On the Threshold of the Twentieth Century: History, Crisis, and Intersecting Figures of Barbarians in C. P. Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” (“Περιμένοντας τους βαρβάρους,” 1898/1904)
In the Western imaginary, violent confrontations between civilized and barbarians tend to take place in times of crisis, leading either to civilization’s triumph over the barbarians (albeit temporary) or its destruction (albeit gradual). The eventual defeat of the Persian ‘barbarians’ by the Greeks after a series of Persian expeditions in Greece during the Greco-Persian wars (499–449 BC) was framed in the European imagination centuries later as the triumph of Western civilization against Oriental barbarism. And the end of the Roman Empire is associated in popular imagination with the so-called barbarian invasions, which gradually brought about the fall of (an internally weakened) Rome. In the intervals between such invasions and clashes, however, there is waiting. When barbarian enemies are conceived as a permanent threat to the civilized, there is waiting involved—a condition with far-reaching implications and a much longer duration than actual confrontations with ‘barbarians,’ but less accounted for in historical narratives that traditionally focus on culminations of historical crises: battles, wars, bloodshed, the triumph of civilizations, the downfall of empires.
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