Classics in the news: “Come and take it!”

How often does one come across an actual ancient Greek phrase that is in common use by every-day Americans? If that phrase is μολὼν λαβέ, the answer is “quite often.”

Try this as an experiment: Google the phrase “molon labe.” You will find that this phrase makes its appearance in fancy web clipart, tattoos, inscriptions on the lower receivers of AR-15s, and even in Youtube videos.  It does not take long to realize the connections between this phrase and what is commonly termed “gun culture“: the phrase was long ago translated into English as “come and take it,” which itself has enjoyed wide popularity in this (and other) contexts.

Yes, the phrase is usually mispronounced as “moe-lonn lay-b” (arguments concerning its pronunciation are sufficiently numerous to constitute a recognized sub-genre on certain online discussion boards); nevertheless, I believe we must treat the “molon labe” phenomenon as worthy of our notice as classicists.  My are reasons are:

(1) Comprehension of the Greek phrase in question depends upon at least a passing knowledge of ancient Greek history.  Yes, the users’ source for that history is Zack Snyder’s (partially animated, wholly silly) movie 300; nevertheless, I am willing to bet that most fans of the phrase know its attribution to Leonidas of Sparta.

(2) Habitual users of the phrase have, it would seem, created a conscious link between their own experience and that of the ancient Greeks.

(3) The context in which the habitual users have made this link happens to be an area of contemporary American culture that is currently under fierce debate.

In conclusion: with this phrase, a large chunk of America has demonstrated an interest in–perhaps even an aspiration to–the intellectual heritage of Greco-Roman antiquity.  We classicists like to think of ourselves as the keepers of that heritage.  It would appear that we have much to say to each other.

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