I’m often amused when folks who aren’t really invested in defending the right to keep and bear arms decide to write about those who are, because you either get an over-the-top anti-gun screed or (less commonly) a Jane Goodall-esque anthropological inquiry into the strange and mysterious hominids who own firearms. A new piece by classics professor James Romm is light on the outright hoplophobia, thankfully, but his look at how and why the phrase Molon Labe has become so popular with Second Amendment supporters definitely has a “lets investigate these strange creatures” vibe about it.
It doesn’t help that Romm assumes his audience at the Daily Beast is completely unfamiliar with firearms and “gun culture,” even though he might be correct in doing so. And I did actually learn at least a little history from his column. I was already aware of the story of Leonidas and the Spartans at Thermopylae, as well as the Gonzales Flag in Texas history, but if I’d previous read about this bit from the American Revolution I’d forgotten it.
A Revolutionary War colonel defending Fort Morris in Georgia, John McIntosh, found himself outnumbered and surrounded by redcoats in 1778. The British commander sent him a written demand to surrender the fort. McIntosh returned what he called “a laconic reply: Come and take it!” Evidently, he’d read his Plutarch. The British, deterred by his bravado, declined to storm the fort. Later, the state of Georgia awarded McIntosh a sword engraved with the words “Come and Take it,” the start of the current craze for inscribing the phrase on lethal weaponry.
Romm tries to make the case that the embrace of “Come and Take It” is something new for American gun owners; a catchphrase that caught fire after the release of the movie 300 back in 2006. And while there’s definitely some truth to the idea that the movie captured the hearts and minds of many gun owners (it’s one of my favorite action movies, anyway), as Romm himself details, the phrase and the meaning behind it has been a part of American history from the time of the Founding.
So why is Romm writing about this now? Honestly, I have no idea. He doesn’t bring up the recent controversial decision by the University of Texas-San Antonio to stop using “Come and Take It” in its branding, which would be the most logical starting point for an essay that describes the “spirit of Molon Labe” (both in English and in Greek) as having “vaguely racist, or at least xenophobic, overtones.”
The context behind molon labe may not be known to all who deploy the phrase, but many no doubt are aware, in part thanks to Snyder’s 300, that it stems from a Greek war against foreign invaders. Texans’ use of “Come and take it” in their fight against Mexico added a new layer of nativism to the original legend, and the Alamo siege reinforced its connections to martyrdom. These overtones are what makes the phrase’s growing currency, whether in Greek or in English translation, a source of deep concern. It’s a bitter-ender’s slogan, invoking a back-to-the-wall fight with no quarter offered. It casts one’s opponent as an outsider, perhaps a barbarian, who must be scorned and defied, even if that results, as it did for Leonidas, in self-destruction.
Well, he got one thing right. I would say that the phrase does indeed invoke a back-to-the-wall fight with no quarter offered. But who does Romm think those words are directed to when they’re used by 21st century gun owners? The Mexican army? The Persian Empire?
It’s odd to me that the word “tyrant” doesn’t appear once in Romm’s column, because from the time of King Xerxes to today, that’s who the phrase “Molon Labe” has historically been directed towards. Yes, the Greeks saw the Persians as “barbaros”, but then, they applied that designation to virtually anyone who wasn’t Greek. The colonel in the Continental Army certainly wasn’t exhibiting racism or xenophobia when he told the British commander at the gates of Fort Morris to “Come and take it.” And I’d argue the same is true for the Texans fighting for independence, who were after all waging a civil war against their own Mexican countrymen.
Today the issue is even less complicated or shrouded in mystery. To me, and to virtually every other gun owner I know, the phrase “Come and Take It” is directed at those who want to take our guns. It’s a simple as that. Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke and his “hell yes we’re taking your AR-15”, for example. You want it? Come and take it.
There’s another four-word saying that’s almost synonymous with “Come and Take It,” though this one doesn’t date back to ancient Greece; “F*** around and find out.” It’s also been used by folks across the political spectrum, which might explain why that particular phrase doesn’t give Professor Romm a case of the vapors. The meaning, however, is largely the same as its etymological ancestor. You want me to do something and I have no plans of cooperating, so try to compel me and let’s see how that works out for you.
I hope James Romm is better at explaining Greek history to his students than he is modern use of Greek phrases like Molon Labe to the readers of the Daily Beast, because he got this one wrong. It’s not about racism. It’s not about nativism. It’s not about those dagblamed furreigners. It’s about tyranny, and more importantly, the unwillingness to comply with the demands to disarm by any would-be tyrant or self-proclaimed king.