Guest Viewpoints

Cavafy and the Corona-Virus – A Voice for the Age of Pandemics

January 9, 2021
By Kelly Polychroniou

Waiting for the Barbarians – Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?

Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.

What’s the point of senators making laws now?

Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,

and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,

in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today

and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.

He’s even got a scroll to give him,

loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today

wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?

Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,

rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?

Why are they carrying elegant canes

beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today

and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual

to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today

and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?

(How serious people’s faces have become.)

Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,

everyone going home lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.

And some of our men just in from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

Those people were a kind of solution.

A thoughtful, didactic, political, religious and ironic poem, Waiting for the Barbarians is a masterpiece that seems never to lose relevance. For J. Phillipson, “the poem is a masterpiece of irony, but notice too, that there is no sarcasm, mycterism, chleuasmos, anywhere in these verses. The irony is of the situation, the circumstances, the unforeseeable future. It could happen to any over-civilized society.”

It has happened – and is happening to ours.

Cavafy’s story/poem is about politicians, leaders in general, who are unable to help their once-dominant city, state, or empire, get through difficult circumstances. They have reached the point where the collapse of this empire seems imminent, at least to the observant. The foreign conquerors now provide not only a threat but the means, by which the former power defines itself in contrast. This ‘solution’ the barbarians provide is to answer the question “What are we?” Without the threat they supposedly pose, there is no escape from the loss of identity.

True, the barbarians represent a primitive condition. But they also represent vigor and a power that is rising rather than waning. The Barbarians are both solution and catastrophe. If your society ends up, “Waiting for the Barbarians” it means waiting for your end.

Anastasia Antonopoulou writes: “The presence of the barbarians as a whole is very powerful in the poem, stressed through the tenfold repetition of the epithet: the barbarians” … (Surrender and defeat are perceived as the only salvation, and the barbarians, as the only solution, for timeworn and decayed cultures. It shows a clear affinity for the dominant ‘degeneration-regeneration’ theme, which in fin-de-siecle literature is often expressed symbolically through the fall of the empire and the imminent arrival of the barbarians.”

Like an empire threatened by invaders, we face a life and death situation in which the quality of a country’s leaders becomes apparent. Those driven by political power, selfishness, arrogance, and greed lead their people to political and social decline. Perhaps more disturbing is the image Cavafy writes of leaders who can only define themselves by and through crises.  COVID-19 is, in a sense, our version of Cavafy’s barbarians, and we face the disquieting feeling that when it will be gone, our leaders may lose their defining cause.

Not only have many leaders failed in their attempt to address the pandemic, but many have also sought to use the pandemic for their own ends – to justify their actions through the pandemic, like Roman emperors could justify actions because “the barbarians” are out there. It is not that leaders are necessarily bad. In a sense, they face a bigger problem than they can handle, just as did the Roman emperors who confronted the barbarians. One can argue that some leaders have become a disappointment in history. Their weakness, apathy, moral decline led to despair and to the death of their own people. Next to them stands a society that is full of fears and uncertainty – and has become weak; its people have become empty shells without beliefs and principles.

Maria Boletsi points out here: ”In Berman’s understanding of Cavafy’s poem, the barbarians receive a solely negative signification: they are the destroyers that a declining civilization fearfully awaits. Hence, the future prospect he concludes with comes as no surprise: “It is a chilling thought, the possibility that for the remainder of the new century, America will be waiting for the barbarians.”

Cavafy reads History, using the classical, Hellenistic, and Byzantine times; but he looks at them from a historical and political perspective where history becomes politics and is criticized. At the end his message is that when we face crises with dignity and without compromises, we are not cowards and can deal with humiliation. This helps us win the life fights and not give up. Looking towards, and creating real leaders makes us life winners.

Waiting for the Barbarians “is a poem for which Cavafy has been viciously attacked, and the poem offered as an example of poetry that requires “disinfection.” What an irony to say this poetry requires disinfection – instead of the kind of leadership that Cavafy is criticizing.

In closing, I would like to point out another parallel between the poem and today’s context. People who do not wear masks or violate other government mandates have been treated as ‘barbarians’ by the government and the media – both of whom are quick to seize the moral high ground to their own advantage. Of course, wearing masks is important, but it is equally true that it is the responsibility of political leadership to provide masks to those who have not the means to protect themselves. Prosperous societies should do more to help the poor, thereby reducing infections and deaths in poor areas. A rich society is one that provides and who saves for its people.

Times of great threats and great stress also present an opportunity to test character. In such times heroism, such as the one that Cavafy depicts, emerges. And we have seen many heroes in the time of COVID.


Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis

Honor to those who in the life they lead

define and guard a Thermopylae.

Never betraying what is right,

consistent and just in all they do

but showing pity also, and compassion;

generous when they're rich, and when they're poor,

still generous in small ways,

still helping as much as they can;

always speaking the truth,

yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honor is due to them

when they foresee (as many do foresee)

that Ephialtes will turn up in the end,

that the Medes will break through after all.

The ones who guard today’s Thermopylae, who stand literally between us and the virus and the death it carries are our heroes. They are sacrificing themselves in these difficult times like Spartans and their king Leonidas. Our doctors, nurses, hospital personnel who work endless hours, putting their own and their families’ lives in danger every minute to save us rightly make us think of this poem. While the society of the poem Waiting for the Barbarians sits passively and expectantly as the presumed ‘threat’ approaches, Leonidas and his 300 brave Spartans went out to guard Greece with their lives, fighting the Persians and King Xerxes against odds. Thermopylae asks us to assume that those who gave their lives knowing that they would die through betrayal had already displayed the admirable qualities set out in the poem.

The heroes of this pandemic knew the danger to which they were exposed, often with limited gear to protect themselves and inadequate means to save lives they nevertheless did the impossible, fighting with the strength of demigods although knowing that they are mortal. They have made history and they should be honored as heroes, while we decry Ephialtes’ bad decisions that cost the lives of so many human beings.

We must not forget that it is regular people, doctors and nurses, researchers in laboratories, and others working to create and distribute treatments and a vaccine, who have worked most hard to protect us. They deserve the credit that our government officials so often wish to claim for themselves. 

I will end my Cavafy-COVID journey with my favorite poem, Ithaki, a poem that presents a guide to living a great life and offers us a way ahead in a time of crisis.

Cavafy’s most well-known poem and especially these last lines as he likes to write a didactic conclusion at the end of his poems are for me the best conclusion to live a good life.

Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey

Without her you wouldn't have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Our experience of the pandemic and the lessons that we learned during it should make us all re-value our lives, and the goals that we set; they should make us ask ourselves what real happiness is and what real values in life are. We must hope that “learning from our mistakes” will be applied in the next crises. Cavafy provides us with immortal examples of facing and overcoming crises.

As Kamperi writes: “Fears and insecurity are dangerous and only these might prevent someone from living the life Cavafy speaks of. Thus, the person must be wise enough to avoid being fearful.”  Let us take Cavafy’s lessons, setting aside fear on this journey so that we may come “safe home” to our “Ithakas” where we learn to appreciate everything.

Kelly Polychroniou is Head of Modern Greek Program, Department of Classical Studies, Boston University and Associate in Hellenic Studies, Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University.


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