Waiting for the Barbarians

By C. P. Cavafy 1863–1933

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 main 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 our 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 so 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.

C. P. Cavafy, "Waiting for the Barbarians" from C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Translation Copyright © 1975, 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Reproduced with permission of Princeton University Press.

Source: C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Princeton University Press, 1975)

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Poet C. P. Cavafy 1863–1933

POET’S REGION Greece

Subjects War & Conflict, History & Politics, Social Commentaries

 C. P. Cavafy

Biography

C. P. Cavafy is widely considered the most distinguished Greek poet of the twentieth century. He was born in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, where his Greek parents had settled in the mid-1850s. Cavafy’s father was an importer-exporter whose business responsibilities frequently led him to the port city of Liverpool, England. Cavafy’s father died in 1870, and the business he left in Alexandria proved insufficiently profitable for . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT War & Conflict, History & Politics, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION Greece

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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