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Paul Halsall:

Homosexual Eros in Early Greece (1986)

This paper was written as a course essay in 1986. It does not purport to be anything other than an (early) graduate student paper.

Love, and sex, between men is not a rare thing. Anthropologically a majority of societies [1] accept what we now call homosexuality, especially where one partner plays a totally feminine role. What is special about Greek homosexuality is its apparent prevalence, the appreciation of aspects of masculinity in the other partner and the almost total damnatio memoriae suffered by the phenomenon until recent decades. Modern academic orthodoxy on same sex relationships in early Greece is now based on the work of K J Dover. Only published in 1978 Greek Homosexuality has become standard rapidly displacing attitudes which either ignored the phenomenon or glorified it as an example of early gay liberation. It has been supplemented in depth and scope by the exhaustive inquiries of Felix Buffiere in his Eros Adolescent, which unfortunately suffers from Buffiere's determination to prove that pederasty and homosexuality are totally different. The danger now is that Dover's work as being oversimplified to the point of distortion by authors such as Oswyn Murray [2]. In this paper I intend to look at the sources available and the way in which they can be misleading. I shall then look at various aspects of Greek homosexuality and at how too easy simplifications can distort our appreciation of its geographical and chronological extent, its level of social acceptance and its distribution amongst different classes and age groups.

Definitions are important in considering the subject of sexuality. I was wary about using the word 'homosexual' in the title; 'eros' is the Greek word for sexual desire and what we would call romantic love. Particularly in the late 7th and 6th centuries BC but to an extent throughout antiquity, romantic love as presented in our sources was something directed primarily at members of ones' own sex. We are justified in using the word 'homosexual' only if we remember that it is an anachronism. Modern homosexuality is a psycho-social phenomenon where a person's desires are directed emotionally and sexually towards members of the same sex. The word itself is a nineteenth century attempt to medicalise what had previously been known as sodomy. Perceptions moved from sinful acts to sick persons. The Greeks were living before either a sin or medical model of homosexuality and while aware of differing inclinations did not consider these important enough to establish a separate social category. Exclusive preference for one sex or the other was not an issue and most men we hear about liked both. In short this paper is not about Greek 'homosexuality' but about romantic love in Greece during the age of the tyrants. The fact that it was largely homosexual is interesting to us but was not particularly so to the Greeks.

We have a relative abundance of sources for, as Dover points out, eros was not something to be hidden, at least in its social aspects. What went on when the bedroom door was shut is less clear.

The representational art of the period is a primary source. Romantic love is source of inspiration for both artists and purchasers. We can gather what were the accepted canons of beauty from statues such as those of the Kouroi. By far the best visual sources are the hundreds of vase and pottery paintings which survive. They have some contribution to what ideals of beauty were current, but more importantly they show social settings of erotic encounters and daily life in general. As objects themselves they were used in social settings and where we can discover what these were we have further evidence.

Literary sources are more diverse. Homer and Hesiod give some idea of pre-archaic mores concerning erotic desire. From the archaic period itself we have a wealth of erotic poetry - Sappho, the lone female witness, Anacreon, Ibycus and Solon all writing lyric poetry and Theognis, whose elegiac corpus was later conveniently divided into political and pederastic sections. Classical sources include Aristophanes' comedy and some comments from Thucydides and Herodotus. Plato: writes frequently about eros, above all in the Symposium and Phraedrus but just as instructive are comments in other dialogues about Socrates relationships with a number of younger men. The speech of Aischines against Timarchus gives a good example of oratory on homosexual acts from the 4th century.

A third group of sources are scraps of information we can draw from the vocabulary used about erotic desire, information we have about laws and privileges in certain cities and modern prosopography that can identify phenomena like the homosexualisation of mythical persons which occurred in our period.

These sources demand careful use and the assumptions made laid bare. The failure to do this is what can lead to specious generalisations such as those I take issue with later.

The first point to note is the chronological and geographical desperateness of the sources in question. For instance vases come mainly from the period 570-470, have a variety of origins and were found all over the Greek world. Literary sources come from a much longer period but pose a particular problem in that, with the exception of Solon, none of the early sources are Athenian whilst almost all the later ones are. The assumption made to use this evidence is that social arrangements in Greece did not in fact change very quickly and that it is acceptable to use information from one area and period about Greek life in general on the grounds that a certain common culture did hold sway over all Greece. This procedure has obvious drawbacks. In this paper I have treated things Plato has to say in the Symposium as relevant to what was taking place a century earlier amongst Athenian aristocrats. This seems legitimate when one has other evidence that similar drinking parties were a long standing tradition and takes account of Plato's philosophical purposes in writing the dialogue. what seems less legitimate is when Murray et al [3] use political and theatrical developments in Athens to make statements about all of Greece.

Another issue is of how we interpret vase illustrations and poems. It is quite clear vase paintings are not meant as photographs; the same features are used repeatedly by individual artists. There was a definite set of conventions related to but not the same as real life. Scenes of intercourse between men were so frequent that they acquired their own set of conventions [4]. We need to be aware of these conventions, their relationship to real life, how they changed over a period of time, and the fact that conservatism set in the 5th century and left pictorial innovation to wall and panel painters whose work has not survived in great quantities. Similarly poets assumed a poetic persona and observed the conventions of the poetic form they used. There is a tendency to either use artistic conventions as if they reflect life exactly or as if they reflect if not life then real social conventions. All three must be related but the mere fact that conventions in art and literature were not the same highlights the dangers - anal penetration for example is widely written of but rarely portrayed in art.

With a very articulate source like Plato it is easy to accept everything he says about society's attitudes and to forget he was a philosopher at odds with contemporary popular behaviour and belief. Aischines is another good articulate source, used precisely by Dover because his oratory was meant to appeal to the men of the assembly. It is not unknown for an advocate to flatter a jury by assuming higher standards than it members would actually hold so there is a danger here also. For the archaic period Aischines has limited usefulness as he was speaking in 348 which is very late for our period.

The sources then pose a whole series of problems especially as there are gaps just where one would want more information, particularly about early Athens. They are also overwhelmingly produced by or for aristocratic men. Dover and the others have had to use ex silentio arguments when evaluating women's attitudes, eros amongst the lower classes and why exactly eros was seen as normally homosexual by the Greeks. I would add that there is plenty of evidence about the thoughts of lovers but, apart from Alcibiades ? speech in the Symposium, nothing from the beloved. As yet no statistical analysis has been made of the sources - the number of man/man compared to the number of man/woman scenes on vases for instance - and this might enable us to interpret vase paintings better.

The sources as used by Dover have established a fairly standard view of homosexual eros in archaic and early classical Greece. Simplifications of his work however have tended to take the conventions he exposes as what in fact happened, rather as if later generations come to believe that Americans in the 1940's always made love with one foot on the floor as per the conventions of Hollywood films about permissible sex. The simplified view is that there was increased leisure in the 7th and 6th centuries and that this gave men time to build up an erotic culture; that what happened in Athens is a good indication of what happened elsewhere; that the romance always took the form of a man pursuing a boy and that the man alone took pleasure from the sexual activity which was not an important part of the relationship in any case; and that homosexuality was mainly an aristocratic pleasure which died down after democracy established its values. In all this it is assumed that any sex that did occur took place according to the conventions on vase paintings where only the older man has an erection and coitus consists of intercrural (between legs) frottage without any arousal on the younger's part.

There is some truth in this new standard view, enough to prevent us either ignoring homosexuality's importance of romanticising about its degree of acceptance. What I propose to do in this essay is to open out the view of Greek love that is establishing itself and to show that its parameters were wider that Murray and others imagine. I shall look at homosexuality's origins, geographical spread, social acceptance and conventions, relationship to the class system and supposed demise - these are the areas where I believe Murray is mistaken.

Homosexual eros was accepted throughout antiquity, in Rome as much as classical Athens. The reason for this acceptance was that previous generations had accepted it also. This is what makes the 7th and 6th centuries so important for it was then for the first time that a culture in which same sex relationships were celebrated grew up. That the archaic period provided the basis for later centuries does not mean that homosexuality was previously unknown, rather that we have no evidence.

Homer's heroes have strong emotional bonds with each other but erotic desire is directed at women. Achilles' love for Patroclus was seen later as homosexual but despite the effect of Patroclus' death no physical relationship is mentioned. Hesiod is not much concerned with eros at all but he is clearly describing a country life where a man's chief end was to produce sons. There have been attempts to say that homosexuality entered Greek culture with the arrival of the Dorians. The wide acceptance of homosexuality in Dorian cities is cited as the grounds for this. Our earliest evidence of a culture of homosexual eros comes however from Ionian Solon and Aeolian Sappho rather than Dorian Tyrtaeus. It is not then a question of homosexuality coming from anywhere. What we have is a situation where early sources show no emphasis on homosexuality then fairly quickly toward-'s the end of the 7th century the appearance of homosexual poems, followed on by vases and more poems in the early 6th century. The geographical extent of the phenomenon makes attempts to ascribe homosexuality to more leisure on behalf of the Athenian aristocracy untenable. Sparta was not at leisure nor many other cities with tyrannies where homosexuality was as acceptable as in Athens.

Origins of cultural homosexuality are better found in the social life of the 7th and 6th centuries rather than in any historical event. Greece was more settled than in the 8th and early 7th centuries. We have evidence of a growing population - the number of graves in Attica increased six-fold [5]- and bigger cities. The position of women was down graded in cities where only men were citizens. In the cities new social settings grew up for men; in gymnasiums men wrestled and ran naked; the symposium or drinking party became a part of city life, and again it was men only. In this situation homosexuality came to the fore. This seems to have been a period of cultural openness and the Greeks had no revealed books to tell them that homosexuality was wrong. It is an oddity of our culture that men often refuse to acknowledge the beauty of another man. The Greeks had no such inhibitions. They were meeting each other daily in male only settings, women were less an less seen as emotional equals and there was no religious prohibition of the bisexuality every human being is physically equipped to express. At the same time there was an artistic flowering in both poetry and visual arts. A cultural nexus of art and homosexual eros was thus established and homosexuality became a continuing part of Greek culture.

Athens is always central to our appreciation of Greek history but we can be seriously mistaken if we take homosexuality to be an Athenian habit or try to explain it in purely Athenian terms. Athens became more peaceful in the 7th and 5th centuries but this was not true of the Peloponnese and similarly there may have been democratisation of culture in Athens - but not in Sparta or Macedonia. There is in fact evidence that romantic eros was seen as homosexual all over Greece. Sparta, even with its relatively free women, had homosexual relationships built into the structure of the training all young Spartan men received . In other Dorian areas also homosexuality was widely accepted. Thebes saw in the 4th century the creation of a battalion of homosexual lovers - the Sacred Band. In Crete we have evidence of ritualised abduction of younger by older men. [6]

Elsewhere Anacreon-'s portrayal of Polycrates' court at Samos, and the history of homosexual lovers of the kings of Macedon confirm the extended appreciation of same sex couplings in Greek society. This being so, it seems to be methodologically unsound to use events in Athenian social history to explain the nature of eros in early Greece even if perforce most of our evidence comes from there.
Once established the link between homosexual eros and art gained wide acceptance. This is reflected in the cultural product of the archaic period. For poets eros was a major source of subject and inspiration. Solon may be taken as an example

Blest is the man who loves and after early play
Whereby his limbs are supple made and strong
Retiring to his house with wine and song
Toys with a fair boy on his breast the livelong day ! [7]

Anacreon, Ibycus, Theognis and Pindar share Solon's tastes. Although poems were dedicated to women what is particular to the archaic period is the valuing of homosexual over heterosexual eros. Plato's speakers in the Symposium hold love between men as higher than any other form as it was lover between equals; men were held to be on a moral and intellectual plane higher than women. One of the most extraordinary features of the period was the homosexualisation of myth. Ganymede was only Zeus' servant in Homer but now became seen as his beloved. The passion of Achilles and Patroclus was similarly cast in sexual terms.

The acme of homosexual love in Athens came about at the end of the Persistratid tyranny at Athens. It fell for a variety of reasons and there was certainly no immediate switch to democracy but in later Athenian history two lovers, Aristogeiton and Harmodios were given the credit of bringing down the tyrants. Thucydides makes it clear that what happened was that Hipparchus, the brother of the tyrant Hippias, was killed because he made a pass at Harmodios and when rejected proceeded to victimise his family [8]. Thucydides regards all this as slightly sordid, although it has been suggested his motives in rubbishing the tyrannicides was to promote the Alcmeonids as founders of Athenian democracy [9]. Whatever actually happened an extraordinary cult of the two lovers grew up in Athens with their descendants being given state honours such as front seats at the theatre even at the height of radical democracy when such honours were frowned upon. In Athens at least this cult was used repeatedly to give kudos to homosexual couples and what they could achieve for society.

The theme was exploited philosophically by Plato. In the Symposium he applies the terminology of procreation to homosexual love and says that, while it does not produce children it brings forth beautiful ideas, art and actions which were eternally valuable. Although Plato visualises relationships in lover-beloved terms his philosophy makes it clear that reciprocity was expected between the lovers.

More testimony to homosexual Eros effect on culture can be seen in the visual arts, both on vase decorations and in statues. Even when no homosexual encounter is portrayed these works exhibit a strong appreciation of the male body, much more so than the female body which is often draped. It is legitimate to use these works to determine what the canons or beauty were. The archaic ideal was of a tanned muscled youth after the' onset of puberty but before a strong beard had grown. It was a beauty formed by the particular physical education of Greek youth and is sympathetically parodied by Aristophanes as consisting of "a powerful chest, a healthy skin, broad shoulders. a big arse and a small cock" [10]. Satyrs it may be noted are depicted as contrary to this in every particular.

Poetry, pottery and philosophy leave no doubt as to the acceptability of homosexual eros. Just how much it was valued is much harder to estimate. For Athens the best evidence comes in Pausanias' speech in Plato's Symposium. Here Pausanias makes it clear that a lover in full flight was approved of by Athenians, who had expectations of how a lover should show his love. These included sleeping in his beloved's doorway all night to prove his love. The other side of the story was that fathers were- not at all keen on their sons being pursued and took steps to preserve their son's chastity . Here we have a case of the male/female double standard being applied to homosexual affairs. The conventional attitude was that it was good to be a lover but not to be passive. A boy only remained respectable if he gave into a lover slowly and even then he could not allow any public compromise of his masculinity. Passivity was seen as essentially unmasculine. This ambivalence continues in Athenian history and the Timarchus prosecuted by Aischines in 348 faced as the major charge an accusation that he had enjoyed passivity and thus put himself in the same position as a prostitute. Away from Athens the matter is not quite so clear. In Sparta boys were encouraged to take lovers, in Crete there was a ritual of abduction and the beloved side of the couples in Thebes' Sacred Band were not castigated as unmasculine. Homosexual eros was valued in art, in philosophy, in heroic couples and as part of a boys education. What did worry Athenians at least was when conventions were not kept to and masculinity was compromised.

I have spoken of lovers and beloved. The Greek terms are 'erastes' and 'eromenos" and they are essential to the conventions of romantic homosexuality. The institutions of public life structured these conventions. Lovers met in the army, where an older man was supposed to help a younger become a better soldier, or in the gymnasium where a training element was also involved, or an older man was able to take younger lovers to symposia. The older man was supposed to do the chasing and it was the educative element which was approved of by philosophers. [11] this tends to give the impression that we are talking about short affairs lasting only through a youth's late teens. :The conventions of homosexual eros are not however the end of the story and modern commentators have been misled where that have accepted them and I shall now look at contra-indications in the sources.

If homosexual relationships were only known as short affairs they are strangely at odds with the elevated nature of eros described by Plato who seems to envisage a lifelong joint search for truth. We should not be misled by statues of old father Zeus abducting young and innocent Ganymede. Although it was accepted that there should be an age difference between lovers this need not be very great. Vase paintings often show youths with boys where the erastes/eromenos distinction is maintained but without much disparity in years. Anal intercourse when shown is almost always between coevals. Aristophanes in the Symposium spins a myth of eros being the result of a single person cut in half trying to find and re-unite with the other half; this more or less implies an expectation that lovers would not be to disparate in age. While not ruling out a decade or so in age difference, we must allow that if a youth was going to form a relationship involving sex with another man he would want and admire somebody in their prime. The realities of the army and gymnasium would ensure a limited age distribution also - the very young nor very old would not be either numerous or admired for their prowess. Homosexual affairs then would take place between men of comparable age and some of them lasted many years - Agathon with his lover in the Symposium, Socrates in his relationship with Alcibiades, who broke all the rules by chasing an older man, and the couples in Thebes' army are all testimony to homosexual 'marriages'. It is however not clear if affairs continued after either party married. Other men were for emotional relationships but alliances and children depended on women. The age of marriage was 30, by convention, and affairs may have reached natural conclusions at that age. We have no evidence either way.

As well as conventions on age there were accepted practices in sex, exhibited very well on vase paintings. It is I suggest simply unreasonable to believe that 16-20 year olds, as portrayed on vases, had no sexual response and only unwillingly allowed themselves to be penetrated inter-crurally without any pleasure. Here we have a case of conventions far removed from actuality. While keeping in mind that we hear of no relationships without the active-passive roles, it is clear that writers in contrast to painters expected homosexual sex to include anal penetration; Aristophanes uses the epithet "europroktos"(wide-arsed) for men with a lot of experience of being penetrated. Greek convention decried the passive partner in penetrative intercourse and we may assume that both partners took care that their private pleasures were not made public. It is useful to recall that Greek morals were concerned with what was known not what was done and unlike cases such as dishonouring a guest there was no divine sanction against sexual pleasures, which indeed the gods seemed to enjoy in abundance. In short I think Aristophanes' humour is more reliable than vases. Penetration was important to the Greek idea of what sex was which was why their major distinction was between active and passive rather than 'straight' or 'gay'. What went on behind closed doors probably did not accord with convention.

Homosexuality was then accepted in art and social life. There were conventions and art reflected and reinforced these. What I have been trying to show is that what was socially acceptable was not the whole picture and information given by Plato, .Aristophanes and others enables us to see that both the age and sexual practice conventions were not kept. Even more clearly the contention of Buffiere that pederasty was quite different from homosexuality crumbles before the evidence - which he actually presents well - that although there was a tradition of man/boy educative affairs supported by social mores actual practice extended far beyond this but without anybody drawing demarcation lines [11].

Most of the sources I have referred to are aristocratic in origin. This has led some commentators, such as Murray again [12], to see homosexuality as an aristocratic pastime. It is held that the democratisation of culture, as witnessed by Aristophanes' comedy, saw a marginalisation of aristocratic ways of life, including homosexuality. This argument needs to be unpacked. It assumes that ancient Greek society was divided on a class basis which was also a cultural division. But pyramidal divisions of tribe, phratry, genus and cult also provided grounds for division and it is difficult to justify basing the moral structure of society on class divisions. Even if we accept that the aristocrats had time and leisure to pursue romance vigorously it is a bad ex silentio argument to argue that the lower classes had no tame at all for romance. Aristocrats certainly evolved the culture of homosexual eros in poetry and art but they were not cut off from other levels of society. Their values would permeate all levels. If we take prostitution as another example, we have only aristocratic accounts of this way of spending their leisure but we would not draw the conclusion that lower class men did not use prostitutes. There were male prostitutes and I think it is likely that once a culture of homosexual eros had been established lower class men would be just as susceptible to the charms of a good-looking boy. Aristophanes' supposedly heterosexual men who make fun of effeminates such as Agathon are not adverse to having sex with a boy if the opportunity occurs [13] The city certainly found both male and female prostitutes had enough business to be worth taxing. It is probable that there was less sexual segregation lower down the social scale and thus more occasion for heterosexual contact, but women were still valued less than men in all classes and to suggest homosexuality was only practised by the upper classes seems to me to be nonsense.

Along with the view of homosexual eros as aristocratic goes the view that it died out or retreated to the world of the intellectual right [14]. Aristocracy and upper class culture did not die out in Greece. Sparta continued much as before and other cities did not adopt Athens radical democracy. An Athenocentric view is here distorting. Homosexuality continued as distinctive trait of Greek culture. Thebes' Sacred Band was created in the 340's. Alexander the Great was not attacked for his homosexuality and his life long affair with Hephaestion. Acceptance of homosexuality first becomes noticeable for its acceptance in archaic Greece but like many institutions of the period it survived into the Hellenistic world and on to Rome. The poems of the Greek Anthology bear ample witness to this. It probably survived as long as urban life prevailed and it took Justinian to ban it - that was probably an anti-clerical move as the kind of men who once entered the Academy were now entering monasteries. Even if we return attention to Athens it is the high proportion of homoerotic sources which was remarkable in the archaic and early classical period. Later there i3 a decline and equalisation but this did not mean homosexuality o- its acceptance disappeared. There was a generally more prudish view of all sexuality and even satyrs come to look respectably human. There was from the late 5th century more heterosexuality in literature but this is partly a result of the end of the lyric, and homoerotic, poets and the onset of comedy, which is an essentially heterosexual genre. Even the lyric poets had had some time for women. So even if Athens saw' a remission in homosexual expression at the end of the 5th century this was not permanent . Once one accepts that homosexual eros was not exclusively aristocratic or confined to Athens it is clear that there was no reason for it to disappear until the destruction of cities in the 7th and 8th centuries AD.

Before concluding a mention of female sexuality is called for. Evidence is very restricted. Sappho's poetry shows that women's erotic impulses in her society could be directed at both men and women. A parallelism of male and female sub-cultures has be suggested but we have little or no sources with which we can deny or affirm this. Classical Greece gives us the example of a lesbian scene on a vase and Aristophanes in the Symposium speaks of homosexual female couples to go along with homosexual male and heterosexual couples, but one gets the impression that this was for symmetry's sake. The major problem is that almost all the sources were produced by men and the veil of invisibility surrounding homosexual women, as women in general is almost impenetrable. In fact it is an indication of the prominence of homosexual and male themes in archaic discussion and art about eros that so` little interest in women's feelings and activities was shown by men.

The erotic culture and conventions surrounding it are essential to an understanding of the artistic and some of the philosophical output of early and classical Greece. In this paper I have attempted to open out views about Greek homosexuality that are becoming standard due to an over simplification of the work of K J Dover. I have emphasised the social origins of homosexual eros and how its connection with art made it no passing phenomenon but a continuing part of the foundations of Greek cultural thought. By restricting our sight to Athens we can too easily forget that a homosexual appreciation of eros extended throughout Greece. I have also argued that homosexual eros was surrounded by conventions but that this must not mislead us into ignoring indications from other sources that actual homosexual practice went beyond these conventions. Finally I have sought to show that while our sources are aristocratic in origin this does not entitle us to restrict the erotic culture to the upper classes - Greek society was not as divided as such a claim would presuppose. Part of the problem for early classicists when confronting the issue of romance and eroticism was their own world where the Christian ideal of romantic love leading to marriage was the dominant convention, even if seldom lived up to. To them open acceptance of homosexual eros was odd and had to be explained away. Now we know that homosexuality is acceptable in many different cultures and that the extreme disapproval of modern Europe was an oddity. What distinguishes homosexual eros in Greece was the value of its cultural expression in poetry, pottery and philosophy, but this after all is what distinguishes Greece from other cultures in general. Perhaps like the Greeks we ought to regard erotic life as creative and interesting but not, even when homosexual, particularly special.


1. Enc. Brit Vol 16 p604

2. Murray pp 205-8

3. ibid p 208

4. Boardman p209

5. Murray p65

6. Dover: Greek Homosexuality p196

7. in Coote, p. 55

8. Thuc. VI53

9. Fornara, passim

10. Clouds 1010ff

11. Buffiere p 8

12. Murray p 208

13. Birds 136-43, Knights 1384-87, Wasps 57-8

14. Murray p 207


Aristotle : Nichomachean Ethics

John Boardman : Athenian Black Figure Vases

Felix Buffiere : Eros Adolescent: la pederastie dans la Grece antique

W Burkert : Greek Religion

S Coote : Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse

J K Davis : Democracy and Classical Greece

K J Dover: Greek Homosexuality

'Classical Greek attitudes to sexual behaviour' in Arethusa VI 1973

Michel Foucault : History of Sexuality Vol I

C W Fornara : 'The cult of Aristogeiton and Harmodius' in Philologus CXIV 1970

W K C Guthrie : History of Greek Philosophy Vols III & IV

S C Humphrey : The Family, Women and Death

J T Hooker : The Ancient Spartans

C Johns : Sew or Symbol: Erotic Images in Greece and Rome

O Murray : Early Greece

Plato : Symposium

Plato :  Phraedrus

Plato : Laws

Sappho : Poems

Theognis : Poems

Thucydides : Peloponnesian War VI.53

Encyclopaedia Britannica : Vol 16: 603ff "Deviations"


From: original essay

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