Waiting for the Barbarians

– Why are we waiting in the agora?

     Because the barbarians arrive today.

– Why is there such uncertainty in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit there and not legislate?

     Because the barbarians arrive today.
     What laws can our Senators enact now?
     The barbarians will legislate when they arrive.

– Why has our emperor awoken so early,
and seated himself before the city’s main gate,
on his throne, solemn, wearing his crown?

     Because the barbarians arrive today
     and the emperor wants to greet
     their leader. As is the custom, he will
     present him with a parchment.
     Many titles and names are written on it.

– Why have our two consuls and the praetors chosen
today to don their red, embroidered togas?
Why are they wearing bracelets adorned with amethyst
and rings with shiny, glistening emeralds?
Why do they carry expensive walking sticks
gilded and inlaid with silver?

     Because the barbarians arrive today,
     and such things impress barbarians.

– And why have our outspoken orators not come as always
to spout their words, to have their say?

     Because the barbarians arrive today,
     and eloquence and speeches bore them.

– Where has this anxiousness and confusion come from
all of a sudden? Look at the haunted faces.
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly
and everyone returning to their homes so worried?

     Because night fell and the barbarians never arrived.
     Some men travelled to the border region,
     and reported that the barbarians no longer exist.


Now what will we do without the barbarians?
They were a sort of solution for us.

December 1898

Constantine P. Cavafy, “Waiting for the Barbarians” from Waiting for the Barbarians. Translation and afterword © 2020 by Evan Jones. Reprinted with the permission of Carcanet Press. All rights reserved.