20120224-clothes Costumes_of_All_Nations_(1882) 4.jpg

Mary Beard, a classics professor at Cambridge University, wrote in a BBC History online article, “In 133 BC, Rome was a democracy. Little more than a hundred years later it was governed by an emperor. This imperial system has become, for us, a by-word for autocracy and the arbitrary exercise of power. At the end of the second century BC the Roman people was sovereign. True, rich aristocrats dominated politics. In order to become one of the annually elected 'magistrates' (who in Rome were concerned with all aspects of government, not merely the law) a man had to be very rich. Even the system of voting was weighted to give more influence to the votes of the wealthy. Yet ultimate power lay with the Roman people. Mass assemblies elected the magistrates, made the laws and took major state decisions. Rome prided itself on being a 'free republic' and centuries later was the political model for the founding fathers of the United States. [Source: Mary Beard, BBC History, BBC, Last Updated March 29, 2011]

By 14 AD, when the first emperor Augustus died, popular elections had all but disappeared. Power was located not in the old republican assembly place of the forum, but in the imperial palace. The assumption was that Augustus's heirs would inherit his rule over the Roman world - and so they did.

This was nothing short of a revolution, brought about through a century of constant civil strife, and sometimes open warfare. This ended when Augustus - 'Octavian' as he was then called - finally defeated his last remaining rivals Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC and established himself on the throne. Why did this revolution happen?

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Books: “Rome in the Late Republic” by Mary Beard and M Crawford, (2nd ed, Duckworth, 1999); “Et tu Brute: Caesar's Murder and Political Assassination” by G Woolf, (Profile Books, 2006); “Augustan Rome” by A Wallace-Hadrill, (Bristol Classical Press, Duckworth, 1998); “Cambridge Companion to Republican Rome” by H Flower (ed), (CUP, 2004); “Marcus Tullius Cicero, Select Letters” (Penguin, 2005)

Roman Republic

Rome was a village and the Romans were one of many Italic tribes around 500 BC

The Romans established a republic in 509 B.C. The quasi-representative form of government during the Republic era was comprised of bicameral legislature with: 1) a “comitia” , an assembly of representatives made up of elected male citizens, many of them military men; and 2) "the Senate and the People of Rome,” made up of representatives elected to one-year terms. Most of the Senate members were patricians, members of upper classes. The seat of the government was in the "capitol." The Republican form of government endured for 460 years (509 to 49 B.C) until Julius Caesar absolved it.

Starting in the third century B.C., the Senate was the most powerful political body in Rome and it stayed that way for 150 years until Caesar seized control in 48B.C. and established himself as a dictatorial emperor, a trend that continued until Rome fell.

The Senate consisted of hundreds of members who served for life. It was sort of like the House of Lords in the British Parliament and senators were required by law to have a large fortune. "Not unexpectedly," wrote historian Lionel Casson, "they traditionally came from a circumscribed number of famous old families. For centuries this narrow circle of wealthy aristocrats was the establishment, Elections simply determined which among them would fill the higher offices and whose sons would get the lower."

During the third and fourth centuries B.C. politics was a gentlemanly affair. There were also people's assemblies that passed legislation and administered jurisdictions. Later these popular assemblies "fell into disuse" and power was centered in the Senate. [Source: Lionel Casson, Smithsonian]

Book: “The Twelve Caesars” by Michael Grant.

Decline of the Republic

“Many Romans themselves put the key turning point in 133 BC,” Beard wrote. “This was the year when a young aristocrat, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, held the office of 'tribune' (a junior magistracy which had originally been founded to protect the interests of the common people). As one ancient writer put it, this was when 'daggers first entered the forum'. [Source: Mary Beard, BBC History, BBC, Last Updated March 29, 2011]

The course of events is clear enough. Gracchus proposed to distribute to poor citizens stretches of state-owned land in Italy which had been illegally occupied by the rich. But instead of following the usual practice of first consulting the 'senate' (a hugely influential advisory committee made up of ex-magistrates), he presented his proposal directly to an assembly of the people. In the process, he deposed from office another tribune who opposed the distribution and argued that his reforms should be funded from the money that came from the new Roman imperial province of Asia.

Roman Republic in 44 BC
Gracchus's land bill was passed. But when he tried to stand for election for another year's term as tribune (a radical step - as one of the republican principles was that each office should be held for one year only), he was murdered by a posse of senators. Gracchus's motivation is much less clear. Some modern historians have seen him as a genuine social reformer, responding to the distress of the poor. Others have argued that he was cynically exploiting social concerns to gain power for himself. Whatever his motives were, his career crystallised many of the main issues that were to underlie the revolutionary politics of the next hundred years.

In 133 B.C., and the years that followed," Lionel Casson wrote, "the situation changed radically. First reformers broke away from the Establishment. Then ambitious figures from outside it...made their way into politics by getting the rank and fill behind them. Reformers and new men not only entered contests for higher office, but succeeded in bypassing the Senate by resuscitating the long-dormant people's assemblies. [Source: Lionel Casson , Smithsonian magazine]

The events of 133 BC were followed by a series of intensifying crises. In 123-122 BC, Tiberius's brother Gaius was elected to the tribunate, introduced a whole package of radical legislation, including state-subsidised corn rations - and was also murdered. The original republican government with democratic features added in 4th and 5th centuries B.C. slowly disappeared as a strong central government was needed to maintain order in the face of class conflict, slave revolts (135, 75), murders, assassinations, social reforms, and civil war (Caesar vs. Pompey, Caesar’s assassins vs. triumvirates, Octavian vs. Antony).

Challenge of the Roman Army

Mary Beard wrote in a BBC History online article, “The consequences of Rome's growing empire were crucial. Many of the poor had fallen into poverty after serving for long periods with armies overseas - and returning to Italy to find their farmland taken over by wealthier neighbours. How were the needs of such soldiers to be met? Who in Rome was to profit from its empire, which already stretched from Spain to the other end of the Mediterranean? [Source: Mary Beard, BBC History, BBC, Last Updated March 29, 2011]

Tiberius's decision to use the revenues of Asia for his land distribution was a provocative claim - that the poor as well as the rich should enjoy the fruits of Rome's conquests. But Tiberius's desire to stand for a second tribunate also raised questions of personal political dominance. The state had few mechanisms to control men who wanted to break out of the carefully regulated system of 'power sharing' that characterised traditional Republican politics.

20120224-Costumes_of_All_Nations_(1882) 59.jpg This became an increasingly urgent issue as leading men in the first century BC, such as Julius Caesar, were sometimes given vast power to deal with the military threats facing Rome from overseas - and then proved unwilling to lay down that power when they returned to civilian life. There seemed to be no solution for curbing them apart from violence.

At the end of the century Gaius Marius, a stunningly successful soldier, defeated enemies in Africa, Gaul and finally in Italy, when Rome's allies in Italy rebelled against her.He held the highest office of state, the consulship, no fewer than seven times, an unprecedented level of long-term dominance of the political process.

Marius then came into violent conflict with Lucius Cornelius Sulla, another Roman warlord, who after victories in the east actually marched on Rome in 82 BC and established himself 'dictator'. This had been an ancient Roman office designed to give a leading politician short terms powers in an emergency. Sulla held it for two years, in the course of which he had well over a thousand of his political opponents viciously put to death. Unlike Julius Caesar, however, who was to become dictator 40 years later, Sulla retired from the office and died in his bed.


Cicero (106-43 B.C.) was a famous Roman statesman, orator and writer known for his rhetorical style and eloquence. The scholar Micheal Lind wrote in the Washington Post, “No great mind in Western history “not Socrates, Plato or Aristotle — has influenced so many other great minds, Ciceronian eloquence was incorporated into Christianity by St. Augustine and St. Jerome...Machiavelli sought to revive the the republican political tradition of Cicero...The United States — more than even France — is a Ciceronian state.”


Cicero’s ideas were important in the development of American democracy. For a long time schoolchildren were required to memorize his speeches. Many that had to do this recall Cicero as a pompous, long-winded bore. Now he is all but forgotten.

Cicero was born in 106 B.C. in a small town, and through his powers of persuasion and without much money, he rose to the highest echelons of Roman government. By the age of 35 Cicero had established himself as the premier courtroom orator of his time.

Cicero was tall and thin. He was a devoted father and enjoyed collecting books and paintings. He was committed to restoring traditional political values but was not great purveyor of the values he extolled. He once was charged with rigging a provincial lottery and other times was accused of hiring street toughs to settle matters. He divorced the woman who bore his children so he could marry a teenager from a wealthy, influential family.

Book: “Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician” by Anthony Everitt (Random House, 2002)

Cicero’s Political Career

Cicero became the first member his family to become a Senator. He soon established himself in the Roman Senate as its master orator and quickly rose through the ranks. In 63 B.C. he took the position of the consulship, the highest Roman office. The day before he had escaped an assassination attempt at the hands of conspirators plotting to overthrow the government.

After taking his seat Cicero as consul, he rose up and addressed his main political rival, Catiline, whom Cicero had just defeated in an election for the consultship: “How long, O Catiline will you abuse your patience? To what lengths will your unbridled audacity carry you? Do you not see that your conspiracy is known to all here? Long ago, Catiline, you ought to have been led forth to execution.” Catiline tried to reply. But he was drowned out with cries of “traitor.” As he and his followers fled. Some of the followers were grabbed by a mob and killed. Catiline died not long after in a battle.

Cicero was at the height of his power at this time but his reign was brief. He overextended himself by using his power in the Senate to issue death threats that were carried out. He was charged with misuse of power and was banished in 58 B.C. He was allowed to return the next year but never again had the same power or influence.

Cicero did little of consequence during Caesar’s rise to power and was unable to do much to halt the demise of the republic. He had a bit of a swan song after Caesar assassination when he placed himself at the head of the Republican party and denounced Marc Antony in a series of famous speech called the “Philippics.” When Antony became leader he had Cicero executed for these speeches. According to Plutarch Cicero was taken by a death squad as he attempted to flee to Macedonia. His head and hands were cut off displayed in the Forum, where Antony’s wife Fulvia — who Cicero said Antony married for her money — used her hairpins to pierce the tongue of the man who so caustically denounced her husband.

Spartacus and the Great Slave Rebellion

Spartacus (died 71 B.C.) was a slave from Thrace trained to be a gladiator who launched a slave rebellion that threatened Rome. Spartacus left behind no testimony of his own. Most of the sources that wrote about him and his rebellions where upper class members who regarded slaves as subhuman and viewed a slave rebellion as a horror of horrors. Tom Holland, an author of books on Rome, wrote in the Washington Post, “Despite the terror he inspired, there was a quality to Spartacus that even the Romans seemed sneakily to have admired. Whether he was overpowering his guards or putting consuls to flight to killing his horse to deprive himself of any means of flight when he finally faced defeat he lived “fortissime” — as a man of exceptional courage.”

From what little we know Spartacus fought gladiator battles mostly in the Pompeii and Naples area. Seizing an opportunity, he and 78 other slaves, armed only with kitchen utensils, broke out of their barracks and escaped from a gladiator training center in Capua. Spartacus launched a rebellion from a base on Mt. Vesuvius. He and his army of runaway slaves grew and ravaged Italy for three years from 73 to 71 B.C. .

The slave army swelled to 100,000 to 120,000 men. They fought the Roman legions, defeating one army after another that was sent to subdue them. A famous poem by Elijah Kellog goes: “If ye are men — follow me!...if we must fight, let us fight for ourselves. If we must slaughter, let us slaughter our oppressors!If we must die, let it be under the clear sky, by the bright waters, in noble honorable battle!”

Spartacus was finally defeated by the combined armies of Pompey and Crassus. Spartacus was killed charging the Roman general who was leading the campaign against him. He and 6,000 of his followers were probably not crucified on crosses that lined the Appian Way for more than a 100 miles as is described in some stories and depicted in Stanley Kubrik film.

Spartacus became a symbol to what slaves and slaveowners feared most. Historians and observers have wondered what his motivations were: whether he was fighting for principal or freedom or was simply trying to grab his share of the loot. Barry Strauss, author of a book on the Spartacus wars, wrote that perhaps he died for “honor, power, vengeance, loot and even the favor of the gods.”

Plutarch is the main source for what little we know about Spartacus. He said Spartacus was “not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding and in gentleness superior to his condition.” Plutarch also provides a brief account of the ludus, or gladiator gym, where Spartacus was imprisoned.

Book: “The Spartacus War” by Barry Strauss (Simon & Schuster, 2009). Film: “Spartacus” (1960) directed by Stanley Kubrik with Kirk Douglas as Spartacus. The film was based on Howard Fast’s 1951 novel, which was in part an allegory denouncing McCarthyism. One of of the most scenes in the film is the “I’m Spartacus!” moment, when all the movie slaves claim to be the Kirk Douglas character.

Pompey Versus Caesar

Mary Beard wrote in a BBC History online article, “The middle years of the first century BC were marked by violence in the city, and fighting between gangs supporting rival politicians and political programmes. The two protagonists were Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus ('Pompey the Great', as he was called, after Alexander the Great) and Julius Caesar. Originally allies, they became bitter enemies. Both had conquered vast tracts of territory: Pompey in what is now Turkey, Caesar in France. Caesar promoted radical policies in the spirit of Tiberius Gracchus; Pompey had the support of the traditionalists. [Source: Mary Beard, BBC History, BBC, Last Updated March 29, 2011]

Historians in both the ancient and modern world have devoted enormous energy to tracking the precise stages by which these two men came head-to-head in civil war. For much of this period we can actually follow the daily course of events thanks to the surviving letters of a contemporary politician, Marcus Tullius Cicero.

But the fact is that, given the power each had accrued and their entrenched opposition, war between them was almost inevitable. It broke out in 49 BC. By the end of 48 BC, Pompey was dead (beheaded as he tried to land in Egypt) and Caesar was left - to all intents and purposes - as the first emperor of Rome.

But not in name. Using the old title of 'dictator', he notoriously received the kind of honours that were usually reserved for the gods. He also embarked on another programme of reform including such radical measures as the cancellation of debts and the settlement of landless veteran soldiers.He did not, however, have long to effect change (perhaps his most lasting innovation was his reform of the calendar and the introduction of the system of 'leap years' that we still use today). For in 44 BC he too was murdered by a posse of senators, in the name of 'liberty'.

Not much 'liberty' was to follow. Instead there was another decade of civil war as Caesar's supporters first of all battled it out with his assassins, and when they had been finished off, fought among themselves. There was no other major player left when in 31 BC Octavian (Caesar's nephew and adopted son) defeated Antony at a naval battle near Actium in northern Greece.

Caesar Crosses the Rubicon

After Julius Caesar finished subduing Gaul in 51 B.C., he defied the Republican tradition of victorious Roman generals not being allowed to return to Rome with their armies out of fear they would try to overthrow the government, which is exactly what Caesar did.

While Caesar was away in Gaul, Crassus was killed and Pompey became leader. Pompey wielded great power and declared Caesar a public enemy and ordered him to disband his army. Caesar refused. When he moved his army from Gaul into Rome’s formal territory, it was interpreted as a declaration of war against Rome. Caesar reached the border of greater Rome at the Rubicon River. He then he plunged his horse in the water, shouting , “The die is caste.”

By crossing the Rubicon Caesar declared war on the political establishment of his day. For many historians it marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. To this day “crossing the Rubicon” describes a decision from which there is no return.

By crossing the Rubicon Caesar gambled that he could not only beat his military rival Pompey but also could also outmaneuver conservative politicians like Cicero and Cato. Some historians say Caesar’s move marked the end of period in which foreign adventures created larger armies and more powerful generals and it was only a matter of time until they threatened the political status quo.

Book: “Rubicon — The Last Years of the Roman Republic” by Tom Holland (Doubleday, 2004)

Roman Civil Wars and the Beginning of Roman Emperor Under Caesar

Caesar marched into Rome with his army in and seized control of the government and the treasury and declared himself dictator while Pompey, in command of the Roman navy, fled to Greece. Five years of civil war followed.

Caesar defeated Pompey in a series of land battles that took place throughout the Roman empire over a four years period. After Caesar led a successful campaign in Iberia (Spain), he defeated Pompey in Greece. Pompey fled to Egypt. The Ptolemies refused to provide quarter for a loser and had him executed and cut off his head.

This made Caesar the unchallenged leader. Caesar said, “It is more important for the state that I should survive...I have long had my fill of power and glory; but should anything happen to me, Rome will enjoy no peace.”

Caesar’s campaign in Gaul allowed Rome to claim France, the Netherlands and Belgium. In campaigns early in the Civil Wars period he claimed Portugal, Spain, and Greece. With Egypt under the control of Cleopatra, Caesar set his sights on the Middle East. After annihilating the Parthians in Pontus and Zela in the Middle East in 47 B.C., Caesar sent home the immortal message, "”Veni, vidi, vici” ("I came, I saw, I conquered"). This victory allowed him to claim Syria, Israel, and western Turkey. Afterwards he returned home to Rome to fight another rival, Cato, who had gone to North Africa to raise an army to challenge Caesar. That didn’t happen. Instead, Caesar sent his army to Africa and crushed Cato.

In 46 B.C., the last of Pompey’s forces were defeated in Spain. With the civil wars over Caesar was the unchallenged leader of Rome. In the meantime Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands Belgium, Italy, Greece, Syria, Israel, western Turkey, and northern Libya were added to Rome under Caesar, making it a truly great empire.

Augustus, Emperor

Augustus cameo Mary Beard wrote in a BBC History online article, “During his 40-year rule, Octavian established the political structure that was to be the basis of Roman imperial government for the next four centuries. Some elements of the old republican system, such as magistracies, survived in name at least. But they were in the gift of the emperor ( princeps in Latin). [Source: Mary Beard, BBC History, BBC, Last Updated March 29, 2011]

He also directly controlled most of the provinces of the Roman world through his subordinates, and he nationalised the army to make it loyal to the state and emperor alone. No longer was it to be possible for generals, like Pompey or Caesar, to enter the political fray with their troops behind them.

There was a good deal of clever spin here. The princeps rebranded himself, getting rid of the name 'Octavian', and the past associations of civil war, and called himself 'Augustus' instead - an invented name which meant something like 'blessed by the gods'. No less important, like many autocrats since, he invested heavily in reshaping the city of Rome with massive building projects advertising his rule, while poets sang the praises of him and the new Rome. He spared no effort promoting his family as a future imperial dynasty.

Augustus was both canny and lucky. When he died in 14 AD, aged well over 70, he was succeeded by his stepson, Tiberius. By then the idea of the 'free republic' was just the romantic pipe-dream of a few nostalgics.

Roman Emperor Worship and Deification

Emperor worship was common in Rome. Starting with Augustus (27 B.C.-14 AD) emperors that considered themselves gods took over the empire. The Roman emperors seemed to believe in their divinity and they demanded that their subjects worship them. Marcellus was honored with a festival. Flaminius was made a priest for three hundred years. Ephesus had a shrine for Serilius Isauricus. Antony and Cleopatra referred to themselves as Dionysus and Osiris and named their children Sun and Moon. Caligula and Nero demanded to be worshiped like gods in their lifetime. And Vespian said on his deathbed "Oh dear, I'm afraid I'm becoming a God."

Describing the deification of Emperor Septimius Severus in A.D. 211, the Greek historian Herodian wrote: "It is a Roman custom to give divine status to those emperors who die with heirs to succeed them. This ceremony is called deification. Public mourning, with a mixture of festive and religious ritual, is proclaimed throughout the city, and the body of the dead is buried in the normal way with a costly funeral.

Caesars deification
"Then they make an exact wax replica of the man, which they put on a huge ivory bed strewn with gold-threaded coverings, raised high up in the entrance to the palace. This image, in the deathly palace, rests there like a sick man...the whole Senate sitting on the left, dressed in black, while on the right are all women who can claim special honors...This continues for seven days, during each of which doctors came and approach the bed, take a look at the supposed invalid and announce a daily deterioration in his condition.”

“When at last the news is given that he is dead, the end of the bier is raised on the shoulders of the noblest members of Equestrian Order and chosen young Senators, carried along the Sacred Way, and placed in the Forum Romanum...a chorus of children from the noblest and most respected families stands facing a body of women selected on merit. Each group sings hymns and songs.”

“After this the bier is raised and carried outside the city walls to a square structure filled with firewood and "covered with golden garments, ivory decorations and rich pictures." On top of the structure are five more structures that are progressively smaller. “The whole thing was often five or six stories tall.”

"When the bier has been taken to the second story and put inside, aromatic herbs and incense of every kind produced on earth, together with flowers, grasses and juices collected for their smell, and brought and poured in heaps...When the pile of aromatic material is very high and the whole space filled...The whole equestrian Order rides round...Chariots also circle in the same formation, the charioteers dressed in purple and carrying images with the masks of famous Roman generals and emperors."

"The heir to the throne takes a brand and sets it to every building . All the spectators crowd in and add to the flame. Everything is very easily and readily consumed...From the highest and smallest story...an eagle is released and carried up into the sky with the flames. The Romans believe the bird bears the soul of the emperor from earth to heaven. Thereafter the dead emperor is worshipped with the rest of the gods."

Roman Emperor Succession

Despite the relative stability of the Roman Empire the succession from one emperor to another was often a complicated and messy affair. Most of the time the emperorship was passed on from one family member to another (such as among the Julio-Claudians and Severans). Several emperors who had no son chose their political heirs by adopting them. Other times power was seized through battles or other forms of violence. Once it was even sold to the highest bidder. Adopted emperors generally served Rome better than emperors who were blood relatives.

Roman Emperor AD 41 by Alma Tadema (1871)

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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