University of Minnesota Press

Paul Ricoeur, in a monumental exploration of memory, history, and forgetting, draws on the Freudian concept of repetition-compulsion to propose a new kind of historical imagination:

The historian has the opportunity to carry herself in imagination back to a given moment of the past as having been present, and so as having been lived by the people of the past as the present of their past and as the present of their future. . . . Knowing that people of the past formulated expectations, predictions, desires, fears, and projects is to fracture historical determinism by retrospectively reintroducing contingency into history.


Crucial to Ricoeur's vision is the affective engagement that the historian is meant to bring to the past, to see past events through the modalities of desire and fear. But what Ricoeur's implicit turn to psychoanalysis also entails is an examination of the historian's affective engagement in the process of historical research itself. As the psycho-historian Peter Loewenberg observes:

Our research does things to us. It may elate and thrill us, frustrate us and drive us to anger, enrage and fill us with hatred, and even, as we shall see, stymie and block our understanding and creativity. As Weber said, passion and enthusiasm are the sine qua non of scholarship. . . . The clinical term for this is countertransference.


Loewenberg, like Ricoeur, argues that the emotional investment of the historian in the past, and in the process of researching the past, is an act of cognitive value. Objectivity here is not to be prized but to be suspected as an illusion that blocks a more rigorous scrutiny of what we are doing when we do history.

One aspect of both Riceour's and Loewenberg's portrayal of the historian remains conventional: the image of the lone scholar pursuing [End Page 117] her research, accompanied only by the people of past time. Re minded by Freud that psychological development is always intrinsically social,1 I want to suggest that the practice of history is never a solitary endeavor any more than it is an objective one. This is so not only because the historian imaginatively participates in the concerns of past communities (as Ricoeur suggests) but also because to practice history, to accede to the demands of historical practice, entails participation in another community. This community or group conforms to the Freudian definition, found in "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,"as "a number of individuals who have put one and the same object in the place of their ego ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego" (147). While most of Freud's analysis concentrates on the group leader as the object in place of the ego ideal, he also speculates on "whether . . . an idea, an abstraction, may not take the place of the leader" (129). It is illuminating to consider the idea of history as the focus of individual historians' libidinal investments, and as structuring their affective relationships either with the people of the past or with other historians, where "the very power to dream and seek satisfaction has been shifted from the individual to the leader of the group" (Roth, 149). What is distinctive about this group is that relationships run along networks of reading rather than social or ritual interactions. Thus "the group" spans centuries, but its interactions are no less potent for that. As Anita Johner has observed, mimesis operates in part as a "transmission diachronique du désir" (120).

What is the desire of the historian? We are accustomed to thinking of desire and fantasy in relation to the erotic and more generally the private domain, though Jacqueline Rose in States of Fantasy warns that to consider fantasy as "only a private matter is perhaps the supreme fantasy, fantasy par excellence" (79). In the first instance we could map erotic models of desire onto the subjective experience of the historian. Desire comes to stand for the insufficiency of any object the world can offer us, as well as symbolizing the lack within ourselves from which desire emanates. Since the historian strives toward knowledge, understanding, and—importantly—a representation of the past, we can see that the incompleteness of that knowledge delineates one site of historical desire. But we can also consider the desire of the historian at an intersubjective level, where history operates not as a fantasy but as a group fantasy. Two aspects of fantasy are important [End Page 118] here: first, fantasy's partially narrative structure; second, fantasy as a scenario within which the subject is oriented in relation to desire in the eyes of another (Borch-Jacobsen, 39–45). The former of these is important for the narrative discourse of historiography, which traditionally encompasses both the events of the past and the historian's self-positioning.2 Nevertheless, to consider history as fantasy is to approach the unspoken elements of the narrative; as Darian Leader has pointed out, "If phantasy involves the child's response to the question of his existence when language cannot give him an answer, it is only logical that its formulation should, in a sense, go beyond speech" (94; cf. Žižek, 8–10). The first part of Leader's formulation is also important for understanding the intersubjective dimension of the desire of the historian, so that one asks not just "what does the historian desire?" but also "what is desired of the historian?" Time and again we find in historiography and in writing about the past more generally statements that assume that history itself demands something of the historian and of the reader of history. The sense of the past is experienced not merely as the object of our historical desire but as a place from which desire comes, which locates us as subjects.

Yet here, as with all groups, a tension subsists between individual and collective desires, nicely formulated by the Roman historian Livy when he expresses his fear that he will disappear, subsumed by the throngs of historical practitioners: "If my reputation is hidden in such a great crowd of writers, I will console myself with the nobility and greatness of those who stand in the way of my name" (Livy, Roman History, praef. 3).3 By offering to be consoled by the status of others, Livy attests to the ties of identification between him and other members of the community of historians, yet the concept of "consolation" keeps alive the desire for individual glory even as it appears to be renounced. This tension lies at the base of social structures, since the collective always demands some sacrifice of the individual. In this paper I review the dynamics of such sacrifice, looking particularly at the Roman military, how the tensions here are simultaneously creative and destructive, and how the desire of the historian is implicated in accounts of sacrifice.

The choice of the Roman army as a focus of study follows Freud's example, since his analysis of group psychology proceeded by examining two "artificial groups": the church and the army, where collective [End Page 119] desire is organized differently according to the ideology of the group. Klaus Theweleit, by contrast, follows the anti-Oedipal lead of Deleuze and Guattari to construct a model of the military psychic structure that depends on the ordinary soldier's desiring relations with (the idea of) other soldiers, enemies, and civilians. Yet, as I have already observed, Freud acknowledges, but leaves largely unelaborated, the relationship of identification between group members, and its structuring role (134–40). Both Deleuze and Guattari and Theweleit, on the other hand, devote more attention to ways in which the military group provides the most formalized illustration of how, in Deleuze and Guattari's words, "each subject, discharged of his personal identity, but not of his singularities, enters into relations with others following the communication proper to partial objects: everyone passes into the body of the other on the body without organs" (63; cf. Theweleit, 75).

We can see how the army works as a formalized illustration of this group dynamic if we look at "practical" analyses of the success of the Roman military system, such as the historian Polybius's highly detailed description of the procedure for checking the night watches:

The man to whom the first watch fell by lot makes his rounds accompanied by some friends as witnesses. . . . If he finds the guards of the first watch awake he receives their tessera [to karphos], but if he finds that anyone is asleep or has left his post, he calls those with him to witness the fact, and proceeds on his rounds. . . . Each of the men who have gone the rounds brings back the tesserae [to sunthéma] at daybreak to the tribune. . . . If one of them delivers fewer than the number of stations visited, they find out from examining the signs [tou charaktéros] on the tesserae which station is missing.

(Polybius, Histories 6.36.1, 3, 6–7)

It is clear from the dependence on the tesserae, rather than simply on the testimony of the patrol, that the reduction of individual soldiers to little pieces of wood has a logic beyond that of ensuring that the night watches are scrupulously kept. The fact that the tesserae are inscribed with signs, which denote the different pickets, structures the individual soldiers into the signifying chain of the military. Although Polybius calls these tokens "scraps of wood," he is clearly referring to what in Latin are called tesserae,which frequently denote partial objects only gaining significance in a wider context: fragments of a mosaic, or the tesserae hospitales.4 Polybius goes on to describe how individual [End Page 120] responsibility and individual valor are continually highlighted, rewarded, and punished in the post-Marian Roman army. This redeploys individual desires around such concepts as "glory" (which are themselves intrinsically social); thus the acquiescence of the individual in the "discharge of personal identity" is partly guaranteed (Oakley 1985, 406–8).

From the outset, classical historiography has placed warfare and military activity at the center of its self-definition, yet modernity's vision of the political value of Greco-Roman historians has increasingly marginalized this aspect. Technological changes in the practice of warfare mean that descriptions of the Roman army are often taken to have a "purely" historical (that is, an antiquarian) significance for the modern military historian. Conversely, the magical act of substitutionary sacrifice known as devotio, where a Roman general offers himself up, along with the enemy forces, to the domains of the dead, is almost exclusively the concern of scholars of ancient religion (Dumézil, 93–96; Janssen; Rüpke, 156–61; Versnel, 1976). Neither group is inclined to consider the central importance of ideology to these phenomena, how they construct an image of the polis as the ultimate center that demands sacrifice. It might be said that both military and religious historians thus participate in the fantasy of ancient history's objectivity as a nonpolitical practice, a fantasy in which Livy plays an important identificatory role. This blind spot is illustrated by one of the foremost scholars of devotio, H. S. Versnel, when he introduces and concludes his investigation as follows:

Apparently one life can compensate for another. . . . Man can take the place of man or men, and even a chain of substitutions may be formed: the nation—the chief of state—a soldier—an image . . . what made ancient people think that the voluntary offer of a life would save the endangered lives of one or many others? Where did this idea originate? . . .

Does not everybody see that old people die and are replaced by their grand-children . . . that in wartime some must die in order that many live, that after the war some are punished and must atone for many . . . that in the case of childbirth it is often a choice out of two: either the life of the mother or that of the child?

(1981, 160, 180–81)

The example of the necessities of war is framed by, and derives its validation from, the natural procession of generations. In this way, Versnel arrives at precisely the point of substitutionary sacrifice, and [End Page 121] also incidentally misses the point altogether by replicating, not analyzing, the ideology of war's necessity. The "logic" of the military does not explain the "irrationality" of devotio; it merely repeats the requirement for individual immolation at the level of group structure. If we do not see the self-evident demands of nature, warfare, and the gods, we do not participate in the group fantasy, in the organization of human relations and desires around a demand, a voice from somewhere that says "you must." Acquiescing to this demand entails sacrifice, but it also brings with it a compensatory identity, as citizen or as historian (Girard, 41–71). The demand opens up the gap of desire, but it also covers over troubling discontinuities of knowledge and meaning.

We can see how this works in Livy's accounts of the paradigmatic devotio of the consul Publius Decius Mus at the battle of the Veseris against the Latins (340 BC), of his son's almost identical act at the battle of Sentinum against the Samnites (295 BC), and of the sacrifice that resembles a devotio performed by Marcus Curtius at Rome (362 BC). In the first of these Livy demonstrates how the uncanny nature of the demand for self-immolation is consciously worked into the group structures of the military: the rationalizing, as it were, of desire. The first appearance of the demand, that "the general . . . was owed to the gods of the dead and to mother earth" is voiced by "a man of greater and more majestic bearing than that of a mortal" (8.6.9–10). This demand is then embedded in the military by becoming assimilated first to the concept of discipline and then to the spatial and hierarchical order (ordo) of the troops themselves. Livy's account of the consuls' response to the supernatural demand, then, concludes with the consuls' own demand placed on the soldiers "that nobody should break rank [extra ordinem] to fight the enemy" (8.6.16; Harris, 508). In his narrative of the battle itself (which is preceded by a detailed digression on legionary manipular formation) Livy continues to set military order alongside magical substitution, and he attributes the eventual Roman victory to both consuls, Decius for his glorious self-sacrifice and his colleague Manlius for his tactical deployment of the triarii, the third rank of soldiers (8.10.7). It is significant that these "two halves" of the army evoke similar affective responses from the enemy, appearing equally supernatural. Just as Decius strikes them with terror "like a death-dealing star" (8.9.12),5 so the triarii rise up against them "like a new army" (8.10.6).6 For the Romans themselves, moreover, the [End Page 122] ideology of the devotio is entirely congruent with the ideology of legionary formation, because both are structured around the demand that the individual give up his life, or at any rate his instincts for self-preservation, in order to become part of "the body without organs": the army, the state.

Yet devotio is also conceived as plugging a gap by focusing on the individual as standing in for the collective; only one man can fulfill the debt. The ideology of devotio, therefore, simultaneously valorizes the individual by making victory hinge upon his self-sacrifice and subsumes him in the collective for which he stands. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, "the individual fantasy is itself plugged into the existing social field, but apprehends it in the form of imaginary qualities that confer on it a kind of transcendence or immortality under the shelter of which the individual, the ego, plays out its pseudo destiny: what does it matter if I die, says the general, since the Army is immortal?" (62). The general's sacrifice is called upon at the moment of failure of the collective body, as the consuls decide on the eve of battle: "they agreed among themselves that, on whichever wing the Roman army started to give way, the consul in command there should sacrifice himself" (Livy, 8.6.13). This is underscored in the second devotio episode, where the younger Decius realizes his sacrifice is required, not because of any supernatural vision but because the left wing under his command cannot be rallied (10.28.3). The failure of military order in every sense demands his devotio: this demonstrates the complete embedding of desire into the structure of the group.

If Livy's historical work were complete, we would have in addition to these two episodes a third devotio, performed (or attempted) by another Decius at the battle of Ausculum against Pyrrhus (279 BC).7 This identifies the family as another site within the social where the demand for sacrifice becomes located, and we see this explicitly in the younger Decius's speech. After recognizing that his devotio is now required, he calls upon his father: "why do I delay the family fate? It is given to members of our clan to be sacrifices averting public dangers" (Livy, 10.28.3). This Decius almost entirely occludes the uncanny nature of the demand by embedding it in recognizable structures of paternity and exemplarity. Only the words "it is given" present, in inverted form, the unlocated voice saying "you must."

Yet the embedding of the demand, the circular logic at the heart [End Page 123] of the collective, does not simply align all the individual's libidinal ties, in the way that the consul Manlius at Veseris would have his soldiers respond equally to country, family, and commander (Livy, 8.10.4). Rather, Livy shows us through and around these episodes how devotio opens up fault lines in the libidinal connections between individuals, indeed how this sacrifice is always—from some perspective—a failed sacrifice. Here Livy's treatment of the "improper" devotio of Marcus Curtius (which precedes the Decian series) is crucial, not least because in this instance the uncanny nature of the demand is faced most fully.

In this year, owing either to an earthquake or to the action of some other force, the middle of the Forum fell in to an immense depth, presenting the appearance of an enormous cavern. Though all worked their hardest at throwing earth in, they were unable to fill up the gulf, until at the bidding of the gods inquiry was made as to what that thing was in which the strength of Rome lay. For this, the seers declared, must be sacrificed on that spot if men wished the Roman republic to be eternal. The story goes on that Marcus Curtius, a youth distinguished in war, indignantly asked those who were in doubt what answer to give whether anything that Rome possessed was more precious than the arms and valor [arma virtusque] of her sons. As those around stood silent, he looked up to the Capitol and to the temples of the immortal gods which looked down on the Forum, and stretching out his hands first towards heaven and then to the yawning chasm beneath, devoted himself to the gods of the underworld. Then, mounting his horse, which had been equipped as fully as possible, he leaped in full armor into the cavern. Gifts and offerings of fruits of the earth were flung in after him by crowds of men and women.


Curtius's act is not a "proper" devotio ducis because the circumstances under which he devotes himself are significantly different from those facing the Decii, yet in its very impropriety it illuminates much of those later scenes.8 Here the demand, materialized as a gaping void at the center of the polis, does not become articulated through the logic of existing social or military structures. It remains inexplicable, or rather it could be explained away if we capitulate to the ideology of war and say "who else but the city itself could demand the sacrifice of citizens?" Curtius and Decius mirror each other, each rushing to their fate on horseback: the man in armor in the city; the man in a toga on the battlefield. Together they encapsulate the matter of history, the [End Page 124] affairs of the state at home and abroad (domi militiaeque), and assert their interdependence.

If we compare the demands to which Curtius and Decius respond, moreover, we see that what is required of Decius is made abundantly clear from the outset, while Curtius is faced only with the void and what it might mean. In a sense Curtius confronts the pure indeterminacy of desire and presents the Romans with a fantasy that can structure their relation to desire and to each other. Thus the Curtius episode on the one hand provides a quasi-etiological basis for the devotiones that ensue, while on the other it exposes the contingency of the state's foundations in arma virtusque. It is telling that Livy does not explicitly close the void over Curtius's head (Levene, 214); the "success" of this sacrifice requires continual reenactment.

The logic of devotio is based in substitution: Curtius stands for arma virtusque; Decius stands "for the commonwealth, for the army, the legions and the allies of the citizen Roman people" (Livy, 8.9.8). This suggests that only one man must die, and thus redirects our attention away from the fact that in the battle narratives many other soldiers die in battle, before, during, and after the devotio. Indeed, the paradigmatic devotio of the elder Decius is surrounded by multiple specific instances of substitution and sacrifice, most notably Manlius's execution of his own son in the name of discipline. As we've already seen, military discipline articulates the demand at the level of group structure. Manlius's sacrifice of his paternal desire to his consular, civic/military desire operates at the same ideological level as his colleague's devotio. By occupying the same space, however, these two acts point to the insufficiency of each individual sacrifice, as if the pure demand of the polis is greater than any of its citizens. This insufficiency is compounded by Livy's ensuing outline of other aspects of devotio, where suddenly we are informed that any individual can replace the consul in a further act of substitution: "When a consul, dictator or praetor devotes the legions of the enemy, he may devote not himself but whichever citizen he wishes, one enlisted in a Roman legion" (8.10.11). Here the precision of the demand—and the elevation of the individual as the only one who can save the state—is undercut by the doubling of substitution. The individual no longer stands for the state in a glorious one-for-all relation, but for the state in a potentially endless series of substitutions grounded in identification: tesserae. [End Page 125]

Thus devotio becomes not the singular sacrifice that ensures the security of all but rather the limit case—the emergence of the uncanny—in the midst of "everyday" political life as just one sacrifice after another. The career of Manlius and its role in Livy's narrative illustrates this. His most famous act, the execution of his son, ruptures the continuity between paternal and consular desires that he later assumes in his exhortation to the triarii. But this is not the first time his actions expose the destructive conflict of family and state (Feldherr, 82–85). As a young, uncouth man, fired by loyalty to his father, Manlius threatens with violence a tribune of the city, a magistrate whose person is sacrosanct (Livy, 7.5). This is, as Livy takes pains to emphasize, Manlius's first appearance in public life. From his emergence as citizen to the peak of his career as consul, then, Manlius moves from antisocial pietas to filicidal statesmanship. Each of these acts, moreover, Livy places in juxtaposition with another citizen's devotio.

Manlius represents the flower of Roman militarist citizenry; when Livy dreams of an encounter between Alexander the Great and the legions of Rome he cannot imagine the Macedonian victorious in single combat over the likes of Manlius Torquatus (Livy, 9.17.11). Yet Manlius is never required to make the ultimate sacrifice. Instead, he demonstrates the fundamental fault line between domus and militiae, repeatedly achieving the status of virtue by giving up on civic or family desire.

Freud's almost exclusive focus on the figure of the military leader has come under attack from Klaus Theweleit, who accuses Freud of creating "an absolutely nonexistent Oedipal army" (175n). If Freud's army is Oedipal, we might say that Livy's, at least in book 8, is "Laian." Theweleit's criticism creates a further parallel between the Freudian and the Roman armies, for the accounts of Polybius and Livy that represent the structures and formations of the legions are also frequently censured for idealization, incoherence, and anachronism.9 "What if anything can we learn from the account of the army's history offered in that problematic chapter of Livy 8.8?" (Harris, 507). Its problematic nature sustains ongoing historical desire and sets in motion a complicated identificatory relationship between ancient and modern. The Cambridge Ancient History articulates the relation thus: "to reject root and branch the statements of the Romans about their early history is to abdicate the office of the historian" (Stuart Jones, 332). Critical [End Page 126] engagement with these texts is part of what constitutes the historian as historian, in the very process of their evaluation of the ancient historian's credentials: "Livy's account is an interesting attempt at reconstruction, at times enterprising and correct, at times improbable in the extreme" (Rawson, 57). Both praise and censure of Livy arise out of identification with him, oriented around the ideal of historical procedure. Such evaluations create the network of reading that constitutes historians as a group, and history as a group fantasy.

We can see this even with considerations of how (and how well) Livy and Polybius use source material, where both sources, text and modern interpretation, are reconfigured as tesserae. These keep the fantasy of history's completeness alive, while structuring ancient, modern, and unknown historians into a group organized around the ideal of historical knowledge. Even the partial nature of each individual tessera, paradoxically, generates statements of faith in the certainty of some historical truth. Their very partiality betokens an un seen whole.

This is most evident if we look at examples of how three modern military historians approach Livy's description of pre-Marian legionary formation, where each in turn gives voice to the demand of history. The first of these meets the demand for a "real army" by smoothing over Livy's "problematic" details (such as his sudden reference to vexilla) in order to arrive at an account that is "close enough":

The hastati, therefore, were organized in fifteen maniples of sixty-two men, 930 in all, the principes in another fifteen maniples of sixty-two men, a further 930; the third rank consisted of fifteen ordines, or lines of battle, each consisting of three vexilla (= maniples) of sixty-two men, i.e. a further 2,790 men. This gives a legionary total of 4,650: when the 300 cavalry are added, the resultant figure, 4,950, is close enough to Livy's 5,000.

(Watson, 77–78, my emphases)

Livy's account must be largely derived from much later sources, especially Polybius, so that its independent value is not great. Yet its very incongruities may lend it a certain measure of authority. Livy may have been attempting to reconcile patchy and discordant source-material; but it is difficult to suppose that the legion he describes ever existed as a reality.

(Keppie, 20, my emphases)

It would seem almost impossible to believe that Livy's legion ever existed in reality. . . . The whole farrago appears as an antiquarian reconstruction, concocted out of scattered pieces of information and misinformation, mostly to do with the manipular army. One of its underlying features seems to be a strained attempt to establish some sort of relation [End Page 127] between the new military order and the five categories of the census classification.

(Sumner, 69, my emphases)

Livy's account is demonstrated to accede to the demands of history even as his work fails. The work has little "independent value," and thus directs us to the larger "body-without-organs" of the historical group. It is internally incoherent, failing to meet history's demand for a working account of the past, yet this very incoherence can also testify to the author's fidelity to sources. Historical procedure is simultaneously violated and preserved.

The internal contradictions open up a gap in the ancient historical narrative and evoke readerly anxiety. Watson responds to this by fully internalizing the requirement to provide a coherent account, by speaking for Livy in Livy's place. Keppie has recourse to a declaration of faith: because of his inconsistent narrative, Livy gains "authority"—a socially sanctioned recognition that he speaks for history, even when what he speaks of is "an absolutely non-existent army." In speaking of "a certain measure of authority," Keppie reinstates Livy on his terms and simultaneously constitutes himself as the guardian of historical ideals and the authorizer of the ancient author.

Sumner, by contrast, seeks to de-authorize Livy, for unreality, for improper historical procedure—and for assimilating military structures to political structures (cf. Daly, 52–54). Thus he gives voice to the historical fantasy par excellence, of history as an apolitical practice. Yet Sumner's absolute rejection of Livy does not represent an abdication from the duty of a historian. Rather, his position is one of historical discipline, in both senses: Sumner, unlike Watson, is prepared to sacrifice Livy in order to arrive at an account of the army that is more than "close enough."

Each of these historians in turn plays a different part in the fantasy of speaking for history. By demonstrating what history demands they give up—or refuse to give up on—they replay, in the safer field of the scholarly discipline, the Roman fantasy of sacrifice for the commonwealth. Each fantasy in turn guarantees the individual's ongoing desiring relationship and sacrificial commitment to the collective. Reception and the political thus go hand in hand, as the ideological constructs of "army," "city," and "history" emerge out of an ongoing complicity between modern and ancient. [End Page 128]

Ellen O'Gorman

Ellen O'Gorman is senior lecturer in classics at the University of Bristol. She is the author of Irony and Misreading in the Annals of Tacitus and of numerous articles on historiography, Latin literature, and critical theory. She is currently working on a book about Roman fantasies of Carthage.


1. Freud, 95. Cf. Lear, 122–24, on the role of the social in the transference.

2. See Marincola, 128–74, on historians' self-presentation in antiquity.

3. All translations from Greek and Latin are my own.

4. "A token divided between friends, so that by Wtting the two pieces to gether they might recognize each other" (Oxford Latin Dictionary [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994], tessera 2b).

5. Oakley 1998, 495, and Versnel 1981, 151, remark on how Decius has taken on the attributes of the supernatural vision that first issued the demand.

6. The deployment of the triarii is intended to achieve such an effect, as indicated by a digression: " This was especially terrifying for the enemy, when it seemed they were pursuing the vanquished, to see a new battle-line rising up, increased in number" (Livy 8.8.13).

7. It is not clear whether the third Decius succeeded in his devotio. Cf. Oakley 1998, 477–80. Janssen, 378, attributes this failed sacriWce to "Greek logical reasoning."

8. This might partly explain Livy's choice of myth here; Oakley 1998, 96–99, outlines all the variant explanations for the crevasse.

9. On Livy, see, e.g., Oakley, 1998, 452; Rawson, 54–57. On Polybius, see Daly, 55; Keppie, 33; Walbank, 709–12.

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