The Peloponnesian War
|Delian League led by Athens||Peloponnesian League led by Sparta|
The Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.E.) was an Ancient Greek military conflict, fought by Athens and its empire against the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta. The war was precipitated by the growing hegemonic influence of Athens, which undermined the balance of power among the leading city-states of Greece and the Peloponnese.
The Peloponnesian War reshaped the Ancient Greek world. On the level of international relations, Athens, the strongest city-state in Greece prior to the war's beginning, was reduced to a state of near-complete subjection, while Sparta was established as the leading power of Greece. The economic costs of the war were felt all across Greece; poverty became widespread in the Peloponnese, while Athens found itself completely devastated, and never regained its pre-war prosperity. The war also wrought subtler changes to Greek society; the conflict between democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta, each of which supported friendly political factions within other states, made civil war a common occurrence in the Greek world.
The war underscored the barbarity of armed conflict and weakened the entire fabric of Greek civilization. Greek warfare, originally a limited and formalized form of conflict, became an all-out struggle between city-states complete with atrocities on a large scale. Shattering religious and cultural taboos, devastating vast swathes of countryside, and destroying whole cities, the Peloponnesian War marked the dramatic end to the fifth century golden age of Greece.
The conquest of Greece by Phillip of Macedon and the rise of his son, Alexander (the Great) were largely predicated on the conditions following the Peloponnesian War. This would lead to the spread of Hellenistic culture throughout the Mediterranean world and provide many legal and cultural precedents for the later Roman Empire.
|Sybota – Potidaea – Chalcis – Rhium – Naupactus – Mytilene – Tanagra – Aetolia – Olpae – Pylos – Sphacteria – Delium – Amphipolis – Mantinea – Sicilian Expedition – Syme – Cynossema – Abydos – Cyzicus – Notium – Arginusae – Aegospotami|
The historian Thucydides said that the Spartans went to war in 431 B.C.E. "because they were afraid of the further growth of Athenian power, seeing, as they did, that the greater part of Hellas was under the control of Athens" Indeed, the 50 years of Greek history that preceded the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War had been marked by the development of Athens as a major power in the Mediterranean world. After the defeat of the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 B.C.E., Athens soon assumed the leadership of the coalition of Greek states that continued the Greco-Persian Wars with attacks on Persian-held territories in the Aegean and Ionia. What ensued was a period, referred to as the Pentecontaetia (the name given it by Thucydides), in which Athens, first as leader of the Delian League, then later as ruler of what increasingly came to be recognized as an Athenian Empire, carried out an aggressive war against Persia, which had, by the middle of the century, driven the Persians from the Aegean and forced them to cede control of a vast range of territories to Athens. At the same time, Athens greatly increased its own power; a number of its formerly independent allies were reduced, over the course of the century, to the status of tribute-paying subject states of the Delian League; this tribute was used to support a powerful fleet and, after the middle of the century, to fund massive public works programs in Athens.
Friction between Athens and Peloponnesian states, including Sparta, began early in the Pentecontaetia; in the wake of the departure of the Persians from Greece, Sparta attempted to prevent the reconstruction of the walls of Athens (without the walls, Athens would have been defenseless against a land attack and subject to Spartan control), but was rebuffed. According to Thucydides, although the Spartans took no action at this time, they "secretly felt aggrieved."
Conflict between the states flared up again in 465 B.C.E., when a helot revolt broke out in Sparta. The Spartans summoned forces from all their allies, including Athens, to help them suppress the revolt. Athens sent out a sizable contingent, but upon its arrival, this force was dismissed by the Spartans, while those of all the other allies were permitted to remain. According to Thucydides, the Spartans acted in this way out of fear that the Athenians would switch sides and support the helots; the offended Athenians repudiated their alliance with Sparta. When the rebellious helots were finally forced to surrender and permitted to evacuate the country, the Athenians settled them at the strategic city of Naupactus on the Corinthian Gulf.
In 459 B.C.E., Athens took advantage of a war between its neighbor Megara and Corinth, both Spartan allies, to conclude an alliance with Megara, giving the Athenians a critical foothold on the Isthmus of Corinth. A fifteen year conflict, commonly known as the First Peloponnesian War, ensued, in which Athens fought intermittently against Sparta, Corinth, Aegina, and a number of other states. For a time during this conflict, Athens controlled not only Megara but also Boeotia; at its end, however, in the face of a massive Spartan invasion of Attica, the Athenians ceded the lands they had won on the Greek mainland, and Athens and Sparta recognized each other's right to control their respective alliance systems. The war was officially ended by the Thirty Years' Peace, signed in the winter of 446/5 B.C.E.
Breakdown of the peace
The Thirty Year's Peace was first tested in 440 B.C.E., when Athens' powerful ally Samos rebelled from its alliance. The rebels quickly secured the support of a Persian satrap, and Athens found itself facing the prospect of revolts throughout the empire. The Spartans, whose intervention would have been the trigger for a massive war to determine the fate of the empire, called a congress of their allies to discuss the possibility of war with Athens. At that congress, however, the decision was made not to intervene; the Athenians crushed the revolt, and peace was maintained.
The second test of the peace, and the immediate cause of the war, came in the form of several specific Athenian actions that affected Sparta's allies, notably Corinth. Athens was persuaded to intervene in a dispute between Corinth and Corcyra concerning the Civil War in Epidamnus, and, at the Battle of Sybota, a small contingent of Athenian ships played a critical role in preventing a Corinthian fleet from capturing Corcyra. It is worth noting, however, that the Athenians were instructed not to intervene in the battle. The presence of Athenian warships standing off from the engagement was enough to dissuade the Corinthians from exploiting their victory, thus sparing much of the routed Corcyraean fleet. Following this, Athens placed Potidaea, a tributary ally of Athens but an old colony of Corinth, under siege. The Corinthians, outraged by these actions, began to lobby Sparta to take action against Athens. Meanwhile, the Corinthians were unofficially aiding Potidaea by sneaking contingents of men into the besieged city to help defend it. This was a direct violation of the Thirty Year's Peace, which had (among other things) stipulated that the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League would respect each other's autonomy and internal affairs.
A further source of provocation was an Athenian decree, issued in 433/2 B.C.E., imposing stringent trade sanctions on Megara (once more a Spartan ally after the conclusion of the First Peloponnesian War). These sanctions, known as the Megarian decree, were largely ignored by Thucydides, but modern economic historians have noted that forbidding Megara to trade with the prosperous Athenian empire would have been disastrous for the Megarans, and have accordingly considered the decree to be a contributing factor in bringing about the war.
In the context of these events, the Spartans called a conference of the Peloponnesian League at Sparta in 432 B.C.E. This conference was attended by Athenian representatives as well as those from the members of the league, and became the scene of a debate between the Athenians and the Corinthians. Thucydides reports that the Corinthians condemned Sparta's inactivity up to that point, warning the Spartans that if they continued to remain passive while the Athenians were energetically active, they would soon find themselves outflanked and without allies. The Athenians, in response, reminded the Spartans of their record of military success and opposition to Persia, and warned them of the dangers of confronting such a powerful state. Undeterred, a majority of the Spartan assembly voted to declare that the Athenians had broken the peace, essentially declaring war.
The "Archidamian War"
Sparta and its allies, with the exception of Corinth, were almost exclusively land-based powers, able to summon large land armies which were very nearly unbeatable (thanks to the legendary Spartan forces). The Athenian Empire, although based in the peninsula of Attica, spread out across the islands of the Aegean Sea; Athens drew its immense wealth from tribute paid from these islands. Athens maintained its empire through naval power. Thus, the two powers were seemingly unable to fight decisive battles.
The Spartan strategy during the first war, known as the Archidamian War after Sparta's king Archidamus II, was to invade the land surrounding Athens. While this invasion deprived Athens of the productive land around their city, Athens itself was able to maintain access to the sea, and did not suffer much. Many of the citizens of Attica abandoned their farms and moved inside the long walls, which connected Athens to its port of Piraeus. The Spartans also occupied Attica for periods of only three weeks at a time; in the tradition of earlier hoplite warfare the soldiers expected to go home to participate in the harvest. Moreover, Spartan slaves, known as helots, needed to be kept under control, and could not be left unsupervised for long periods of time. The longest Spartan invasion, in 430 B.C.E., lasted just forty days.
The Athenian strategy was initially guided by the strategos, or general, Pericles, who advised the Athenians to avoid open battle with the far more numerous and better trained Spartan hoplites, relying instead on the fleet. The Athenian fleet, the most dominant in Greece, went on the offensive, winning victories at Naupactus (now known as "Návpaktos"). In 430, however, an outbreak of a plague hit Athens. The plague ravaged the densely packed city, and in the long run, was a significant cause of its final defeat. The plague wiped out over 30,000 citizens, sailors and soldiers and even Pericles and his sons. Roughly one quarter of the Athenian population died. Athenian manpower was drastically reduced and even foreign mercenaries refused to hire themselves out to a city riddled with plague. The fear of plague was so widespread that the Spartan invasion of Attica was abandoned, their troops being unwilling to risk contact with the diseased enemy.
After the death of Pericles, the Athenians turned somewhat against his conservative, defensive strategy and to the more aggressive strategy of bringing the war to Sparta and its allies. Rising to particular importance in Athenian democracy at this time was Cleon, a leader of the hawkish elements of the Athenian democracy. Led militarily by a clever new general Demosthenes (not to be confused with the later Athenian orator Demosthenes), the Athenians managed some successes as they continued their naval raids on the Peloponnese. Athens stretched their military activities into Boeotia and Aetolia, and began fortifying posts around the Peloponnese. One of these posts was near Pylos on a tiny island called Sphacteria, where the course of the first war turned in Athens's favor. The post off Pylos struck Sparta where it was weakest: its dependence on the helots, a class of slaves who tended the fields while Spartan citizens trained to become soldiers. The helots made the Spartan system possible, but now the post off Pylos began attracting helot runaways. In addition, the fear of a general revolt of helots emboldened by the nearby Athenian presence drove the Spartans to action. Demosthenes, however, outmaneuvered the Spartans and trapped a group of Spartan soldiers on Sphacteria as he waited for them to surrender. Weeks later, though, Demosthenes proved unable to finish off the Spartans. After boasting that he could put an end to the affair in the Assembly, the inexperienced Cleon won a great victory at the Battle of Pylos and the related Battle of Sphacteria in 425 B.C.E. The Athenians captured between 300 and 400 Spartan hoplites. The hostages gave the Athenians a valuable bargaining chip.
After the battle, Brasidas, a Spartan general, raised an army of allies and helots and went for one of the sources of Athenian power, capturing the Athenian colony of Amphipolis, which happened to control several nearby silver mines which the Athenians were using to finance the war. It is worth noting here that Thucydides the historian was a general at this time for Athens, and it was due to his failure to stop Brasidas capturing Amphipolis that he was ostracized. Thucydides arrived too late to reinforce the troops already defending Amphipolis, and as such was blamed for its fall. In subsequent battles, both Brasidas and Cleon were killed (see Battle of Amphipolis). The Spartans and Athenians agreed to exchange the hostages for the towns captured by Brasidas, and signed a truce.
Peace of Nicias
With the deaths of Cleon and Brasidas, zealous war hawks for both nations, the Peace of Nicias was able to last for some six years. However, it was a time of constant skirmishing in and around the Peloponnese. While the Spartans refrained from action themselves, some of their allies began to talk of revolt. They were supported in this by Argos, a powerful state within the Peloponnese that had remained independent of Lacedaemon. With the support of the Athenians, the Argives succeeded in forging a coalition of democratic states within the Peloponnese, including the powerful states of Mantinea and Elis. Early Spartan attempts to break up the coalition failed, and the leadership of the Spartan king Agis was called into question. Emboldened, the Argives and their allies, with the support of a small Athenian force under Alcibiades, moved to seize the city of Tegea, near Sparta.
The Battle of Mantinea was the largest land battle fought within Greece during the Peloponnesian War. The Lacedaemonians, with their neighbors the Tegeans, faced the combined armies of Argos, Athens, Mantinea, and Arcadia. In the battle, the allied coalition scored early successes, but failed to capitalize on them, which allowed the Spartan elite forces to defeat the forces opposite them. The result was a complete victory for the Spartans, which rescued their city from the brink of strategic defeat. The democratic alliance was broken up, and most of its members were reincorporated into the Peloponnesian League. With its victory at Mantinea, Sparta pulled itself back from the brink of utter defeat, and re-established its hegemony throughout the Peloponnese.
In the seventeenth year of the war, word came to Athens that one of their distant allies in Sicily was under attack from Syracuse. The people of Syracuse were ethnically Dorian (as were the Spartans), while the Athenians, and their ally in Sicilia, were Ionian. The Athenians felt obliged to assist their ally.
The Athenians did not act solely from altruism; rallied on by Alcibiades, the leader of the expedition, they held visions of conquering all of Sicily. Syracuse, the principal city of Sicily, was not much smaller than Athens, and conquering all of Sicily would have brought Athens an immense amount of resources. In the final stages of the preparations for departure, the hermai (religious statues) of Athens were mutilated by unknown persons, and Alcibiades was charged with religious crimes. Alcibiades demanded that he be put on trial at once, so that he may defend himself before the expedition. The Athenians however allowed Alcibiades to go on the expedition without being tried (many believed in order to better plot against him). After arriving in Sicily, Alcibiades was recalled back to Athens for trial. Fearing that he would be unjustly condemned, Alcibiades defected to Sparta and Nicias was placed in charge of the mission. After his defection, Alcibiades informed the Spartans that the Athenians planned to use Sicily as a springboard for the conquest of all of Italy, and to use the resources and soldiers from these new conquests to conquer all of the Peloponnese.
The Athenian force consisted of over 100 ships and some 5,000 infantry and light-armored troops. Cavalry was limited to about 30 horses, which proved to be no match for the large and highly trained Syracusan cavalry. Upon landing in Sicily, several cities immediately joined the Athenian cause. Instead of attacking at once, Nicias procrastinated and the campaigning season of 415 B.C.E. ended with Syracuse scarcely damaged. With winter approaching, the Athenians were then forced to withdraw into their quarters, and they spent the winter gathering allies and preparing to destroy Syracuse. The delay allowed the Syracusans to send for help from Sparta, who sent their general Gylippus to Sicily with reinforcements. Upon arriving, he raised up a force from several Sicilian cities, and went to the relief of Syracuse. He took command of the Syracusan troops, and in a series of battles defeated the Athenian forces, preventing them from invading the city.
Nicias then sent word to Athens asking for reinforcements. Demosthenes was chosen and led another fleet to Sicily, joining his forces with those of Nicias. More battles ensued, and again the Syracusans and their allies defeated the Athenians. Demosthenes argued for a retreat to Athens, but Nicias at first refused. After additional setbacks, Nicias seemed to agree to a retreat until a bad omen, in the form of a lunar eclipse, delayed any withdrawal. The delay was costly and forced the Athenians into a major sea battle in the Great Harbor of Syracuse. The Athenians were thoroughly defeated. Nicias and Demosthenes marched their remaining forces inland in search of friendly allies. The Syracusan cavalry rode them down mercilessly, eventually killing or enslaving all who were left of the mighty Athenian fleet.
The Second War
The Lacedaemonians were not content with simply sending aid to Sicily; they also resolved to take the war to the Athenians. On the advice of Alcibiades, they fortified Decelea, near Athens, and prevented the Athenians from making use of their land year round. The fortification of Decelea prevented the shipment of supplies overland to Athens, and forced all supplies to be brought in by sea at increased expense. Perhaps worst of all, the nearby silver mines were totally disrupted, with as many as 20,000 Athenian slaves freed by the Spartan hoplites at Decelea. With the treasury and emergency reserve fund of 1,000 talents dwindling away, the Athenians were forced to demand even more tribute from her subject allies, further increasing tensions and the threat of further rebellion within the Empire.
The Corinthians, the Spartans, and others in the Peloponnesian League sent more reinforcements to Syracuse, in the hopes of driving off the Athenians; but instead of withdrawing, the Athenians sent another hundred ships and another 5,000 troops to Sicily. Under Gylippus, the Syracusans and their allies were able to decisively defeat the Athenians on land; and Gylippus encouraged the Syracusans to build a navy, which was able to defeat the Athenian fleet when they attempted to withdraw. The Athenian army, attempting to withdraw overland to other, more friendly Sicilian cities, was divided and defeated; the entire Athenian fleet was destroyed, and virtually the entire Athenian army was sold off into slavery.
Following the defeat of the Athenians in Sicily, it was widely believed that the end of the Athenian Empire was at hand. Her treasury was nearly empty, her docks were depleted, and the flower of her youth was dead or imprisoned in a foreign land. They underestimated the strength of the Athenian Empire, but the beginning of the end was indeed at hand.
Following the destruction of the Sicilian Expedition, Lacedaemon encouraged the revolt of Athens's tributary allies, and indeed, much of Ionia rose in revolt against Athens. The Syracusans sent their fleet to the Peloponnesians, and the Persians decided to support the Spartans with money and ships. Revolt and faction threatened in Athens itself.
The Athenians managed to survive for several reasons. First, their foes were severely lacking in vigor. Corinth and Syracuse were slow to bring their fleets into the Aegean, and Sparta's other allies were also slow to furnish troops or ships. The Ionian states that rebelled expected protection, and many rejoined the Athenian side. The Persians were slow to furnish promised funds and ships, frustrating battle plans. Perhaps most importantly, Spartan officers were not trained to be diplomats, and were insensitive and politically inept.
At the start of the war, the Athenians had prudently put aside some money and 100 ships that were to be used only as a last resort. These ships were now released and served as the core of the Athenians' fleet throughout the rest of the war. An oligarchical revolution occurred in Athens, in which a group of 400 seized power. A peace with Sparta might have been possible, but the Athenian fleet, now based on the island of Samos, refused to accept the change. In 411 B.C.E. this fleet engaged the Spartans at the Battle of Syme. The fleet appointed Alcibiades their leader, and continued the war in Athens's name. Their opposition led to the reinstitution of a democratic government in Athens within two years.
Alcibiades, while condemned as a traitor, still carried weight in Athens. He prevented the Athenian fleet from attacking Athens; instead, he helped restore democracy by more subtle pressure. He also persuaded the Athenian fleet to attack the Spartans at the battle of Cyzicus in 410. In the battle, the Athenians obliterated the Spartan fleet, and succeeded in re-establishing the financial basis of the Athenian Empire.
Between 410 and 406, Athens won a continuous string of victories, and eventually recovered large portions of its empire. All of this was due, in no small part, to Alcibiades.
Lysander triumphs, Athens surrenders
Faction triumphed in Athens: following a minor Spartan victory by their skillful general Lysander at the naval battle of Notium in 406 B.C.E. Alcibiades was not re-elected general by the Athenians and he exiled himself from the city. He would never again lead Athenians in battle. Athens was then victorious at the naval battle of Arginusae. The Spartan fleet under Callicratidas lost 70 ships and the Athenians lost 25 ships. But, due to bad weather, the Athenians were unable to rescue their stranded crews or to finish off the Spartan fleet. Despite their victory, these failures caused outrage in Athens and led to a controversial trial, resulting in the execution of six of Athens' top naval commanders. Athens' naval supremacy would now be challenged without several of its most able military leaders and a demoralized navy.
Unlike some of his predecessors the new Spartan general, Lysander, was not a member of the Spartan royal families and was also formidable in naval strategy; he was an artful diplomat, who had even cultivated good personal relationships with the Persian prince Cyrus, the son of Darius II. Seizing its opportunity, the Spartan fleet sailed at once to the Hellespont, the source of Athens' grain. Threatened with starvation, the Athenian fleet had no choice but to follow. Through cunning strategy, Lysander totally defeated the Athenian fleet, in 405 B.C.E., at the battle of Aegospotami, destroying 168 ships and capturing some three or four thousand Athenian sailors. Only 12 Athenian ships escaped, and several of these sailed to Cyprus, carrying the "strategos" (General) Conon, who was anxious not to face the judgment of the Assembly.
Facing starvation and disease from the prolonged siege, Athens surrendered in 404 B.C.E., and her allies soon surrendered as well. The democrats at Samos, loyal to the bitter last, held on slightly longer, and were allowed to flee with their lives. The surrender stripped Athens of her walls, her fleet, and all of her overseas possessions. Corinth and Thebes demanded that Athens should be destroyed and all its citizens should be enslaved. However the Spartans announced their refusal to destroy a city that had done a good service at a time of greatest danger to Greece, and took Athens into their own system. Athens was "to have the same friends and enemies" as Sparta.
By doing so the victorious Spartans proved to be the most clement state that fought Athens and at the same time they turned out to be her savior, as neither Corinth nor Thebes at the time could challenge their decision.
For a short period of time, Athens was ruled by the 'Thirty Tyrants' and democracy was suspended. This was a reactionary regime set up by Sparta. The oligarchs were overthrown and democracy was restored by Thrasybulus in 403 B.C.E.
Although the power of Athens was broken, it made something of a recovery as a result of the Corinthian War and continued to play an active role in Greek politics. Sparta was in turn humbled by Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C.E., but it was all brought to an end a few years later when Philip II of Macedonia conquered all of Greece. Fourth-century Greeks realized that the Peloponnesian War had been a unique calamity in their history, pitting Greek against Greek and destroying the ideal of Panhellenic unity forged briefly during the war against Persia. Philip fashioned a new union among the Greek states, as subjects of Macedonia, and Philip's son, Alexander the Great, would conquer the Persian Empire and spread Hellenistic culture from North Africa to the Indus Valley.
The war continues to fascinate later generations, both because of the way it engulfed the Greek world, and because the democracy of Athens lost to the far more militant Sparta. Also, the insight Thucydides provides into the motivations of its participants is deeper than what is known about any other war in ancient times.
- Diodorus Siculus
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
- Xenophon, Hellenica
- Aristophanes, "Lysistrata"
- Donald Kagan. The Peloponnesian War. (New York: Viking, 2003), 488.
- Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, Introduction XXIII–XXIV.
- Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War 1.88. www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved February 14, 2008.
- Fine, 2003, 371
- Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, 8
- Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.89–93. www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved February 14, 2008.
- Ibid. 1.92.1.
- Ibid. 1.102
- Ibid. 1.103
- Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, 16–18
- In the Hellenic calendar, years ended at midsummer; as a result, some events cannot be dated to a specific year of the modern calendar.
- Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, 23–24
- Fine, 2003, 454–456
- Thucydides, 1.68–71
- Ibid. 1.73–75
- Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, 45.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Bagnall, Nigel. The Peloponnesian War: Athens, Sparta, And The Struggle For Greece. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2006. ISBN 0312342152.
- Cawkwell, G.L. Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War. London: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 0415164303
- Fine, John V.A., The Ancient Greeks: A Critical History. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003. ISBN 0674033140
- Hanson, Victor Davis. A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 1400060958
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- __________.The Archidamian War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974. ISBN 080140889X
- __________.The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981. ISBN 0801413672
- ___________.The Fall of the Athenian Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987. ISBN 0801419352
- __________The Peloponnesian War. New York: Viking, 2003. ISBN 0670032115
- Kallet, Lisa. Money and the Corrosion of Power in Thucydides: The Sicilian Expedition and its Aftermath. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. ISBN 0520229843
- Krentz, Peter. The Thirty at Athens. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982. ISBN 0801414504
- The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York: The Free Press, 1996. ISBN 0684828154
All links retrieved November 23, 2022.
- LibriVox: The History of the Peloponnesian War (Public Domain Audiobooks in the USA - 20:57:23 hours, at least 603.7 MB)
- Richard Crawley: The History of the Peloponnesian War (Translation of Thukydides' books - in Project Gutenberg)
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