Waiting for the Barbarians
BY C. P. CAVAFY, AS TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY AND PHILIP SHERRARD
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.
I had one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities this summer to take a course at Central European University in Budapest. For one week, our group of twenty-six considered the transformation of the borders from the 2nd to 6th century CE.
I am still trying to unwrap the experience. The lone poet amidst a group of late antiquity scholars, I listened.
“The relationship between the barbarians and the Roman Empire was never a neutral subject. Much less could it be today…” began Professor Rita Lizzi Testa. Yes, I think. Of course, here come the barbarians.
What caused the fall of the Roman Empire? Invasion and ruin?
Did Rome ever Fall? Or did the barbarians merely “seep” inside to be gradually accommodated?
In “Waiting for the Barbarians,” C.P. Cavafy, echoes the views of the late nineteenth century historians: “…the idea that the end of of the Roman Empire (or perhaps as Cavafy suggests all empires) was the result of a ‘fatal disease…'” or its own decadence.
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.
For me the fall or “unfall” of the Roman Empire is of passing interest but I am bothered by borders and the concept of “barbarians.”
They are the ones on the other side of the wall, the limes.
They are “the others.”
What would happen if the borders disappeared? Cavafy had a theory.
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.