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22. The Banquet Of Famine
Of all prophecies, none are, perhaps, so frequently erroneous as those on which
we are most apt to venture in endeavouring to foretell the effect of outward events
on the characters of men. In no form of our anticipations are we more frequently
baffled than in such attempts to estimate beforehand the influence of circumstance
over conduct, not only in others, but also even in ourselves. Let the event but
happen, and men, whom we view by the light of our previous observation of
them, act under it as the living contradictions of their own characters. The friend
of our daily social intercourse, in the progress of life, and the favourite hero of our
historic studies, in the progress of the page, astonish, exceed, or disappoint our
expectations alike. We find it as vain to foresee a cause as to fix a limit for the
arbitrary inconsistencies in the dispositions of mankind.
But, though to speculate upon the future conduct of others under impending
circumstances be but too often to expose the fallacy of our wisest anticipations, to
contemplate the nature of that conduct after it has been displayed is a useful
subject of curiosity, and may perhaps be made a fruitful source of instruction.
Similar events which succeed each other at different periods are relieved from
monotony, and derive new importance from the ever-varying effects which they
produce on the human character. Thus, in the great occurrence which forms the
foundation of our narrative, we may find little in the siege of Rome, looking at it
as a mere event, to distinguish it remarkably from any former siege of the city--
the same desire for glory and vengeance, wealth and dominion, which brought
Alaric to her walls, brought other invaders before him. But if we observed the
effect of the Gothic descent upon Italy on the inhabitants of her capital, we shall
find ample matter for novel contemplation and unbounded surprise.
We shall perceive, as an astonishing instance of the inconsistencies of the human
character, the spectacle of a whole people resolutely defying an overwhelming
foreign invasion at their very doors, just at the period when they had fallen most
irremediably from the highest position of national glory to the lowest depths of
national degradation; resisting an all-powerful enemy with inflexible obstinacy,
for the honour of the Roman name, which they had basely dishonoured or
carelessly forgotten for ages past. We shall behold men who have hitherto
laughed at the very name of patriotism, now starving resolutely in their country's
cause; who stopped at no villainy to obtain wealth, now hesitating to employ their
ill-gotten gains in the purchase of the most important of all gratifications--their
own security and peace. Instances of the unimaginable effect produced by the
event of the siege of Rome on the characters of her inhabitants might be drawn
from all classes, from the lowest to the highest, from patrician to plebeian; but to
produce them here would be to admit too long an interruption in the progress of
the present narrative. If we are to enter at all into detail on such a subject, it must
be only in a case clearly connected with the actual requirements of our story; and
such a case may be found, at this juncture, in the conduct of the senator Vetranio,