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
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. At the time, Greece was a bunch of constantly warring city states in a series of various (and shifting) alliances. The Persian invasion inspired them to rally together and beat the Persians back (again; it was Persia’s second go at it) in several stunning displays of Hellenic military might. After Thermopylae, the Persian empire suffered stunning losses at the battle of Salamis (at sea) and the battle of Plataea (on land) and had to return home in shame.
The Greeks then resumed their infighting and were eventually conquered by Alexander the Great, and then again by the Romans, and then again by the Turks, and so on.
Molon Labe: Perhaps The Best Quote To Come Out Of The Second Persian Invasion
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, which is why Themistocles of Athens suggested someone send some guys down there to slow the Persian advance. Unfortunately, the observance of the Carneia festival – an important religious holiday of that culture and period – dictated the Spartans couldn’t send their main army, but nothing prevented them from sending SOME guys. So, King Leonidas took a force of 300 men, all of whom had living sons, down to Thermopylae while the rest of Greece got their people together.
It’s worth mentioning that there were WAY more Greek soldiers from elsewhere; it’s estimated that fewer than 5 percent of the total Greek military present at the battle were Spartans. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
During the battle, the Persians told the Spartans to lay down their arms. Leonidas, according to legend, said “Molon Labe!” in reply, which roughly translates (in that context) to “come and get them!” Literally translated it means “come, get/take.”
The Spartans pretty much perished to a man, and the story goes that they made a last stand to let the rest of the Greek forces there escape. It isn’t known how many Persians were REALLY there, but estimates range from a few hundred thousands to possibly a million or more; sources differ and it’s impossible to know for sure at this point.
You’ve seen “300,” right?
When Or If Leonidas Said Molon Labe
It’s impossible to know if Leonidas actually said “Molon Labe.”
Ultimately, anything regarding history comes down to sources. If sufficient information abounds from multiple sources saying the same thing, then whatever the event is almost certainly happened. For instance, you can just watch the video of the Hindenburg burning; we know it happened.
As far as the historicity of Leonidas’ famous quote, one must look into the historiography, meaning examining the sources for the quote.
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 naturally it includes a lot of pithy quotes from from famous Spartans. That’s why Λ, the letter “lambda” or the Greek “L” , was on their shields of Spartans (for “Laconia”) in most depictions.
Laconians, especially Spartans, were known for a terse, dry wit (as opposed to the “Attic salt” and skilled oratory of the Athenians) and the ability to turn a phrase, from which comes the word “laconic.” You can see the Moralia 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.
Whether Leonidas actually said it…is impossible to actually tell. Plutarch says so, Herodotus doesn’t mention it, and a number of other sources for the Battle of Thermopylae either quote Plutarch or don’t mention it at all. It’s possible that he did, but there’s no real evidence for it. Regardless, it’s still a good line.
Molon Labe Sure Makes For A Great Motto
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
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.
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..