The two most beautiful words in the history of the world, in any language, are ‘Molon labe’, the accent on the second syllable of both words, the ‘b’ pronounced ‘v’ in the second. These two little words were the laconic answer of King Leonidas of Sparta to the offer made by the great Persian king Xerxes of not only safe passage, if the Greeks laid down their arms, but also a settlement of lands of better quality than any they currently possessed.
You know what I’m talking about. The Hot Gates, or Thermopylae in Greek. The year is 480 BC, the month is August, and the Persians number more than 1,250,000 fighters, accompanied by 1,800 triremes in support. The rest of the Greeks under Themistocles are praying for time — and gales — further south, and Leonidas has only 300 Spartans he can count on. (The Thebans have already seen the Persian hordes arriving and have left the battlefield.) The Persian scouts who surveyed the Hot Gates’ defenders in astonishment were allowed to gallop around freely.
Later in the day, an emissary from Xerxes approached the Spartans. The offer of safe passage and riches to come if they lay down their arms was made, and Leonidas replied, ‘Molon labe’ (‘Come and get them’). The great British historian Tom Holland called such examples of Spartan sang-froid ‘gems of cool’, and they were the coolest words imaginable in 480 BC. When the Persians tried to reason with the Spartans, who brazenly combed their long hair, by telling them that their million arrows would hide the sun, they responded with this excellent news: ‘If the Mede hides the sun, then so much the better for us, we can fight in the shade.’ (The Spartans thought arrows mere spindles, to be swiped away with their shields.)
It was gallows humour, but I first heard those two words by Leonidas from my Spartan mother when I was very, very young. They bestowed immortality on Leonidas and his 300, a preference for death over a life of cowardice and shame, but a richer and far more comfortable choice to be sure. The Spartan never gave it a second thought. ‘Come and get them,’ was all he said when asked to lay down his arms; molon labe, the two greatest words ever uttered.
And we all know the rest: after the heroic Spartan stand, Miltiades and 10,000 Athenians slaughtered the Persians on the beaches of Marathon, and Themistocles bottled up the Persian fleet in Salamis and sank it. No Persian invaded Greece ever again, but Alexander went over there and took the whole kit and caboodle. It all started with Leonidas’ two little words. They have obsessed me ever since I was a little boy, and in a very, very small way I’ve tried to live up to them by never backing off, and by hero-worshipping Rommel’s 7th Panzer, the defenders of Iwo Jima, and the US Marine Corps among many others, including the Polish lancers’ charge at Somosierra (successful) and that of Pickett (unsuccessful) at Gettysburg. Which brings me to the present.
Nearly 2,500 years later, there are no cool responses. Just a lot of moaning and groaning and cries of let’s do it all over again from the losers. No, I am not comparing the self-sacrifice of the Spartans to the Leavers, but freedom is freedom and there are no other words to replace it. Screw Juncker and the technocratic dictatorship of Brussels; they’ve already enslaved my country but they will not enslave England. (Scotland will play it like Thebes did in 480, but then again it might not.) All people should say ‘Molon labe’ to the Circe-like offers of money and comfort from the EU technocratic hordes, ‘Molon labe’ until the bureaucracy reforms itself and its rigid, doctrinaire ways.
Juncker, an unelected Xerxes but without the king’s grandeur, showed his petty spirit when rebuffed by the Brits last week by puffing up his sunken chest and warning that there will be consequences. My arse. All the Brits need do is trigger article 50 at their convenience, not Juncker’s, as is the law, and assure countries such as Germany and France that ‘we continue to trade’. Brussels would never reform itself if the status quo prevailed, and it would have continued to lie about freedom of ‘labour’ movement, which it has turned into free movement for everyone and anyone.
And now for the Greek chorus of women announcing doom and gloom. One American woman wrote that populism, nativism and isolationism is the future. Bollocks. A British hack blamed Boris for the whole thing. More bollocks. A bald NY Times man announced the end of the world. On the BBC, a female academic who sounded anything but blamed us oldies. The good professor Starkey had the perfect answer: ‘Would you prefer we gave two votes to anyone under 30, my dear?’
We Greeks fought off the Persians because they tried to conquer us through force of arms. The Brits said no to the EU because it tried to conquer through stealth and lies. The EU would never reform itself without a push. Now it has been pushed rather hard. Modern Greece chose the easy way six years ago because we have Ephialteses, not Spartans, leading us; Ephialtes being the traitor who led the Persians to outflank the 300 through a pass. Greece is a EU protectorate, so heaven help us. You Brits chose freedom. You should be proud.
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