According to Plutarch, on the night before Marc Antony died, he heard the sounds of the retinue of his tutelar god, Bacchus, leaving the city of Alexandria, in effect telling Antony that he no longer had any divine support in his struggle against Octavian, the future emperor Augustus. That departure is the subject of Cavafy’s poem; the speaker is simply a voice addressing Antony, telling him not to mourn but to accept his fate without fear and without regret, a lesson certainly, but a lesson about how to live, not how to get to heaven.
The poem is also about the ends of the lives of the once-powerful, the end of a political structure. The suicides of Antony and Cleopatra marked the last of the long succession of the Greek-descended Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. The Romans, who had replaced Alexander’s Greek successors elsewhere, now ruled all of the eastern Mediterranean lands. In that, the poem is treating a great social event, an event that has meanings to and affects a great number of people. However, the poem is not simply a discussion of a political event, nor does it point to a moral; it is rather a presentation of how a great soul should conduct itself when all is lost.
The speaker of the poem addresses Antony at the same moment he addresses the reader, for the poem is indeed about Antony, but, potentially, about all of its readers. The first three lines are wonderfully imagistic, beginning with the evocative hour of “midnight,” the hour when strange, in this case wonderful, things happen. The speaker then introduces “the invisible troupe” of Bacchus, whom readers can imagine even though “invisible,” with its otherworldly music and clamor. The speaker directly addresses Anthony (as well as the readers), urging him not to mourn the Alexandria that is “leaving” him; the last line of the poem will repeat this same pattern, only it is the Alexandria he is “losing.” The speaker urges Antony to be brave, not in the sense of taking violent action, but by an acceptance of his fate. Do not lament, do not regret. When one has lived one’s life, one should approach death bravely and with a final enjoyment of life, in this case the sound of the unearthly music, and so say goodbye to Alexandria, the marvelous city, Cavafy’s city.