Did Leonidas say “molōn labe” at the battle of Thermopylae?

Published

Claim

When Xerxes’ demanded for the Greeks at Thermopylae to lay down their weapons, Leonidas defiantly replied molōn labe.

Rating

Mostly false

Explanation

At the battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), an allied Greek force attempted to stall a Persian invasion into Central Greece. They fought for three days before the Persians were able to take control of the pass and continue their march south toward Athens.

Ahead of the battle, it is alleged that the Persian Great King, Xerxes, asked the Spartan king Leonidas to order the Greek men to lay down their weapons. In response, Leonidas replied with two words, molōn labe. Literally read, it means “having come, take”, but conventionally it is translated as “come and take them”.

The exchange between Xerxes and Leonidas is not described by our main source for the battle, Herodotus of Halicarnassus. In fact, Herodotus does not record any conversation or meeting between the two rulers at all – not until Xerxes searches for Leonidas’ dead body and has it decapitated. Nor does the famous conversation appear in any of the surviving historical works that describe the battle.

The exchange, and famous phrase, appears in a section of Plutarch’s Sayings of the Spartans devoted to Leonidas (51):

When Xerxes wrote again, “Hand over your arms,” he wrote in reply, “Come and take them [molōn labe].”

Plutarch’s text is not a work of history but rather a collection of Spartan sayings that existed in his own time period, in the first or early second century AD. The authenticity of many of these sayings can be confirmed by other sources, but this is not one of them. In fact, we may doubt the historicity of this exchange.

Contrary to modern depictions, this exchange is said to have taken place in writing – Xerxes wrote to Leonidas, and Leonidas wrote back. Now, on the surface of it this is not an issue; the Spartans were a literate society and their kings would have been able to both read and write. The problem comes from the fact that communication between commanders during the classical period usually relied on verbal messages through envoys. A second issue comes from the short messages themselves. In the Greek, Xerxes’ message consists of three words, and Leonidas’ two.

It is a short exchange and would have been very witty as a verbal conversation, but in writing they seem a little inefficient for such an important event. Other letters between the two commanders, as collected by Plutarch, suggests that longer messages were the norm. As a result, this particular exchange looks a bit odd, even for Plutarch. It perhaps reflects the stereotypical perception of the Spartans as being direct and to the point with their speech (laconic, if you will).

In fact, many of the famous short comebacks we have from the Spartans come to us via Plutarch, so it is clearly a genre that interested him. Of course, this does not prove that the short written conversation did not happen, but it does raise questions about the reliability of the tradition that Plutarch recorded.

Writing in the first century BC, Diodorus records a similar conversation, but he does not use the phrase molōn labe. In his exchange between the two, the kings send their messages verbally through envoys, and Leonidas’ answer is less concise and perhaps more revealing (11.5.4-5):

“King Xerxes orders all to give up their arms, to depart unharmed to their native lands, and to be allies of the Persians; and to all Greeks who do this he will give more and better lands than they now possess.” But when Leonidas heard the commands of the envoys, he replied to them: “If we should be allies of the king we should be more useful if we kept our arms, and if we should have to wage war against him, we should fight the better for our freedom if we kept them; and as for the lands which he promises to give, the Greeks have learned from their fathers to gain lands, not by cowardice, but by valour.”

This conversation is a literary fiction, used to characterise the main protagonists along simplistic lines. Leonidas’ retort is one that highlights Greek intelligence, while exposing a supposed contradiction in Xerxes’ demand. It plays on the common trope of the Persians being untrustworthy, but at the centre of this account is the notion of Greek bravery. We can see that Xerxes’ demand is similar to that recorded by Plutarch, but again it is longer. Diodorus most likely used Herodotus and the Greek historian Ephorus as his main sources for the battle, so perhaps there was an earlier tradition recorded by Ephorus of the two kings talking, but not in the manner that Plutarch portrays it.

The phrase molōn labe has since become entwined with the popular perception of a last stand made by 300 Spartans. It has taken on a new meaning, one that places the Spartans as the defenders of freedom against the oppression of the Persian Empire. Notably, no such allusion exists in Plutarch’s short text. The context is obvious, Xerxes demands their surrender in battle and Leonidas refuses to do so. The Spartans were not at Thermopylae to fight for freedom and liberty, they were there with other Greeks to fight for their perceived survival. Of course, it must also not be forgotten that the Persians did win the battle and, thus in effect, succeeded in “taking” the weapons.

The evidence for Leonidas defiantly declaring molōn labe to Xerxes is very weak. It does not appear in any near-contemporary accounts of the battle, it does not appear in a historical work about the battle, and it receives its first surviving mention by Plutarch in the first or early second century AD. When it is finally mentioned by Plutarch, it is not a verbal conversation using envoys, but an anachronistic-sounding exchange of letters. For this reason we have deemed this claim to be mostly false: it does appear in an ancient source, but that source appears almost 500 years after the battle.

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References

  • Stephen Hodkinson, “Did Sparta exercise arms control in its society?” New Trajectory (2013).
  • Sarah E. Bond, “This Is Not Sparta: Why the Modern Romance With Sparta Is a Bad One”, Eidolon (2018).
  • Chris Carey, GreatBattles: Thermopylae (2019).
  • Hans van Wees, “Thermopylae: Herodotus versus the legend”, in: L. van Gils, I.J.F. de Jong, and C.H.M. Kroon (eds.), Textual Strategies in Greek and Latin War Narrative (2018), pp. 19-53.
  • Multiple Contributors, “Scholars respond to Spartan helmets”, Pharos (2017).
  • Emma Bridges, Imagining Xerxes: Ancient Perspectives on a Persian King (2015).
  • Myke Cole, “The Sparta fetish is a cultural cancer”, The New Republic (2019).
  • M. Trundle, “Spartan responses to defeat: from a mythical Hysiae to a very real Sellasia”, in: J.H. Clark and B. Turner (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Military Defeat in Ancient Mediterranean Society (2017), pp. 144-161.
  • William Shepherd, The Persian War in Herodotus and Other Ancient Voices (2019).