Friday, November 07, 2008



What are we waiting for, all gathered in the forum?

The barbarians are coming today.

Why is there such inertia in the Senate?
Why are the senators just sitting there, not passing laws?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws should the senators pass now?
When the barbarians come they'll draft our laws.

Why is the emperor out of bed so early?
Why is he sitting at the city's main gate,
crowned and looking so formal on his throne?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperior is arranging a welcome
for their leader. In fact, he has prepared
a formal decree, and on the parchment
he has written numerous titles and marks of respect.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today,
dressed in their embroidered red togas?
Why are they wearing bracelets set with amethysts,
and rings with bright, shining emeralds?
Why are they carrying their official staffs
inlaid with silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today,
and such things are known to dazzle barbarians.

Why don't the famous orators arrive as they always do
to pontificate at length and expound on their views?

Because the barbarians are coming today,
and they are bored by eloquence and long discourse.

Why has this anxiety come upon us all at once,
why such confusion? (How serious all the faces!)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so quickly,
and all the people returing to their homes so subdued?

Because night came and the barbarians never appeared.
Later some of our men arrived from the borders
and gave us the news: there were no more barbarians.

What are we going to do now, without barbarians?
Those people, they were a kind of solution.

- Constantine Cavafy


Chas S. Clifton said...

I [heart] Cavafy, and that is one of his best poems.

Reid Farmer said...

If you haven't seen it yet, check out Daniel Mendelsohn's essay on Cavafy in the November 20 issue of NYRB