King Xerxes of Persia surrounded Spartan King Leonidas and 7,000 of his remaining warriors with 300,000 men at the narrow pass of Thermopylae fifty years prior to the Peloponnesian War. According to Plutarch, he sent a message demanding the Spartans surrender or face certain death.
“When Xerxes wrote again, ‘Hand over your arms,’ (Leonidas) wrote in reply, ‘Μολών λαβέ.’”
“Μολών λαβέ” (molon labe) is Greek for “Come and take them.” It has become a rallying cry for defiance ever since.
The brave sacrifice of the Spartans bought a few extra days for the citizens of Athens to evacuate before the Persians ransacked the city, after destroying the Spartan army. Not only did it allow the Greeks to fight another day, which it did when their navy defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, it saved Western civilization as we know it.
Μολών λαβέ does not always have to be associated with armed conflict. Such acts of defiance have been expressed in peaceful non-violent civil disobedience such as Gandhi preached during the fight for Indian independence from the British during the 1940s and when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement in America in the 1960s.
Small business owners are adopting the Spartan μολών λαβέ spirit by opening up their hair salons, tattoo parlors and retail shops around the country in defiance of government stay-at-home orders. They are not doing so because they hate government or the politicians issuing the orders, but because they are about to lose their businesses perhaps forever. They want to be safe and healthy like any other person, but they just can’t stay closed forever, especially when big box stores such as Costco and Walmart have remained open for the past two months.
Twenty-six of North Carolina’s 100 counties have not recorded a COVID19-related death out of the 679 recorded to date. 87% of the people who have succumbed to COVID19 are over the age of 65 with significant comorbid diseases; 58% of total deaths have occurred in nursing homes. People know the population most vulnerable to COVID-19 are those who live in nursing homes, not on the manufacturing floor, in a barber shop, in a church or in a restaurant.
North Carolina has the ninth largest population but is 34th in terms of deaths per 100,000 people (6 per 100k) which is comparable to remote states and territories such as Hawaii, Alaska, Guam and the Virgin Islands. In that regard, government authorities can point to such statistics and claim their policies were a major success.
One restaurant owner has told authorities, “Come on down and get my keys to the restaurant. You can run it and try to generate the profits you need me to make so I can pay the taxes you need to keep the government you are leading operating at full speed since no state employee has been laid off yet.”
They have not come to get his keys. It would be impossible for the municipal police forces and county sheriff departments to arrest every owner who opens up their business before the appointed time.
Little did Rosa Parks know in 1955 how much she would influence the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery Alabama bus to a white passenger. “At the time I was arrested, I had no idea it would turn into this. It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was that the masses of the people joined in.”
She had had enough. If we pass this upcoming Memorial Day weekend without a significant lessening of restrictions, the μολών λαβέ attitude of the ancient Greeks will rise up in masses of people, not just a brave few.