among the Moralia, a collection of works attributed to him but outside the collection of his most famous works, the Parallel Lives.
Molon labe has been repeated by many later generals and politicians in order to express an army's or nation's determination not to surrender. The motto ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ is on the emblem of the Greek First Army Corps, and is also the motto of United States Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT). The expression "Come and take it" was a slogan in the Texas Revolution.
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 secret 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 whilst 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 Lefkosia, where it lies today.
In the United States of America, both the original Greek phrase and its English translation are often heard from pro Second Amendment activists as a defense of the right to keep and bear arms. It began to appear on web sites in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In the Second Amendment or firearms freedom context, the phrase expresses the notion that the person uttering the phrase is a strong believer in these ideals and will not surrender their firearms to anyone, especially to governmental authority. Challenge coins similar to those used by military service members have been created with the Molon Labe text and firearm images.
- See e.g. entry βλώσκω at Liddell & Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon.
- Liddell and Scott: An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon
- Smyth, Greek Grammar, par. 526: suffix of 5th type of present stem
- 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.
- Plutarch, Apophthegmata Laconica 51.11
- See the top of the page for the two logos and their motto usage.
- "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.
- "Molon Labe Challenge Coins". ESR. 248shooter.com. 12 June 2013.
- Hecken, Phil (15 October 2011). "Molon Labe... or 'Come and Get Them'!". Uni-Watch.