At the edge of the world –Episode 10
Christianity becomes the Imperial religion
In this Episode we shall see how a holy vision before a battle caused a Roman emperor to end the persecution of Christians, and to make Christianity the State religion of his whole Empire, including Britannia. The way was paved for the arrival of St Augustine in Kent, in 597, who was to begin the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons.
Written and presented by Robert Smith, Chairman of the Manorial Society of Great Britain - www.msgb.co.uk
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Statue of the Roman Emperor Constantine outside York Minster, England http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eboracum
Parthenon, Athens, Greece, built between 447 and 438BC to replace an earlier temple that was destroyed by the Persians in 480. It was dedicated to the goddess Athena (wisdom), known in Rome as the goddess Minerva. Photograph taken in 1978 http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:O_Partenon_de_Atenas.jpg
Aristotle painted by Francesco Hayez (1791–1882) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristotle
Satellite image of the Bosphorus strait, taken from the ISS in April 2004; (see below) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosphorus
The cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral, England http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canterbury_Cathedral
Scenes of Christ's Passion from the St Augustine Gospels, possibly brought by Mellitus to England in 603 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mellitus
Colossus_of_Constantine, in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Musei Capitolani, Rome, Italy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colossus_of_Constantine
Constantius Chlorus was one the the Tetrarchs of the Roman Empire at the end of the 3rd century, under the rule of Diocletian, the last of the Christian persecutors. A Tetrarch was a ‘caesar’, an under-emperor. The reverse of this coin shows the Tetrarchs sacrificing to the gods for their victory over the Sarmatians, originally a Persian (Iranian) tribe, who spread out to rule parts of the Caucasus and modern Ukraine. Whether as Republic or Empire, Rome had long been a ‘house divided against itself’ and the period at the end of the third century was perhaps the most complex, although under the ultimate rule of Diocletian, a tyrant who knew how to use power, Rome was maintained. It has to be remembered that all government in these centuries, and for many to come, was a tyranny. Constanius’s son Constantine briefly repaired the damage caused by pretenders when he wiped out all opposition, and he ruled unchallenged until 337: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantius_Chlorus
Legend is that Constantine’s mother Helen discovered the cross (known as the True Cross) on which Christ was crucified when she visited the Holy Land. Painting by Giovani Battista, or Cima da Conelgiano, of Treviso, Italy (c1459-1513), National Gallery of Art, Washington DC: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helena_(empress)
Trier, Germany, where St Helen is said to have been born, although York, England, also claims that distinction. The city was founded in about 30BC by the Romans and was called Augusta Treverorum. Picture shows the Porta Nigra, a substantial Roman defensive point: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trier
Bust of Emperor Maxentius, one of several competitors for the whole Roman Empire with Constantine the Great. The two men’s armies met at Milvian Bridge, where Maxentius was defeated and is believed to have drowned in the River Tiber: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxentius
Constantine’s army before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, 28 October 312. The angels represent God’s blessing on the Christian Emperor who is said to have had a vision when he was told, ‘in this sign (of the Cross) conquer’. Painting (c 1640) by an anonymous Flemish artist, after the Renaissance master Giulio Romano; located at the Walters Art Museum, Vernon-Belvedere, Baltimore, Md, USA: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flemish_-_Constantine_the_Great_at_the_Milvian_Bridge_-_Walters_371117.jpg
Arch of Constantine, Rome, erected by order of the Roman Senate and inaugurated in 315 to honour Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arch_of_Constantine
The altar at St John Lateran Cathedral, Rome, which is said to include wood from the table at which Christ and His Disciples took the Last Supper. The Laterini Palace was given by Emperor Constantine to Pope Mitiades (or Melchiades) (r 311-314) and was consecrated by Pope Sylvester I (r 314-35) in 324. The original structure (known as the basilica or cathedral of Constaniniani), little of which remains, except for part of the baptistery, was completed in 432, and the present cathedral was finished in 1634, but includes much medieval embellishment. The cathedral takes its name from the Patrician Laterini family. It is older than St Peter’s and is the church of the diocese of Rome: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archbasilica_of_St._John_Lateran
Artist's impression of what Constantinople might have looked like from the air in the Byzantine era http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantinople
A representation made in 1883 of a Diolcletian persecution of Christians; by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Walters Art Museum, Mount Vernon-Belvedere, Baltimore, Md, USA: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diocletianic_Persecution#
The Rome catacombs are famous as places to hide from the Roman authorities and were not only used by Christians. Anyone from criminal to poltical opponent used them, and the catacombs only started to be used by Christians towards the end of the first century AD. The picture is of a passage in the largest of all the catacombs, those named after St Domitilla, who is unnoticed in the Oxford Book of Saints. She was Flavia Domitilla, active in the last years of the first century. Her husband was a cousin of the Emperor Domitian and she was well known in the Imperial Family. One tradition, which is questionable, is that both were Christians and she was exiled to the island of Pandateria. He was executed. Domitian was certainly a persecutor of Christians. Initially, Christians were seen as a strand of Judaism, but Jewish leaders denied this and worked against them, and this resulted in the spradic persecutions by some Roman emperors. Nero made them scapegoats for the fire in Rome in 64, although it is quite possible that he had the fire started to clear land for a new palace. According to tradition, St Peter and St Paul were put to death under Nero, who was assassinated in 68. Rome had been a growing city for many years under the Republic and the Caesars, and its population may have been between 500,000 and a million under the great emperors, Trajan and Hadrian (reigned one after the other between 95 and 136). The city was built on seven hills, the seventh of which was said to be the rubbish dump of the city. Romans had long buried their dead, therefore, in catacombs and Christians did the same, although they almost certainly hid there when there happened to be a persecuting emperor on the throne. The St Domitilla Catacombs have nine miles of passages and there are still bones in these passages: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catacombs_of_Rome#mediaviewer/File:Rom,_Domitilla-Katakomben_2.jpg
Wall painting of a bearded Christ in the Commodilla Catacombs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catacombs_of_Rome#mediaviewer/File:Christ_with_beard.jpg
As Christianity spread, so did pilgrimage. In the earliest centuries of Christianity, pilgrimage seems to have been confined to the Holy Land. We have already noticed St Helena’s pilgimage there where she is said to have found the True Cross. An early pilgrim was Origen (c 185-c 250) who was born in Egypt and went to Palestine where he set up a school at Caesarea. His main works were Hexapla and De Principiis, criticims of and commentaries on the Bible. Much of his work is lost and that which remains is in Latin, not Greek, in which language he wrote. One of hs main contentions was that souls existed before they were born. St James the Great in our picture (martyred AD44), is described in the Gospels as the son of Zebedee and brother of John, both Apostles. St James was adopted in Spain and still flourishes at Santiago de Compostela, visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a year - although there is no evidence that he went anywhere near the Iberian peninsula. The story emerged in the seventh century and he became known as the Moor-Slayer between 1200 and 1500, the patron saint of Spaniards seeking to drive out the Moors (Muslims), which finally succeeded with the fall of the caliphate of Granada in 1492 to Ferdinand and Isabella, known as the ‘Catholic Monarchs.’ The king of Spain is still known as ‘his Most Catholic Majesty’: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Painting_of_Santiago_Matamoros.jpg
The killing of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury. Becket was archbishop and fell out with King Henry II (r 1154-89) over Church privileges and immunities and was murdered by four knights on the steps of his altar at Canterbury, at the instigation of the king. The story is that Henry declared in the earshot of the four knights: ‘who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’ The story that the king provoked these knights was never proved, but Henry went to Canterbury where he submitted to a flogging by the monks of Christchurch, the cathedral monastery (one imagines that the flogging was more symbolical than actual). Thomas was canonized three years after his murder in 1173, and his shrine became an English and European centre for pilgrims, until the Henrician Reformation in the 1530s. The shrine was destroyed and all references to St Thomas in Church books were excised. A shrine has been rebuilt at Canterbury and there are ‘Pilgrims’ Ways’ from London and Winchester: Picture shows the murder in a page from an English Psalter; Art Museum, Baltimore, Md, USA: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Becket
The illustration (dated 1035-40) is not what Mrs Alexander had in mind when she wrote the words to the hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’. It is the parable of Dives and Lazarus from St Luke’s Gospel, 16: 19-31. The first picture is of Lazarus at the rich man’s door; the second of angels bearing Lazarus’s soul to Paradise and lying in the bossom of Abraham; the third of Dives being tormented in hell. Codex Aureus Echternacht, German National Museum, Nuremberg: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Meister_des_Codex_Aureus_Epternacensis_001.jpg
If it seems peculiar to use a painting of Constantine’s baptism at the time of his death in 337, it is because he was not baptized until he was close to death in Nicomedia, unable to get back to Constantinople He was born a pagan and the idea that he did not convert to Christianity until his death probably arises from his very late baptism. He may not have been baptized because he may have believed that the acts of his life would not be punished in the Afterlife since he had not been baptized. He had his son Crispus, by Minervina, poisoned in 326; and in the same year his wife, the Empress Fausta, was boiled to death in an overheated bath. This was at the instigation of his mother Helena, who was canonized. Later stories, without a shred of evidence, sought to attribute these extraordinary acts to some sordid incestuous relationship between mother and son. More likely is that mother and son were plotting to make sure that Crispus succeeded his father. Constantine may have reasoned that to do this wife and son would have to kill him, so he struck first. Their names were edited out of books and prayers, and chiselled off monuments and buildings. It was as if they had never existed. His reign of 31 years was the second longest after the first Roman emperor Augustus (r 30/27BC to AD14). He left an empire strong, but under great pressure from outside, but an empire where Christianity had taken control. This picture was made by students of Raphael between 1520 and 1524. Raphael Rooms, Vatican City, Rome, Italy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_the_Great#mediaviewer/File:Raphael_Baptism_Constantine.jpg
The Trinity as perceived by the Greek-born painter El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos, 1541-1614), who worked chiefly in Spain; painting in Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_of_El_Greco
The Emperor Constantine holding a model of the city he named after himself. Although Constantinople was finally captured by Sultan Muhammad in 1453 and Hagia Sofia turned into a mosque, most of the Christian icons of emperors and many Christian symbols in it were not disturbed, or only little disturbed. It became a museum in 1935 under the secular rule of Ataturk (Mustapha Kemel) - in many ways a great statesman of whom too little is known outside Turkey: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3e/Byzantinischer_Mosaizist_um_1000_002.jpg
Greek icon of the first Council of Nicaea, summoned by and held at Constantine’s palace at Nicaea (modern name, Iznik, Turkey) to determine a consensus on Christian belief: the Trinity, times of important events (such as Easter), canon law: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:THE_FIRST_COUNCIL_OF_NICEA.jpg
Please note, neither we nor Wikimedia know the location of this icon. If you do, please enter it on the Wikimedia link for future users
Theodosius I, called the Great, barred from the cathedral at Milan by Archbishop Ambrose, later canonized. The Emperor had to do penance for the mass slaughter in Thessalonika, Greece, in reprisals for the death of a governor. He reigned in the East, from Constantinople from 379, and in the West from 392 till his death three years later. He was the last emperor to rule over the whole empire. Ambrose was a patron to Augustine of Hippo, also made a saint, whom we shall encounter. Painting by Anthony van Dyke (1619-20), National Gallery, London, England: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodosius_I#mediaviewer/File:Anthonis_van_Dyck_005.jpg
Plato (l) and Aristotle (384-322). Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great and died in 322 mysteriously. It has been suggested, without much evidence, that Alexander had him killed. Detail of The School of Athens, a fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura, Pontifical Palace, the Vatican, Rome, Italy. Painted by Raphael in 1509: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristotle#mediaviewer/File:Sanzio_01_Plato_Aristotle.jpg
Parthenon from south. The Parthenon from the south. In the foreground of the image, a reconstruction of the marble imbrices and tegulae (roof tiles) forming the roof is visible, resting on wooden supports. Photographer: Thermos. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Thermos
Socrates (r) with his pupil Alcibiades. Socrates was executed and Alcibaides was murdered. Painting by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckensberg, at the Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates
Pope Gregory the Great (r 590-604), a representation of him with the Anglo-Saxon slaves, when he is supposed to have said: ‘non Angli sed Angeli’ - not Angles (English) but angels. It was, apparently, this chance meeting that caused the Pope to send a mission to England under Augustine in 597. A 19th century mosaic from Westminster Cathedral, London, England: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Gregory_I
St Columba, Apostle to the Picts, here seen striking the gate of King Malencthon of the Picts. Columba was born in Gartan, modern Co Donegal, Irish Republic, in 521, and died at Iona in 597; from Scotland’s Story by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (pub 1906), illustrated by John R Skelton: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columba
Pope Gregory the Great: http://www.catholictradition.org/Papacy/papal-gallery51.htm
St Augustine of Canterbury: http://www.historyofinformation.com/expanded.php?id=209
Canterbury Cathedral, source URL, Library of Congress, Washington DC, USA: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canterbury_Cathedral
Rochester Cathedral from the north-east, with the castle beyond, by Thomas Girftin (1797): http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/girtin-rochester-cathedral-from-the-north-east-with-the-castle-beyond-d36637
Parthenon (see above) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Parthenon.JPG
Detail of mosaic, Basilica of Sant' Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, Italy, AD459. The Byzantine emperor ruled from Constantinople; Ravenna was his Italian headquarters http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crux_gemmata
Solstice fire Montana, modern Neopaganism: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Solstice_fire_Montana.jpg
A Gargoyle: http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acid_rain
Anglo Saxon food laid out on a table http://cookit.e2bn.org/historycookbook/28-326-saxons-vikings-Food-facts.html
Christ the Saviour (Pantokrator), a 6th-century encaustic icon from Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spas_vsederzhitel_sinay.jpg
Pope Gregory I http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pope_Gregory_I.jpg
In this episode we shall be considering how an emperor changed the religion of the whole Western world at the stroke of his pen. No one had done it before and no one has done it since.
The Roman Empire, including its province of Britannia, had been declared Christian by imperial fiat from the reign of the Emperor Constantine the Great in the early fourth century, as we mentioned in Episode Two. His mother was
Helen, possibly an innkeepers daughter, who had married Constantius Chlorus, a Roman general. He became emperor in 292, as Constantius I, jointly with Diocletian. In about 310, Helen converted to Christianity and became very devout, giving money to churches. She died in 330 on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where she is said to have discovered the True Cross. Geoffrey of Monmouth - whom we met in Episode Six as the creator of the Arthurian legend - said that she was British, perhaps because of Constantine's connection with York, where his father Constantius Chlorus spent some time and died there. Trier, in Germany, claims that she was born there.
At any rate, she may well have influenced the religion of her son, the future emperor. And so, the story goes, prior to the battle of Milvian Bridge, near Rome, in 312 - when Constantine contested the whole Roman Empire with Maxentius, his rival for power - Constantine is reported to have had a vision. He apparently saw the sun at dead of night, through which - at its compass points - the Holy Cross appeared in brilliant shafts of light, with the legend, 'in this sign conquer'. Constantine immediately had this image painted on his men's shields and banners before the battle, and they duly conquered. The Arch of Constantine, near the Colosseum, in Rome, commemorates this victory. True or false, it is a very good story, with great propaganda potential, which must have resonated in this age of religiosity and superstition. Some Old Testament kings of the Israelites were believed to have conquered with God on their side, and this was good enough for Constantine, who now rated Christianity highly. He built the first officially sponsored church in Rome, St John Lateran, and founded the churches of the Holy Sepulchre and the Nativity in Palestine. Possibly, he was one of Seneca's rulers who found religion useful, for he was only baptized on his deathbed. The year after his victory, in 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which ended the persecution of Christians throughout the Empire.
In 330, he formally transferred his capital eastwards to the city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople after himself. A century later, the Empire would be known as the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. Constantinople stood on the Bosphorus, a narrow strait between Europe and Asia Minor. It was at the crossroads of land and sea trade routes between East and West, which would make its emperors very rich.
From being described as a cult in the 40s AD, during the reign of the Emperor Claudius, Christianity had been tempered, like fine steel, through martyrdom, myth, theology, and networks of believers for 250 years up to the reign of Diocletian - the last of the great Christian persecutors. It had become a big player among the pagan players, particularly with the poorer sort of people, who were promised much in the Hereafter by the New Testament, when the mighty would be laid low and the meek would inherit the earth. Such ideas would doubtless have appealed to the great in the 'here and now' of the late Roman Empire: submission by the lower orders in life was rewarded by their elevation to heaven in death. The idea has not died away still, and was encapsulated in the middle-class religiosity and sanctimony of the Victorian period, from the Queen down. In the 19th century flush of industrial capitalism, submission was set to music in the hymn, All things bright and beautiful, by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, whose third verse goes:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high and lowly,
And order'd their estate.
Christianity had gained much ground by Constantine's death in 337, and never looked back. But Christianity was split from the start, and had become a complex mix of competing beliefs and traditions, at the heart of which was the conundrum of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. To try to resolve difficulties, Constantine convened a Council in 325 at his palace of Nicaea, (Iznik in modern Turkey) - just across the Bosphorus from Constantinople. This Council of bishops and other ecclesiastical heavyweights eventually led to the Nicene Creed, which remains fundamental to almost all Christian denominations. The Council sought to address the problem of the Trinity, of who came first. I have to beware getting us much involved in this complex issue, but we must touch on it to understand the kind of Christianity that permeated the lives of all who lived in Christendom, of which Britannia would be a member as a province of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. The dispute was about the 'Substance' of the Trinity - perhaps, the Mystery is a better word. Which was the most senior of the Three in One Godhead? God the Father and God the Son were deemed to be two in one, although there was no accord on whether the Son was there at the Beginning, with His Father, or just before Creation, or just after it, and no one could agree at all on the place of the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church has still not sorted that out theologically, and the Christian belief in the Trinity of Three in One actually depends on secular authority.
In 381, a new Emperor in Rome, Theodosius, was concerned also to rule over the empire’s eastern provinces and its capital Constantinople, by then far and away the richest city in the Empire. He saw that in the East, the Three in One Trinity had greatest support and issued an Edict, or typos - to give it its proper name - to enforce that fundamental tenet. It was a daring move because, unlike the Western Empire, centred on Rome, the East had enjoyed perhaps the greatest gift from Classical Greek times, particularly enunciated by Aristotle: freedom of speech. There had probably never been a time when there had been freedom of speech in the West, and some people will argue that there were always limits in the East or Euripides would not have left Athens for Thessaly and then Macedonia.
At a stroke of the pen, with his Edict, Theodosius underpinned a catholic (that is to say, a universal) faith with an ineffable mystery at its heart, and at the same stroke he ended freedom of expression, for deviation from it was not only religious heresy, it became political treachery. It was left to Justinian, a sixth-century East Roman emperor, to turn the Parthenon into a church and to close the ancient Academy in Athens, where Socrates had taught. Free speech did not come back onto the political agenda of Europe - and that very haltingly - until the seventeenth century. Fourth-century Christians quickly became persecutors themselves of those people who would not conform, and by the end of the sixth century the Faith was well rooted in Constantinople and in Rome.
We need to know something of these matters because they are fundamental to the conversion or the re-conversion of south-east England in the early seventh century, and the triumph of Roman Orthodoxy throughout Britain and Ireland in the next hundred years.
In the 580s, a future pope, Gregory the Great, apparently seeing some Anglo-Saxon slaves for sale in a Rome market, determined that Britain should be evangelized. There were already Christian communities among the Britons, particularly in Wales, whose ancestors had converted under the Roman Empire. Christianity had also spread to Ireland - and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports for year 565:
Here Columba the priest came from Ireland to Britain to teach the Picts... and converted them to the faith of Christ... and their king gave them the island which is named Iona... There Columba built a monastery, and he was abbot there... The South Picts had been baptized earlier by Bishop Ninian who had been educated in Rome...
595: Here Pope Gregory sent Augustine to Britain with very many monks who preached God’s word to the English nation.
Gregory had intended to head this mission himself, but he had accepted the Throne of St Peter from the hands of the Roman emperor in Constantinople, and sent Augustine, prior of St Andrew's monastery, in Rome, instead. St Augustine was well received by Aethelberht, King of Kent, in 597. Aethelberht's wife, as we mentioned in Episode 7, was Bertha, the daughter of Charibert, King of the Franks, in Paris. She was a Christian. Augustine founded Canterbury cathedral, which he dedicated to SS Peter and Paul, later re-named St Augustine's. As Bretwalda, nominally head of the Angel Cynn - 'The People of the English' - Aethelberht facilitated the foundation of bishoprics in Rochester and London. Augustine and his literate mission of monks and priests must also to have helped Aethelberht with the royal administration by devising and writing down the first law code in Anglo-Saxon. Under advice from Pope Gregory, Augustine took a gradualist approach to the evangelization of the English, adapting pagan temple buildings to churches and adopting pagan holy days as Christian feasts. St Bede, in his History, quotes a letter of 601 from the Pope to Abbot Mellitus, who has been sent to help Augustine in Kent:
...When by God's help you reach our most reverened brother Bishop Augustine, we wish you to inform him that we have been giving careful thought to the affairs of the English, and have come to the conslusion that the temples of the idols among that people should on no account be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God. In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and to adore the true God. And since they have a custom of sacrificing many oxen to demons, let some other solemnity be substituted in its place, such as a day of Dedication or the Festivals of the holy martyrs whose relics are enshrined there. On such occasions, they might well construct shelters of booths for themselves around the churches that were once temples, and celebrate the solemnity with devout feasting. They are no longer to sacrifice beasts to the Devil, but they may kill them for food to the praise of God, and give thanks to the Giver of all gifts for the plenty they enjoy. If the people are allowed some worldly pleasures in this way, they will more readily come to desire the joys of the spirit...
Conversion may have been made easier by such pragmatism, but we must leave things there for now. Next time, Christian conversion grows apace in England with the founding of the secular-religious alliance.
Copyright Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain
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