Sparta and war: myths and realities

Historian article

By Stephen Hodkinson, published 17th April 2020

Stephen Hodkinson explains how images of ancient Sparta have been distorted and misused.

On 15 April 2017, at a violent right-wing rally in Berkeley, California, some striking ancient Greek symbols were visible amidst the swastikas and ‘Make America Great Again’ hats. Several demonstrators wore replica ‘Corinthian’ helmets, as worn by the Spartans in Zack Snyder’s film 300 (2006) about the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. One carried a flag bearing a misspelled version of the phrase ‘ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ’ (MOLON LABE: ‘Come and take them’) supposedly uttered by King Leonidas when the Persian king Xerxes demanded that the Spartans hand over their arms. In August 2018, one group at the Berkeley rally, the Oath Keepers anti-government organisation, announced a nationwide programme to train volunteers to serve as local militias. They named the programme ‘Spartan training groups’ and the volunteers ‘Spartans’...

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