Sunday, June 9, 2013

“Molon Labe” Was Uttered By An Arms-Controlling Tyrant

one of thousands of decals and other accessories
commercially available with the phrase "molon labe" on it
(This is Part II of a two-part series.  See HERE for Part I.)

The phrase “Molon labe” has special meaning to pro-gun extremists, but if they bothered to learn more about the arms-control beliefs of the tyrant who said those words, I believe they would immediately renounce the phrase.  In fact, the saying may not have actually been uttered at all.

When King Leonidas I of Sparta and his legion of 300 Spartan warriors, at the Battle of Thermopylae, were told by Persian King Xerxes I to surrender and lay down their weapons, King Leonidas supposedly said “Molon labe!” in response, which translates to “Come and take them!”  Over the next three days, he and his brave warriors defied and beat back the massive Persian army, with up to 150,000 soldiers, at a very tight pass along the route that the Persians were trying to take to invade Greece.  Defiant to the end, Leonidas and his brave Spartans nearly all died in the battle, buying time for Athens to evacuate to safety.  The war later ended due to superior Greek naval strategy and sea battles, and Xerxes was forced to retreat back to Persia. 

There's no doubt about it: Leonidas and the rest of his army (not just 300, by the way, but at least 7400 including all the other Greeks there) were a model of defensive positioning, and their act was indeed very heroic and altruistic.  They fill a very worthy position in the annals of History.  The defiance of Leonidas and his warriors rightly became a symbol of patriotic defense and self-sacrifice against overwhelming odds. 

The account of the battle fits in well with the pro-gun fantasy of defending one’s home against an invasion of bloodthirsty, drug-dealing gangs or “jackbooted government thugs” 

The translation of “molon labe” (come and take them) also goes hand-in-hand with the simplistic and wrongheaded ideology that any and all gun control proposals are actually a prelude to total civilian gun confiscation.  Like Charleton Heston’s famous “From my cold dead hands!” speech, “Molon labe” evokes the same Leonidas-like defiance against a supposedly tyrannical government intent on complete disarmament of its people.  It’s an ideology pushed hard by the NRA and other gun lobbies, the arms manufacturers who fund them, and anyone who defends them.  The more they push this belief, the more their customers will buy their products. 

And buy them they do!  A huge cottage market has sprung up around the phrase “Molon labe” (like THIS site or THIS site).  You can purchase all sorts of gear with the phrase on it:  hats, shirts, stickers, pens, dog tags, and, yes, gun parts.  There are even bikini thong panties with the phrase across the crotch.  Many of these are sold in combination with anti-Obama themes.  Here’s one that shows Obama’s election logo shot up (no violent implications, I’m sure).  Here's a pro-gun forum named after the phrase, and the name of a small-time firearms dealer.  The gun guys even get tattoos of it, like this one and this one

But I wanted to dig a little deeper.  I like to think of myself as a little bit of an ancient history buff, and what I knew of ancient Sparta didn't seem to jive with the philosophies of the modern pro-gun movement.  Though Sparta had a reputation of being warlike (which may be undeserved), it was also a highly stratified society with slaves and requirements to earn honors and titles.  It didn't seem like a place where weapons designed for killing were freely available, able to be carried in public by just anyone, as modern gun extremists would like to see with firearms in America.  Could it be true, then, that the man who uttered those famous words was actually leading a society with (gasp!) strict arms control?

So I contacted one of the world's foremost historians on ancient Sparta:  Stephen Hodkinson, BA, PhD, FSA, Professor of Ancient History and Director of the Centre for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Professor Hodkinson edited and helped write the book (along with co-author Ian Macgregor Morris) “Sparta in Modern Thought.”  Dr. Hodkinson was even made an Honorary Citizen of the modern city of Sparta in Greece for his academic contributions to the history of Sparta. 

He responded quickly to my email, and wrote a very good, unbiased, scholarly opinion.  PLEASE GO TO PART I of this two-part series.  There you can find his response, un-edited by me. 

What Professor Hodkinson wrote surprised even me....  See some selected quotes below.

The right to possess a weapon in Sparta at that time wasn't guaranteed to just anyone.  As Professor Hodkinson outlines in Part I, there were a number of different castes in Spartan society.  The helots, who were essentially slaves, couldn't possess them at all, outside of a few historical exceptions or farming tools:

Each Spartiate was normally accompanied on campaign by a helot personal servant; but there were strict precautions to prevent these helots gaining access to usable arms. So there is every reason to believe that within Spartan territory helots would normally have been prevented from owning or gaining access to military weapons ...

Other groups had to go through certain "hoops" before they could be granted weapons: 

Returning to the various groups who are attested as fighting as hoplites, did they have to earn the right to bear and own arms?  Again, there is no text that specifies the exact legal position; but there were certain hoops that men from the different groups had to go through. A Spartiate boy almost certainly had to fulfill all the demands of the upbringing, in order to be allowed to join the army at age 20; the same surely also applied to young mothakes. The neodamodeis had to agree to perform military service for Sparta in return for being granted their freedom. As for members of the perioikoi, on reaching adulthood they had to be accepted as legitimate citizens in their own local communities and they probably also had to have sufficient wealth to afford the hoplite equipment – as was the case in most other Greek states.

Women likely couldn't own or use weapons, either:

No women from any of the groups in Spartan society fought in the Lakedaimonian army or had any guard duty roles, so they probably had no right to own or use military weapons.

Is discrimination against women and socio-economic class for gun ownership sound like something the modern pro-gun movement would support?

When it comes to age, here in the U.S. you have to be at least 18 to purchase a rifle or shotgun, and at least 21 to purchase a handgun (though the gun lobby has been trying unsuccessfully to lower those ages), but anyone younger can possess a gun that their parents buy for them, of any age.  Some guns are even special-made for children so young they are still learning their ABC's!  But in the Sparta of Leonidas, you likely had to be of military age of 20, or at least close to it, with military training, before earning the right:

As already indicated, for the Spartiates (and probably for the other groups too) eligibility for hoplite service began at age 20. Whether or not a Spartiate teenager possessed his own weapons before he started hoplite service is not mentioned in any ancient source. It may be that youths in their late teens, soon about to become hoplites, did so, but it is very difficult to demonstrate. In Athens, and possibly in other Greek states, 18-19-year-olds from citizen families who could afford it (families had to pay their teenagers’ costs) could serve as ephebes, being assigned static guard duties inside Athenian territory. Athenian teenagers would necessarily have their own weapons during this period of service. However, no source mentions anything parallel in Sparta ....

The only implied reference to formal military training (and this was for hoplites generally, not specifically part of the upbringing) is to formation drill: coordinated manoeuvres to get the phalanx into the right position before or during battle. It would be reasonable to assume that 18-19-year-old Spartiates were included in this formation drill training in preparation for when they turned age 20; and also that it was probably practised spear in hand, to make it more realistic. However, this is only assumption and it cannot be used to infer that boys below age 18 had access to military weapons.

The pro-gun movement has been very successful in recent years in making it ridiculously easy to legally carry firearms in public, concealed or openly.  Did Spartans carry their weapons around in civilian life, too?  Certainly not:

However, apart from these specific occasions, the Spartiates (and no doubt the other groups who fought in the army) normally went about their daily lives unarmed: i.e. without carrying weapons. ....

Thucydides (1.5-6) says that in certain (less civilised) parts of Greece – he mentions various peoples in central Greece – the old practice of carrying arms still survives because of the continuing danger of piracy. The clear implication is that in more secure and civilised Greek states people no longer carried weapons in everyday life; and this is confirmed when he goes on to say that the Athenians were the first to give up the habit of carrying weapons and also to adopt the fashion of wearing luxurious dress. He then says that the Lakedaimonians (i.e. Spartans) were the first to dress more simply in accord with modern taste. The implications are: (1) that by the time of their shift to simpler dress the Spartans had already followed the Athenian example of not carrying arms in everyday life; (2) that the Athenians and other civilised Greeks then adopted the Spartan example of simple dress, so that by Thucydides’ time in the late 5th century they all dressed simply and without carrying arms.

And this in spite of the fact, as Hodkinson goes on to point out, that the Spartans were vastly outnumbered by helot slaves and other subordinate groups who could easily arm themselves with tools and other dangerous, non-military implements found in markets or in the course of their labors.

The pro-gun lobby in modern America argues that people need to carry their weapons at all times to protect against imminent threat, even in places like schools and coffee shops.  Clearly Leonidas and his culture didn't feel the same.

Ah, but here's the real surprise that I wasn't aware of:  the utterance of "molon labe" may not have even happened at all!  It didn't appear in extant writings from close to the time of the Battle of Thermopylae.  We know the phrase from the writings of Plutarch, some 580 years after the battle:

Finally, some comments on the “molon labe” phrase ascribed to Leonidas at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. It does not appear in Herodotus’ account, written in the later 5th century, which records the witty sayings of another member of the 300, Dienekes. Neither does it appear in accounts of the battle deriving from Ephorus, who wrote in the 4th century and who himself drew upon a contemporary poem about the battle by Simonides. To my knowledge, the only appearance of the phrase in all the ancient evidence about Thermopylae is in a work by Plutarch, writing in the early 2nd century AD: the Apophthegmata Lakonika (Sayings of Spartans), which is part of Plutarch’s Moralia. It is no. 11 out of fifteen sayings ascribed to Leonidas.

He later clarified in an email (updated 6/11/13):  
As far as we can currently tell, many of [the Spartan sayings] were probably invented in the late 4th or early 3rdcenturies BC, at a time when Sparta had ceased to be a major international power and became instead an attractive source of moral examples for the new and rising Hellenistic schools of philosophy. However, the late 4th or early 3rd centuries BC is still 150-200 years after Thermopylae, a long time after the event.

In sum, the historical authenticity of the phrase “molon labe” is uncertain. One cannot prove that it is a later embroidering of the Leonidas legend; but its sole appearance in a late work which is known to contain many other inventions and its somewhat odd context in that work do not inspire confidence that it is genuinely historical.

So what can we make of all this?  The answer is shockingly clear:  for anyone who uses "molon labe" as a rally cry for the pro-gun movement, the joke's on them! 

It leaves me laughing to think that all those people who tattoo their bodies with "molon labe", apply bumper stickers to their cars, or wear hats, shirts, or even panties with the words on them, are likely celebrating a fiction.  The society of the man who supposedly uttered those words would horrify any pro-gun person if the culture of Sparta in the time of Leonidas were applied to modern life, and the saying itself may have been a fabrication to begin with!

But that won't stop these people.  After all, the gun guys cling to myths, based on half-truths, to justify their beliefs -- like the belief that the American Revolution was won by valiant farmers wielding their hunting rifles in militias and picking off the British using guerrilla tactics, ignoring the largest role by the Continental Army and French allies, or that the American West was tamed by cowboys with revolvers, ignoring the fact that guns were prohibited in city limits of the time, and rarely carried or owned at all except for hunting.  Using "molon labe" as a symbol for the pro-gun movement focuses only on the one, defiant sentiment, and ignores all other aspects of the arms-controlling society of the man who supposedly uttered it.