Molon Labe: A Call Against Authoritarians

By Andrew Lepore | United States

Most of us know of the famous phrase “Molon Labe” meaning “Come and take it” in Ancient Greek. But many do not know the captivating history behind it, what it truly means, and how the phrase was originated.

The story behind this phrase represents defiance of authority and a refusal to surrender the natural right to self-preservation. In a time of extreme scrutiny towards the right to bear arms and an ever increasing authoritarian state, this story is an example of ultimate courage in the face of totalitarianism which is important to remember.

The phrase Molon Labe dates back to 480 BC during the second Persian invasion of Greece. The Persians Achaemenid Empire, led by King Xerxes I, had by far the largest military force in the world at the time. Xerxes wished to conquer all of Greece, wishing to complete the mission of his father who attempted to do the same but died in the first Persian invasion. Xerxes was determined, yet the Greeks would rather have died than become slaves to him.

At the time, Greece was a loose collection of city-states. They had formed an alliance to defend their homeland in the first Persian invasion and remained a loose confederation. Upon learning of the relatively unexpected Persian invasion, a state of panic ensued. They formed a plan to send 10,000 hoplites (the full size of the Spartan professional fighting force) to make a massive stand and hold their position near Mt. Olympus, in the valley of Tempe. But the plans were withdrawn when the true size of the Persian fighting force (which was estimated at the time to be over a million but now expected to be much lower).

Instead they mustered up a force of approximately 7,000 men ( 300 Spartans and their helots with 2,120 Arcadians, 1,000 Lokrians, 1,000 Phokians, 700 Thespians, 400 Corinthians, 400 Thebans, 200 men from Phleious, and 80 Mycenaeans) led by Spartan King Leonidas, to march north and block the Persian at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae, nicknamed “The Hot Gates”.

With the relatively small size of the Greek force, the terrain at Thermopylae was their best option for an advantage.The terrain consisted of a narrow, 15-meter wide mountain pass, with a sheer, jagged cliff one side, and the ocean to the other. The pass created a bottle like effect in which only a small portion of the attacking Persians could confront the Greek force at once. Unable to flank, the Persians would be forced to hurl wave after wave head-on into the Spartan Phalanx. This was the plan.

Upon Persian arrival, King Xerxes sent men to negotiate with Leonidas. He wished to avoid the headache of a battle, which he was sure would end with a quick Persian Victory, and move on to larger fish to fry deeper inland. They were offered their freedom, and the title “friends of the Persian Empire” if they bent the knee.

The Greeks refused.

Upon learning of the refusal, Xerxes sent back the messenger with a handwritten note ordering the greeks to “hand over your arms”. Despite being Outnumbered almost 100-1, Leonidas’ responded simply yet triumphantly with, “Molon Labe.” Come and take it.

Frustrated, the Persian messenger threatened “Our arrows will block out the Sun!” in which Leonidas calmly replied, “Then we shall have our battle in the shade!”

With the Greeks’ refusal came seething anger from the Persian King. To Xerxes it became personal, for nobody disrespected the “God King,” nobody denied his ultimate authority. To him, this was like a small child spitting in his face. Soon after, Xerxes and his Generals began making battle preparations.

On the first day of the battle, Xerxes ordered a mass of 5,000 archers to unleash a barrage of arrows at the awaiting defensive line. Despite firing tens of thousands of arrows from 100 meters away, they proved to be completely ineffective as they deflected off the greeks bronze armor and helmets.

Perplexed, Xerxes proceeded to launch a massive frontal assault, hurling waves of 10,000 Medes and Cissian’s. The terrain and fighting style enabled the Greeks to utilize the least amount of men as effectively possible. They stood shoulder to shoulder, forming a wall of overlapping shields and long spears protruding out from the sides.

This was the standard greek phalanx and it proved to be immensely effective against the massive hordes poorly equipped for this type of warfare. According to Ctesias, an ancient Greek historian, the first waves to engage the Greek Phalanx were “cut to ribbons.”

Getting increasingly frustrated, yet still believing the Greeks could not hold out much longer, Xerxes then threw 10,000 his most elite forces, the immortals, the most highly trained and well equipped fighting force the Persians had to offer, into the second assault. But the immortals fared no better than those who attacked before them.

The Greeks had heard stories of the immortals, they had heard the immortals were one of the most elite fighting forces in the world. Defeating them so decisively had been given the Greeks a source of hope, and became a source of even more courage than they had before.

On the second day, Xerxes launched yet another massive frontal assault, supposing that “the enemies, being so few, were now disabled by wounds and could no longer resist.” Yet after hours of relentless fighting, and wave after wave of Persian assault, they fared no better on the second day than on the first. After thousands of casualties, Xerxes (Totally Perplexed) halted the assault and regrouped with his generals back at their camp.

Xerxes reputation of being a “God-King” was at risk of being discredited, and he was desperate for a plan. Later that day, Xerxes received a massive break. A local named Ephialtes, incentivized by his desire for reward from one of the wealthiest king in the world, informed Xerxes of a path starting from the East of the Persian camp, which encircled the Greek force.

On the night before the third day, the Persians led by the Persian General Hydarnes, took position on the ridge above the Spartan position, effectively encircling them. Leonidas received word from a Phocian runner that the Phocian force had retreated, and that the Persians completely surrounded the them.

Upon learning this, Leonidas rallied his troops together. He proclaimed that as free men, those who wish to leave may leave, and those who wish to stay, to obey Spartan code of Honor and hold off the Persian advance, were welcome to stay with him and fight to the death. Of the original 7,000 men, about 2,000 of the remaining stayed, including all of the remaining Spartans.

These men knew the chances of them surviving were slim to none, yet they were determined to hold off the Persian army until their men could retreat, and carry word of the likely Persian advancement.

On the third and final day of the battle, Xerxes rounded up 10,000 of his most elite infantry and cavalry forces and marched towards the Greek front line. This time, as the Persian front neared 50 meters, the Greeks made a final charge forward from their original position to met the Persian infantry in a wider part of the pass, attempting to slaughter as many of the invading force as possible.

The Spartans put up a heroic last stand. In the clash, two of Xerxes’s brothers, Abrochromes and Hyperanthes, were slain by Greek hoplites. The Spartan King Leonidas was also slain in the assault, picked off by Persian archers. After some time, most of the Greek force had been annihilated, some men retreated to a small hill behind the pass where they made there final stand.

Accepting their fate, the remaining men fought to the death on that hill, while Persian arrows rained down on them. Herodotus wrote: “Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth.”

The final death toll at Thermopylae cost the Persians an estimated 20,000+ fatalities. The Greek fatalities, those annihilated in the rearguard and those who died in the first two days of battle, was estimated at about 2,500+ men. When Xerxes men recovered the body of Leonidas and presented it to him, he ordered the corpse to be beheaded, and the body to be crucified.

Some years later, after the Persian Invaders had been defeated, Leonidas’s bones were returned to Sparta, and a Stone lion placed at the battle sight to commemorate his courage and patriotism in the face of tyranny.

The Battle Of Thermopylae has gained a reputation for one of the most famous battles in human history. The last stand of the Greeks is an example of what courageous and determined men can do whilst protecting the liberty of their homeland. It has served as a symbol for patriots standing up to tyranny, and it has become a cultural icon for western civilization.

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