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and then the people for a time dispersed; the sorrowful to linger near the confines
of the fire, and the hungry to calm their impatience by a visit to the neighbouring
The marble aisles of the noble basilica held a gloomy congregation. Three small
candles were alone lighted on the high altar. No sweet voices sang melodious
anthems or exulting hymns. The monks, in hoarse tones and monotonous
harmonics, chanted the penitential psalms. Here and there knelt a figure clothed in
mourning robes, and absorbed in secret prayer; but over the majority of the
assembly either blank despondency or sullen inattention universally prevailed.
As the last dull notes of the last psalm died away among the lofty recesses of the
church, a procession of pious Christians appeared at the door and advanced
slowly to the altar. It was composed both of men and women barefooted, clothed
in black garments, and with ashes scattered over their dishevelled hair. Tears
flowed from their eyes, and they beat their breasts as they bowed their foreheads
on the marble pavement of the altar steps.
This humble public expression of penitence under the calamity that had now
fallen on the city was, however, confined only to its few really religious
inhabitants, and commanded neither sympathy nor attention from the heartless
and obstinate population of Rome. Some still cherished the delusive hope of
assistance from the court at Ravenna; others believed that the Goths would ere
long impatiently abandon their protracted blockade, to stretch their ravages over
the rich and unprotected fields of Southern Italy. But the same blind confidence in
the lost terrors of the Roman name, the same fierce and reckless determination to
defy the Goths to the very last, sustained the sinking courage and suppressed the
despondent emotions of the great mass of the suffering people, from the beggar
who prowled for garbage, to the patrician who sighed over his new and
unwelcome nourishment of simple bread.
While the penitents who formed the procession above described were yet engaged
in the performance of their unnoticed and unshared duties of penance and prayer,
a priest ascended the great pulpit of the basilica, to attempt the ungrateful task of
preaching patience and piety to the hungry multitude at his feet.
He began his sermon by retracing the principal occurrences in Rome since the
beginning of the Gothic blockade. He touched cautiously upon the first event that
stained the annals of the besieged city--the execution of the widow of the Roman
general Stilicho, on the unauthorised suspicion that she had held treasonable
communication with Alaric and the invading army; he noticed lengthily the
promises of assistance transmitted from Ravenna, after the perpetration of that ill-
omened act. He spoke admiringly of the skill displayed by the government in
making the necessary and immediate reductions in the daily supplies of food; he
lamented the terrible scarcity which followed, too inevitably, those seasonable
reductions. He pronounced an eloquent eulogium on the noble charity of Laeta,
the widow of the Emperor Gratian, who, with her mother, devoted the store of
provisions obtained by their imperial revenues to succouring, at that important
juncture, the starving and desponding poor: he admitted the new scarcity,
consequent on the dissipation of Laeta's stores; deplored the present necessity of
sacrificing the domestic animals of the citizens; condemned the enormous prices