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The Article of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, third edition 1788-1797

History, The Article of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, third edition 1788-1797
URL: <http://www.eliohs-unifi.it/testi/700/history3>
Html edition for ELIOHS by Silvia Sebastiani, sebastia@datacomm.iue.it and Mario Caricchio, caricchio@dada.it (December 1998)

General definition | Civil history | Ecclesiastical History | Composition of history | Historical Chart

SECT. III Of the Composition of History. [590-600]


82. Cicero's rules.

Cicero has given us the whole art of composing history, in a very short and comprehensive manner. We shall first transcribe what he says, and then consider the several parts of it in their proper order. "No one is ignorant (says he), that the first law in writing history is, not dare to say any thing that is false; and the next, not to be afraid to speak the truth: that on the one hand there be no suspicion of affection, nor of prejudice on the other. These foundations are what all are acquainted with. But the superstructure consists partly in things, and partly in the style or language. The former require an order of times, and descriptions of places. And because in great and memorable events, we are desirous to know first their causes, then the actions themselves, and lastly their consequences; the historian should take notice of the springs or motives that occasioned them; and, in mentioning the facts themselves, should not only relate what was done or said, but likewise in what manner; and, in treating upon their consequences, show if they were the effects of chance, wisdom, or imprudence. Nor should he only recite the actions of great and eminent persons, but likewise describe their characters. The style ought to be fluent, smooth and even, free from that harshness and poignancy which is usual at the bar". Thus far Cicero. An history written in this manner, and furnished with all these properties, must needs be very entertaining, as well as instructive. And perhaps few have come nearer this plan than Tacitus; though his subject is attended with this unhappy circumstance, or at least unpleasant one, that it affords us examples rather of what we ought to avoid than what to imitate. But it is the business of the historian, as well as of the philosopher, to represent both virtues and vices in their proper colours; the latter doing it by precepts, and the former by examples. Their manner is different; but the end and design of both is, or should be, the same. And therefore history has not improperly been said by some to be moral philosophy exemplified in the lives and actions of mankind.

De Orat. Lib. II. c. 15.

We shall reduce these several things mentioned by Cicero to three heads, Matter, Order, and Style; and treat upon each of them separately. But as Truth is the basis and foundation of all history, it will be necessary to consider that in the first place.


Art. I Of Truth in History.

83. Of historic truth.


Truth is, as it were, the very life and soul of history, by which it is distinguished from fable or romance. An historian therefore ought not only to be a man of probity, but void of all passion or bias. He must have the steadiness of a philosopher, joined with the vivacity of a poet or orator. Without the former, he will be insensibly swayed by some passion to give a false colouring to the actions or characters he describes, as favour or dislike to parties or persons affect his mind. Whereas he ought to be of no party, nor to have either friend or foe while writing; but to preserve himself in a state of the greatest indifference to all, that he may judge of things as they really are in their own nature, and not as connected with this or that person or party. And with this firm and sedate temper, a lively imagination is requisite; without which his descriptions will be flat and cold, not will he be able to convey his readers a just and adequate idea of great and generous actions. Nor is the assistance of a good judgement less necessary than any of the former qualities, to direct him what is proper to be said and what to be omitted, and to treat every thing in a manner suitable to its importance. And since these are the qualifications necessary for an historian, it may perhaps seem the less strange that we have so few good histories.

But historical truth consists of two parts; one is, not to say any thing we now to be false: though it is not sufficient to excuse an historian in relating a falsehood that he did not know it was so when he wrote it, unless he first used all the means in his power to inform himself of the truth; for then, undoubtedly, an invincible error is as unpardonable in history as in morality. But the generality of writers in this kind content themselves with taking their accounts from hearsays, or transcribing them from others; without duly weighing the evidence on which they are founded, or giving themselves the trouble of a strict inquiry. Few will use the diligence necessary to inform themselves of the certainty of what they undertake to relate. And as the want of this greatly abates the pleasure of reading such writers, while persons read with diffidence; so nothing more recommends an historian than such industry. Thus we are informed of Thucydides, that when he wrote his history of the Peloponnesian war, he did not satisfy himself with the best accounts he could get from his countrymen, the Athenians, fearing they might be partial in their own cause; but spared no expence to inform himself how the same facts were related by their enemies the Lacedemonians; that by comparing the relations of both parties, he might better judge of the truth. And Polybius took greater pains than he, in order to write his history of the Roman affairs; for he travelled into Africa, Spain, Gaul, and other parts of the world, [591] that by viewing the several scenes of action, and informing himself from the inhabitants, he might come at a greater certainty of the facts, and represent them in a juster light. But as an historian ought not to assert what he knows to be false; so he should likewise be cautious in relating things which are doubtful, and acquaint his readers with the evidence he goes upon in such facts, from whence they may be able to judge how far it is proper to credit them. So Herodotus tells us what things he saw himself in his travels, and what he heard from the information of the Egyptian priests and others with whom he conversed. And Curtius, in the life of Alexander, speaking of the affairs of India, ingenuously confesses, that he wrote more than he fully believed. "For (says he) I neither dare to affirm positively what I doubt of, nor can I think it proper to omit what I have been told." By such a conduct the author secures his credit, whether the things prove really true or false; and gives room for further inquiry, without imposing on his readers.

The other branch of historical truth is, not to omit any thing that is true, and necessary to set the matter treated of in a clear and full light. In the actions of past ages or distant countries, wherein the writer has no personal concern, he can have no great inducement to break in upon this rule. But where interest or party is engaged, it requires no small candour, as well as firmness of mind, constantly to adhere to it. Affection to some, aversion to others, fear of disobliging friends or those in power, will often interpose and try his integrity. Besides, an omission is less obvious to censure than a false assertion: for the one may be easily ascribed to ignorance or forgetfulness; whereas the other will, if discovered, be commonly looked upon as design. He therefore who, in such circumstances, from a generous love to truth, is superior to all motives to betray or stifle it, justly deserves the character of a brave as well as honest man. What Polybius says upon this head is very well worth remarking: "A good man ought to love his friends and his country, and to have a like disposition with them, both towards their friends and enemies. But when he takes upon him the character of an historian, they must all be forgot. He must often speak well of his enemies, and commend them when their actions deserve it; and sometimes blame, and even upbraid his greatest friends, when their conduct makes it necessary. Nor must he forbear sometimes to reprove, and at other times to commend, the same persons; since all are liable to mistake in their management, and there are scarce any persons who are always in the wrong. Therefore, in history, all personal considerations should be laid aside, and regard had only their actions."

What a different view of mankind and their actions should we have were these rules observed by all historians? Integrity is undoubtedly the principal qualification of an historian; when we can depend upon this, other imperfections are more easily passed over. Suetonius is said to have written the lives of the first twelve Roman emperors with the same freedom wherewith they themselves lived. What better character can be given of a writer? The same ingenious temper appears in the two Grecian historians above mentioned, Thucydides and Polybius: the former of whom, though banished by his countrymen the Athenians, yet expresses no marks of resentment in his history, either against them in general, or even against the chief authors of it, when he has occasion to mention them; and the latter does not forbear censuring what he thought blameable in his nearest relations and friends. But it is often no early matter to know whether an historian speaks truth or not, and keeps up to the several characters here mentioned; tho’ it seems reasonable, upon the common principles of justice due to all mankind, to credit him where no marks of partiality or prejudice appear in his writings. Sometimes, indeed, a judgement may in a good measure be formed of the veracity of an author from his manner of expressing himself. A certain candour and frankness, that is always uniform and consistent with itself, runs through their writings who have nothing in view but truth, which may be justly esteemed as a very good evidence of their sincerity. Whereas those who have partial designs to answer are commonly more close and covert; and if at other times they assume an air of openness and freedom, yet this is not constant and even, but soon followed again with the appearance of some bias and reserve; for it is very difficult to act a part long together without lying open to a discovery. And therefore, though craft and design is exceeding various, and, Proteus-like, assumes very different shapes, there are certain characters by which it may often be perceived and detected. Thus, where things are uncertain by reason of their being reported various ways, it is partiality in an historian to give into the most unfavourable account, where others are as well known and equally credible. Again, it is a proof of the same bad temper, when the facts themselves are certain and evident, but the design and motives of the concerned in them are unknown and obscure, to assign some ill principle, such as avarice, ambition, malice, interest, or any other vicious habit, as the cause of them. This conduct is not only unjust to the persons whose actions they relate; but hurtful to mankind in general, by endeavouring to destroy the principal motive to virtue, which springs form example. Others, who affect to be more covert, content themselves with suspicious and sly insinuations; and then endeavour to come off, by intimating their unwillingness to believe them, tho’ they would have their readers do so. And to mention no more, there are others, who, when they have loaded persons with unjust calumnies and reflections, will allow them some slight commendations, to make what they have said before look more credible, and themselves less partial. But the honest and faithful historian contemns all such low and mean arts; he considers things as they are in themselves, and relates them as he finds them, without prejudice or affection.


Art. II The Subject of Argument of History.

84. Subject of history.


The subject in general is facts, together with such things as are either connected with them, or may at least be requisite to set them in a just and proper light. But although the principal design of history be to acquaint us with facts, yet all facts do not merit the regard of an historian; but such only as may be thought of use and service for the conduct of human life. Nor is it allowable for him, like the poet, to form the plan and scheme of his work as he pleases. His business [592] is to report things as he finds them, without any colouring of disguise to make them more pleasing and palatable to his reader, which would be to convert his history into a novel. Indeed, some histories afford more pleasure and entertainment than others, from the nature of the things of which they consist; and it may be esteemed the happiness of an historian to meet with such a subject, but it is not his fault if it be otherwise. Thus Herodotus begins his history with showing, that the barbarians gave the first occasion to the wars between them and the Greeks, and ends it with an account of the punishment which, after some ages, they suffered from the Greeks on that account. Such a relation must not only be very agreeable to his countrymen the Grecians, for whose sakes it was written; but likewise very instructive, by informing them of the justice of Providence in punishing public injuries in this world, wherein societies, as such, are only capable of punishment. And therefore those examples might be of use to caution them against the like practices. On the contrary, Thucydides begins his history with the unhappy state of his countrymen the Athenians; and in the course of it plainly intimates, that they were the cause of the calamitous war between them and the Lacedemonians. Whereas, had he been more inclined to please and gratify his countrymen than to write the truth, he might have set things in such a light as to have made their enemies appear the aggressors. But he scorned to court applause at the expence of truth and justice, and has set a noble example of integrity to all future historians. But as all actions do not merit a place in history, it requires no small judgement in an historian to select such only as are proper. Cicero observes very justly, that history "is conversant in great and memorable actions". For this reason, an historian should always keep posterity in view; and relate nothing which may not, upon some account or other, be worth the notice of after-ages. To descend to trivial and minute matters, such as frequently occur in the common affairs of life, is below the dignity of history. Such writers ought rather to be deemed journalists than historians, who have no view or expectation that their works should survive them. But the skilful historian is fired with a more noble ambition. His design is to acquaint succeeding ages with what remarkable occurrences happened in the world before them; to do justice to the memory of great and virtuous men; and at the same time to perpetuate his own. Pliny the younger has some fine reflections upon this head, in a letter to a friend. "You advise me (says he) to write an history; and not you only, for many others have done the same, and I am myself inclined to it. Not that I believe myself qualified for it, which would be rash to think till I have tried it; but because I esteem it a generous action not to suffer those to be forgotten whose memory thought to be eternised; and to perpetuate the names of others, together with one’s own. For there is nothing I am so desirous or ambitious of, as to be remembered hereafter; which is a thing worthy of a man, especially of one who, conscious of no guilt, has nothing to fear from posterity. Therefore I am thinking day and night by what means, as Virgil says,

____ my name
To raise aloft.

That would suffice me; for it is above my wish to add with him,

Lib. V. cp. 8.


_____and wing my flight to fame.
But oh!

However, this is enough, and what history alone seems to promise". This was Pliny’s opinion with regard to the use or advantage of history; the subjects of which are generally matters of weight and importance. And therefore, when a prudent historian thinks it convenient to take notice of things in themselves less considerable, he either does it with brevity, or for some apparent reason, or accounts for it by some just apology. So Dion Cassius, when he has mentioned some things of less moment in the life of Commodus (as indeed that emperor’s life was chiefly filled up with cruelty and folly), makes this excuse for himself: "I would not have it thought that I descend below the gravity of history in writing these things: for, as they were the actions of an emperor, and I was present and saw them all, and both heard and conversed with him, I did not think it proper to omit them." He seems to think those actions, when performed by an emperor, might be worth recording, which, if done by a person of inferior rank, would scarce have deserved notice. Nor does he appear to have judged amiss, if we consider what an influence the conduct and behaviour of princes, even in the common circumstances of life, have upon all beneath them; which may sometimes render them not unworthy the regard of an historian, as examples either for imitation or caution.

But although facts in general are the proper subject of history, yet they may be differently considered, with regard to the extent of them, as they relate either to particular persons or communities of men. And from this consideration history has been distinguished into three sorts, viz. biography, particular and general history. The lives of single persons is called biography. By particular history is meant that of particular states, whether for a shorter or longer space of time. And general history contains an account of several states existing together in the same period of time.

85. Different kinds of history.


1. The subjects of biography are the lives either of public or private persons; for many useful observations in the conduct of human life may be made from just accounts of those who have been eminent and beneficial of the world in either station. Nay, the lives of vicious persons are not without their use, as warnings to others, by observing the fatal consequences which sooner or later generally follow such practices. But for those who exposed their lives, or otherwise employed their time and labour, for the service of their fellow-creatures, it seems but a just debt that their memories should be perpetuated after them, and posterity acquainted with their benefactors. The expectation of this was no small incentive to virtue in the Pagan world. And perhaps every one, upon due reflection, will be convinced how natural this passion is to mankind in general. And it was for this reason, probably, that Virgil places not only his heroes, but also the inventors of useful arts and sciences, and other persons of distinguished merit, in the Elysian Fields, where he thus describes them:

Here patriots live, who, for their country’s good,
In fighting fields were prodigal of blood; [593]
Priests of unblemish’d lives here make abode,
And poets worthy their inspiring god;
And searching wits of more mechanic parts,
Who grac’d their age with new invented arts;
Those who to worth their bounty did extend,
And those who knew that bounty to commend:
The heads of these with holy fillets bound,
And all their temples were with garlands crown’d.

Æneid, lvi, v. 66

In the lives of the public persons, their public characters are principally, but not solely, to be regarded. The world is inquisitive to know the conduct of princes and other great men, as well in private as public. And both, as has been said, may be of service, considering the influence of their examples. But to do over-inquisitive in searching into the weaknesses and infirmities of the greatest or best of men, is, to say no more of it, but a needless curiosity. In the writers of this kind, Plutarch is justly allowed to excel.

But it has been a matter of dispute among the learned, whether any one ought to write is own history. It may be pleaded in favour of this, that no one can be so much master of the subject as the person himself: and besides, there are many instances, both ancient and modern, to left such a conduct. But on the other hand it must be owned, that there are many inconveniences which attend it; some of which are mentioned by Cicero. "If (says he) there is any thing commendable, persons are obliged to speak of themselves with greater modesty, and to omit what is blameable in others. Besides, what is said is not so soon credited, and has less authority; and after all, many will not stick to censure it." And Pliny says very well to the same purpose, "Those who proclaim their own virtues, are thought not so much to proclaim them because they did them, as to have done them that they might proclaim them. So that which would have appeared great if told by another, is lost when related by the party himself. For when men cannot deny the fact, they reflect upon the vanity of its author. Wherefore, if you do things not worth mentioning, the actions themselves are blamed; and if the things you do are commendable, you are blamed for mentioning them." These reflections will be generally allowed to be very just; and yet considering how natural it is for a man to love themselves, and to be inclined in their own favour, it seems to be a very difficult task for any one to write an impartial history of his own actions. There is scarce any treatise of this kind that is more celebrated than Cæsar's Commentaries. And yet Suetonius tells us, that "Asinius Pollio (who lived at that time) thought they were neither written with due care nor integrity: that Cæsar was often too credulous in his accounts of what was done by other persons; and misrepresented his own actions, either designedly, or through forgetfulness: and therefore he supposes he would have revised and corrected them." However, at some times it may doubtless be justifiable for a person to be his own historian. Plutarch mentions two cases wherein it is allowable for a man to commend himself, and be the publisher of his own merits. These are, when the doing of it may be of considerable advantage either to himself or others. It is indeed less invidious for other persons to undertake the province. And especially for a person to talk or write of his own virtues, at a time when vice and a general corruption of manners prevails, let what he says be ever so true, it will be apt at least to be taken as a reflection upon others. "Anciently (says Tacitus), many wrote their own lives, rather as a testimony of their conduct, than from pride." Upon which he makes this judicious remark: "That the more virtue abounds, the sooner the reports of it are credit." But the ancient writers had a way of taking off the reader’s attention from themselves in recording their own actions, and so rendering what they said less invidious: and that was, by speaking of themselves in the third person, and not in the first. Thus Cæsar never says, "I did," or, "I said, this or that;" but always, "Cæsar did, or said, so and so." Why the moderns have not more chosen to follow them in this, we know not since it seems less exceptionable.

Ad. Fam. Lib. V. ep. 12.


Lib. VIII ep. 1.


2. In a continued history of particular states, some account may be given of their original and founders; the nature of their soil, and situation; what advantages they have for their support or improvement, either within themselves, by foreign traffic, or conquests; with the form of their government. Then notice should be taken of the methods by which they increased in wealth or power, till they gradually advanced to their highest pitch of grandeur; whether by their virtue, the goodness of their constitution, trade, industry, wars, or whatever cause. After this the reasons of their declensions should be shown; what were the vices that principally occasioned it (for that is generally the case); whether avarice, ambition, luxury, discord, cruelty, or several of these in conjunction. And lastly, where that has been their unhappy faith, how they received their final ruin and subversion. Most of these things Livy had in view when he wrote his history of the Roman state, as he acquaints his readers in the preface. "The accounts (says he) of what happened either before or while the city was building, consisting rather of poetical fables than any certain records of facts, I shall neither assert nor confute them. Let antiquity be allowed to make the origin of their cities more venerable, by uniting things human and divine. But if any nation may be suffered to fetch their origin from the gods, such is the military glory of the Romans, that when they represent Mars as the father of their founder, other nations may has easily acquiesce in this as they do in their government. But I lay no great stress upon these things, and others of the like nature, whatever may be thought of them. What I am desirous every one should carefully attend to, are our lives and manners: by what men, and what arts, civil and military, the empire was both acquired and enlarged: then let him observe, how our manners gradually declined with our discipline; afterwards grew worse and worse; and at length so far degenerated, that at present we can neither bear with our vices nor suffer them to be remedied. This is the chief benefit and advantage to be reaped from history, to fetch instruction from eminent examples of both kinds; in order to imitate the one, which will be of use both to yourself and your country, and avoid the other, which are equally base in their rise and event." Thus far Livy. And [594] how well he has executed this design must be acknowledged by all who will be at the pains to peruse his work.

3. But as a particular history consists in a number of facts relating to the same state, suitably connected and laid together in a proper series; so a general history is made up of several particular histories, whose separate transactions within the same period of time, or part of it, should be so distinctly related as to cause no confusion. Such was the history of Diodorus Siculus, which contained an account of most of the eminent states and kingdoms in the world, though far the greatest part of it is now unhappily lost. Of the same nature is the history of Herodotus, though not so extensive; to whom we are especially indebted for the Persian affairs. And to this kind may likewise be referred Justin’s history, though it be only the epitome of a larger work written by another hand. The rules proper for conducting such histories are much the same as those above mentioned concerning particular histories; excepting what relates to the order, of which we shall have occasion to speak hereafter.

But the histories both of particular states and those which are more general frequently contain only the affairs of some short period of time. Thus the history of Peloponnesian war, written by Thucydides, comprises only what was done in the first twenty years of that war, which lasted seven years longer than his account reaches; though indeed the reason of that might be, because Thucydides died before the war was finished, otherwise he would very probably have continued his history to the conclusion of it. But the history of the war between the Romans and king Jugurtha in Africa, given us by Sallust, as also Cæsar’s histories of the Gallic and civil wars, are all confined within a much less number of years than that of Thucydides. Nay, sometimes one single transaction is thought sufficient to furnish out an history. Such was the conspiracy of Catiline to subvert the Roman state, written likewise by Sallust. As to more general histories, Xenophon’s history of Greece may be esteemed as such; which in order of time succeeds that of Thucydides, and contains the affairs of forty-eight years. And Polybius called his a general history; which, though it principally contained the Roman affairs, yet took in the most remarkable transactions of several other states, for the space of fifty-three years: though it has met with the same hard fate as that of Diodorus Siculus, so that only the first five books out of forty, of which it consisted at first, now remain entire. And to mention no more, the celebrated history of Thuanus is another instance of this sort, in which the principal transactions of Europe for about 60 years, chiefly in the 16th century, are described with that judgement and fidelity, and in a manner so accurate and beautiful, that he has been thought scarcely inferior to any of the ancient historians. Now, in such histories as these, to go farther back than is necessary to set the subject in a just light, seems as improper as it is unnecessary.

The general subject or argument of history, in its several branches, may be reduced to these four heads; narration, reflections, speeches, and digressions.

86. Of narration.


I. By narration is meant a description of facts or actions, with such things as are necessarily connected with them; namely, persons, time, place, design, and event.

As to actions themselves, it is the business of the historian to acquaint his readers with the manner in which they were performed; what measures were concerted on all sides, and how they were conducted, whether with vigilance, courage, prudence, and caution, or the contrary, according to the nature of the action; as likewise, if any unforeseen accidents fell out, by which the designed measures were either promoted or broken. All actions may be referred to two sorts, military and civil. And as war arises from injustice and injuries received on one side or the other, it is fit the reader should be informed who were the aggressors. For though war is never to be desired, yet it is sometimes necessary. In the description of battles, regard should be had equally to both parties; the number of forces, conduct of the generals, in what manner they engaged, what turns and chances happened in the engagement, either from accidents, courage, or stratagem, and how it issued. The like circumstances should all be observed in sieges and other actions. But the most agreeable scene of history arises from a state of peace. Here the writer acquaints us with the constitution of states, the nature of their laws, the manners and customs of the inhabitants, the advantages of concord and unanimity, with the disadvantages of contention and discord; the invention of arts and sciences, in what manner they were improved and cultivated, and by whom; with many other things, both pleasant and profitable in the conduct of life.
As to persons, the characters of all those should be described who act any considerable part in an history. This excites the curiosity of the reader, and makes him more attentive to what is said of them; as every one is more inquisitive to hear what relates to others, in proportion to his knowledge of them. And it will likewise be of use to observe, how directions agree with their characters, and what were the effects of their different qualifications and abilities.

The circumstances of time and place are carefully to be regarded by an historian, without which his accounts of facts will be frequently very lame and imperfect. And therefore chronology and geography seem not improperly to have been called the two eyes of history. Besides, they very much assist the memory: for it is much easier to remember any thing said to be done at such a time, and in such a place, than if only related in general; nay, the remembrance of these often recalls those things to mind which otherwise had been obliterated. By time is meant not only the year of any particular era or period; but likewise the season, as summer or winter; and age of particular persons. For it is oftentimes from hence that we are principally enabled to make a just estimate of facts. Thus Cicero commends Pompey for undertaking and finishing the Piratic war at a season of the year when other generals would not have thought it safe to venture out at sea. This double danger, as well from the weather as the enemy, considering the necessity of the case, heightens the glory of the action; since to have done the same thing in summer would not have been an equal proof of the courage [595] and intrepidity of the general. And there is nothing more surprising in the conquests of Alexander than that he should subdue so large a part of the world by the time he was little more than 30 years old; an age at which few other generals have been much distinguished. Had we not known this, a considerable part of his character had been lost.

Pro. Leg. Mon. c. 12.


The like advantages arise from the other circumstances of place. And therefore in marches, battles, and other military actions, the historian should take notice of the nature of the country, the passes, rivers, distances of places, situation of the armies, and strength of the towns either by nature or art; from which the reader may the better form a judgement of the difficulties and greatness of any enterprise. Cæsar is generally very particular in these things, and seems to have thought it highly requisite in order to give is readers a just idea of his actions. The description of countries, cities, and rivers, are likewise both useful and pleasant; and help us to judge of the probability of what is related concerning the temper and genius of the inhabitants, their arts, traffic, wealth, power, or whatever else is remarkable among them.

But an accurate historian goes yet further, and considers the causes of actions, and what were the designs and views of those persons who were principally concerned in them. Some, as Polybius has well observed, are apt to confound the beginnings of actions with their springs and causes, which ought to be carefully separated. For the causes are often very remote, and to be looked for at a considerable distance from the actions themselves. Thus, as he tells us, some have represented Hannibal’s besieging Saguntum in Spain, and passing the Ebro, contrary to a former agreement between the Romans and Carthaginians, as causes of the second Punic war. But these were only the beginnings of it. The true causes were the jealousies and fears of the Carthaginians from the growing power of the Romans; and Hannibal’s inveterate hatred to them, with which he had been impressed from his infancy. For his father, whom he succeeded in the command of the Carthaginian army, had obliged him, when but nine years old, to take a most solemn oath upon an altar never to be reconciled to the Romans: and therefore he was no sooner at the head of the army, than he took the first opportunity to break with them. Again, the true springs and causes of actions are to be distinguished from such as are only feigned and pretended. For generally the worse designs men have in view, the more solicitous they are to cover them with specious pretences. It is the historian's business, therefore, to lay open and expose to view these arts of politicians. So, as the same judicious historian remarks, we are not to imagine Alexander’s carrying over his army into Asia to have been the cause of the war between him and the Persians. That had its being long before. The Grecians had formerly two armies in Asia, one under Xenophon and the other commanded by Agesilaus. Now the Asiatics did not venture to oppose or molest either of these armies in their march. This made King Philip, Alexander’s father, who was an ambitious prince, and aspired after universal monarchy, think it might be a practicable thing to make a conquest of Asia. Accordingly, he kept it in his view, and made preparations for it; but did not live to execute it. That was left for his son. But as King Philip could not have done this without first bringing the other states of Greece into it, his pretence to them was only to avenge the injuries they had all suffered from the Persians; though the real design was an universal government, both over them and the Persians, as appeared afterwards by the event. But in order to our being well assured of a person’s real designs, and to make the accounts of them more credible, it is proper we should be acquainted with his disposition, manners, way of life, virtues, or vices; that by comparing his actions with these, we may see how far they agree and suit each other. For this reason Sallust is so particular in his descriptions of Catiline, and Livy of Hannibal; by which it appears credible that the one was capable of entering into such a conspiracy against his country, and the other of performing such great things as are related concerning him. But if the causes of actions lie in the dark, and unknown, a prudent historian will not trouble himself or his readers with vain and trifling conjectures, unless something very probable offers itself.

Lastly, an historian should relate the issue and event of the actions he describes. This is undoubtedly the most useful part of history; since the greatest advantage arising from it is to teach us experience from what has happened in the world before us. When we learn from the examples of others the happy effects of wisdom, prudence, integrity, and other virtues, it naturally excites us to an imitation of them, and to pursue the same measures in our own conduct. And, on the contrary, by perceiving the unhappy consequences which have followed from violence, deceit, rashness, or the like vices, we are deterred from such practices. But since the wisest and most prudent measures do not always meat with the desired success, and many cross accidents may happen to frustrate the best concerted designs; when we meet with instances of this nature, it prepares us for the like events, and keeps us from too great a confidence in our own schemes. However, as this is not commonly the case, but in the ordinary course of human affairs like causes usually produce like effects: the numerous examples of the happy consequences of virtue and wisdom recorded in history are sufficient to determine us in the choice of our measures, and to encourage us to hope for an answerable success, though we cannot be certain we shall in no instance meet with a disappointment. And therefore Polybius very justly observes, that "he who takes from history the causes, manner, and end of actions, and omits to take notice whether the event was answerable to the means made use of, leaves nothing in it but a bare amusement without any benefit or instructions." These, then, are the several things necessary to be attended to in historical narrations; but the proper disposition of them must be left to the skill and produce of the writer.

87. Of reflections.


II. Reflections made by the writers. Some have condemned these, as having a tendency to bias the reader; who should be left to draw such conclusions from the accounts of facts as he sees proper. But since all readers are not capable of doing this for themselves, what disadvantage is it for the author to suggest to them such observations as may assist them to make the best use of what they read? And if the philosopher is [596] allowed to draw such inferences from his precepts as he thinks just and proper, why has not the historians an equal rights to make reflections upon the facts he relates? The reader is equally at liberty to judge for himself in both cases, without danger of being prejudiced. And therefore we find, that the best historians have allowed themselves this liberty. It would be easy to prove this by a large number of instances, but one or two here may suffice. When Sallust has given a very distinct account of the designs of Catiline, and of the whole scheme of the conspiracy, he concludes it with this reflection: "All that time the empire of the Romans seems to me to have been in a very unhappy state. For when they have extended their conquests through the whole world from east to west, and enjoyed both peace and plenty, which mankind esteem their greatest happiness; some persons where obstinately bent upon their own ruin, and that of their country. For notwithstanding two decrees were published by the senate, not one out of so great a multitude was prevailed with, by the rewards that were offered, either to discover the conspiracy or to leave the army of Catiline. So desperate a disease, and as it were infection, had seized the minds of most people!" And it is a very handsome observation that Livy makes upon the ill-conduct of Hannibal in quartering his army in Capua after the battle of Cannæ; by which means they lost their martial vigour through luxury and ease. "Those (says he) who are skilled in military affairs reckoned this a greater fault in the general, than his not marching his army immediately to Rome after his victory at Cannæ; for such a delay might have seemed only to defer the victory, but this ill step deprived him of the power to gain it." The modesty of the historian in this passage is worth remarking, in that he does not represent this as his own private opinion, and by that means undertake to censure the conduct of so great a general as Hannibal was, but as the sense of those who where skilled in such affairs. However, an historian should be brief in such remarks; and consider, that although he does not exceed his province by applauding virtue, expressing a just indignation against vice, and interposing his judgement upon the nature and consequences of the facts he relates; yet there ought to be a difference between his reflections and the encomiums or declamations of an orator.

Bell. Catil. c. 37.Lib. XXIII. c. 18.


88. Of speeches.


III. Speeches inserted by historians. These are of two sorts, oblique and direct. The former are such as the historian recites in his own person, and not in that of the speaker. Of this kind is that of Hannibal in Justin; by which he endeavours to persuade King Antiochus to carry the seat of the war against the Romans into Italy. It runs thus: "Having desired liberty to speak (he said) none of the present counsels and designs pleased him; nor did he approve of Greece for the seat of the world, which might be managed in Italy to greater advantage: because it was impossible to conquer the Romans but by their own arms, or to subdue Italy but by its own forces; since both the nature of those men, and those that war, was different from all others. In other wars, it was of great importance to gain an advantage of place or time, to ravage the countries and plunder the towns; but though you gain some advantage over the Romans, or defeat them, you must still fight with them when beaten. Wherefore, should any one engage with them in Italy, it was impossible for him to conquer them by their own power, strength, and arms, as he himself had done; but should he attempt it out of Italy, the source of their power, he would be as much deceived, as if he endeavoured to alter the course of a river, not at the fountain-head, but where its streams were largest and deepest. This was his judgement in private, and what he had offered as his advice, and now repeated in the presence of his friends; that all might know in what manner a war ought to be carried on against the Romans, who were invincible abroad, but might be conquered at home. For they might sooner be driven out of their city than their empire, and from Italy than their province; having been taken by the Gauls, and almost subdued by himself. That he was never defeated till he withdrew out of their country; but upon his return to Carthage, the fortune of the war was changed with the place." He seems to intimate by this speech, that the Romans were like some fierce and impetuous animals, which are not otherwise to be subdued than by wounding them in some vital part. In speeches related after this manner, we are not necessarily to suppose the historian gives us the very words in which they were at first delivered, but only the sense. But in direct speeches, the person himself is introduced as addressing his audience; and therefore the words as well as the sense are to be suited to his character. Such is the speech of Eumenes, one of Alexander’s captains and successors, made to his soldiers when they had traitorously bound him in chains, in order to deliver him up to his enemy Antigonus, as we have it in the same writer. "You see, soldiers (says he), the habits and ornaments of your general, which have not been put upon me by mine enemies; that would afford me some comfort: it is by you, that of a conqueror I am become conquered and of a general a captive; though you have sworn to be faithful to me four times within the space of a year. But I omit that, since reflections do not become persons in calamity. One thing I entreat, that, if Antigonus must have my life, you would let me die among you. For it no way concerns him how or where I suffer, and I shall escape an ignominious death. If you grant me this, I free you from your oath, with which you have been so often engaged to me. Or, if shame restrains you from offering violence to me at my request, give me a sword, and suffer your general to do that for you without the obligation of an oath which you have sworn to do for you general."

Lib. XXXI. c. 5.

Lib. XIV. c. 4.


But this likewise is a matter in which critics have been divided in their sentiments; whether any, or what kind, of speeches ought to be allowed in history. Some have thought all speeches should be excluded: and the reason given for that opinion is this; that it breaks the thread of the discourse, and interrupts the reader, when he is desirous to come to the end of an action, and know how it issued. This is true, indeed, when speeches are either very long or too frequent; but otherwise they are not only entertaining, but likewise instructive. For it is of service to know the springs and reasons of actions; and these are frequently opened and explained in the speeches of those by whom they were performed. Others therefore have not been [597] against all speeches in general, but only direct ones. And this was the opinion of Trogus Pompeius, as Justin informs us; though he did not think fit to follow him in that opinion, when he abridged him, as we have seen already by the speech of the king Eumenes. The reason offered against direct speeches is because they are not true; and truth is the foundation of all history, from which it never ought to depart. Such speeches, therefore, are said to weaken the credit of the writer; since he who will tell us that another person spoke such things which he does not know that he ever did speak, and in such language as he could not use, may take the same liberty in representing his actions. Thus, for example, when Livy gives us the speeches of Romulus, the Sabine women, Bruta, and others, in the first ages of the Roman state, both the things themselves are imaginary, and the language wholly disagreeable to the times in which those persons lived. Accordingly we find, that when several historians relate some particular speech of the same person, they widely differ both in the subject-matter and expressions. So the speech of Veturia, by which she dissuaded her son Coriolanus from besieging Rome when he came against it with an army of Volscians to avenge the injuries he had received, is very differently related by Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Plutarch. Such fictitious speeches therefore are judged more fit for poets, who are allowed a greater liberty to indulge their fancy than historians. And if any direct speeches are to be inserted, they should be such only as were really spoken by the persons to whom they are ascribed, where any such have been preserved. These have been the sentiments of some critics both ancient and modern. However, there is scarce an ancient historian now extant, either Greek or Latin, who has not some speeches, more or less, in his works; and those not only oblique, but also direct. They seem to have thought it a necessary ornament to their writings: and even where the true speeches might be come at, have chosen rather to give them in their own words; in order, probably, to preserve an equality in the style. Since therefore the best and most faithful historians have generally taken this liberty, we are to distinguish between their accounts of facts and their speeches. In the former, where nothing appears to the contrary, we are to suppose they adhere to truth, according to the best information they could get; but in the latter, that their views only to acquaint us with the cause and springs of actions, which they chose to do in the form of speeches, as a method most ornamental to the work, and entertaining to the reader: though the best historians are cautious of inserting speeches, but where they are very proper, and upon some solemn and weighty occasions. Thucydides is said to have been the first who brought complete and finished speeches into history, those of Herodotus being but short and imperfect. And though Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in his censure upon Thucydides, seems then to have disliked that part of his conduct; yet he afterwards thought fit to imitate it in his Antiquities of Rome, where we find many not only oblique, but also direct speeches.

Lib. XXXVIII. c. 3.


Lib. II. c. 40. Ant. Rom. Lib. VIII. c. 46. In Coriolano.


See Voss. Ars. Hist. e. 20.


What has been said of speeches, may likewise be understood of letters, which we sometimes meet with in histories: as that of Alexander to Darius in Q. Curtius, those of Tiberius and Drusus in Tacitus, and many others. Some letters are wholly fictitious; and in others perhaps the historian represents the substance of what was really said, but gives it his own dress. Thus we find that the short letter of Lentulus to Catiline at the time of his conspiracy differently related by Cicero and Sallust. The reason of which seems to be this: that as Cicero recited it publicly to the people of Rome in his third oration against Catiline, it is reasonable to imagine he did it in the very words of the letter, which we had by him; whereas Sallust, as an historian, might think it sufficient to give the sense of it in his own words.

Lib. IV. c. I. Ann. Lib. I. 73. III. 56, 59.


IV. Digressions. These, if rightly managed, afford the reader both delight and profit. Like speeches, they should neither be too long nor frequent; lest they interrupt the course of the history, and divert the reader from the main design of the work. But now and then to introduce a beautiful description, or some remarkable incident, which may give light to the subject, is so far from an interruption, that it is rather a belief to the reader, and excites him to go on with greater pleasure and attention. See further on this head, Oratory, n° 37.


Art. III of Order.

89. Of order.


Since most histories consist of an introduction and the body of the work, in each of which some order is requisite, we shall speak to them separately.

1. The design of the introduction is the same here as in orations. For the historian proposes three things by his introduction, which may be called its parts: to give his reader some general view of the subject, to engage his attention, and to possess him with a candid opinion of himself and his performance. Some have thought this last unnecessary for an historian. But if we consider how differently mankind are apt to judge of the same persons and actions, it seems as requisite for an historian to be well esteemed as an orator. And therefore we find some of the best historians have not omitted this part. Livy’s introduction has been very much applauded by the learned, as a master-piece in its kind. It begins with an account of his design. "Whether (says he) it may answer any valuable end for me to write the history of the Roman affairs from the beginning of the city, I neither am certain, nor if I was should I venture to declare it." Soon after he endeavours to prepare the reader’s attention, by representing the grandeur and usefulness of the subject in the following words: "Either I am prejudiced in favour of my subject, or there never was any state greater, more virtuous, and fruitful of good examples, or in which avarice and luxury had a later admittance, or poverty and thriftiness were either more highly or longer esteemed, they always coveting less the less they enjoyed." And then he presently proceed to ingratiate himself with his readers, and gain their favourable opinion: "Although my name is obscure in so great a number of writers, yet it is a comfort that they cloud it by their fame and character. But I shall gain this advantage by my labour, that I shall be diverted for a time form the prospect of those evils which the age has seen for so many years; while my mind is wholly intent upon former times, free from all that care which gives the writer an uneasiness, though it cannot [598] bias him against the truth." In this passage we see he endeavours to gain the good esteem of his readers from two very powerful motives, modesty and a strict regard to truth. It may scarce seem necessary to observe, that those introductions are esteemed the best which are most natural; that is, such as are taken from the subject-matter of the history itself, and closely connected with it. Such are those of Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, and others. And therefore Sallust is greatly blamed by Quintilian on the account of his introductions, which are so general, that they might suit other histories as well as those to which they are prefixed. Introductions should likewise be proportioned to the length of the work. We meet with some few histories, in which the writers immediately enter upon their subject, without any introduction; as Xenophon in his Expedition of the younger Cyrus, and Cæsar in his Commentaries of the Gallic and Civil Wars. But the latter does not profess to write a just history; and therefore left himself more at liberty, as well in this respect as in some others.

2. But order is principally to be regarded in the body of the work. And this may be managed two ways; either by attending to the time in a chronological series, or the different nature and circumstances of the thing contained in the history. However, as these two methods do not equally suit all subjects, we shall a little consider to what kind of histories each of them seems more properly adapted. All history then, as we have observed already, may be reduced to three sorts; biography, the history of particular states, and the general history of several states existing at the same time.

In biography, or the lives of particular persons, most writers follow the order of time; though some reduce them to certain general heads, as their virtues and vices, or their public and private character. Plutarch and Cornelius Nepos have taken the former method, and Suetonius the latter.

As to the history of particular states, the order of time is generally best, as being most natural and easy. And therefore it has usually been observed by the best historians, as Thucydides, Livy, and others. Tacitus, indeed, wrote two distinct works; one of which he called Annals, and the other Histories. And as in both he has kept to the order of time, critics have been at a loss to assign any other reasons for these different titles, unless that in the former work he confines himself more closely to the facts themselves, and does not treat so largely upon the causes, manner, or event of them, as he has done in the latter. And even in the circumstances of facts, there is a certain order proper to be observed, for rendering the account more plain and intelligible. Thus, for instance, in the description of a battle or siege, the time should first be known, then the chief person or persons who conducted it, then the number of forces, and other requisites, afterwards the nature of the place, then the action itself, and lastly the event. But sometimes it is necessary to add the time in which several of the other circumstances happened, especially in actions of any considerable length. Where the order of these circumstances is confuted, it perplexes the account, and renders it both less entertaining to the reader, and more difficult to remember.

In a general history, the order of time cannot always be preserved; though, where the actions of different communities have respect to one as the principal, they should all, as far as possible, be referred to the transactions of that state. But even here the several affairs of those different states ought to be related separately, which will necessarily occasion the anticipating some things, and postponing others, so that they cannot all stand in the order of time in which they were performed. However, Velleius Peterculus says very justly with regard to this subject, "That every entire action placed together in one view, is much better apprehended than if divided by different times." In this case, therefore, for better preserving the chronology, it is usual with historians, when they have finished any particular narrative, in passing to the next, to express the time by some short and plain transition: and sometimes to apologize for themselves, by assigning the reasons of their conduct. So Polybius, whose history is of this kind, says concerning himself: "As in writing the actions of each year, in the order of time, I endeavour to represent the affairs of the same nation together in one summary view, it is plain that inconvenience must of course attend this way of writing." Curtius professes only to write the actions of Alexander king of Macedon; but his history contains in it the principal affairs of the greatest states in the world during that period. Now although, in the course of those transactions, the war between Archelaus governor of Macedonia, and Agis king of Sparta, happened before the battle of Alexander at Arbela; yet the historian not only relates that battle first, but carries on the account of Alexander’s affairs in Asia to the death of Darius without interruptions: for which he gives this reason: "If I should relate the affairs of Alexander, which happened in the mean time, either in Greece or Illyricum and Thrace, each in their proper order and time, I must interrupt the affairs of Asia; which it is much better to represent together in one continued series as they fell out, to the flight and death of Darius." Such anachronisms, therefore, are nothing more than what necessarily arise sometimes from the nature of the subject: as every thing, the more complex it is, and contains under it a great number of parts, is more difficult to be digested in a regular order. But in an history composed of several states, whose affairs are independent of one another, the actions of each nation must necessarily be separated, in order to represent them in a just view, and prevent confusion. This is the method which Herodotus has taken, as likewise Diodorus Siculus and Justin. Now both the pleasure and benefit which such histories afford, arise from observing the conduct of each state separately in the course of the affairs, and then comparing one with the other. And as the order of time must frequently be interrupted, it is not unusual to continue the chronology at proper distances in relating the affairs of each nation; which preserves the unity in the whole, and connects it in one consistent body.

Lib. V init.


The division of histories into books was designed only for the better distinction of the subject and ease of the reader. And the dividing these books again into chapters, is rather a practice of later editors (founded, as they have thought, on the same reasons), [599] than countenanced by the example of ancient writers.


Art. IV Of Style.

90. Of style.


An historical style is said to be a middle nature, between that of a poet and an orator, differing from both not only in the ornamental parts, but likewise in the common idioms and forms of expression.

De Clar. Orat. c. 75.


Cicero observes, that "nothing is more agreeable in history than brevity of expression, joined with purity and perspicuity." Purity indeed is not peculiar to history, but yet it is absolutely necessary; for no one will ever think him fit to write and history who is not master of the language in which he writes: and therefore when Albinus had written an history of the Roman affairs in Greek, and apologised for any slips or improprieties that might be found in the language upon the account of his being a Roman, Cato called him a trifler, for choosing to do that which, after he had done it, he was obliged to ask pardon for doing. Nor is perspicuity less requisite in an historical style. The nature of the subject plainly directs to this. For as history consists principally in narration, clearness and perspicuity is nowhere more necessary than in a relation of facts. But these two properties are to be accompanied with brevity, since nothing is more disagreeable than a long and tedious narrative. And in this respect an historical style differs both from that of poetry and oratory. For the poet frequently heightens and enlarges his descriptions of facts, by dwelling upon every circumstance, placing it in a different views, and embellishing it with the finest ornaments of wit and language, to render his images more agreeable; and the orator often does the like, with a design to strike the passions. But such colouring is not the business of an historian, who aims at nothing more than a just and faithful representation of what he relates, in a way best suited to its nature, and in such language as is most proper to set it in a plain and easy light.

Gell. Lib. XI. c. 8.

De Orat. lib. II c. 15, 20.


Again, Cicero, treating of an historical style, says: "It ought to be fluent, smooth, and even, free from that harshness and poignancy which is usual at the bar." The properties here mentioned distinguish this style from that of judicial discourses, in which the orator often finds it necessary to vary his manner of speaking, in order to answer different views, either of pursuing an argument, pressing an adversary, addressing a judge, or recommending the merits of his cause. This occasions an inequality in his style, while he speaks sometimes directly, at other times by way of question, and intermixes short and concise expressions with round and flowing periods. But the historian has not necessity for such variations in his style. It is his province to espouse no party, to have neither friend nor foe, but to appear wholly disinterested and indifferent to all; and therefore his language should be smooth and equal in his relations of persons and their actions.

Epist. ad Cn. Pompeium.


But further: Dyonisius makes "decency a principal virtue of an historian;" which he explains by saying, that "he ought to preserve the characters of the persons and dignity of the actions of which he treats." And to do this it seems necessary that an historical style should be animated with a good degree of life and vigour; without which neither the characters of eminent persons, nor their remarkable actions, which make up the main business of history, can be duly represented: for even things in themselves great and excellent, if related in a cold a lifeless manner, often do not affect us in a degree suitable to their dignity and importance. And this seems particularly necessary in speeches, in order to represent what every one says, according to his different country, age, temper, and station of life, in the same manner we may suppose he either really did, or would have spoken himself on that occasion. Besides there some scenes of action which require very pathetic and moving language to represent them agreeably to their nature. And in descriptions, the most beautiful tropes and lively figures are often necessary to set the ideas of things in a proper light. From whence it appears, that painting and imagery makes up no small part of the historian province, though his colours are not so strong and glittering as those either of the poet or orator. He ought therefore to be well acquainted with the manners of men and the nature of the passions, since he is often obliged to describe both: in the former of which Herodotus excels, and Thucydides in the latter, as Dyonisius has observed.


Now from these several properties laid down by ancient writers, as requisite for an historical style, it seems upon the whole to agree best with the middle character. And this will further appear, by what they say relating to the ornamental parts of style; namely, composition and dignity. As to the former of these, which respects the structure of sentences, and the several parts of them, Demetrius remarks, that "An historical period ought neither to rise very high, nor sink very low, but to preserve a medium." This simplicity (he says) "becomes the gravity and credit of history; and distinguishes it form oratory on the one hand, and dialogue on the other." His meaning is, that historical periods should neither be so full and sonorous as is frequent in oratory; nor yet so short and flat as in dialogue: the former of which, as he says, require a strong voice to pronounce them; and the latter have scarce the appearance of periods. So that, according to this judicious writer, the periods best suited for history are those which, being of a moderate length, will admit of a just rise and cadency, and may be pronounced with ease. And Dyonisius tells us, that "History should flow smooth and even, every where consistent with itself, without roughness or chasms in the sound." This relates to the harmony of periods, which arises from such a position of the words as renders the sound pleasant and agreeable, and as he thinks ought to be attended to in history. And as to dignity, which respects the use of tropes and figures, the same author says, that "History should be embellished with such figures as are neither vehement nor carry in them the appearance of art." This is agreeable to what Cicero observes, in comparing Xenophon and Calisthenes, two Greek historians. "Xenophon the Socratic (says he) was the first philosopher, and after him Calisthenes, the scholar of Aristotle, who wrote an history: the latter almost like a rhetorician: but the style of the former is more moderate, and has not the force of an orator, less vehement perhaps, but in my opinion more sweet, [600] and pleasant." The difference between these two writers, with regard to their style, consisted chiefly in the choice of their figures: which in Xenophon were more gentle and moderate, and therefore in the judgement of Cicero more agreeable to history. Now these several properties relating to the ornaments of language, as well as those before mentioned, which by ancient writers have been thought requisite for history, are all suited to the middle style, as we have elsewhere shown at large. See Oratory, n° 99-121.

De Orat. Lib. II. c. 14.


But notwithstanding this general account of the several properties which constitute an historical style, it admits of considerable varieties from the different nature and dignity of the subject. "The lives of particular persons do not require that strength and majesty of expression, nor all those ornaments of language, as an history of the Roman empire. And accordingly we find the style of Nepos and Suetonius very different from that of Livy. The former is smooth and easy, scarce rising above the low character; but the latter often approaches near to the sublime. And other historians again have kept a medium between these. Upon the whole, therefore, we may conclude, that the middle style is the proper character for history; though historians may sometimes sink into the low character, and at other times rise to the grandeur and magnificence of the sublime, from the different nature of their subject, or some particular parts of it. For that is to be esteemed the proper character of any writing which in the general best suits it. And this distinction may help us in some measure to reconcile the sentiments of writers upon this head who seem to attribute different characters to an historical style, or at least to judge where the truth lies; since a variety of style is not only requisite in different subjects, but likewise in different parts of the same work.

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