Conflict Poem: Waiting for the Barbarians by C F Cavafy (1863-1933)

I have always liked the C F Cavafy poem ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ and today I found a perfect cartoon to go with it:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate? Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.   What laws can the senators make now?   Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early, and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today   and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.   He has even prepared a scroll to give him,   replete 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, and 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 come forward 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 restlessness, this confusion? (How serious people’s faces have become.) Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.   And some who have just returned from the border say   there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution.

See also:

This is a very good question.


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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