Waiting for the Barbarians

The classic poem by Egyptian-born Greek poet Konstantinos Kavaphes (C. P. Cavafy) from which J. M. Coetzee took the title for his great novel.  This translation by Richmond Lattimore first appeared in The Kenyon Review in 1955. 

C. P. Cavafy

Why are we all assembled and waiting in the market place?

It is the barbarians; they will be here today.
Why is there nothing being done in the senate house?
Why are the senators in session but are not passing laws?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
Why should the senators make laws any more?
The barbarians will make the laws when they get here.

Why has our emperor got up so early
and sits there at the biggest gate of the city
high on his throne, in state, and with his crown on?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive them
and their general. And he has even made ready
a parchment to present them, and thereon
he has written many names and many titles.

Why have our two consuls and our praetors
Come out today in their red embroidered togas?
Why have they put on their bracelets with all those amethysts
and rings shining with the glitter of emeralds?
Why will they carry their precious staves today
which are decorated with figures of gold and silver?

Because the barbarians are coming today
And things like that impress the barbarians.

Why do our good orators not put in any appearance
and make public speeches, and do what they generally do?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they get bored with eloquent public speeches.

Why is everybody beginning to be so uneasy?
Why so disordered? (See how grave all the faces have
become!) Why do the streets and the squares empty so quickly,
and they are all anxiously going home to their houses?

Because it is night, and the barbarians have not got here,
and some people have come in from the frontier
and say that there aren’t any more barbarians.

What are we going to do now without the barbarians?
In a way, those people were a solution.

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