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  • Lord Copper

Waiting for the Barbarians

Greek Literature was sitting staring out of a classroom window, while a middle-aged classics master wittered on to a bunch of schoolboys who didn’t really want to be there. At quite a lot of years distance I can just about remember Thucydides, Homer and Aristophanes, but if my recollection of Ancient Greek literature is wafer-thin, my knowledge of its modern counterpart is a thin a a sheet of graphene (without the astonishing strength of that material).  In fact, press me and I can mention only one poet, and then just one of his poems. The poet is Constantine Cavafy, and the poem is ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’. Cavafy lived in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth, mostly in Alexandria and also, strangely, for some reason in Liverpool, as a child. For most of his life he was a civil servant in the British-Egyptian government.

The Barbarians are coming…

‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ tells a story; it’s in a city-state – we assume of ancient Greece – where the normal life of the place has come to a stop. The people are thronging the forum, the Emperor is at the gates of the city, wearing all his finery. And yet the senators in the senate are not legislating, the orators are silent. Why? Because there is clearly a crisis of some sort, and reports have reached the city that the barbarians are on their way to take it over. So the Emperor waits to greet them, with his rich clothing and baubles (“the barbarians are coming today, and things like that dazzle the barbarians”); but the lawmakers and orators are silent, because “the barbarians are coming today and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking”. 

But then, despite all the preparations, night comes and nothing has happened. The people are confused “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 more.” So, cue rejoicing in the streets? After all, the invasion seems to be off. Ah, but let’s not forget the unspoken crisis. The reaction is actually somewhat different: “And now, what’s going to happen to us without the barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution.” 


At one level, it’s a pretty nihilistic piece; and indeed it was the nihilists of the 1920s who first took up Cavafy’s work as their inspiration. After all, what he is saying could be that there comes a point where you can’t find your own solutions any more and that  at that point, anything – even invasion by the barbarians – is preferable to the stasis of an unsatisfactory status quo. Or, is he advocating the opposite? Are we to understand that the solution has to be internal – that the solution of the barbarians cannot be trusted, and that the citizens should be looking to themselves, not the alien invader who doesn’t come even when expected?


Well, that’s five hundred-odd words about an early twentieth century poem; why? For an answer, look at the situation of Greece today. I don’t want to push the analogy too far (I’m certainly not identifying north European economic realists as barbarians) but I can hear echoes. The Greek economy has been fragile for years, corrupt (in terms of the regard paid to the tax laws) and trying to support a bloated, out-of-control public sector while turning a blind eye to the way that was pillaged for gain. What seemed like a solution fifteen years ago – the Euro – has been anything but. Encouraging the state to swell yet further with the help of German-appropriate levels of interest rates has done nothing more than send it spinning completely out of control. If you like, that was the attempt at the external solution, the embodiment of  “They were, those people, a kind of solution.” The effect of the connivance of the Greek government themselves, the politically-motivated genesis of the Euro and the helping hand of certain investment banks who know how to structure financial products to achieve – in the short-term – almost any result has simply made a drama into a crisis. (Please note; criticism here of the Euro should not be taken to imply – necessarily – criticism of the EU. The two are very different.)

So if the external solution has proved unworkable, what else is there? Perhaps the answer is in trying to find something internal. Of course, the mess is such that things have gone beyond that working completely on its own. I do believe debts should be paid, but while I have every sympathy with Dutch, German, Austrian et al taxpayers who have seen their money poured into failed bailouts, I’m not sure that that sympathy outweighs a nation running 25% unemployment (and 50% when it comes to the youth). That’s surely just unsustainable. Isn’t it time to accept that the guilt is widely shared – those politicians who insisted that Greece should join the Euro when it was manifestly not suitable, the Greeks who have milked the state for years, the clueless ideologues of the current Greek government and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all – and declare a moratorium (which I accept would probably lead ultimately to a forgiveness) on the debt and a managed exit from the Euro to allow the Greeks to take back control of their economy so that they could deflate the currency to whatever level they liked to regain some form of civilised life? I would also suggest a less extreme, more sensible,  government would be appropriate, but, hey, Greece is the cradle of democracy, so I guess that’s down to them. 


Would that work? Well, what can I say? When it came to those optional extra subjects, I was the schoolboy who chose Greek Literature, not economics. What I do know, though, is that the people of Cavafy’s city-state were wrong; waiting for the barbarians is very unlikely to be a solution.

‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, by Constantine Cavafy, can be found here: 




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