(from: Wilkie Collins: An Illustrated Guide © Andrew Gasson 1998, used with permission)
In the Rome of AD 408, the young Antonina lives with her father Numerian, zealous in his aims to restore the Christian faith to its former ideals. Numerian's steward, Ulpius, brought up in the old religion, secretly lives only to restore the forbidden gods of pagan sacrifice. Vetranio, their wealthy neighbour, has designs on the innocent Antonina. When they are surprised by Numerian in an apparently compromising situation, Antonina flees outside the city walls just before Rome is blockaded by the encircling army of the Goths.
Antonina is captured by the chieftain, Hermanric, who falls in love with her. His sister, Goisvintha, was the sole survivor of a Roman massacre in which her children perished and has vowed revenge on Rome and its people. She attempts to kill Antonina but is prevented by Hermanric who allows Antonina to escape. During the weeks of the siege, she lives in a deserted farmhouse, visited nightly by Hermanric. Goisvintha betrays her brother to the Huns who kill him, while Antonina escapes for a second time.
Ulpius, meanwhile, has discovered a breach in the city wall and attempts to betray Rome to Alaric in exchange for his destruction of the Christian religion. Alaric is interested only in humbling his enemies into surrender and seizing a large tribute of gold. Returning towards the city, Ulpius discovers Antonina and accompanies her to Rome where she finds her overjoyed but starving father. Antonina begs the last morsels of food from Vetranio at a macabre and suicidal 'Banquet of Famine', preventing him from making a funeral pyre of his palace.
Goisvintha, ever more obsessed with revenge, smuggles her way into Rome to seek out Antonina. Father and daughter take refuge in a disused pagan temple, inhabited by the now totally deranged Ulpius. Before he can sacrifice Antonina to the old gods, she is stabbed by the pursuing Goisvintha who is lured to her own death in a mechanical booby-trap. The raving Ulpius reveals that he is Numerian's long-lost brother and barricading himself in the temple is burned to death among his idols by the Christian priests. Antonina has been rescued and after recovering from her wound lives peacefully with her father, happily tending Hermanric's grave. The repentant Vetranio retires to the country.
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