molon labe meaning

The Origins And Significance Of "Molon Labe"

The phrase "Molon Labe," or using Greek script, ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛABE, since the phrase is actually Greek, is popular among concealed carry and gun rights activists. It's also a slogan for a number of military units around the world, including some in the American armed forces and, naturally, the Greek military.

Some people go so far as to stencil on things such as a concealed carry holster or indeed upon their firearms. But where exactly did this phrase come from?

Molon Labe Origins

origin of molon lable

The phrase "Molon Labe" is attributed to King Leonidas of Sparta, or rather Leonidas I of Sparta, who famously led a contingent of 300 Spartans to Thermopylae (or "Hot Gates") in 480 BCE to hold off the second invasion of Persians in the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th Century BCE.

It was kind of a big deal, since Greece at that time was a bunch of constantly warring city states in various (and shifting) alliances. Their tenacity paid dividends, though, as they licked the Persians twice, but then started fighting among themselves again and got conquered over time by Alexander, the Romans, and the Turks.

All About That Second Persian Invasion

molon labe and gun rights

The second Persian invasion was the result of King Xerxes I of Persia trying to finish what his father started, as King Darius I tried taking over Greece in the early 490s BCE. The Greeks weren't having it, and shut him down at the Battle of Marathon.

Xerxes invaded in 480 BCE, landing his army in the Malian Gulf. Strategically, it's important as it's one of the few places where an army can land in the middle of Greece and get significant purchase on territory. Landing an army there meant easy marching in any direction, once past the mountains ringing around the shore. One of the passes has a spot with some sulfur hot springs, called the "Hot Gates" or "Thermopylae."

The Greeks knew this, and the Athenian general Themistocles suggested someone go there and stop the Persians up for a bit since Thermopylae is a natural choke point. The Spartans couldn't send their main army because of the Carneia festival, during which the Spartan army had to stay put. However, parts of it could go - so King Leonidas took a force of 300 men, all of whom had living sons to carry on the family line, to slow the Persians down long enough for the rest of Greece to rally the troops.

During the battle, the Persians told the Spartans to lay down their arms, and Leonidas - supposedly - said "Molon Labe." Literally translated, it's "come, get/take" or in other words, "come and get them" or something to that effect given the context.

The Spartans - along with about many more Greek soldiers from other places that for whatever reason don't get as much credit - kept the Persians (possibly several hundred thousand strong, though it depends on whom you ask) at bay for a few days and heroically perished, basically to a man. It isn't known how many Greeks there were, but a few thousand or fewer is likely.

You've seen "300," right?

When Or If Leonidas Said Molon Labe

who said molon labe

It's impossible to know if Leonidas actually said "Molon Labe."

Thing about history is that it all comes down to sources. Unless there's enough evidence to back up a claim, there's a good chance it came from the end of a bull that doesn't have horns. Examining sources is what's called "historiography," otherwise known as what school textbook authors don't do.

The quote itself is from "Moralia" by Plutarch, the Roman writer famous for the "Lives Of Ancient Greeks and Romans." "Moralia" is a treatise on morality, a section of which contains a collection of sayings from famous people from Laconia, the region of ancient Greece where Sparta was located and specifically from famous Spartans. (That's why Λ, the letter "lambda" or the Greek "L" , was on their shields.)

Laconians, especially Spartans, were known for terse, dry wit and the ability to turn a phrase, hence the term "laconic." For instance, Phillip II of Macedon (Alexander the Great's father) wrote the Spartans and threatened them with the standard "If I come there" line. They wrote back, saying only "if." Phil wisely chickened out. You can see a collection on the University of Chicago website - Leonidas is about 4/10 of the way down.

As far as the Battle of Thermopylae, the first source is Herodotus, a Greek historian born only a few years after the battle, largely considered the first serious historian in Western culture. The battle occurs in Book VII of his "Histories." You can read a translated version of his account of the battle on the San Jose State University website (PDF) but note that the quote doesn't appear there.

So, whether he said it or not is a matter of debate; Plutarch says so, but the first one to write anything down (Herodotus) says otherwise. At any rate the phrase got traction and has held on ever since. It is a good one, to be sure.

Come and Get Them

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The works of Plutarch and Herodotus both survived the ages. The account of the Spartans at Thermopylae has good moral fiber and also great value as a tactical lesson since they used the terrain as a force multiplier, as a few hundred men held off a much larger force.

Then there's the principal of the thing - the person saying that won't be disarmed without a fight/being dead.

Naturally, a phrase like "come and get them," "come and get it," or "come and take it" is going to get used - and it has been, numerous times throughout history. Some examples include the defense of Fort Morris during the Revolutionary War, and the battle of Gonzales during the Texan revolution.

Today, various units in the modern day armed forces of the United States, Greece and Cyprus have the phrase "Molon Labe" as a motto, since it's kind of natural fit.

Molon Labe and Gun Rights

come and get them

As far as the gun rights community, it began to pop up on websites and other media in the 1990s, and it's gotten a certain amount of traction ever since. It appears in almost any media related to gun rights, the gun industry, concealed carry and so on - websites have it as a slogan, it's on pictures and internet memes, and people have it inscribed on various accessories - holsters, gun finishes, and on various bits of ccw apparel, as it fits nicely on a shirt or a hat.

Essentially, the message is that people won't give up their guns and/or possibly might resist any attempts to take them.

In this era of having to increasingly defend the right to bear arms, this resistance to disarmament by regulation is natural and encouraged.

gun blog writer sam hoober  

About The Author

Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests include camping, hunting, concealed carry, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible..