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2. The Court
The traveller who so far departs from the ordinary track of tourists in modern Italy
as to visit the city of Ravenna, remembers with astonishment, as he treads its
silent and melancholy streets, and beholds vineyards and marshes spread over an
extent of four miles between the Adriatic and the town, that this place, now half
deserted, was once the most populous of Roman fortresses; and that where fields
and woods now present themselves to his eyes the fleets of the Empire once rode
securely at anchor, and the merchant of Rome disembarked his precious cargoes
at his warehouse door.
As the power of Rome declined, the Adriatic, by a strange fatality, began to desert
the fortress whose defence it had hitherto secured. Coeval with the gradual
degeneracy of the people was the gradual withdrawal of the ocean from the city
walls; until, at the beginning of the sixth century, a grove of pines already
appeared where the port of Augustus once existed.
At the period of our story--though the sea had even then receded perceptibly--the
ditches round the walls were yet filled, and the canals still ran through the city in
much the same manner as they intersect Venice at the present time.
On the morning that we are about to describe, the autumn had advanced some
days since the events mentioned in the preceding chapter. Although the sun was
now high in the eastern horizon, the restlessness produced by the heat
emboldened a few idlers of Ravenna to brave the sultriness of the atmosphere, in
the vain hope of being greeted by a breeze from the Adriatic as they mounted the
seaward ramparts of the town. On attaining their destined elevation, these
sanguine citizens turned their faces with fruitless and despairing industry towards
every point of the compass, but no breath of air came to reward their
perseverance. Nothing could be more thoroughly suggestive of the undiminished
universality of the heat than the view, in every direction, from the position they
then occupied. The stone houses of the city behind them glowed with a vivid
brightness overpowering to the strongest eyes. The light curtains hung motionless
over the lonely windows. No shadows varied the brilliant monotony of the walls,
or softened the lively glitter on the waters of the fountains beneath. Not a ripple
stirred the surface of the broad channel, that now replaced the ancient harbour.
Not a breath of wind unfolded the scorching sails of the deserted vessels at the
quay. Over the marshes in the distance hung a hot, quivering mist; and in the
vineyards, near the town, not a leaf waved upon its slender stem. On the seaward
side lay, vast and level, the prospect of the burning sand; and beyond it the main
ocean--waveless, torpid, and suffused in a flood of fierce brightness--stretched out
to the cloudless horizon that closed the sunbright view.
Within the town, in those streets where the tall houses cast a deep shadow on the
flagstones of the road, the figures of a few slaves might here and there be seen
sleeping against the walls, or gossiping languidly on the faults of their respective
lords. Sometimes an old beggar might be observed hunting on the well-stocked
preserves of his own body the lively vermin of the South. Sometimes a restless