Cavafy brought to his art a lifelong interest in history. Many poems feature real or invented figures from historical time as they face critical situations, finding themselves challenged, unprepared, yet rising to the occasion in sometimes short-sighted, sometimes dignified ways.

View of Constantinople from the Galata Tower into the
light, mosques in background
Photograph by George Swain, 5 December 1919
Kelsey Museum KS 44-9
Carved bone plaque with monk
Byzantine, 10 century
Kelsey Museum 66.1.102
Manuel Komninos

One dreary September day
Emperor Manuel Komninos
felt his death was near.
The court astrologers—bribed, of course—
went on babbling
about how many years he still had to live.
But while they were having their say,
he remembered an old religious custom
and ordered ecclesiastical vestments
to be brought from a monastery,
and he put them on, glad to assume
the modest image of a priest or monk.

Happy all those who believe,
and like Emperor Manuel end their lives
dressed modestly in their faith.

Trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
Of Colored Glass

I am very moved by one detail
in the coronation at Vlachernai of John Kantakuzinos
and Irini, daughter of Andronikos Asan.
Because they had only a few precious stones
(our afflicted empire was extremely poor)
they wore artificial ones: numerous pieces of glass,
red, green, or blue. I find
nothing humiliating or undignified
in those little pieces of colored glass.
On the contrary, they seem
a sad protest against
the unjust misfortune of the couple being crowned,
symbols of what they deserved to have,
of what surely it was right that they should have
at their coronation—a Lord John Kantakuzinos,
a Lady Irini, daughter of Andronikos Asan.

Trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
(top) Roman glass fragments,
Kelsey Museum 70.3.16 and 65.3.153
(bottom) millefiori glass fragments
10th-century Egypt
Kelsey Museum 65.3.179 and 65.3.177