Expecting the Barbarians refers to an incident in early Roman history when the barbarians did arrive. The irony is that, in the poem, they do not arrive. The idea being that the ”barbarian” is interior to the individual, representing the shadowy corners of ourselves. This poem has become well known in English speaking countries, and one can well understand why. Despite its setting, it speaks as much to the present as to the past. Expecting the Barbarians:
What are we waiting for, assembled in the public square?
The barbarians are to arrive today.
Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What further laws can the Senators pass?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.
Why did our emperor wake up so early,
And sits at the principal gate of the city,
on the throne, in state, wearing his crown?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today,
And the emperor waits to receive their chief,
Indeed he has prepared to give him a scroll.
Therein he engraved many titles and names of honour. ( Cavafy )
The emergence of medieval civilization from that of the Romans is far too complex a subject to be dealt with briefly. Ultimately, of course, the entire quality of life changed. But in the period of the last barbarian invasions and immediately afterward such medieval phenomena as chivalry, Scholasticism, and Gothic cathedrals still lay far in the future. Despite the political upheavals, many aspects of life remained unchanged, especially in the southern part of western Europe.
Christians were inclined to interpret the chaos of the times as a sign that the last days were coming. Thus Saint Ambrose could write, ”we are indeed in the this world” Nevertheless, the emperor in Constantinople was still the emperor. The popes acknowledged their subservience to him even though they were becoming virtually independent. The chanceries of barbarian kings continued to date documents by the reigns of the emperors in Constantinople. Throughout western Europe the literate continued to write in Latin, and the common people, including the barbarians, spoke dialects of Latin for the most part; a patois or slang version. Only in England was there a violent rupture with tradition, and only there did a barbarian vernacular take the place of Latin.
One of the few great breaks with the past did come about as a consequence of the barbarian migrations. Many aqueducts were destroyed during the sieges of the cities, and after the reign of Theodoric no new aqueducts were built, nor any of the old ones repaired. The most dramatic destruction took place at Rome itself, where in the middle of the sixth century the Goths besieging Belasarius cut the great aqueducts. After the war the patricians had to abandon their palaces on the hills of Rome and come down to the banks of the Tiber, where the poor lived, drawing their water from the river or from wells.
Without piped water the hills were uninhabitable. Moreover, all he great Roman baths now became useless, and the popes who thereafter rules Rome may have been glad that these relics of pagan life could no longer corrupt Christian morals. Torrents of water from the broken aqueducts poured out over the flat plain of the Campagna, transforming what had been fruitful wheat fields into malarial swamps, the source of the dreaded Roman fever.
The cities of the empire were already shrinking because of the decline of commerce, the displacements of political power, and the ravages of disease. The frightful bubonic plague of 542-43 reduced the population of Europe at least as severely as the Black death of the fourteenth century did. The disruption of water supplies completed the ruin of the great urban centers. And as the moribund cities died of thirst, medieval rustication began.
”Bishop Ambrose, in particular, “guided” no fewer than four monarchs, all of whom were complicit in the disintegration of the western empire. As they laboured tirelessly (but in luxury) over such pressing issues as to whether Christ was actually God and just how virtuous was virginity, the provinces were taxed into destitution, the soldiers went unpaid, and barbarian raids went unopposed.
”Throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, seemingly limitless funds poured into the coffers of the Church – though actually that revenue was extracted from a diminishing tax-base as citizens fled the towns to avoid the rapacious tax collectors. The “bonanza” intensified the ferocious infighting that had always characterized Christianity – Catholic versus Arian, Donatist versus Orthodox, Alexandria versus Constantinople, Milan versus Rome. In every imperial court – and there were now several – a coterie of bishops, female regents and eunuchs vied for influence and power.
Yet every measure designed to crush and stamp out non-Christian belief met with renewed resistance, disaffection from the imperial cause and civil commotion. In time, many would prefer the more tolerant rule of a barbarian king to the adolescent fanatics in Milan, Ravenna or Constantinople. The campaign to wipe out heterodox opinion realized its zenith with the reign of Theodosius I late in the 4th century. Barely a decade later, the city of Rome fell to the barbarians. The parasitic Christian religion had fatally weakened the host body; yet as the western empire died, the psychosis of “Christian Faith” had already migrated to the newcomers.” ( travelersdigest.com)
Rustication is the key word in defining the essential difference between Roman and early medieval civilization. With the end of the empire came a return to agrarianism that was in some part the result of barbarian influence; for many of the barbarians feared the walled towns of the Romans. ”A walled enclosure seemed to them a net in which men were caught, and the city itself a town to bury them alive,” Ammianus Marcellinus commented.
But the resurgence of agrarian life resulted mainly from complex economic and political forces that had their origins in the empire itself; the general insecurity of life, the slowing of trade, the destruction of the middle-class, the breakdown of central government, the shift from a money economy to a natural economy, and so on. Europe returned to the soil, and centuries were to pass before a new cycle of urbanization could begin.When towns once again sprang up, the ”barbarians” , who could no longer by any stretch be called that, built the novel institutions that link medieval urban society with the modern world.
Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out
Today in their red and embroidered togas;
Why do they wear amethyst-studded bracelets,
and rings with brilliant glittering emeralds;
why are they carrying costly canes today,
superbly carved with silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today,
And such things dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t the worthy orators come as usual
to make their speeches, to have their say?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today;
and they get bored with eloquence and orations.
Why this sudden unrest and confusion?
(How solemn their faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares clearing so quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?
Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
Some people arrived from the frontiers,
and they said that there are no longer any barbarians.
And now what shall become of use without any barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution. ( Cavafy. Expecting the Barbarians )
”Between 235 and 400, more than 50 men got themselves recognized in the historical roll as emperors or reasonably plausible usurpers. Almost all led short lives terminating in violent death. The political history of the time records a dismal, bewildering, and ultimately grimly repetitive series of border warfare, coups, and assassinations. (From the early 400s until the formal extinguishment of the empire in the West in 476, emperors gained greater job security in exchange for reduced power: Their new Germanic generalissimos preferred to rule from behind the throne of an established dynasty rather than seize the title for themselves. That stylistic shift does not however help very much to clarify matters – especially since by then there emerges a line of eastern emperors whose names have to be kept in mind at the same time.” ( David Frum)