Molon labe (Greek: μολὼν λαβέ molṑn labé), meaning "come and take [them]", is a classical expression of defiance. According to Plutarch, Xerxes, king of Persia, 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 labé. The modern Greek pronunciation is somewhat different from the ancient Greek: Ancient Greek: [molɔːn labé]; Modern Greek: [moˈlon laˈve]. 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 μολώ-σκ-ω. 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 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!"
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 Greek First Army Corps and the Cypriot Second Infantry Division, 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 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 Lefkosia, where it lies today.
In the United States, the original Greek phrase and its English translation are often heard from pro-Second Amendment citizens 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 the person uttering the phrase is a strong believer in these ideals and will not surrender their firearms to anyone, especially to governmental authority.
- Plutarch, "Moralia", "Sayings of Spartans", Leonidas, Son of Anasandridas, saying 11
- See, e.g., entry βλώσκω at Liddell & Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon.
- Liddell and Scott: 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.
- 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.
- Hecken, Phil (15 October 2011). "Molon Labe... or 'Come and Get Them'!". Uni-Watch.