[The following is an article that I had in the summer 2005 OU Classical Studies Newsletter. I've taken the opportunity of making a couple of minor corrections, and adding the source passages.]Claudius, Nero, and the Imperial succession
This short paper intends to examine some issues relating to the emperor Claudius' apparently strange decision in AD 49 to marry his niece Agrippina, and advance her son Nero towards the imperial throne, at the expense of his own son Britannicus. It derives from a tutorial I have presented to students taking [the OU course] AA309 Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire.
The first thing to note is the intrinsic bias in the sources against Claudius, to which students are introduced in AA309 Block One, section 3.4. In essence, most of our sources represent the senatorial tradition. This tradition was hostile to the very idea of the principate, though reluctantly accepting its necessity (the debate in the Senate following the death of Gaius Caligula considered not just the restoration of the Republic, but also, more realistically, the elevation of one of their number to the purple). It was also hostile to Claudius in particular, for two reasons. First, Claudius' physical disability (sometimes thought to be cerebral palsy) meant that he was believed to be a fool, and senators were unwilling to accept that they had been wrong. Secondly, he took away much of what had previously been the Senate's responsibility in the running of the empire; like Tiberius, he attempted to co-operate with the Senate, and like Tiberius, often faced stalemate in trying to get them to do what he needed them to do. But where Tiberius had given up in despair, Claudius took the Senate out of the equation. Finally, the tradition was hostile to Claudius' niece and wife Agrippina, because it was intrinsically hostile to powerful women.
Figure 1 Gold aureus of Nero, AD 54, obverse. Facing portraits of Nero and Agrippina the Younger. Legend: AGRIPP. AVG. DIVI CLAVD. NERONIS CAES. MATER ('Agrippina Augusta, wife of the Divine Claudius, mother of Nero Caesar'). Found at Herculaneum, among victims of the eruption of Vesuvius. Naples, National Archaeological Museum. Photo: Barbara McManus. (http://www.vroma.org/images/mcmanus_images/nero_agrippinacoin.jpg)
But however appalling his reputation, it paled into insignificance in comparison with the reputation of Nero's mother, Agrippina. She was universally regarded as the wickedest woman in Rome - a very hotly contested title, but Agrippina won it. There wasn't any immorality that she hadn't been involved in, and there was no crime that she hesitated to commit. She'd been born into the imperial family and, to be fair, that might have warped anybody. Her father, Germanicus, was poisoned. Her mother was murdered ‚- so were two of her brothers. Her third brother became the insane emperor, Caligula, who threatened her life. She survived, but I suppose her lack of caution and good sense was down to her background.
This extraordinary woman resolved to make her son Nero emperor of Rome. The existing emperor was her uncle, Claudius. Claudius liked as wives exciting immoral women, and he had a whole string of them. When the last of them went a bit too far and had to be executed, Agrippina resolved to take her place. She had, of course, all the qualities necessary for the job, and the Emperor Claudius enjoyed all the benefits of wedlock well in advance of the ceremony. So the uncle married the niece, which was of course incest, and created a bit of a scandal in the Senate, which had to be bribed a bit and threatened a bit. Once Agrippina was Empress she quickly cleared the remaining obstacles out of Nero's way to the throne, including Claudius himself.
This quote comes from Brian Walden's 1999 television programme on Nero, from the series Walden on Villains
, and gives a common modern view of Nero's approach to the throne; Walden presents Nero as a usurper, advanced to the principate by his ambitious mother. This is a picture that goes back to the ancient sources. Cassius Dio (History of Rome
61.34; passage (b) below) says that Britannicus by rights should have succeeded. Tacitus (Annals
12.1-3; passage (c)) and Suetonius (Life of Claudius
26; passage (d)) present an account in which Agrippina used her sexual wiles to win over Claudius after the execution of his previous wife, Messalina, for treason.Figure 2 Head of Claudius, found in River Alde, Suffolk. British Museum, London. (Photo © British Museum.) From AA309 Illustrations Book, Plate 4.15.
However, behind this tale of tabloid sleaze lies serious dynastic politics. Cassius Dio's opinion is based on the empire of his own time, when the son of an emperor would be an obvious candidate to succeed his father (though the truth is that the Roman empire never formalized the process of succession until the time of Diocletian). Matters were somewhat different in the Julio-Claudian period. If one looks at the family tree a different picture emerges. A biological link can be traced between Nero, through his mother Agrippina the Younger, her mother Agrippina the Elder, and her mother Julia the Elder, to Augustus himself. Nero was Augustus' great-great-grandson. The importance of this has been noted by Barrett (1996, p. 97), and though Fagan (1998, n. 24) is sceptical, it seems to me that the relationship is key to the promotion of Nero.
Augustus, perhaps aware of the weak position only being Julius Caesar's testamentary heir had put him in, had pushed the blood relationship to himself as an important qualification for the principate. He first marked out his son-in-law Marcellus as a potential successor, with the intention that the children of his daughter should eventually succeed. For the same reason he adopted his grandsons Gaius and Lucius Caesar. When he adopted Tiberius as his son, he made Tiberius adopt Germanicus; the importance of the adoption was that Germanicus was married to Augustus' grand-daughter Agrippina, so that the succession, after passing through Tiberius and Germanicus, would revert to Augustus' blood descendants, as it did with the accession of Gaius. As Robert Graves put it (I, Claudius
, ch. 13): 'It was a satisfaction to Augustus that Germanicus ... was Tiberius's natural successor, and that Germanicus's infant sons ... were his own great-grandsons. Though Fate had decreed against his grandsons succeeding him he would surely one day reign again, as it were, in the persons of his great-grandchildren.' Despite the different attitude of Romans to adoption compared to our own (see Jones and Sidwell, 1997, p. 216; passage (e)), this blood relationship was evidently extremely important to Augustus. Even the descendants of his sister Octavia, often held up as being significant in terms of the succession, were mainly used by Augustus as husbands, wives and guardians for his blood descendants. Hence, Agrippina could view the principate as her son's birthright.
A similar connection cannot be traced from Claudius or his son Britannicus to Augustus. Claudius did not even have an adoptive link with Augustus, as his uncle Tiberius and his brother Germanicus had. He took the name Caesar on his accession, but had no title to it other than that he gave himself and a tenuous descent from Julius Caesar's father, through four generations of women. He was descended from Augustus' sister Octavia; but so was Nero. (It is reported that Claudius revived a rumour that his father, with whom his grandmother Livia was pregnant when she divorced her husband to marry Augustus, was actually Augustus’ illegitimate son, a rumour that would allege the blood relationship that Claudius otherwise could not prove.)
This made Claudius' position very weak. He came to the throne largely through default, there being nobody better available; only by his promotion had a civil war between rival senatorial candidates for the principate been avoided. As the young Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (the future Nero) grew up, he would be a potential focus around which opposition to Claudius could gather. That opposition could be side-stepped by bringing the boy into his own family. By promoting a genuine descendant of Augustus as his successor, Claudius could strengthen his own position. Hence he rapidly made Nero his stepson, adopted son, and son-in-law. The dynastic arguments were so strong that Claudius was prepared to countenance a marriage that was, by Roman law, incestuous. From the moment of his marriage to Agrippina, Britannicus was sidelined. Given the fates of Agrippa Postumus and Tiberius Gemellus (see Goodman, 1997, pp. 48 & 54) he may well have recognized that he was effectively signing his own son's death warrant; but if so he clearly thought a smooth unchallenged succession, avoiding the possibility of civil war, more important.Figure 3 Detail of a statue of Augustus, found in Via Labicana, Rome. Date: after 12 BC (from the toga fold draped over his head, indicating his role as pontifex maximus). Muzeo Nationale, Rome. (Photo © Alinari.) From AA309 Illustrations Book, Plate 1.5.
There were other male descendants of Augustus around; the Junii Silani, Marcus, Lucius and Decimus. Their mother was Aemilia Lepida, who was daughter of the younger Julia, the eldest daughter of Marcus Agrippa and Augustus' daughter Julia. A number of these were alive in Claudius' reign, and older than Ahenobarbus (Nero). Why did Claudius not turn to one of them? Well, in a sense, he had. The second son, Lucius Silanus was, until Claudius' marriage to Agrippina, betrothed to Claudius' daughter, Octavia.
However, there was something about the Junii Silani that made them unsuitable as imperial heirs. Marcus had been born in AD 14, so was an adult at the time of the assassination of Gaius, who was only a couple of years older. Yet he was never considered a serious alternative to the disabled Claudius. Though the Junii Silani were an old Roman patrician family (they belonged to the same gens
as the Junii Bruti, who had produced one of the founders of the Republic and, much later, Caesar's assassin Marcus Junius Brutus), they seem not to have had great standing with the army. Ahenobarbus, on the other hand, as well as being a descendant of Augustus, and also of his sister Octavia, was a grandson of Germanicus, who had been immensely popular with the army. Since Claudius' own elevation had shown the importance of the army in supporting the emperor, Ahenobarbus was a better-placed candidate.
One might ask why Claudius ever bothered with the Junii Silani at all. It's not very clear, but my own suspicion is that originally Claudius based his hopes for the succession around his son Britannicus. Lucius Silanus would be a suitable husband for his daughter, but would not prove a rival to Britannicus. Ahenobarbus would be a more significant threat to Britannicus' succession. Yet Claudius seems to have hedged his bets, and not taken permanent action to remove Ahenobarbus. His wife Messalina may have seen things differently. Suetonius certainly says (Life of Nero
6) that she saw Ahenobarbus as a threat to Britannicus, and alleges that she tried to have the child assassinated.
After the crisis of Messalina's conspiracy in AD 48 (possibly, though this is complete speculation, inspired by Claudius' failure to eliminate the growing threat from Ahenobarbus), things looked rather different. Claudius' own vulnerability was apparent, and there was now a cloud over Britannicus as the son of a traitor. In order the strengthen his own position, and improve the chances of a smooth succession, Claudius had to turn to Agrippina and Ahenobarbus. Agrippina subsequently engineered the disgrace of Lucius Silanus, and after Claudius' death made sure she eliminated his older brother Marcus. (It is notable that Seneca mentions the death of Lucius as one of Claudius' crimes in Apocolocyntosis
10, passing over the fact that his removal helped Nero's passage to the throne.)
As an appendix to this, it is worth considering the supposed murder of Claudius by Agrippina. All the ancient sources suggest this. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities
20.148 (passage (f)), makes it a rumour, but Tacitus (Annals
12.65-9; passage (g)) and Suetonius (Life of Claudius
43-6; passage (h)) are quite certain that Claudius was poisoned. The tale, given by Tacitus and as one version by Suetonius, is that Agrippina administered a fatal dose of poisoned mushrooms to her husband. Most scholars accept the murder without question, feeling that Claudius' death comes too conveniently after the time when Nero was capable of taking the reigns of power himself (yet still young enough that he could be guided by his mother, who hoped to rule through him), but before Britannicus was old enough to do so. However, a number of points need to be considered.
First, this is exactly the sort of story told about powerful imperial women. A similar accusation was made about Livia, who was alleged to have killed Augustus in a very similar fashion (figs instead of mushrooms). Allegations of poison were easy to make and difficult to disprove, and unless any of the individuals involved confessed, which seems unlikely, the details of the murder can only be hearsay, and are contradictory in the sources - some, indeed, such as the poisoned feather that Tacitus says was administered by Claudius' doctor Xenophon, after Claudius had vomited up the original mushrooms, must be invention, as no poison known to the Romans was that fast-acting.
Secondly, Agrippina had already achieved her objective. Nero was the clear successor, and Britannicus was not a serious candidate. There might appear to have been no need to kill Claudius to secure Nero's position.
Thirdly, Claudius was gravely ill in late AD 52 and early AD 53, and some of his acts in his last years (see Suetonius, Life of Claudius
46) look like those of a man aware he had not much longer to live. Agrippina had only to wait.
On the other hand, if Claudius really was expressing intentions to put aside Nero, as Suetonius says he was (Life of Claudius
43), then it is not too surprising that Agrippina acted swiftly. She knew, having seen two of her brothers die in custody, that people could be easily taken out of the line of succession, and the consequences would no doubt have been fatal for her and her son.
The case must remain unproven.SourcesThe marriage to Agrippina
Pushed on by his overbearing mother, Agrippina, [Nero] was only 16 when crowned. Indeed it was his mother's machinations that had seen this patently ill-equipped and unprepared boy to power.
(Grabsky, 2001, p. 34)
At the death of Claudius the rule in strict justice belonged to Britannicus, who was a legitimate son of Claudius and in physical development was in advance of his years; yet by law the power fell also to Nero because of his adoption. But no claim is stronger than that of arms; for everyone who possesses superior force always appears to have the greater right on his side, whatever he says or does. And thus Nero, having first destroyed the will of Claudius and having succeeded him as master of the whole empire, put Britannicus and his sisters out of the way. Why, then, should one lament the misfortunes of the other victims?
(Cassius Dio, History of Rome
Messalina’s death convulsed the imperial household. Claudius was impatient of celibacy and easily controlled by his wives, and the ex-slaves quarrelled about who should choose his next one. Rivalry among the women was equally fierce. Each cited her own high birth, beauty, and wealth as qualifications for this exalted marriage. The chief competitors were Lollia Paulina, daughter of the former consul Marcus Lollius, and Germanicus' daughter Agrippina. Their backers were Callistus and Pallas respectively. Narcissus supported Aelia Paetina, who was of the family of the Aelii Tuberones. The emperor continually changed his mind according to whatever advice he had heard last.
Finally, he summoned the disputants to a meeting and requested them to give reasoned opinions.2
At the meeting, Narcissus reminded Claudius that he had been married to Aelia Paetina before; that the union had been productive (a daughter, Claudia Antonia, had been born to them); that remarriage would necessitate no domestic innovations; and that, far from entertaining a stepmother's dislike for Britannicus and Octavia, Paetina would cherish them next to her own children. Callistus objected that Claudius had divorced Paetina long ago and that this disqualified her – remarriage would make her arrogant, and Lollia was far more eligible since, being childless, she would be a mother to her stepchildren without jealousy. Pallas, proposing Agrippina, emphasized that the son whom she would bring with her was Germanicus' grandson, eminently deserving of imperial rank; let the emperor ally himself with a noble race and unite two branches of the Claudian house, rather than allow this lady of proved capacity for child-bearing, still young, to transfer the glorious name of the Caesars to another family.3
These arguments prevailed. Agrippina's seductiveness was a help. Visiting her uncle frequently – ostensibly as a close relation – she tempted him into giving her the preference and into treating her, in anticipation, as his wife. Once sure of her marriage, she enlarged the scope of her plans and devoted herself to scheming for her son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, whose father was Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. It was her ambition that this boy, the future Nero, should be wedded to the emperor’s daughter Octavia. Here criminal methods were necessary, since Claudius had already betrothed Octavia to Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus – and had won popularity for his distinguished record by awarding him an honorary Triumph, and giving a lavish gladiatorial display in his name. But with an emperor whose likes and dislikes were all sug-gested and dictated to him anything seemed possible.
12.1-3, tr. Grant, 1996, pp. 252-3)
Almost at once, however, he planned either to marry Lollia Paulina, Caligula's widow, or to re-marry his divorced wife Aelia Paetina; but it was Agrippina, daughter of his brother Germanicus, who hooked him. She had a niece's privilege of kissing and caressing Claudius, and exercised it with a noticeable effect on his passions: when the House next met, he persuaded a group of senators to propose that a union between him and her should be compulsorily arranged, in the public interest; and that other uncles should likewise be free to marry their nieces, though this had hitherto counted as incest. The wedding took place with scarcely a single day’s delay, but no other uncle cared to follow Claudius's example, except one freedman, and one leading-centurion [primus pilus
] whose marriage he and Agrippina both attended.
(Suetonius, Life of Claudius
26, tr. Graves, 1989, p. 203)
Another striking freedom was over adoption. European aristocracies operating under feudal rules have been much encumbered by primogeniture (the automatic privileging of the elder son), absence of female succession, and impossibility of adoption. Roman rules not only treated all children more equally, but made it easy to produce substitute sons and heirs by adoption. By given rituals, a son passed from one familia
to another (interestingly, the rituals might involve the same use of weights and scales as for the acquisition of a wife under coemptio
, or a slave). But even if the formalities had not been completed, it was possible to use your will to nominate someone as heir to your property and name. Though this was not technically an adoption, the ease with which Caesar's testamentary heir (Octavian) passed himself off as his son shows that custom accepted the situation.
(Jones and Sidwell, 1997, p. 216)The death of Claudius
Now Claudius Caesar died when he had reigned thirteen years, eight months, and twenty days; and a report went about that he was poisoned by his wife Agrippina. Her father was Germanicus, the brother of Caesar. Her husband was Domitius Ahenobarbus, one of the most illustrious persons that was in the city of Rome; after whose death, and her long continuance in widowhood, Claudius took her to wife. She brought along with her a son, Domitius, of the same name with his father. He had before this slain his wife Messalina, out of jealousy, by whom he had his children Britannicus and Octavia; their eldest sister was Antonia, whom he had by Paetina his first wife. He also married Octavia to Nero; for that was the name that Caesar gave him afterward, upon his adopting him for his son.
(Josephus, Jewish Antiquities
20.148, tr. Whiston)
However, the charge against Lepida was attempting the life of the empress by magic, and disturbing the peace of Italy by failing to keep her Calabrian slave-gangs in order. On these charges she was sentenced to death – in spite of vigorous opposition by Narcissus. His suspicions of Agrippina continually grew deeper. 'Whether Britannicus or Nero comes to the throne,' he was said to have told his friends, 'my destruction is inevitable. But Claudius has been so good to me that I would give my life to help him. The criminal intentions for which Messalina was condemned with Gaius Silius have re-emerged in Agrippina. With Britannicus as his successor the emperor has nothing to fear. But the intrigues of his stepmother in Nero's interests are fatal to the imperial house – more ruinous than if I had said nothing about her predecessor's unfaithfulness. And once more there is unfaithfulness. Agrippina's lover is Pallas. That is the final proof that there is nothing she will not sacrifice to imperial ambition – neither decency, nor honour, nor chastity.'
Talking like this, Narcissus would embrace Britannicus and pray he would soon be a man. With hands outstretched – now to the boy, now to heaven – he besought that Britannicus might grow up and cast out his father's enemies, and even avenge his mother's murderers.66
Then Narcissus' anxieties caused his health to fade. He retired to Sinuessa, to recover his strength in its mild climate and health-giving waters.
Agrippina had long decided on murder. Now she saw her opportunity. Her agents were ready. But she needed advice about poisons. A sudden, drastic effect would give her away. A gradual, wasting recipe might make Claudius, confronted with death, love his son again. What was needed was something subtle that would upset the emperor’s faculties but produce a deferred fatal effect. An expert in such matters was selected – a woman called Locusta, recently sentenced for poisoning but with a long career of imperial service ahead of her. By her talents, a preparation was supplied. It was administered by the eunuch Halotus who habitually served the emperor and tasted his food.67
Later, the whole story became known. Contemporary writers stated that the poison was sprinkled on a particularly succulent mushroom. But because Claudius was torpid – or drunk – its effect was not at first apparent; and an evacuation of his bowels seemed to have saved him. Agrippina was horrified. But when the ultimate stakes are so alarmingly large, immediate disrepute is brushed aside. She had already secured the complicity of the emperor’s doctor Xenophon; and now she called him in. The story is that, while pretending to help Claudius to vomit, he put a feather dipped in a quick poison down his throat. Xenophon knew that major crimes, though hazardous to undertake, are profitable to achieve.68
The senate was summoned. Consuls and priests offered prayers for the emperor's safety. But meanwhile his already lifeless body was being wrapped in blankets and poultices. Moreover, the appropriate steps were being taken to secure Nero's accession. First Agrippina, with heart-broken demeanour, held Britannicus to her as though to draw comfort from him. He was the very image of his father, she declared. By various devices she prevented him from leaving his room and likewise detained his sisters, Claudia Antonia and Octavia. Blocking every approach with troops, Agrippina issued frequent encouraging announcements about the emperor's health, to maintain the Guards' morale and await the propitious moment forecast by the astrologers.69
At last, at midday on October the thirteenth, the palace gates were suddenly thrown open. Attended by Sextus Afranius Burrus, commander of the Guard, out came Nero to the battalion which, in accordance with regulations, was on duty. At a word from its commander, he was cheered and put in a litter. Some of the men are said to have looked round hesitantly and asked where Britannicus was. However, as no counter-suggestion was made, they accepted the choice offered them. Nero was then conducted into the Guards' camp. There, after saying a few words appropriate to the occasion – and promising gifts on the generous standard set by his father – he was hailed as emperor. The army's decision was followed by senatorial decrees. The provinces, too, showed no hesitation.
Claudius was voted divine honours, and his funeral was modelled on that of the divine Augustus – Agrippina imitating the grandeur of her great-grandmother Livia, the first Augusta. But Claudius' will was not read, in case his preference of stepson to son should create a public impression of unfairness and injustice.
12.65-9, tr. Grant, 1996, pp. 281-3)
In his last years Claudius made it pretty plain that he repented of having married Agrippina and adopted Nero. For example, when his freedmen congratulated him on having found a certain woman guilty of adultery, he remarked that he himself seemed fated to marry wives who 'were unchaste but remained unchastened'; and presently, meeting Britannicus, embraced him with deep affection. 'Grow up quickly, my boy,' he said, 'and I will then explain what my policy has been.' With that he quoted in Greek from the tale of Telephus and Achilles:
The hand that wounded you shall also heal,
and declared his intention of letting Britannicus come of age because although immature, he was tall enough to wear the toga of manhood; adding 'which will at last provide Rome with a true-born Caesar.'44
Soon afterwards he composed his will and made all the magistrates put their seals to it as witnesses; but Agrippina, being now accused of many crimes by informers as well as her own conscience, prevented him from going any further.
Most people think that Claudius was poisoned; but when, and by whom, is disputed. Some say that the eunuch Halotus, his official taster, administered the drug while he was dining with the priests in the Citadel; others, that Agrippina did so herself at a family banquet, poisoning a dish of mushrooms, his favourite food. An equal discrepancy exists between the accounts of what happened next. According to many, he lost his power of speech, suffered frightful pain all night long, and died shortly before dawn. A variant version is that he fell into a coma but vomited up the entire contents of his overloaded stomach and was then poisoned a second time, either by a gruel – the excuse being that he needed food to revive him – or by means of an enema, the excuse being that his bowels required relief and must be emptied too.45
Claudius' death was not revealed until all arrangements had been completed to secure Nero's succession. As a result, people made vows for his safety as though he still lived, and a troop of actors were summoned, under the pretence that he had asked to be diverted by their antics. He died on 13th October, during the consulship of Asinius Marcellus and Acilius Aviola [AD 54], in his sixty-fourth year, and the fourteenth of his reign. He was given a princely funeral and officially deified, an honour which Nero later neglected and then cancelled; but which Vespasian restored.46
The main omens of Claudius' death included the rise of a long haired star, known as a comet, lightning that struck his father's tomb, and an unusual mortality among magistrates of all ranks. There is also evidence that he foresaw his end and made no secret of it: while choosing the Consuls he provided for no appointment after the month in which he died; and on his last visit to the House offered an earnest plea for harmony between his children, begging the Senate to guide both of them with great care through the years of their youth. During a final appearance on the tribunal he said more than once that he had reached the close of his career; though everyone present cried: 'The Gods forbid!'
(Suetonius, Life of Claudius
43-6, tr. Graves, 1989, pp. 211-12; see Lewis and Reinhold, 1990, pp. 355-6, for chs. 43-4)Notes This issue is gone into in more detail in Potter, 1982, pp. 27-9.
 Goodman, 1997, in the caption on p. 53, Plate 3, says that Augustus was Gaius' great-grandfather by adoption. This is true, but he was also his natural great-grandfather. In contrast on p. 56 he says that Nero's wife Octavia was descended from Julius Caesar, which is not true.
 There is, however, circumstantial evidence that Britannicus may have died not from poison, as alleged, but from an epileptic seizure; see Barrett, 1998, pp. 170-2.
 Note that Gaius Appius Junius Silanus, who was executed by Claudius in AD 42, belonged to a different branch of the family from that which had married into the descendants of Augustus (Robert Graves got this wrong in I, Claudius and Claudius The God).
 Actually his second.
 Domitia Lepida, mother of Claudius' third wife Messalina, and grandmother of Britannicus and Octavia. She was also Claudius' cousin, her mother and his being sisters, and therefore a great-niece of Augustus.
 I.e. as imperator. Hailing a new emperor as 'Imperator' was standard practice.
 Arguably, that description fitted Nero better.
 The Latin says 'the third of the Ides of October'.
 Britannicus and Nero are meant.References
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, London, Routledge.
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