In honour of the 85th anniversary of Cavafy’s death on 29 April 1933, here’s my translation of his poem In 200 BC.
“Alexander, son of Philip, and the Greeks except for the Lacedaemonians…”
We can well imagine
how completely indifferent they were in Sparta
to this inscription. “Except for the Lacedaemonians”,
of course. The Spartans were not there
to direct them and command them
like precious servants. Besides,
a Panhellenic expedition without
a Spartan king as leader
would not seem to them to be of much importance.
But then again, “Except for the Lacedaemonians”.
That’s one attitude. It’s understandable.
So, except for the Lacedaemonians at Granicus;
and then at Issus; and at the decisive
battle where the fearsome army was destroyed
which the Persians had gathered at Gaugamela:
the one that set out from Gaugamela for victory and was destroyed.
And from this wonderful Panhellenic expedition,
as no other has been praised,
incomparable: we emerged;
a great, new Greek world.
We Alexandrians, Antiochians,
Seleucids, and the countless
other Greeks of Egypt and Syria,
and those in Midia and in Persia, and so many others.
With our extensive territories,
With our diverse ways of making thoughtful accommodations.
And our shared Greek voice
that we took as far as Bactria, to the Indians.
Why bother talking about the Lacedaemonians!
This is the penultimate poem that Cavafy published (in 1931). The inscription to which the poem refers is the one used by Alexander the Great for the booty from the Battle of Granicus which he dedicated to the Parthenon (‘Alexander, son of Philip, and the Greeks except for the Lacedaemonians, from the barbarian inhabitants of Asia’). The Lacedaemonians had refused to take part in Alexander’s expedition on the grounds that Spartan custom forbade them to take part in expeditions which they did not lead.
The narrator looks back 130 years from the year 200 BC to the three great battles (Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela) that Alexander fought against the Achaemenid empire of Darius III. The culminating victory at Gaugamela led to the downfall of the Achaemenid empire, enabling Alexander to expand his empire eastwards towards India. From this glorious triumph of the Hellenic world and all that followed it, Alexander pointedly excluded the Spartans for their refusal to take part in his expedition.
Dedicated to my mother who shared the same birthday as Cavafy.