Waiting for the Barbarians

by Konstantionos Petrou Kabaphes

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What is the theme of the poem "Waiting for the Barbarians"?

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The theme of Cavafy's poem "Waiting for the Barbarians" is partly expressed in the title. More precisely, though, the poem concerns the collapse of civilization and the unexpected way in which it occurs, while waiting for destruction of a more dramatic kind. The people of Rome await a Barbarian invasion which never comes (or which, at any rate, fails to come on the day when they expect it). As the poem progresses, it becomes clear that the people are not dreading the invasion nearly as much as one might expect. In fact, they seem to be looking forward to it. The emperor is enthroned in state, while the consuls and praetors are decked out in amethysts and emeralds to "dazzle the barbarians."

Suddenly, there is bewilderment and confusion. People's faces become serious as they lose themselves in thought. However, this is not due to any invasion or attack, which is what they were expecting, but precisely because the barbarians have not come. The poem ends with the lines:

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.
Rome, like most civilizations, did not collapse because it was attacked from outside. By the time Alaric and the Visigoths arrived in 410 AD, the Western Roman Empire was a thoroughly demoralized and deracinated society. Civilizations collapse from within before they become vulnerable to attack from without. Cavafy shows that what has happened to the Romans is more serious than a barbarian invasion. They have reached the stage where such an invasion would be welcome, since they have no idea what to do next. Their society has collapsed without any assistance from the barbarians, and it is this internal collapse that is the theme of the poem.

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