Throughout history people have loved quick witted comebacks, “cool” sayings, and all sorts of slogans. From the mottoes of heraldry to the orations of statesmen certain sayings have filtered down through time. And as they progress to the next generation they get adopted and used by a wide rang of individuals. That is no different from internet culture today and the phrase Molon Labe.
But what is Molon Labe? What does it mean and why has it come into usage by gun activists and the 2nd Amendment community? Let's look at a brief history of the term, its definition, and why some 2A types have adopted it for their use.
The earliest we encounter the term Molon Labe is in the writing of Plutarch, a Greek biographer and priest of Apollos among other things. He records the term in his work “Sayings of the Spartans” or Apophthgemata Laconica. In the work, the saying is attributed to one of the kings of Sparta, Leonidas I, in roughly 480 B.C.
The saying was a response to Xerxes I of Persia. At the time Persia was expanding and Xerxes was trying to subjugate the various Greek city states in the area. Xerxes had sent messages to Leonidas calling for the Spartans to submit to the rule of Persia and to surrender their arms, or as we would say in the modern world to surrender their weapons and equipment.
In response, Leonidas merely said “Molon labe” or “Come and take them.” This meant the Persians would only disarm the Spartans by force, whether alive or dead. This response was the night before the Battle of Thermopylae, a massive battle where 300 Spartans (and reportedly others) held the pass of Thermopylae allowing for the retreat of the main Greek forces.
The battle lasted three days with two of them being entirely centered on the pass that the Spartans held. Although they were eventually betrayed and killed to a man, the Spartans bought the necessary time needed for a continued resistance to the Persian invasion.
The events of Thermopylae were memorialized in 1955 on a monument in the area with “Molon Labe” in the appropriate Greek script for the period. Additionally the events are feature in the comic and movie series 300 staring Gerard Butler.
Early American Use
Moving to more recent usage, a variation of the phrase (“come and take it” rather than “come and take them”) appears in two different parts of early American history.
The earlier incident occurred during the American War for Independence in 1778. Fort Morris located in what is now Liberty County, Georgia was under threat of British attack. A small contingent of British troops moved toward the fort after loyalists had taken Savannah. The commanding officer of the 200 defenders, Colonel John McIntosh, told the British to “Come and take it!” in response to the demand of surrender. This caused the smaller British force to withdraw from the area only to return with a larger force in January of 1779.
The next major incident of “Come and take it” comes from non-other than the great state of Texas during the Texas Revolution. The story leading up to the incident began in 1831 when Green DeWitt wrote the leading political officer at Bexar, Ramon Musquiz, requesting armaments to defend the colony of Gonzales. In response, a small, used copper cannon was sent to the colony. The swivel cannon was received on March 10, 1831.
Later on in 1835, as the political situation in Mexico deteriorated, numerous states revolted against the government. Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea, who was in command of all the troops stationed in Texas, requested that the cannon be returned to Mexican control. Messengers were sent to facilitate the return of the cannon but were refused and kept from the town.
A military force of 100 dragoons were sent to retrieve the cannon. However the Texans were not willing to give it up. This resulted in a small skirmish between the two sides with two Mexican soldier being the only fatal casualties on the engagement. The Mexican forces withdrew after the realization that they were outnumbered and outgunned by the Texan forces.
After the Battle of Gonzales, the town raised a white flag featuring a black star, the cannon, and the phrase “Come and take it”. While it was insignificant in terms of the rest of the Texan Revolution it was still the beginning of that conflict. It was the line in the sand that ultimately led to Texas's independence.
Modern Usage in the US
As the threat of gun control loomed regularly throughout the 2000s and the 2010s there was a shift in parts of the gun community. After the expiration of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban many restricted types of firearms were once again legal to purchase in the US. Subsequently there was a number of attempts to reinstate the bill or legislate new bans and restrictions on firearms and related parts.
Throughout these attempts more and more individuals, especially self proclaimed 3% percenters (generally stylized as III%), began to take a hard line against what they viewed as continued infringement on their 2nd Amendment rights. Many adopted the phrases “Come and take it” and “Molon Labe,” placing them on their banners, flags, clothing and even on firearms.
This was done to evoke the spirit of non-conformity to unjust laws and the continued attempts to restrict the rights of law abiding citizens. While some associate the term with far-right extremists it really was and continues to be a fad within the firearms community. It calls to mind numerous situations where a smaller force either held out against a larger one or resulted in a necessary victory to begin a positive change.
While the use of the both “Molon Labe” and “Come and take it” will continue in the firearms community it really is nothing more than a “cool” phrase that people latched onto. It's origins are interesting and do tie heavily into the gun culture of modern America. However it mostly serves as lip service to the past than anything violent or extremist. It is used across the country and the world ranging from TV series episode titles to the mottoes of numerous military organizations such as the I Army Corps of Greece and the US Special Operations Command Central.