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The Eagle and the Dove: Roman Imperial Sonship and the Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1.9-11)*

  • Michael Peppard (a1)

This essay argues that the common understanding of imperial divine sonship among biblical scholars can be reframed by emphasizing the importance of adoption in Roman society and imperial ideology. A case study from the Gospel of Mark—the portrayal of Jesus' baptism—demonstrates some of the pay-off for reading the NT with a newly contextualized perspective on divine sonship. Through engagement with diverse sources from the Hellenistic and Roman eras, the dove will be interpreted as an omen and counter-symbol to the Roman eagle, which was a public portent of divine favor, election, and ascension to power.

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1 Koester H., From Jesus to the Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007) 208.

2 Horsley R., Jesus and Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002); Crossan J. D. and Reed J. L., Excavating Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).

3 Horsley R., ed., Paul and Empire (Harrisburg: Trinity, 1997); Crossan J. D. and Reed J. L., In Search of Paul (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004); Collins A. Yarbro, ‘Psalms, Phil. 2:6-11, and the Origins of Christology’, BibInt 11 (2003) 361–72; Oakes P., ‘Re-mapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians’, JSNT 27 (2005) 301–22.

4 Friesen S. J., Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John (Oxford: Oxford University, 2001); cf. Frey J., ‘The Relevance of the Roman Imperial Cult for the Book of Revelation: Exegetical and Hermeneutical Reflections on the Relation between the Seven Letters and the Visionary Main Part of the Book’, The New Testament and Early Christian Literature in Greco-Roman Context: Studies in Honor of David E. Aune (ed. Fotopoulos J.; NovTSup 122; Leiden: Brill, 2006) 231–55.

5 Deissmann A., Licht vom Osten (Tübingen: Mohr, 2nd and 3rd ed. 1909) 287328; cf. Cuss D., Imperial Cult and Honorary Terms in the New Testament (Fribourg: University, 1974); H. Koester, From Jesus to the Gospels, 204–17, emphasizes the narrative comparisons between Augustus and Jesus, especially the eschatological tenor of Augustus's principate.

6 Lohmeyer E., Christuskult und Kaiserkult (Tübingen: Mohr, 1919); Jones D. L., ‘Christianity and the Roman Imperial Cult’, ANRW 2.23.2 (1980) 1023–54; Collins A. Yarbro, ‘The Worship of Jesus and the Imperial Cult’, The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism (ed. Newman C. C., Davila J. R., and Lewis G. S.; Leiden: Brill, 1999) 234–57; Heyman G., The Power of Sacrifice: Roman and Christian Discourses in Conflict (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2007).

7 D'Angelo M. R., ‘Abba and “Father”: Imperial Theology and the Jesus Traditions’, JBL 111 (1992) 611–30; Jeffers J. S., ‘The Influence of the Roman Family and Social Structures on Early Christianity in Rome’, Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 1988 (ed. Lull D. J.; Atlanta: Scholars, 1988) 370–84; Lassen E. M., ‘The Use of the Father Image in Imperial Propaganda and 1 Corinthians 4:14-21’, Tyndale Bulletin 42 (1991) 127–36.

8 Dibelius M., Rom und die Christen im ersten Jahrhundert (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1942); Cameron A., Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire (Berkeley: University of California, 1991); Brent A., The Imperial Cult and the Development of Church Order (Leiden: Brill, 1999); Ando C., Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley: University of California, 2000) esp. 42–8, 48 n. 148.

9 Carter W., The Roman Empire and the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006); Moore S. D., Empire and Apocalypse (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2006); Meggitt J., ‘Taking the Emperor's Clothes Seriously: The New Testament and The Roman Emperor’, The Quest for Wisdom: Essays in Honour of Philip Budd (ed. Joynes C.; Cambridge: Orchard Academic, 2002) 143–70.

10 This is the topic of my book, The Christian Son of God in the Roman World (New York: Oxford University, projected 2011–12). The analysis of how the concept ‘divine’ applies to the Roman emperors is important but cannot be undertaken here. Cf. Gradel I., Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (Oxford: Oxford University, 2000), and M. Peppard, ‘To Deify Him Even More: Shifting Perspectives on Divinity and Emperor Worship in the Roman World’, Early Christianity (forthcoming, 2011).

11 Some specialized studies include Kim T. H., ‘The Anarthrous huios theou in Mark 15:39 and the Roman Imperial Cult’, Bib 79 (1998) 221–41; and Mowery R., ‘Son of God in Roman Imperial Titles and Matthew’, Bib 83 (2002) 100110. But scholars are just beginning to interpret the ‘son of God’ connection between the emperor and Jesus Christ, e.g. Collins A. Yarbro, ‘Mark and His Readers: The Son of God Among Greeks and Romans’, HTR 93 (2000) 85100; and Collins Yarbro, Mark: A Commentary (ed. Attridge H. W.; Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 2007) 767–8. Thiede C. P., Jesus und Tiberius: Zwei Söhne Gottes (Munich: Luchterhand, 2004) takes an iconoclastic approach to the issue.

12 I do not mean to reinforce an artificial divide between ‘Jewish’ and ‘Roman’ listeners. I think the audience of Mark is diverse, and many of its members were culturally variegated in themselves. But imagining a listener attuned to Roman culture, even first as a heuristic device, allows us to imagine the reception of the text differently.

13 By counter-emperor, I do not mean simply that Jesus is depicted as against the emperor. I use ‘counter’ in the sense of musical counterpoint, which is a musical figure or theme that is independent but also interdependent with another musical line. The counterpoint is constantly interacting with the other line and in some sense drawing its motif from the pervasive melody.

14 [αὐτοκράτορι Kαίσ]α[ρι θ]ɛῶι θɛοῦ [υἱῶι] Σɛβαστῷ. Ehrenberg V. and Jones A. H. M., Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus & Tiberius (Oxford: Clarendon, 2nd ed. 1955) no. 108; cf. no. 115 and esp. no. 88: ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, God, son of the August Gods, Emperor of land and sea, Benefactor and Savior of the whole world’. There are many regional studies for relevant data, e.g. for the Roman province of Greece, see Kantiréa M., Les dieux et les dieux augustes: Le culte impérial en Grèce sous les Julio-claudiens et les Flaviens: Etudes épigraphiques et archéologiques (MEΛETHMATA 50; Athens: Kέντρον ‘Eλληνικῆς καὶ Pωμαïκῆς ’Aρχαιότητος τοῦ ’Eθνικοῦ ’Iδρύματος ’Eρɛυνῶν; Paris: Diffusion de Boccard, 2007).

15 1 Jan. 42 bce, after which Octavian was divi filius. Expert and distinctive assessments of Caesar's divinity can be found in Taylor L. R., The Divinity of the Roman Emperor (Middletown: American Philological Association, 1931) 5899; Weinstock S., Divus Julius (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971); and Gradel, Emperor Worship, 54–72. The topic cannot be treated here, except as it relates to the issue of divine sonship. On the translation of divus as ‘god’, see Gradel, Emperor Worship, 65–7.

16 Cf. Nicolaus of Damascus Life of Augustus 21, where Antony was thought to have overly exalted Caesar during the Lupercalia in the hopes of being adopted as his son. Nicolaus of Damascus' Life of Augustus (Smith College Classical Studies 4; Northampton, 1923). Cf. Appian Civil Wars 3.16-19.

17 The adoption of Octavian is described in: Nicolaus of Damascus Life 8, 11, 13, 17–18, 29–30; Livy Periochae 116.5; Appian Civil Wars 3.11-14; Suetonius Jul. 83.2; Aug. 7.2, 94.11. Cf. Deutsch M. E., ‘Caesar's Son and Heir’, California Publications in Classical Philology 9.6 (1928) 149200.

18 Cf. Schmitthenner W., Oktavian und das Testament Cäsars (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1952). I call it ‘quasi-legal’ because it was not present in the law codes but was enacted through a legally binding document.

19 Nicolaus of Damascus Life 8, 11.

20 Suetonius Aug. 94.11, discussed below.

21 Suetonius Aug. 94.4. Cf. Dio 45.2.

22 Appian Civil Wars 3.11; Nicolaus of Damascus Life 18.

23 Nicolaus of Damascus Life 30.

24 Examples abound, but for the beginning of the title, see Taylor, Divinity, 106.

25 Kern O., Die Inschriften von Magnesia am Mäander (Berlin, 1900) no. 157b, housed in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin. Cf. a ‘son of god’ inscription to Drusus the Younger, who was in line to be emperor but never acceded to power (IG II2 3257).

26 He took ‘Caesar’ in his official titulature, and ‘son of god’ is found, for example, in a plaque from Achaia (IG II2 3281); cf. RIC 2.127 n. 93. His deathbed utterance is well known: Vae, puto deus fio (‘Oh dear, I think I'm becoming a god’), Suetonius Vesp. 23.

27 On his connection to Aeneas, cf. Dio 41.34.1. On the temple of Venus Genetrix, cf. Weinstock, Divus Julius, 80–90.

28 Cf. Wiseman T. P., ‘Domi Nobiles and the Roman Cultural Elite’, Les ‘Bourgeoisies’ municipales italiennes aux IIe et Ier siècles av. J.-C. (ed. Cébeillac-Gervasoni M.; Paris: Éditions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique; Naples: Bibliothèque de l'Institut français de Naples, 1983) 298306. Cf. the skepticism of Seneca toward such genealogies (De Beneficiis 3.28.2).

29 Augustus crowned his new forum with the temple of Mars Ultor, dedicated to Mars in 2 bce for aid in avenging the murder of Caesar (ultor, ‘avenger’).

30 Taylor, Divinity, 138–41.

31 Fishwick D., The Imperial Cult in the Latin West (2 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 1987–92) 2.423–35.

32 Hekster O., ‘Descendants of Gods: Legendary Genealogies in the Roman Empire’, The Impact of Imperial Rome on Religions, Ritual, and Religious Life in the Roman Empire (ed. de Blois L., Funke P., and Hahn J.; Leiden: Brill, 2006) 2435.

33 Hekster, ‘Descendants’, 35.

34 On the different inflections of ‘son of God’ in Christology, see Collins A. Yarbro and Collins J. J., King and Messiah as Son of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). My essay focuses on the baptism in Mark (as opposed to Matthew or Luke) because of its possible Roman provenance and the absence of a birth narrative.

35 During his Nicene-era christological debate, he was defending the pre-Nicene position of Dionysius of Alexandria. Greek: τῶν ἀγνοουμένων, καὶ προσαγωγῆς ɛἰς ἐπίγνωσιν δɛομένων, οὐ µόνον ἀλλοῖα πολλάκις, ἀλλὰ καὶ ὑπɛναντία τɛκμήρια γίνɛται τῶν ἐπιζητουμένων δηλώματα. Athanasius, De Sententia Dionysii 18 [79]; PG 25b.508; critical edition in Opitz H.-G., ed., Athanasius Werke 2.1 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1935) 4667.

36 I translate the baptismal voice as ‘You are my beloved son, whom I am pleased to choose’, which will sound unfamiliar to most readers of English Bibles because the translation of the kjv (‘well pleased’) has influenced almost every subsequent English translation. But that translation, which implies static approval of a pre-existing condition, does not adequately portray the verb's dynamic agency. Most uses of the verb connote both ‘pleasedness/delight’ and ‘choice/selection’ (e.g., 1 Macc 10.47; Ps 151.5//11QPsa XXVIII). Cf. G. Schrenk, ‘ɛὐδοκέω, ɛὐδοκία’, TDNT 2.738–51. The rendering ‘pleased to choose’ resembles the French translation in La Traduction Oecuménique de la Bible (the ‘TOB’, 1975–76): ‘il m'a plu de te choisir’.

37 This general picture is supported by: Taylor V., The Gospel According to St. Mark (London: MacMillan, 1959); Cranfield C. E. B., The Gospel According to St. Mark (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1963); Lane W. L., The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974); Guelich R. A., Mark 1–8:26 (Word Biblical Commentary 34A; Dallas: Word Books, 1989); Gundry R. H., Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993); Marcus J., Mark 1–8 (AB 27; New York: Doubleday, 2000); Moloney F. J., The Gospel of Mark (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002); and France R. T., The Gospel of Mark (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

38 Mark's association with Rome is well known from ancient testimonia and defended by many modern scholars. Especially germane to my topic is Evans Craig A., ‘Mark's Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel’, Journal for the Study of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 1 (2000) 6781, which argues for a ‘Roman reading’ of part of Mark's prologue. I will not here take up the issue of Mark's provenance, although I think Rome is the most likely candidate. In any case, the spread of Roman imperial ideology went far beyond the pomerium of the city: it was similarly propagated—and just as vital—at the distant frontier.

39 The full version of this argument is forthcoming in Peppard, Christian Son of God in the Roman World. Some scholars have been open to this reading, e.g., Donahue John and Harrington Daniel, The Gospel of Mark (Sacra Pagina 2; Collegeville: Liturgical, 2002) 67–9; and Yarbro Collins, Mark, 150.

40 For an example of the standard dogmatic rejection of an adoptionist reading, cf. Edwards J. R., ‘The Baptism of Jesus According to the Gospel of Mark’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34 (1991) esp. 55–7.

41 Harnack A., History of Dogma (7 vols.; Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1976) uses the term to discuss earliest Christology (1.183-204), the later Roman monarchian adoptionists (3.14-51), and the adoptionism of eighth-century Spain (5.278-92). Wiles M. F., Archetypal Heresy: Arianism Through the Centuries (Oxford/New York: Clarendon, 1996), argues that Arianism has served the archetypal function I here ascribe to adoptionism. Marcionism also performed a similar function in ancient heresiography.

42 Martin D. B., Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity (New Haven: Yale University, 1990).

43 The best treatment of adoption in Roman society is Kunst C., Römische Adoption: Zur Strategie einer Familienorganisation (Hennef: Marthe Clauss, 2005). Cf. Dixon S., The Roman Family (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1992); Corbier M., ‘Divorce and Adoption as Roman Familial Strategies (Le Divorce et l'adoption ‘en plus‧)’, Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome (ed. Rawson B.; Oxford: Clarendon, 1991) 4778; Gardner J. F., Family and Familia in Roman Law and Life (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998) 114208; Nielsen H. S., ‘Quasi-Kin, Quasi-Adoption and the Roman Family’, Adoption et Fosterage (ed. Corbier M.; Paris: De Boccard, 1999) 249–62. On the political aspects, in addition to Kunst, cf. Prévost M.-H., Les Adoptions politiques à Rome sous la République et le Principat (Paris, Sirey, 1949).

44 Cf. Kunst, Römische Adoption, esp. 59–62.

45 On Theodotus and followers, see Ehrman B. D., The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford: Oxford University, 1993) 4754; and Löhr W. A., ‘Theodotus der Lederarbeiter und Theodotus der Bankier—ein Beitrag zur römischen Theologiegeschichte des zweiten und dritten Jahrhunderts’, ZNW 87 (1996) 101–25. On the so-called ‘adoptionism’ of eighth-century Spain, see Cavadini J. C., The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and Gaul, 785–820 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1993).

46 Davies W. D. and Allison Dale C., The Gospel According to St. Matthew (3 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997) 1.330–4. To these we now add Dixon E. P., ‘Descending Spirit and Descending Gods: A “Greek” Interpretation of the Spirit's “Descent as a Dove” in Mark 1:10’, JBL 128 (2009) 759–80, which interprets the dove in connection with the common Greek mythological topos of gods descending in human form.

47 Discussed in Gero S., ‘The Spirit as a Dove at the Baptism of Jesus’, NovT 18 (1976) 1735.

48 E.g., Marcus, Mark 1–8, 164–7. Some have also proposed an allusion to Noah's messenger bird (Gen 8.8-12), since the bird brings a sort of good news of salvation (see, e.g., Davies and Allison, Matthew, 332, for details and discussion of problems).

49 The verb is used in Deut 32.11 to describe a bird, but in Jer 23.9 it portrays the shaking of bones. Another important passage is 4Q521, where the Lord's spirit ‘will hover upon the poor [ועל ענוים רוחו תרחף‎ ]’ (2.2). The anointed one is also mentioned in this fragment, but the connection between the Lord and the anointed one is unclear. Furthermore, the spirit hovers here just as in Gen 1.2, but the issue for my essay is to what degree that invokes a bird. 4Q521 gives no reason, apart from the verb, to interpret the spirit as a bird. Finally, the spirit here hovers on the poor, not the anointed one.

50 France, The Gospel of Mark, 79.

51 Keel O., Vögel als Boten (Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 14; Freiburg: Universitätsverlag Freiburg, 1977).

52 Suetonius Dom. 6. For other eagle omens not covered in this essay, see Galba 4, Vit. 9. Trans. of Suetonius adapted from The Twelve Caesars (trans. R. Graves; London: Penguin, 1957).

53 Wallace-Hadrill A., Suetonius: The Scholar and his Caesars (New Haven: Yale University, 1984) 192.

54 Wallace-Hadrill, Suetonius, 191.

55 Suetonius Claud. 7.

56 Suetonius Aug. 94.

57 Suetonius Aug. 97.

58 Suetonius Aug. 96.

59 On the difficulties of transferring charismatic authority, see Weber M., Economy and Society (2 vols.; Berkeley: University of California, 1978), 1.212–301; 2.1111–57.

60 Suetonius Tib. 14.

61 Suetonius Vesp. 4.

62 This almost certainly alludes to the capturing of a legionary eagle from the XII Fulminata, a Roman legion whose remnant was later assigned to Titus for the assault on Jerusalem (cf. Josephus BJ 5.41).

63 Suetonius Vesp. 5.

64 Suetonius Aug. 94.

65 This is a common trope; elsewhere in Suetonius, see Vesp. 5.

66 Vigourt A., Les presages impériaux d'Auguste à Domitien (Paris: De Boccard, 2001) 217. Cf. an anonymous quadrans with a bust of Venus and a dove on the reverse (RIC 2.218 nos. 24–25).

67 I have not documented here the use of eagles on Roman imperial coins and portraiture, but many examples could be offered. E.g., the PROVIDENTIA DEORUM coin of Trajan, which depicts an eagle descending toward him. In imperial ideology, providentia was the virtue often associated with an emperor's provision of sons/heirs to ensure a stable succession of power. RIC 2.415 no. 589 (= pl. XV.304); cf. RIC 2.418 no. 602.

68 Tibullus Elegiae 1.7.18, c. 27 bce. Latin: Quid referam, ut volitet crebras intacta per urbes / Alba Palaestino sancta columba Syro?

69 On doves and pigeons in this area, cf. ‘Doves and Pigeons’, ABD 6.1144-5.

70 Ovid Metamorphoses 1.504-7. Relevant Latin: sic aquilam penna fugiunt trepidante columbae, / hostes quaeque suos.

71 Horace Odes 4.4.29-32. Latin: fortes creantur fortibus et bonis; / est in iuvencis, est in equis patrum / virtus, neque imbellem feroces / progenerant aquilae columbam.

72 In a letter to Marcus Aurelius, Fronto refers to ‘sheep and doves with wolves and eagles’ (oves et columbae cum lupis et aquilis, Ep. 4.1) as part of a legend of Orpheus. The sheep–wolf and eagle–dove pairs symbolize archetypal enemies, which Fronto claims Marcus Aurelius has brought together in harmony. For a quite different use, see Pliny Ep. 9.25, in which he calls his little letters ‘doves’ as a contrast to his recipient's military standards (‘eagles’).

73 Josephus BJ 3.122-4. Trans. adapted from LCL.

74 There are myriad examples of how the eagle symbolized Roman military might. In a pivotal battle against the Cherusci at the entrance to a forest, ‘the finest of auguries’ appeared: eight eagles entering the forest. Tiberius, the commander, said, ‘Go and follow the Roman birds, the legions’ very own divine powers!' (sequerentur Romanas avis, propria legionum numina; Tacitus Ann. 2.17).

75 The author probably draws on the animal symbolism of a text like Ps 74: ‘Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs, and an impious people reviles your name. Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals’ (Ps 74.18-19). It is true that the animal here is a תור (turtle-dove), not a יונה (dove, pigeon), but the terminology oscillates, especially in translations of the Hebrew.

76 There are, of course, other references to Israel as a dove in the Bible and Jewish literature that do not directly inform my understanding of the eagle/dove trope. Nor have I incorporated the aphoristic simile in Matt 10.16, portraying doves as ‘pure/innocent’ (ἀκέραιος) or ‘most simple’ (ἁπλούστατος, Codex D).

77 Trans. adapted from Charlesworth J. H., ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (2 vols.; New York: Doubleday, 1985) 2.352. A more negative interpretation of such behavior is that the doves are timorous prey, as stated in b. B. Qam. 93a: ‘there is none among the birds more persecuted than doves’.

78 Trans. adapted from OTP 2.22.

79 Let. Arist. 144–8. Trans. adapted from OTP 2.22.

80 The lxx states: βδέλυγμά ἐστιν—τὸν ἀɛτὸν…[etc.]. The proximity of these two words suggests a possible interpretation of Mark 13.14. The βδέλυγμα to which Mark refers could be the golden eagle set up over the temple by Herod. It would be difficult to argue definitively for this reading, but the historical event (combined with Mark's text) resonates with this passage of the Levitical law.

81 Gregory of Nazianzus Or. 40.19 (In sanctum baptisma, PG 36.384).

82 The interpretation of the dove as colonial mimicry builds on—or rather, provides a theoretical foundation for—many of the astute observations about Mark and Roman power made by scholars such as Senior D., ‘With Swords and Clubs: The Setting of Mark's Community and His Critique of Abusive Power’, BTB 17 (1987) 1020; and Donahue J., ‘Windows and Mirrors: The Setting of Mark's Gospel’, CBQ 57 (1995) 126. An intriguing parallel to this example of narrative mimicry is the report of the emperor Titus's death in rabbinic literature (Lev. Rab. 22.3), which ends with God's killing of Titus by means of a mosquito that transforms into a dove at the autopsy. For interpretation of this account as colonial mimicry, in part based on an eagle/dove trope, see J. Levinson, ‘“Tragedies Naturally Performed”: Charades Fatal, Parodia Sacra, and the Death of Titus’, Jewish Culture and Society Under the Christian Roman Empire (ed. Kalmin R. and Schwartz S.; Leuven: Peeters, 2003) 349–82.

83 Liew T.-S. B., ‘Tyranny, Boundary and Might: Colonial Mimicry in Mark's Gospel’, JSNT 73 (1999) 13.

84 Bhabha H., The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994) 86.

85 Bhabha, Location, 86.

* A version of this essay was presented at the 2006 New England SBL Meeting. Subsequently I received helpful suggestions from many colleagues, especially Adela Yarbro Collins and the anonymous reviewer for NTS.

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