Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Waiting for the Barbarians - C. P. Cavafy

translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

     The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

     Because the barbarians are coming today.
     What's the point of senators making laws now?
     Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city's man gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
     He's even got a scroll to give him,
     loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't out distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying to rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

     Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
     And some of our men just in from the border say
     there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

What do we do when we're out of excuses?  When the scapegoat doesn't show up, when there is no one left onto whom we can foist our responsibilities?  That's the final question of this poem by Greek poet C. P. Cavafy.  He even says, "those people were a kind of solution."  You could see how eager all the members of society in the poem were to abdicate their responsibilities.  The emperor himself, in full state attire, ready to hand over leadership with a "loaded with titles, with imposing names."

The senate has ceased legislation because why bother if the barbarians are coming?  That sounds just a bit too familiar, honestly.  The city state (or nation) seems to not care about functioning if there is a foreign presence at the door.  The narrator wonders incredulously at the lethargy of his fellow people, and this leads me to a more reaching conclusion.  How can you wait for the barbarians when you've already become them?

"And some of our men just in from the border say / there are no barbarians any longer."  Why could that be?  Well, let's see.  Why are the statesmen robed in opulent array?  "because...things like that dazzle the barbarians,"  So too do the praetors and consuls, but anyways, let's move on.  The orators haven't shown up to speak?  It's because the barbarians are bored by "rhetoric and public speaking."  So the orators who couldn't be bothered to show up and speak aren't bored by their own craft?  It seems clear to me from every stanza of the poem and its response which pushes attributes onto imaginary barbarians that the transition happened much more seamlessly than anyone ever expected.

This indeed is borne out by history if we think of Rome.  Sure, we can point to a "fall of Rome" in our textbooks, but Rome continued to function as a city state under its foreign emperors, its citizens never once stopping to think themselves fallen or anything but Roman.  That seems to be the realization of this poem, and it reminds me all too much of real life.  On personal levels, too, we might all have our own convenient "barbarians" for whom we refrain from operating at our full capacity.


  1. Harrumph. As someone who has just seen what I think of as barbarians (although wearing Establishment cloaks) triumph in my country's general election, this speaks to my condition.

    1. I think that's the great strength of the poem, its cross-applicability. I certainly feel this way about my country's senate.