Read Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor

On the 2000th anniversary of his death, Adrian Goldsworthy introduces his new biography Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor and ponders why, unlike figures like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, the first Imperator of Rome remains absent from wider public knowledge despite his great and lasting importance.


Roman – Portrait of Emperor Augustus – Walters 2321 by Anonymous (Roman Empire) – Walters Art Museum (via Wikipedia)


‘And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.’
The Gospel according to Luke, later first century AD.

This brief mention in the Christmas story must have been the first time I heard of Augustus, and although it is hard to be precise with such early memories I must have been very young. Like most people who hear or read these words, I doubt that I thought much of them, and it was only later that my love of history grew and I developed a particular fascination for everything about ancient Rome. You cannot study Roman history without coming across Augustus and his legacy. He was the first emperor, the man who finally replaced a Republic which had lasted for almost half a millennium with a veiled monarchy. The system he created gave the empire some 250 years of stability, when it was both larger and more prosperous than at any other time. In the third century AD it faced decades of crisis and survived only after extensive reform, but even so the ‘Roman’ emperors who ruled from Constantinople until the fifteenth century felt themselves to be rightful successors to the power and authority of Augustus.

Unquestionably important, his story is at the same time intensely dramatic. When teaching students about Augustus, I have always stopped to remind them that he was not quite nineteen when he thrust himself into Rome’s extremely violent politics – hence almost always younger than anyone in the class. It is often hard to remember this when recounting what he did, skilfully and unscrupulously manoeuvring his way through the twisting allegiances of these years of civil war. The great-nephew of the murdered Julius Caesar, he was made the principal heir in his will and given his name, which he took to mean full adoption. Power was not supposed to be inherited at Rome, but armed with this name he rallied the dead dictator’s supporters and proclaimed his intention to assume all of his father’s offices and status. He then proceeded to achieve precisely that, against all the odds and opposed by far more experienced rivals. Mark Antony was the last of these, and he was defeated and dead by 30 BC. The young, murderous warlord of the civil wars then managed to reinvent himself as the beloved guardian of the state, took the name Augustus with its religious overtones, and was eventually dubbed ‘the father of his country’, an inclusive rather than divisive figure. He held supreme power for forty-four years – a very long time for any monarch – and when he died of old age, there was no question that his nominated successor would follow him.

Julius Caesar is famous, and so are Antony and Cleopatra, Nero, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, perhaps Hadrian, and a few of the philosophers – but Augustus is not.

Yet in spite of his remarkable story and profound influence on the history of an empire which has shaped the culture of the western world, Caesar Augustus has slipped from the wider consciousness. For most people he is a name mentioned in Christmas services or school Nativity plays and nothing more than that. Hardly anybody stops to think that the month of July is named after Julius Caesar, but I suspect even fewer are aware that August is named after Augustus. Julius Caesar is famous, and so are Antony and Cleopatra, Nero, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, perhaps Hadrian, and a few of the philosophers – but Augustus is not. One of the reasons is that Shakespeare never wrote a play about him, perhaps because there is little natural tragedy in a man who lives to a ripe old age and dies in his bed. He appears as Octavius in Julius Caesar and as Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra, but in neither play is his character particularly engaging, unlike Brutus, Antony – or even lesser players like Enobarbus. His fate is principally to serve as a foil to Antony, weak, even cowardly, but cold and manipulative where the latter is brave, intensely physical, simple and passionate. The contrast was already there in the ancient sources, and had its roots in the propaganda war waged at the time; it has only tended to become even more pronounced in modern treatments of the story – think for instance of the glacially cold performance with just hints of sadism given by Roddy McDowall in the famous 1963 epic movie Cleopatra.

Calculating, devious and utterly ruthless, such an Augustus encourages the audience to sympathise with Antony and Cleopatra, and thus makes their deaths all the more tragic, for in the end these stories are about them. No play, film or novel with Augustus at its heart has ever captured the popular imagination. In Robert Graves’ novel, I Claudius – and the wonderful BBC dramatisation which is now at least as well known – he is once again no more than prominent among the supporting cast. This treatment is much more sympathetic, and he plays a different role as the simple, emotional – and only occasionally menacing – old man being outmanoeuvred by Livia, his manipulative and murderous wife. Such stories are involving and entertaining, but on their own give no real understanding of why Augustus was so important, making it hard to connect the young schemer to the ageing and often outwitted emperor.

There is far more to Augustus’ life than this, and this bigger story is far from dull. One of the great dangers is to assume an inevitability about his success, whether based on his genius for politics or – and this is an older view – wider trends which made the creation of a monarchy at Rome little more than a matter of time. Augustus’ longevity surprised everyone, as did his success, especially in the early years. Much of the time the gambler is more obvious than the careful planner. Augustus took risks, especially during the civil wars, and not all of these risks paid off. There was more of Julius Caesar about him than is sometimes appreciated, not least in his ability to extricate himself from scrapes of his own making. Nor is there any real evidence of a long-nurtured plan for creating his new regime; instead the picture is one of improvisation and experimentation, creating the system by trial and error, with chance events playing almost as big a role as design. The image of the icy manipulator also quickly vanishes as we look at a man who struggled, and often failed, to restrain his passions and hot temper. This is the Augustus who had an affair with the married and pregnant Livia, made her husband divorce her and then had the man preside over their wedding mere days after she had given birth. It is an episode you might expect more of Antony – or perhaps even more of Nero, great-grandson of Mark Antony and Augustus’ sister.

Alongside the passion came a good deal of savagery. Augustus, Antony and their fellow triumvir Lepidus were all guilty of mass murder, famously during the proscriptions – ‘these many, then, shall die, their names are pricked’ in Shakespeare’s version – and on plenty of other occasions. That the other warlords of this era rarely behaved any better does not absolve them of such cruelty. It is often difficult to like the young Augustus, in spite of his moderation in later life, and the struggle to reconcile two apparently different men has troubled most of his modern biographers. Often the solution is effectively to divide his life into two. His initial rise up until the victory at Actium readily lends itself to narrative, packed as it is with battles and intrigue, and such well-known characters as Cicero, Brutus, Sextus Pompeius and Cleopatra. Then many biographers will jump to his later years and turn to the alleged intrigue surrounding his choice of successors – and it is no coincidence that these two distinct stories mirror the themes chosen respectively by Shakespeare and Graves. Other authors, especially those from the academic world, also usually end their narrative in 30 BC, and for the rest of his life discuss broader topics – for instance ‘Augustus and the Senate’, ‘Augustus and the provinces’, ‘Augustus and religion’.

Biography has few champions in the academic world, in spite of – perhaps in part because of – its immense appeal for more general readers. I wrote my biography of Julius Caesar because none of the more recent books about him were entirely satisfying – either they lacked detail or they only covered one aspect of his life. Each looked at either his political or his military career, but never at both – a distinction which would have baffled the Romans. It was while working on that book that I knew I had one day to write one on a similar scale about Augustus because no one has yet written the one he deserves. There are good treatments of aspects of his life, some excellent brief overviews, but nothing that deals with all of his life in any real detail. The great weakness of the thematic approach is that the man tends to be lost in discussion of policy, ideas, or the imagery employed by the regime. It far too readily becomes as disjointed as the leap from the young to the elderly Augustus, which loses any real sense of how the one turned into the other. As with Caesar: The Life of a Colossus, the aim is to write as if this were the biography of a modern statesman, asking the same questions even if our sources make it difficult to answer them, and trying as far as is possible to understand the real man.



Yet the real Augustus is very hard to pin down, not least because he took great care to reinvent himself during his lifetime. In the middle of the fourth century ad the Emperor Julian – himself lately having seized by force the supreme title of Augustus after several years as a junior Caesar in the imperial system of those years – wrote a satire imagining a banquet where the gods welcomed Rome’s deified emperors. Augustus is there, but is depicted as a strange, unnatural figure, constantly changing colour to blend with his surroundings like a chameleon. Only when instructed by philosophy is he turned into a good and wise ruler.

Mark Antony dubbed the young Augustus ‘a boy who owes everything to name’ precisely because being called Caesar gave the teenager a significance he could not otherwise have had.

Augustus was aware of his public image, but then all Roman politicians advertised their own and their families’ merits and achievements at every opportunity. Mark Antony still has a reputation as an experienced and capable general that has far more to do with his own propaganda than his actual military experience and abilities. The big difference with Augustus was that he had so much longer to develop and spread his message, as well as vastly greater resources than anyone else. More images survive of Augustus than any other human being from the ancient world. Especially after Actium, it is even harder to see past this façade and understand the real man. Even so we have plenty of stories about his domestic life and habits, a lot of anecdotes about everyday incidents and even a collection of jokes told by him or at his expense. There is far more material of this sort about Augustus than Julius Caesar or almost any other major figure in Roman history. Yet we need to be careful, for such apparently ‘natural’ moments were also opportunities to perform, and public life at Rome was highly theatrical. Roman politicians lived their lives in public, and Augustus in particular wanted to appear a model of proper behaviour in private life as well as when performing his official duties. Little about him was ever entirely straightforward.

Perhaps we should begin with the basic problem of what to call him, having noted that even Shakespeare uses a different name in each play. Born Caius Octavius, when he became Julius Caesar’s heir he took his name and became Caius Julius Caesar. He could have added Octavianus to this as a reminder of his real – rather obscure – family, but deliberately did not, and only his enemies ever called him Octavianus. As the years passed he modified his name, dropping the first name Caius and replacing it with the highly unorthodox Imperator – victorious general or generalissimo. After Julius Caesar was deified he became the son of the divine Julius, and finally in 27 BC the name Augustus was awarded to him by the vote of the Senate and People of Rome, no doubt carefully prepared to know that this would please him.

Thus we have a man with three very distinct names at different stages of his life, and a fair bit of variation in form and detail even with these. The modern convention is to call him Octavian until 27 BC and after that to call him Augustus, avoiding the name Caesar altogether and with it the risk of confusion with Julius Caesar. While being clear, this is also deeply misleading and helps to reinforce the false division between the bloodstained triumvir and the distinguished statesman and ruler. Names mattered a good deal in the Roman world – and more recently, since we need only think of the longevity of Caesar or Kaiser or Tsar as a title of power. Mark Antony dubbed the young Augustus ‘a boy who owes everything to name’ precisely because being called Caesar gave the teenager a significance he could not otherwise have had. That was why Augustus never called himself Octavian, and if we call him this, rather than Caesar, then it makes it much harder to understand the events of these years. It is important to know what he called himself at each stage of his life, and so in the chapters to follow I shall always refer to him in this way, and have organised the book into sections accordingly. The dictator will always be named as Julius Caesar, and if ever the text mentions Caesar then it refers to Augustus.

It is not only his name that proves problematic. Imperator is the Latin word from which we get our word emperor, but it did not have this sense in Augustus’ day. He called himself princeps, which means ‘first’ or ‘leading’ citizen, and this was how other Romans referred to him. If we call him emperor, then we are imposing a different concept onto his regime, one shaped by hindsight and the knowledge that Rome would be a monarchy for many centuries to come. Therefore outside the Introduction and Conclusion I will never refer to him as emperor, although I have sometimes used the term for his successors. Similarly I refer to the regime he created not as the empire – since the Republic also possessed an overseas empire – but as the principate, a term familiar to scholars but rarely used outside the academic world.

Behind it all was the spectre of contemporary dictators – most of all Mussolini, who styled himself Il Duce in conscious emulation of the dux Augustus, and called his supporters fascists after the symbol of the fasces

Another difficult word with Latin origins is precisely this Republic, which comes from res publica, the ‘public thing’ or ‘commonwealth’. This was how the Romans referred to their state, but it did not have the specific institutional definition of our term ‘republic’. It is too useful to avoid altogether – how else can we easily speak of the political system that had governed Rome for so long until it broke down in the first century BC? However, I have tried to avoid the modern tendency to refer to opponents of Julius Caesar and the triumvirs as Republicans, since this imposes a false coherence on what were in truth disparate groups with a wide range of attitudes and aims. The term also gives a legitimacy that many do not deserve – in much the same way that using the name Octavian gives a posthumous victory to Mark Antony. (There are limits to the quest for precision, and I have used July and August even before these names were introduced since few readers would be familiar with the months of Quinctilis and Sextilis.)

Throughout the discussion I will strive to be independent, which may seem an odd thing to say when talking of 2,000-year-old conflicts and disputes, but history readily excites emotions and even the most sober and serious of scholars is not immune. Julius Caesar has often attracted fawning adulation and bitter loathing, and the same is almost as true of Augustus. Throughout the nineteenth century and beyond he was widely praised for curing the malaise of a broken Republic, giving the Romans peace, stability and prosperity as a benevolent monarch. In an era when kings and empires still dominated Europe and much of the world, such an understanding came readily. This would change during the twentieth century as the world convulsed and old certainties vanished: the most influential treatment of Augustus came with Sir Ronald Syme’s magisterial book The Roman Revolution, first released just before the Second World War. Deliberately provocative in its willingness not to assume that the rise of Augustus was a good thing, and innovatively employing the developing field of prosopography – the study of families and relationships among the aristocracy – it depicted the era as the rise of the leader and his faction supplanting the old elite. Behind it all was the spectre of contemporary dictators – most of all Mussolini, who styled himself Il Duce in conscious emulation of the dux Augustus, and called his supporters fascists after the symbol of the fasces, the bundle of rods surrounding an axe which marked the power of a Roman magistrate. Today, a reader of the book is more likely to think of the rise of the even more sinister National Socialism of Germany or the totalitarian control of Stalin.

The modern world has grown very suspicious of dictators of whatever political hue, and less willing to pardon the murderous nature of Augustus’ rise as being justified by the peace he eventually created. Yet we need to be careful not to paint the past in simple shades, or automatically to assume that all dictators or all empires, or indeed all states, are essentially alike. Augustus killed a lot of people, but he inflicted on the world nothing like the misery of a Hitler or a Stalin, and, as ever, we should view his behaviour in the context of the times. In his willingness to kill his enemies he was no better or worse than the other warlords to appear at that time. Julius Caesar had been different, and had pardoned Brutus, Cassius and several of the other men who later stabbed him to death – a point Augustus, Antony and Lepidus made when they posted death lists of their enemies.

To be not as bad as Hitler is scarcely a ringing endorsement, while to say that someone was no worse than his rivals is only a little better; but an awareness that a successful leader was flawed should not cause us to be blind to the failings of his rivals. Syme was too good a scholar to fall prey to this, although he was extremely charitable in his judgements of Antony and deliberately harsh in his comments on Augustus’ supporters, especially the majority who came from outside the established aristocracy. He was also aware that family connections among Rome’s elite were complicated, and did not in themselves dictate allegiances, which might rapidly shift or depend on many other considerations. Although three-quarters of a century old, The Roman Revolution – combined with Syme’s considerable wider body of work and his influence on others – continues to set the tone of much discussion of Augustus and his age, especially in scholarship in the English-speaking world. There have been many new approaches and changes of emphasis, but on the whole these have looked at particular themes or details. There has been no other overarching study of the period with anything like as much influence, and so in many ways the era – as I studied it as a student and later taught it as a lecturer – remained one shaped by perceptions from the middle of the twentieth century.



The Battle of Actium - Lorenzo A. Castro (RMG)


The structuring inevitable in formal teaching always risks distorting the past. Courses on the late Republic tend to end with Julius Caesar. The Augustan age usually begins with Actium and is either kept separate or rolled into a study of the principate, while the triumviral years from 44–31 BC get little attention at all – helping to reinforce the distinction between Octavian and Augustus. More rarely is Augustus and his career looked at as a continuation of the Republic, and instead the attention falls on the apparent differences. Augustus did not know that he was creating a new system that would last for centuries, and studying it in this way exaggerates the change between the Republic and the principate that was certainly much less apparent at the time. It also feeds the modern usage of terms like Republic and Republicanism, and can extend to the portrayal of a senatorial opposition allegedly forcing Augustus to hide the reality of his power behind a Republican façade.

Attitudes to Julius Caesar also shape our perception of his successor. The dictator was murdered because he held supreme permanent power, while Augustus gained this and survived to old age. The natural logic for most scholars is therefore that Augustus must have behaved in a fundamentally different way to his ‘father’, softening and hiding his power where the latter had wielded it blatantly. This underlying assumption reinforces the unwillingness to call Augustus by the name Caesar in modern accounts. As we shall see, many scholars follow Syme and take this much further, asserting that Augustus very deliberately distanced himself from Julius Caesar the man – as opposed to the divine Julius – once he had beaten Antony and become master of the state.

It is well worth stepping back from the accumulated generations of scholarly debate in an effort to tell Augustus’ story afresh.

The idea is convenient, at a glance seems to explain their differing fates, and is repeated again and again, making it unfortunate that there is no evidence to support it. In the first place the comparison is flawed, since it is inevitably drawn to the situations of Julius Caesar at the end of 45 BC and Augustus after Actium. No one seems to notice that the former had only just completed his victory in a hard-fought civil war and during the last five years of his life had spent very little time in Rome. For all his energy, there were limits to what Julius Caesar could achieve during such a brief and frequently interrupted period of supremacy. In contrast, by the time he had beaten Antony, Augustus had held unfettered power as triumvir for over a decade – and for the bulk of that time was in Rome and Italy without either of his colleagues. To begin after Actium ignores these long years when he cemented his control by a combination of force and the advancement of men loyal to him. Those years had also greatly thinned the ranks of the old aristocratic families, and the failure of Brutus and Cassius was hardly an inspiration for others to follow in their footsteps. Thus the assumption that since Julius Caesar faced – and failed to placate – the resistance of a hard core of traditional senatorial opinion then Augustus must have faced and overcome similar opposition, is unfounded. Their situations differed in far too many ways. There really is no convincing evidence for the senatorial opposition to Augustus so beloved of many modern scholars. In fact academics have shown a far deeper loyalty to the Republican system than was ever displayed by the aristocracy of Rome. A closer look reveals far less difference between Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.

It is well worth stepping back from the accumulated generations of scholarly debate in an effort to tell Augustus’ story afresh. This is not a history of the times, but a biography, and thus, although wider events are considered, our attention is fixed on Augustus himself. It is important to know where he was – and if possible what he was doing – at each point in his life. One thing this reveals is the amount of time he spent travelling in Italy or the provinces, something that few of his successors would choose to do until Hadrian in the second century ad. It also makes clear the heavy workload he maintained even as an old man. His career was based on more than simply reforms and legislation, and relied on attention to detail and day-to-day conduct which can all too readily be lost in rapid surveys of what he did and achieved. The changes that occurred, whether institutional, social, economic, or the physical transformation of Rome itself and the wider empire, assume their true importance if we gain a sense of the pace at which they came about.

This is a long book, but could easily have been twice or three times the size. I have tried to give glimpses of the impact of Augustus on Italy and the wider empire so that we do not simply look at the fate of the aristocratic families in Rome, but space prevents the inclusion of more detail. Whole books could be written about this and many of the other topics touched on lightly – there is something deeply frustrating in summing up Virgil’s Aeneid in a couple of pages, and barely getting the chance to talk about Ovid and some of the other poets. One of the great joys of writing this book has been the chance to reread the poetry and other literature of this era – in many cases for the first time since I was a student. I have done my best to give a flavour of such things without losing sight of the central figure of Augustus, since this is a book about him. For those whose interest is sparked by the man and his times, there are the endnotes and a long bibliography which will give access to the truly vast literature on these subjects.



Only a tiny fraction of the literature, official documents and private correspondence from the Roman world has survived into the present day. This was a time before printing presses, when everything had to be copied by hand – which, apart from being laborious, and thus expensive, ran the risk of introducing an ever-growing number of errors. Many things were lost because no one troubled to make sufficient copies. Far more vanished with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the change to a world where literacy was far less common and there was less of the wealth needed to promote the copying of books. In the Middle Ages, the Church preserved some ancient texts, but was selective in its choice and then these selections suffered further substantial losses to fire, accident and neglect. This always means that there is much we cannot know about the ancient world, and at every stage we must balance the probability of partial and often contradictory sources.

The fullest narratives of these years were written long after the events. Appian, whose Civil Wars extend down to the defeat of Sextus Pompeius in 36 BC, wrote in the early second century ad. Dio, whose history covers the entire period in greatest detail and survives with only a few missing fragments for Augustus’ life, wrote in the early third century. Both men were Greeks – although Dio was also a Roman senator and senior magistrate – and wrote in their own language, which sometimes makes it harder to be sure of the Latin terms they translated. Both wrote at a time when the principate was firmly established and the rule of emperors unremarkable, and are inclined to transfer the attitudes of their own day to the earlier periods. Velleius Paterculus began his public career under Augustus, and his brief narrative has the advantage of being written much closer to the events, but also suffers from his determined adulation of the Emperor Tiberius. These are our fullest narrative accounts and do not cover everything, making it sometimes necessary to draw on later surveys by authors like Florus and Orosius, especially for events in the provinces and on the frontiers. While better than nothing, such sources must be used with extreme caution. The historian Livy was a contemporary, but the relevant books of his account, which went down to 9 BC, only survive in very brief summaries compiled at a much later date.

Until his execution on the orders of Augustus, Antony, and Lepidus in 43 BC, the letters and speeches of Cicero give us immediate and highly detailed – if obviously also highly partisan – descriptions of events. These are all the more fascinating for including letters written to him by others, as well as the often unfounded rumours that circulated in these desperate times and could have as much an influence on someone’s actions as the truth. Sadly, we only have some of Cicero’s works, and we know of others, including more correspondence between the orator and Augustus, that were available to ancient authors but which have since been lost.

Augustus’ own autobiography covered the years down to 25 BC, but has not survived, although some of the information from it is preserved in the short biography written by the contemporary Nicolaus of Damascus. We do have the Deeds of the Divine Augustus (Res Gestae), a text prepared in the last years of his life and set up outside his Mausoleum – and copied elsewhere – after his death. This mainly lists achievements and honours and so tells us what he wanted to be the official record of his career. More complete, and far more personal, is the biography written by Suetonius at the end of the first and beginning of the second centuries ad. Clearly drawn from a range of sources, some deeply hostile to him and most likely originating in the propaganda wars in the years from 44–30 BC, this provides a wealth of information. Especially interesting are the extracts from private letters written to family members, some of which also appear in his biographies of Tiberius and Claudius. More frustrating is the lack of any fixed dates or other reference points for many of the incidents.

Other sources provide snippets of comparable material. There is some in Plutarch’s Lives of Brutus, Cicero and Mark Antony and elsewhere in his wider works, which have a similar date to Suetonius and Appian. Tacitus was their contemporary, and a senior Roman senator, but he did not cover Augustus in his historical works, and only indirectly conveys information about him. Both the older and younger Seneca, who were active a little earlier in the first century ad, also provide some fascinating details. Much later, but clearly drawing on earlier sources, the early-fifth-century-ad writer Macrobius provides the collection of jokes involving Augustus already mentioned. In all of these works we usually cannot know where the authors found their information, making it impossible to verify. Yet perhaps the most significant feature is that there are so many personal anecdotes about Augustus, telling us something about how people thought of him and how he in turn wanted to be seen.

Inscriptions, whether carved on stone or the slogans on coins, also offer very deliberate statements from the time, just as images and sculptures carry conscious messages. Many have the advantage of being very immediate, especially when the dating is clear, and so may reflect short-term priorities as well as wider messages. Excavation of buildings and other structures can also reveal changing priorities, although here more caution is needed since the remains revealed by excavation require careful interpretation and are seldom so complete or so fully understood as to make this interpretation absolutely certain. Context means a good deal with all such physical evidence, but is almost never as clear as we would like, and older excavations were often carried out with less care and sophistication than more recent ones. Especially with works of art and architecture we can find it difficult to remain subjective, and struggle even more not to read too little or too much into minor details. How much time did the Romans really spend considering the pictures and slogans on the money they used? Yet, unlike the literary sources, ongoing work continues to augment the physical evidence for Augustus’ era, and it adds greatly to our understanding of his world.

Understanding Augustus is not easy, and care needs to be taken with each type of evidence. It is also very important to be open about the limitations of our sources. There are some things that we simply cannot know, and probably never shall. There are plenty more where we are left to guess, and again we must be open about the basis of such guesswork. We must never pretend certainty where none is possible. Absolute truth is elusive, perhaps impossible, but that does not mean that we should not do our best to get as close to it as we can. We can say a lot about Augustus, and we can marshal all the different types of evidence as we attempt to understand the man and his world.

Taken from Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy


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