Taki Taki

High life | 30 June 2016

You Brits chose freedom — you should be proud; all you need do now is trigger article 50 at your convenience, not Juncker’s

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.’

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