Thursday, December 15, 2016

Thermopylae

I hadn't thought about Thermopylae much lately, but around the beginning of October it came to mind. First, we made it to the National Geographic Museum to see "The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great" before it left for Chicago. About two thirds of the way through, one finds a room with the bust of a warrior from the acropolis of Sparta, traditionally identified as Leonidas, and next to it a set of arrowheads evidently from Xerxes's army: Scythian, Persian, and so on. The text on the walls mentions the battles of that war. And of course it mentions the Thermopylae and the three hundred Spartans.

Now, the three hundred Spartans were not a tenth of Greeks at Thermopylae. The National Geographic of course credited the four thousand from other Greek cities. The three hundred were not all even of those who stayed and fought to the death when the pass was turned. They were outnumbered among the latter by seven hundred Thespians and four hundred Thebans, or what was left of them after several days' fighting. Yet the Spartans are remembered, the Boeoteians not. The movies are "Go Tell the Spartans" and "300", not "Go Tell the Thespians" and "700.

To be sure, when the war was over,  Sparta could plausibly represent itself as the savior of Greece, leader at Plataea; and Thebes at least, which had Medized, and sent a contingent of dissidents largely to get them out of the city, probably preferred to drop the discussion.

Second, a friend emailed me concerning the expression "molon labe" (μολὼν λαβέ).  I'm not sure how this came up for him. I had first seen it last year on a sticker on pickup truck in Arizona. Not having toted along Liddell & Scott and Tutti Verbi Graeci, I couldn't translate it; still, the silhouette of an AR-15 below the words seemed to provide a context. Then while running in Rock Creek Park I encountered a man with the words tattooed on his bicep. He explained that it meant, more or less "come and get them", i.e. the arms. At that point I forgot about it.

My friend's email referred to Wikipedia's entry, which referred to a reply from Leonidas to Xerxes. Now, in Herodotus, there is no back and forth between the two, just fighting. Puzzling through Peter Green's The Persian Wars, and through the Wikipedia article, eventually I found the source of the reference in Plutarch:
τὰ ὅπλα,’ ἀντέγραψε, ‘μολὼν λαβέ.’
("'Come and get the arms,' he wrote in reply.") It is short and pithy in Plutarch's version. It is shorter and pithier still in the tattoo and sticker version; yet that seems to me to have the drawback of omitting the direct object, and leaving baffled those of us who are neither Second Amendment sticklers nor deep students of Plutarch. But I can see that even the abbreviated version requires a full bicep or an average bumper sticker.

My friend also thought that the expression might occur in Thucydides, in the defiance offered by some island to Athens. I can't say. However, a look at his account of the negotiations at Melos suggests to me that Thucydides is better at the prolix than the pithy.

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