Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.12.36

Emma Bridges, Edith Hall, P. J. Rhodes, Cultural Responses to the Persian Wars: Antiquity to the Third Millennium.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Pp. 453.  ISBN 978-0-19-927967-8.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Johanna Akujärvi, Corpus Christi College, Oxford University (
Word count: 4717 words

Table of Contents

The reviewed volume has its origins in a conference organized in June 2003 by Emma Bridges within the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Durham University, which was accompanied by a series of research seminars at the same university. The aim of the project, according to the editors of the volume, "has been to show that the 'reception' of the Persian Wars has evolved continuously" (p. 4), beginning in the immediate aftermath of the clash between the Persians and the Greeks on Greek soil and continuing to the present day and finding expression in a variety of media: literature of various genres (lyric poetry, tragedy, comedy, history, biography, travel accounts, historical novels, comics etc.), visual arts, cinema, and opera.

All the media mentioned above get some coverage, literature more than the others, in this carefully edited volume, in which there are so few typographical mistakes that they need not be mentioned. The seventeen chapters, which are overall well argued, well written, and often richly illustrated, range over a period of more than 2500 years of mainly western (cultural) history, and they are grouped together in five separate sections, arranged in a roughly chronological order. The individual chapters have their own bibliographies, and the volume is concluded with an index which appears to be accurate to judge from a random sample. Anyone interested in the cultural significance of the Persian Wars from antiquity to the modern era will have cause to turn to this volume for a wide range of approaches to the reception of the Persian Wars in the separate chapters covering more than two millennia and various topics. Despite their many differences, the chapters and their authors are all united in the goal of studying the continuous evolution of the reception of the Persian Wars, thus excellently fulfilling the aim of the project out of which they have grown.

In the first section after the editorial introduction, "Archetypal Theme", P. J. Rhodes' chapter "The Impact of the Persian Wars on Classical Greece" gives a convenient review of the development of the complex relationship between Greeks and Persians from the conquest of the Medes and Lydians by Cyrus II to the conquest of Persia by Alexander III approximately 220 years later. There is particular focus on the manner in which the real or perceived Persian threat along with Persian money and meddling influenced the inter-Greek politics and struggles for power.

Herodotus' Histories famously begins with an account of how learned Persians attributed the origins of the conflict between Greeks and Persians to a series of abductions of women starting with the Phoenicians taking Io and culminating with the Trojans seizing Helen which the Greeks avenged by capturing and destroying Troy (1.1-1.5). Are this and similar passages merely a "projection of Greek thinking on to non-Greeks" (p. 50) as is commonly assumed, or are such passages in the Histories a reflection of the actual existence of a Persian take on the Trojan War, and perhaps even a particular Persian interpretation of the Homeric epics? In the chapter "Xerxes' Homer" Johannes Haubold argues -- quite plausibly, with parallels to Persian rewriting of Babylonian and Judaic traditions -- for the latter alternative, though one should keep in mind that the more he ventures into particulars the more uncertain the argument gets (as Haubold himself indicates). Haubold demonstrates that the Persians and their Greek expert advisors had every reason to attempt to control the shape and meaning of important local texts, so that the conflict could be explained and justified in terms familiar to the Greeks. Haubold reconstructs the Persian narrative of the conflict along these lines: "a Greek from the mainland (Peleus) rapes the goddess Thetis, setting in motion the fateful events that eventually lead to the clash between Achaeans and Trojans. In a second step, a Greek army sets out from the mainland, sacks an imperial city (Troy), and offends the local deity, Athena, in the process." (p. 56)1 Both the deity and the unjustly sacked city of Troy finally find their champion in Xerxes. Further, Haubold argues that the Iliad -- since no Ionians are mentioned among the Achaean contingents in Iliad 2 and what is more, Miletus is mentioned as fighting with the Trojans -- may have been used to strengthen Ionian loyalty and as an argument for the idea of a Panasian army in a campaign against the Greeks in Europe. The Greek reaction, a creation of "Homer the Greek patriot" (p. 61) can most notably be observed in the re-enactment of the heroic epic tradition in Attic tragedy, and other traditions, such as the Athenian epitaphioi logoi in which the Trojan War is linked with the Persian Wars in a struggle of 'us against them'.

After their victory over the Persians, the Greeks did not forget to thank the gods with cults, dedications, and tithes of spoils, for their efforts in helping them to fight the invaders off. Pan, Artemis, Boreas, Zeus, Athena, Nemesis, and Poseidon are some of the gods mentioned in Herodotus and other sources. Apollo at Delphi received some of the most conspicuous thank offerings (see Hdt. 8.121f., 9.81.1), and at several points of Herodotus' Histories glimpses can be caught of traces of a Delpho-centric view of the Persian Wars, "a tradition according to which Pythian Apollo aided the Greek allies and fully deserved his many honours" (p. 66). In her chapter "The View from Eleusis: Demeter and the Persian Wars" Deborah Boedeker proposes that parallel to the Delphic tradition there is another tradition, which can be traced in the Histories too. This is a tradition according to which the god who was the most ardent supporter of the Greeks and the most fervent foe of the Persians was Demeter of Eleusis. After reviewing the evidence for Demeter's involvement in the Persian Wars (the problem of the destruction or non-destruction of her sanctuary, her presence at the battles of Marathon, Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale), Boedeker seeks to answer why Demeter Eleusinia should be so prominently associated with the defence of Greece. Evidently Athens had a particular interest in promoting the association of a deity having a particular link to Athens with the expulsion of the Persians and thereby creating another reason why the Greeks should be particularly grateful to Athens for their freedom from Persian rule. This, however, begs the question why Demeter Eleusinia rather than, e.g. Athena Promachus, was chosen. By way of plausible explanations, Boedeker points, on the one hand, to the Panhellenic and expanding nature of the already well established mystery cult at Eleusis and, on the other, to widespread associations of Demeter with vengefulness against transgressors, fierce territorial defence, and local sovereignty and autonomy, all of which could have helped to associate her with the expulsion of the Persians.

In the second section, "Ancient Variations", there are four chapters on the Persian Wars in antiquity, ranging chronologically from Plato to Plutarch. Reading carefully a number of key passages in Plato's corpus, Christopher Rowe in his chapter "Plato and the Persian Wars" argues convincingly -- I will not try to even summarise here the details of the argument -- against Morrow2 that early fifth-century Athens, despite its outstanding part in the resistance to Persia, is not a model of a good city for Plato notwithstanding passages such as Laws 698a10-699d2 or the Menexenus, which (with Loraux)3 Rowe reads as a parody of an epitaphios logos, in which Plato is taken to hark back to the glories of the older Athenian constitution apparently with admiration.

John Marincola's chapter, "The Persian Wars in Fourth-Century Oratory and Historiography", is a study and comparison of the Persians Wars in fourth-century oratory and historiography with the fifth-century Persian Wars tradition. Marincola begins by addressing the issue of modern discussions of the variance between the fifth- and the fourth-century traditions. That there is a difference between the Herodotean account and later accounts, which in the scholarly literature tend to be characterised as divergent deviations, does not necessarily imply, Marincola reminds us, that the fourth-century tradition differs from a standard account of the great event. As Herodotus' narrative did not (yet) have canonical status, even if we are tempted to view it as canonical since it is what we know, it must be recognised that differences between his Histories and fourth-century accounts may signify not only that they are deviating from Herodotus' account but also that they are rejecting it in favour of some other account that was judged more valuable and accurate. Marincola's study of the oratorical evidence, which is naturally Athenocentric in view of the fact that it is exclusively Athenian, and the scant historiographical record of the fourth century (mainly Ephorus as conveyed to us in the Bibliotheca historica of Diodorus Siculus) is selective and focuses on three themes: historiographical revisionism in general, the debate over the decisive contribution to the final victory, and the portrayal of the battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea. By the study of these themes, Marincola demonstrates two points, viz. (1) that in the fourth century the events were viewed in a new light, the uncertainties and infighting among the Greeks in the Herodotean narrative are replaced with a narrative in which the outcome of the struggle is not much in doubt, the Greeks (particularly Athens and Sparta) are actively anticipating Persian moves and taking the initiative from the Persians, and each battle, even the undecided and lost ones, is deemed a victory in its own way; and (2) that the responsibility and credit for the Greek victory becomes contested, with Spartans, Corinthians and Athenians claiming to have fought on behalf of the common freedom of the Greeks; the Athenian claims are best known, but it would appear that historians of the fourth-century were taking care to downplay such claims.

The fifth-century Athenian polarisation of the world into 'us' and the barbarian (Persian) Other and the Augustan demonisation of Rome's eastern enemies (the Egyptian threat posed by Cleopatra and her partner and Parthia) are two key moments in the self-definition of the West in the history of Orientalism. That the Parthians were heirs to the Persian Empire was a fact exploited both by the Parthian Arsacid rulers and the Romans. Roman rulers, writers and artists from the Augustan period onwards allude to and represent the Other fully aware of their indebtedness to Greek models. In "Images of the Persian Wars in Rome", Philip Hardie raises the question of whether the Romans were merely exploiting a convenient stock of images and representations, or whether the Roman construction of their barbarian other "cohered with a positive drive to equate the values of Romanitas with the ideals and achievements of fifth-century Athens" (p. 127).4 Any attempt to answer such a question, Hardie admits, is complicated by the fact that the original Athenian polarisation of 'us-and-them' had been revived prior to the first century B.C., notably in the representation of Alexander's victories over the Persians and in Pergamene monuments celebrating their victory over the Gauls (one of which was set up on the Athenian Acropolis within a sequence of Athenian victories over Persians among other barbarian enemies, cf. Pausanias 1.25.2). Roman copies of such Pergamene representations of barbarians survive, though their data and provenance is uncertain. By reviewing the exploitation of fifth-century Athenian celebration of the Persian Wars by Augustus and later Roman emperors, and by studying ways in which the Persian Wars model finds expression in poetry of the early Augustan age, mainly Virgil and Horace, Hardie attempts to determine whether it is possible to "distinguish between an Augustan (and later imperial) use of a Hellenistic koine and a return to the Attic well-springs" (p. 129). Furthermore, if it indeed is a return to the Attic model, what does that mean -- is it a privileged use of fifth-century Attic models or are Attic models just one among many types of sources in a self-conscious and totalising eclectism? These are interesting questions, which unfortunately remain more or less unanswerable because it is nearly impossible to "isolate a pure strain of allusion to fifth-century models" (p. 141), as Hardie does not hesitate to admit.

Against the background of the glorification and memorialisation of the Persian Wars in literary and visual media, such as historiography, oratory, lyric poetry, tragedy, war memorials, dedicatory monuments, and paintings, Christopher Pelling discusses Plutarch's Persian Wars in "De Malignitate Plutarchi: Plutarch, Herodotus, and the Persian Wars". Comparing Plutarch's allusiveness to Herodotus' Histories in some of his Bioi, particularly Themistocles and Aristides -- narratives which evince not only that Plutarch himself knew Herodotus' narrative very well and assumed a certain amount of familiarity with Herodotus on the reader's part, but also that he did not use it simply as a source but as something offering interesting interpretational and thematic possibilities which could be exploited -- with the entirely different response to Herodotus and his narrative in the equally Plutarchan essay Herodotus' Malice, Pelling seeks to come to terms with the co-existing and nearly diametrically opposite reactions to the Histories within the Plutarchan corpus, viz. the hypercritical one in the Malice and the more appreciative one in the Bioi and some other works, such as the essay Epicurus Makes Even a Pleasant Life Impossible (1093B-C). By studying how Plutarch himself in the Themistocles handles episodes singled out for critique in the Malice (something done by others previously e.g. by Pelling himself), Pelling argues that Plutarch's differing responses to Herodotus exemplify "generic malleability" (p. 157), that Plutarch has different mindsets and follows different principles according to the generic needs of the moment. A similar flexibility can be seen in the manner in which Plutarch treats the Alexander-theme.

In the third section, "Renaissance and Enlightenment Rediscovery", are gathered three chapters on such diverse themes as modern age revivals of Aeschylus' Persians, the prehistory of Handel's opera Serse, and the search for the battlefield at Thermopylae.

Edith Hall's chapter, "Aeschylus' Persians via the Ottoman Empire to Saddam Hussein", is a study of some episodes in the history of the reception of Aeschylus' Persians down to the productions of the play after the Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War. As a first move Hall studies the Persians in antiquity, among other things the production of the play in Syracuse in 470 B.C. which makes the Etruscans and the Carthaginians the first Other with whom the Persians have been equated; in a second she explores the origins of the conflation of Achaemenid and Muslim in general and Ottoman Turks in particular at the time when they posed the greatest military and political threat to western Europe and at the time of the Greek struggle for independence, which is evident e.g. in Shelley's Hellas (on this theme, see also Van Steen's chapter). Next, she concentrates on three performances between 1960 and 1971 which paved the way for the most recent revivals of the Persians from 1993 onwards. Karolos Koun used the Persians to criticise the government of his own country; in later revivals of his production the Persians were even made into Greeks -- that is, they who had been the ones fighting for their freedom were now the tyrannical dictators to be resisted. In Mattias Braun's production of the play in the DDR, staged several times in the 60's, Hitler was up to a point equated with Xerxes; at the same time the play was interpreted as a reaction to the Korean War and American military involvement in Vietnam. Such Greek and East German productions in the 60's pioneered the use of the Persians in criticising one's own government and in protests against American military policies in particular and western imperialism in general. Thirdly, Hall identifies the performance of Orghast, directed by Peter Brook and written by Ted Hughes, at the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival in 1971, as a key event in the history of the reception of the Persians by virtue of its beginning to break up the east and west polarisation and ethnic categorisation and by bringing the ancient tragedy to the attention of avant-garde theatre practitioners in western Europe and north America. In the final section, Hall discusses the latest revivals of the Persians, in particular Peter Sellars' 1993 staging of the play and Ellen McLaughlin's entirely new version staged in 2004 in New York by the National Actors Theatre. In these and other revivals after 1993 the Aeschylean 'us-and-them' polarity is dissolved in various degrees; McLaughlin's version in particular completely inverted the equation of 'self' as Greek and 'other' as Persian, by associating unequivocally Xerxes' aggressions with the politics of the adaptor's own country.

One of Handel's most admired operas today is his Serse, which is loosely based on a selection of incidents from the Hellespont in book 7 of Herodotus' Histories. Despite its popularity today, Serse was not well received originally. After its premiere on 15 April 1738 in London at the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket, it was withdrawn from the repertoire and more or less forgotten for more than 200 years. In his chapter "Operatic Variations on an Episode at the Hellespont", David Kimbell conjectures that the same qualities of the opera that today are the most admired were ones that troubled the contemporary audience, such as the beauty and variety of the music, the lively characterisation, and the light and ironic tone. In his study, Kimbell surveys the pre-history of the opera, with a particular focus on the plane-tree incident and the bridge of boats over the Hellespont. Kimbell begins in Venice in January 1655 with Pier Francesco Cavalli's Xerse, with libretto by Nicolò Minato. Cavalli's Xerse was highly popular, enjoying nine revivals that we know of. One of the revivals took place in Paris at the wedding between Louis XIV and the Spanish infanta Maria-Teresa, since for various reasons the planned production of a new opera, Ercole amante came to nothing. Xerxès, the opera that was eventually performed in Paris instead of Ercole amante differed significantly from the original: there was new music, two of the castrati (Xerse and Periarco) were transposed for basses, cuts were made in order to accommodate a new Prologue and six Entrées de Ballet, and the original three acts were rearranged into five acts. The next stage in the genealogy of the Serse is Christian Heinrich Postel's German adaptation of Minato's libretto which was set by Johann Philipp Förtsch in 1689 for the opera in Hamburg. Only the libretto and a fraction of the music survive. For the next stage we are back in Italy in the year 1694 in Rome: Giovanni Bononcini's (music) and Silvio Stampiglia's (libretto) Xerse was a more radical revision of Minato's libretto than Postel's German adaptation. Bononcini's Xerse does not appear to have been the same success as Cavalli's had been. Nevertheless John Blathwayt, who later became one of the directors of the Royal Academy, in Rome on the Grand Tour in 1707 got a copy made of the score; Kimbell assumes that it was this score that in due course was borrowed by or in some other way came into the hands of Handel. Handel's composition of Serse entailed borrowing and adaptation on a large scale from Bononcini -- Handel's older contemporary and rival --, nor does Stampiglia's libretto get off unchanged in Handel's hands; Kimbell details Handel's composition of his opera in dialogue with Bononcini.

Macgregor Morris' chapter, "'Shrines of the Mighty': Rediscovering the Battlefields of the Persian Wars", is a study of the varied responses to one particular battlefield of the Persian Wars, Thermopylae, recorded in various eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century travel accounts. In that age of Greek renaissance the familiar concept of the Grand Tour travel to visit the antiquities of Italy was being transferred and expanded to include Greece as well. The drive to travel to hard to reach areas and search for the sites of antiquity was further stimulated by a new notion about the importance of landscape and place. This is the sense in which Thermopylae is rediscovered: as the pass lay on a main road from central Greece to the north, many travellers had passed by it during the centuries. How many of these were aware of the historical significance of the place we do not know; it is, however, evident that few showed interest enough in the site to leave posterity a record of their exploration of it. Such interest in recording, exploring, explaining the changes of the landscape and connecting objects in the landscape of the day with its appearance more than two thousand years earlier when the Spartans died defending the corridor is shown in the writings of Robert Wood, James Dawkins, James Stuart, William Martin Leake, Sir William Gell, Edward Daniel Clarke, and Edward Dodwell. Macgregor Morris studies the accounts made by these men in his richly illustrated chapter.

In the fourth section, "Nationhood and Identity", four chapters on the Persian Wars reception in the 19th century are gathered. In his chapter "From Marathon to Waterloo: Byron, Battle Monuments, and the Persian Wars", Timothy Rood argues that the modern fame of Marathon does not rest on the ancient Greek or more specifically Athenian representation of the battle, but on the story of the death of the messenger, which is an incident completely absent in the Athenian myth of Marathon. The myth of the Marathon messenger has in its turn given rise to the Marathon race, which has given rise to a new set of associations of Marathon for the great majority. Rood's argument proceeds from an equation of the battles of Waterloo and Thermopylae in Britain, the juxtaposition of the battles in an 1830 London exhibition of paintings by Benjamin Robert Haydon (with the Death of Eucles as a centrepiece), and the prominence of the Athenian model in the debate over the significance of Waterloo and the proper way of commemorating the victory.

In her chapter, "Enacting History and Patriotic Myth: Aeschylus' Persians on the Eve of the Greek War of Independence", Gonda Van Steen studies an account by Comte de Marcellus, secretary to the French Embassy at Constantinople of a reading of Aeschylus' Persians taking place at the eve of the Greek war of independence in Constantinople in 1820 in the presence of a select audience of Greek intellectuals gathered in the mansion of the Manos family, who were all later to perish or to be exiled during the war of independence.5 In her careful reading of Marcellus' account Van Steen painstakingly sets the scene, introduces the characters and their roles in the war, especially that of Konstantinos Oikonomos, as well as educational and national debates, sketches the educational and performative background of classical drama in the Greek national revival, and analyses Marcellus' position at the reading in 1820 and his reconstruction of the event in his account which was written nearly forty years later. Hall's chapter on the reception of Aeschylus' Persians through the centuries and the gradual stages by which the war against the Persians has come to be identified with a war against the Islamic faith (religion being one of the components in the Greek struggle for independence) can profitably be read as a more general background to the isolated incident discussed by Van Steen.

In her chapter, "The Persian Wars as the 'Origin' of Historiography: Ancient and Modern Orientals in George Grote's History of Greece", Alexandra Lianeri examines Grote's account of the Persian Wars as central to Europe's attempt to construct this historiographic past by rewriting the Greek versus Persian opposition to authorize the modern polarity between the West and the Orient. Lianeri seeks answers to questions such as how the parochial conflict that was the Persian Wars came to be seen as inaugurating the conflict between East and West, civilisation and barbarism, liberty and despotism, rule of law and oppression, what the relationship is between Greek visions of Persia and their modern counterparts, what part Greek historians played in developing the Orientalism-discourse, by focusing on the role of the Persian Wars in Grote's History of Greece, celebrated as the first modern history of Greece and by linking Grote's narrative with contemporary British and German trends.

Clemence Schultze in her chapter "'People Like Us' in the Face of History: Cormon's Les Vainqueurs de Salamine" discusses Fernand Cormon's historical painting Les Vainqueurs de Salamine presented at the Paris Salon of 1887 by placing it in its art historical (the Salon system), prosopographical (Cormon and historical genre paintings), political (support for the army), and intellectual (reaction against Fustel de Coulanges' defamiliarization of the Greeks and Romans in his La cité antique) contexts. At a time when battle paintings were going out of fashion, the contextual factors, Schultze argues, colluded in the enthusiastic reception and reading of the painting by a public that could empathise and identify with the Athenian celebration of their victory over the Persians. Today it is rolled up in store in the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Rouen.

In the final section, "Leonidas in the Twentieth Century", there are two chapters on the Spartans in late twentieth-century popular culture. Until the release in 2007 of Zack Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel 300 for the screen, the 1962 film The 300 Spartans, directed by Rudolph Maté, is the only American film on a subject from Greek fifth century history. Unlike Roman history or even Greek mythology, Greek history has generally not found its way into American cinema, with the exception of a couple of adaptations of the Alexander saga for the screen (directed by Robert Rossen in 1956 and by Oliver Stone in 2004) plus a pilot from 1964 for a historical TV-series that (unfortunately?) was abandoned, staring William Shatner, Adam West and John Cassavetes. In his chapter "Xerxes Goes to Hollywood", D. S. Levene analyses the strategies used in Maté's 1962 film The 300 Spartans, to accommodate the story of Thermopylae to a 1960s American audience. During the Cold War, Thermopylae, as an example of heroic self-sacrifice in defence of freedom, gained new life as it together with other cultural icons was exploited in more or less overt propaganda. The 300 Spartans is part of a pattern of anti-communist movie-making in the US, and its anti-communist interpretation is taken as a given by Levene in his study. But the straightforward story of Europeans standing up for their liberty and democracy against a tyrannical threat from Asia is complicated by the problem that while Greece is viewed as the cradle of democracy, it was also recognised that when the reality of the Greek political fragmentation in poleis has to be taken into account, the actual cradle of democracy was Athens, and those fighting at Thermopylae were Spartans, who in other contexts of Cold War rhetoric could represent the USSR, as opposed to the US represented by the Athenians. Levene's analysis of The 300 Spartans focuses on the portrayal of the Spartans and strategies to overcome the problems posed by their 'Spartanness': initial downplaying of their ethnicity, emphasis on Panhellenic goals, reconfiguring the Spartan way of life and government so as to make it more agreeable to modern American taste etc.

Whereas Greek history is virtually absent from the silver screen, it has been given ampler treatment in another popular modern genre, the historical novel. Although Roman history and Alexander the Great dominate among the choices of themes from ancient history in the English language historical novel, a fair number of authors have found inspiration in the themes of honour, glory, unity, betrayal, fight to the death etc. afforded by the Persian Wars. Emma Bridges chapter, "The Guts and the Glory: Pressfield's Spartans at the Gates of Fire", is a study of the historical novel as a cultural response to the Persian Wars. Bridges briefly surveys the underlying homogeneity in the theme of Greek glory and courage in the face of an overwhelming foe despite differences in emphasis, point of view, and period within the Persian Wars cycle etc. in the great majority of Persian Wars novels. Thereafter Bridge's focus shifts to Steven Pressfield's bestseller Gates of Fire, one of the more recent and in Bridges' view more successful contributions to the genre. Points of difference from the run of the mill Persian Wars novels are studied in an attempt to understand why Pressfield's novel appears more appealing despite its bloody and gory narrative.


1.   Key passages for this interpretation are Hdt. 1.1-5, 7.43, 7.33, 9.116, 7.191. For another manipulation of Greek traditions, cf. Hdt. 7.6.
2.   Glenn R. Morrow, Plato's Cretan City. A Historical Interpretation of the Laws. Princeton, N.J. 1960.
3.   Nicole Loraux, The Invention of Athens. The Funeral Oration in the Classical City. Cambridge, Mass. 1986 (French orig. 1981; translated from the French by Alan Sheridan).
4.   An earlier version of Hardie's chapter has been published in Classics Ireland 4 (1997) 46-57.
5.   Marcellus' account was first published in the periodical Le Correspondant in 1859 and in 1861 as a chapter in his travel book Les Grecs anciens et les Grecs modernes.

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