History

Come! Take!

The story about the Spartans that America’s gun fringe loves the most probably didn’t even happen that way.

A person carrying a Starbucks cup wears a Molon Labe t-shirt.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by christian koch/Unsplash and Amazon.

Molon Labe—Ancient Greek for “come and take them,” or literally: “Come! Take!”—is a phrase frequently invoked by the right-wing fringe of the “2A” community of gun owners. Emblazoned on bumper stickers, hats, and pretty much anywhere else it fits, it’s a shout of defiance—and an implied threat of violence—against an imagined federal government hellbent on coming to take their guns.

The phrase is almost certainly apocryphal, but it’s supposedly the reply of the Spartan king Leonidas to the Persian king Xerxes’ demand that the Spartans surrender their arms, just prior to the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. That is to say, the words spoken just before Leonidas and all his troops were slaughtered, and Xerxes, who cut off the Spartan king’s head, stuck it on a pole, and—yes—took whatever unbroken weapons he and his men had left.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

As evidence for this story, we have the quote from the Greek philosopher Plutarch, writing more than 500 years after the event. But Plutarch was a moral essayist, not a historian. His objective was to improve his audience’s character, not faithfully report facts. And while movies like Zack Snyder’s 2006 hit 300 depict Molon Labe as a defiant verbal riposte delivered on a battlefield, in Plutarch’s telling, Leonidas’ challenge came in a far less exciting exchange of written letters.

Like so many myths about the Spartans, the tale of Molon Labe has by now become a toxic twisting of a very human Spartan story into a kind of action movie badassery that, while entertaining, is of little actual use to anyone except as a galvanizing symbol for the political right. In my new book The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myths of Spartan Warrior Supremacy, I talk about a few more like this: There is the canard that the Spartans culled weak or deformed children so only the strong would live to serve the state. (Sparta’s famous king Agesilaus II, who was most certainly not culled, was born with a club foot.) There is the nonsensical idea that Spartans hated wealth. (One of the most common reasons for the downfall of eminent Spartans—from the legendary general Gylippus to the king Leotychidas—was bribery.) There is the old salt, as untrue as it is ubiquitous, that Spartans never surrendered. (In fact, 120 of their most elite warriors gave up once surrounded, at the Battle of Sphacteria, in 425 B.C.)

Advertisement
Advertisement

Even compared with these examples, the adoption of Molon Labe is odd. Leonidas’ disastrous defeat at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. was a speed bump under the wheels of the Persian war machine. After taking the Spartans’ weapons, Xerxes went on to burn Athens. The battle was an utter disaster for Greece, spun into a propaganda victory, most likely in an effort to keep a completely demoralized Greek coalition from surrendering to a triumphant Persia. Leonidas’ defiance is, in truth, a loser’s cry. No one reading Herodotus’ brutal description of the utter annihilation of the Spartans at Xerxes’ hands can think Molon Labe is a winning slogan for those seeking to warn the government off trying to disarm the populace. And yet 2A’s most extreme luminaries, from Ted Cruz to Marjorie Taylor Greene, never seem to tire of it.

Advertisement
Advertisement

What’s even more curious, speaking as an ancient military historian, is that there are good potential slogans for the 2A folks—actual moments from ancient warfare where the real past genuinely matches their modern sentiment. Here are two of them:

“Carthage must be destroyed”: When Rome’s bitter enemy Carthage was finally defeated at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C., they thought their fight was done. But Rome never ceased to consider the North African city-state a threat. Cato the Elder (who would also fight at Thermopylae, nearly 300 years after Leonidas died there) concluded every senate speech with the famous tag line “Carthago delenda est” (“Carthage must be destroyed”). Cato got his wish with the initiation of the Third Punic War in 149 B.C. The terrified Carthaginians, knowing there was little hope of resistance, complied with a Roman request to surrender their weapons in the hopes it would assuage Roman concerns.

Advertisement
Advertisement

It did not. Rome went on to fulfill Cato’s imperative, utterly annihilating the city and enslaving its population. It is a real-life ancient example of what the 2A’s right-wing fringe fears the US government will do. Carthago delenda est is a slogan that would remind 2A advocates of what befell a people who willingly surrendered their weapons and summarizes the paranoid view of government overreach perfectly.

“Give us arms! We will fight them ourselves!”: In 378 A.D., the Roman Empire was in the midst of the Gothic wars, which would eventually help bring about its collapse. The Emperor Valens, who had a reputation as a poor general, had failed to prevent the Goths from reaching the very suburbs of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), which was the capital of the empire’s eastern half and a counterpart to Rome itself. Fed up with Valens’ dithering, a crowd of the populace gathered at Constantinople’s hippodrome reportedly chanted “Give us arms! We will fight them ourselves!”

Advertisement
Advertisement

This was a poignant display of disgust and distrust in the government, and a kind of ancient equivalent of the modern 2A right-wing axiom that “only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.” As a slogan, it could speak to the bone-deep anxiety in the 2A community that, as some members like to remind me, “from the moment you get attacked by a bad guy, it takes the police at least 10 minutes to show up. Until then, you’re on your own. Better be ready.”

Advertisement

But why, when there are better options, does 2A insist on Molon Labe, so obviously wrong for its intended modern purpose? 2A’s right-wing fringe favors Molon Labe, and by extension the larger toxic myth of Spartan badassery, primarily because it dovetails with other ideas they favor—namely, the advancement of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim causes. In his distorted depiction of Greece’s existential struggle against Persia, Herodotus’ story of Thermopylae laid the foundations for a wildly false “East versus West” narrative that persists to this day. (In reality, Greece and Persia were so inextricably linked that one could scarcely exist without the other.)

Advertisement

The film 300 and the 1998 Frank Miller comic on which it was based took Herodotus entirely at face value, and solidified this skewed perspective in the pop-culture mainstream. In the film version, a hunky 36-year-old Gerard Butler (the real Leonidas was 60 at the time of this battle) led a tiny, beleaguered force composed entirely of musclebound white men to defend the gates of Europe against a brown-skinned tide of decadent foreigners. This wildly false take on Thermopylae, and by extension Sparta, has become a constant reference point for right-wing fringe groups in slogan after poster after stump speech, from Greece’s Golden Dawn, to Italy’s Alleanza Nazionale, to France’s Génération Identitaire to America’s Oathkeepers. And, of course, it’s why Molon Labe has emerged as the go-to slogan for a certain group of 2A activists.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

2A’s right-wing fringe are the gun-owning community’s squeaky wheel, and while they monopolize headlines, they are far from representative of a community as diverse as this country. I’m a liberal veteran of both the military and law enforcement who is constantly having to defend my gun ownership from people who agree with me on most other matters of politics. And of course, I’m attacked by my 2A tribe: They deride lefty gun owners like me—liberal veterans, cops, sportspeople, and hunters who enjoy shooting, often possess only one or a few guns, and have no need to own an AR-15—as “Fudds.” That’s a reference to the cartoon character Elmer Fudd, who’s portrayed as a bumbling hunter who is constantly shooting himself in the foot. A starker counterpoint to the cartoonish Spartan of Miller’s fantasies, you could hardly find.

2A is a much bigger tent than most know, and it kills me that our most fringe population gets almost all of the press. If 2A’s ugliest elements insist on keeping all gun owners tarred with the same brush, they can at least pick a better slogan. Their positions are arguably a crime against humanity, but they don’t have to be a crime against history too.

Advertisement