This poem is a dialogue, a short drama but deliberately without any sort of action; the first speaker asks a series of questions, which is answered by the second. Each exchange advances the time of day a little, from the morning to the late afternoon; there is no symbolic night that would somehow give closure. The dialogue has been read as reflecting the final days of the Roman Empire, attacked and overrun by Germanic invaders, although the scene and meaning should not be limited to a particular time or set of events. The poem is about Rome, but by implication about all imperial civilizations coming to their end; there is also a suggestion of the final days of the Byzantine Empire, the continuation of the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean.
The speakers are citizens of a dying empire and are waiting for the arrival of the barbarians, who will take over, by implication making real decisions and exercizing real power, restoring energy if not peace. The tone of the conversation is hardly excited; the voices are of a worn-out civilization, too tired to resist, too decayed to hope. The first speaker asks, as if unaware, why the citizens are waiting in the marketplace. The second speaker replies that they are waiting for the barbarians. There seems to be an awkwardness in having the first speaker seem so uninformed, but this is not really awkward; Cavafy is illustrating the decay of interest in the civic world, an apathy that has led to ignorance.
The powers of the state are present in all their external show, ready to greet the barbarians. This grand display, however, is essentially hollow. The senate, which under the Roman Republic ruled the state, is now, under the reign of the Roman emperors, simply a ceremonial group. However, the emperor also is hollow, powerless, simply carrying out ceremonies while waiting for someone, the barbarians, to settle matters. This waiting is a humiliation, but even humiliation is no longer significant.
Disconcertingly, however, the barbarians do not arrive. The first speaker finally asks why the waiting emperor, officials, and citizens are suddenly disturbed and then depart, going back to their homes in a confused manner. In an odd way, this is the only moment in the poem where emotion seems to be felt. The second speaker replies that people from the frontiers have reported that there are no more barbarians. The empire’s citizens must face their own true emptiness. There is no solution, no ending, not even violence. The air has simply gone out of everything. Most empires end in violence but not in mere hopelessness, and this is the poem’s final and devastating irony.