Waiting for the Barbarians

In Washington they’ve arrived and taken up residence
What is it that we are waiting for, gathered in the square?
       The barbarians are supposed to arrive today.
—Why is there such great idleness inside the Senate house?
   Why are the Senators sitting there, without passing any laws?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today.

       Why should the Senators still be making laws?

       The barbarians, when they come, will legislate.
—Why is it that our Emperor awoke so early today,

   and has taken his position at the greatest of the city’s gates

   seated on his throne, in solemn state, wearing the crown?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today.

       And the emperor is waiting to receive

       their leader. Indeed he is prepared

       to present him with a parchment scroll. In it

       he’s conferred on him many titles and honorifics.
—Why have our consuls and our praetors come outside today

   wearing their scarlet togas with their rich embroidery,

   why have they donned their armlets with all their amethysts,

   and rings with their magnificent, glistening emeralds;

   why should they be carrying such precious staves today,

   maces chased exquisitely with silver and with gold?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today;

       and things like that bedazzle the barbarians.
—Why do our worthy orators not come today as usual

   to deliver their addresses, each to say his piece?
        Because the barbarians will arrive today;

        and they’re bored by eloquence and public speaking.
—Why has this uneasiness arisen all at once,

    and this confusion? (How serious the faces have become.)

    Why is it that the streets and squares are emptying so quickly,

    and everyone’s returning home in such deep contemplation?
       Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.

       And some people have arrived from the borderlands,

       and said there are no barbarians anymore,
And now what’s to become of us without barbarians.

Those people were a solution of a sort.
 

In Canberra, they are circling…


(P V Cavafy, trans Daniel Mendelsohn)

 

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