I recently made a remark on this blog that Leonidas’ famous reply to Xerxes‘ demand to hand over his weapons, that the great king could μολὼν λαβέ, did not mean that the great king ought to come over and fight to obtain the Spartan’s weapons, although it is usually translated as “come and get them”. Mr Steven Saylor invited me to elaborate on it, and I gladly do so, because I like Mr Saylor’s novels.
In the first place a remark that is slightly beside the point. I will assume that the words – which are only known from Plutarch‘s Laconic Sayings, 225D – are historical, although Herodotus states that all Spartans were killed at Thermopylae, and presents his account of the battle as an opinion (introduced by gnomê, 7.220). Although μολὼν λαβέ is not transmitted by Herodotus, later authors could not interview witnesses either, and it is reasonable to ask whether the words were actually spoken. This, however, does not influence the meaning of μολὼν λαβέ.
Back to topic. The common translation “come and get them” is misleading because there is no reason to assume that Leonidas was referring to weapons, plural. A more correct translation would be “having come, take”. Although Plutarch says that these words were written, and Xerxes’ translator must have believed these words referred to the weapons, it is certainly possible that the soldiers with Leonidas understood them differently. If there had been any doubt, one obscene gesture would have been sufficient. A free translation like “my weapon in your —” is just as likely as the more prudish “come and get them”.
I think a coarse translation is more likely. The ancients often used sexual imagery to describe victory and conquest – think only of Caesar‘s famous remark that he would “mount on the Senate‘s head” (Suetonius, Caesar, 22.2). A less famous, but closer parallel is offered by two pictures on a small vase in the Hamburg Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, which show an Athenian about to rape a Persian, who (according to the inscription on that vase), says “I am Eurymedon, I’m screwed”.
Besides, isn’t obscenity part and parcel of the military language, in each and every society? Although I knew what to expect – I’ve been in the army myself – I felt quite embarrassed when I read Swofford’s Jarhead (2003; I liked the book in general, though). And I think I do not have to point out what General McAuliffe‘s reply to the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, “Nuts!”, really meant.