Great Mosque, view of interior along nave, with tomb of John the Baptist at lest
George Swain, 18 January 1920
Kelsey Museum 7.0232

Relief of soldier’s head
Roman, 69–79 AD
Kelsey Museum 2425
Waiting for the Barbarians

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.

Trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

Impression from steatite mold for medallion of Saint Simeon
Kelsey Museum 87517

Limestone column capital
Dimé, Egypt, Roman
Kelsey Museum 25940

Yes, I know his new poems;
all Beirut is raving about them.
I’ll study them some other day.
I can’t today because I’m rather upset.

Certainly he’s more learned in Greek than Libanius.
A better Poet than Meleager though? I wouldn’t say so.

But Mevis, why talk about Libanius
and books and all these trivialities?
Mevis, yesterday (it happened by chance)
I found myself under Simeon’s pillar.

I slipped in among, the Christians
praying and worshipping in silence there,
revering him. Not being a Christian myself
I couldn’t share their spiritual peace—
I trembled all over and suffered;
I shuddered, disturbed, terribly moved.

Please don’t smile; for thirty-five years—think of it—
winter and summer, night and day, for thirty-five years

he’s been living, suffering, on top of a pillar.
Before either of us was born (I’m twenty-nine,
you must be younger than me),
before we were born, just imagine it,
Simeon climbed up his pillar
and has stayed there ever since facing God.

I’m in no mood for work today—
but Mevis, I think it better that you tell them this:
whatever the other sophists may say,
I at least recognize Lamon
as Syria’s leading poet.

Trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
A note written in Cavafy’s hand ca. 1899 and found in his edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Cavafy reveals his admiration for St. Simeon the Stylite, whom Gibbon mentions: “This great, this wonderful saint is surely an object to be singled out in ecclesiastical history for admiration and study. He has been, perhaps, the only man who has dared to be really alone. . . . The glory of Simeon filled and astounded the earth. Innumerable pilgrims crowded round his column. People came from the farthest West and from the farthest East, from Britain and from India, to gaze on the unique sight—on this candle of faith . . . set up and lit on a lofty chandelier.” Cavafy wonders how one might put Simeon’s story to verse. He finds defects in Tennyson’s poetic treatment of the subject of Simeon, which “contains some well-made verses” but “fails in tone.” The subject requires something better: “It was a very difficult task—a task reserved, perhaps, for some mighty king of art—to find fitting language for so great a saint, so wonderful a man.”