Second Triumvirate

Dafato Team | Jun 26, 2022

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Second triumvirate is the name historians give to the alliance made on November 26, 43 BCE between Octavian Augustus, Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. This alliance lasted until 33 B.C., for ten years, but was not renewed.

Unlike the First Triumvirate, which was only a private arrangement, the Second Triumvirate was an official, albeit extra-constitutional, organization that received imperium maius.

Caesar's death opened a phase of serious internal instability in the Roman res publica. The reasons why the conspiracy against Caesar was hatched are to be found in the quasi-monarchical powers he had accumulated after his victory over Pompey. The assassins, called Caesaricides by historians, were motivated by an atavistic aversion against all forms of power of a personal and absolute kind, in the name of republican traditions and freedoms.

The limitation of the conspirators' action was the lack of a precise and coherent political design, and it was easy for the dictator's followers to put an end to their design and to force them to flee. The political scene was soon dominated by Mark Antony, Caesar's loyal and able general, who followed his fortunes throughout the conflict and in 44, the year of the conspiracy, held consular office with him. Soon his true intentions were revealed: to appropriate Caesar's political legacy and follow in his footsteps.

On the part of the Senate this was seen as a danger and a final senate-consult was therefore issued, according to which the future triumvir was declared a public enemy. Two armies were raised against him, led by the consuls of 43 Hirtius and Pansa. The clash took place in April of that year near Modena, where Decimus Brutus had barricaded himself with his forces (apparently at Octavius' suggestion). Antony got the worst of it and was forced to flee to Gaul, where he was welcomed and protected by Lepidus, who had made a levy in Citeran Spain and Narbonne Gaul. The Senate also used another weapon against the young general: Caesar's adopted son, Gaius Octavius Turinus.

The latter, at the time of the conspiracy, was in Apollonia for purposes of study and was waiting to follow him on the Parthian expedition. Back in Rome, he was appreciated for his political gifts and displayed a coolness and confidence that won him many sympathies, including those of Cicero. Of the danger posed by Octavius Antony himself realized, not least because the latter knew that the young man would be a dangerous adversary for him, not least by virtue of the fact that he was the adopted son and universal heir of Caesar. For this reason he did not fail to mock him and prevent the ratification of his adoption.

Skillful and unscrupulous, Caesar's young adopted son knew how to take advantage of the situation to impose himself on the political scene and, as the two consuls of 43 B.C. had not returned, he ran for the consulship for the following year. To the Senate's rejection (alleged because of his young age), the future emperor responded by marching on Rome with his legions, made up of Caesarian veterans loyal to him as the dictator's son. Elected by the committees, as his first act the new consul revoked the amnesty for the Caesarians and established a tribunal to judge them. Then, after having his adoption (which took place in 45) recognized and his name changed to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian, he decided to make peace with Lepidus and Antony.

The meeting between Caesar's three leading heirs was arranged by Lepidus on a small island in the Lavino River, a tributary of the Rhine River, where a memorial stone to the event still exists today, near the then Roman colony of Bononia, now Bologna. The pact, valid for a five-year period, was legalized and had institutional validity with the Lex Titia of November 27, 43 BCE. Officially the members were known as Triumviri Rei Publicae Constituendae Consulari Potestate (Triumvirs for the Constitution of the Republic with Consular Power, abbreviated as "III VIR RPC"). Suetonius tells of a curious episode that occurred on this occasion:

The agreement was the natural development to which the situation created after Caesar's death led. Antony and Octavian were the principal political heirs of the dictator killed the year before; they found themselves in common opposition to the optimates-intended to abolish Caesar's reforms-and in their willingness to hunt down the Caesaricides (who, meanwhile, with Brutus and Cassius, were organizing massive forces in the East). Meanwhile, Sextus Pompey, son of Caesar's adversary, with the surviving Pompeian forces and a powerful fleet, was holding Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica in check and using them to raid the coasts of southern Italy, spreading terror.

The agreement was especially necessary for Octavian, who wanted to avoid being caught between two fires, on one side Antony with 17 legions (including those given to him by Lepidus, his partisan) and on the other side the already mentioned Caesaricides' forces in the East. Out of the meeting came a partitioning of the provinces, initially unfavorable to him: to Antony would be due the proconsulate in Cisalpine Gaul and Comata, to Lepidus the Narbonne Gaul and Spagne, to Octavian Africa, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica.

In order to raise the necessary funds for the campaign in the East and to avenge Caesar's death, the three drew up "proscription lists" of opponents to be eliminated and thus forfeit their assets. A manhunt was then unleashed in Rome and Italy that was unparalleled and in many cases more ferocious and indiscriminate than that operated after Sulla's victory over Gaius Marius. Many were the illustrious victims: as many as 300 senators fell under the blows of the assassins and 2,000 knights followed their fate.

Among them was Cicero, to whom Antony had not forgiven the orations against him collected in the Philippics. Although Octavian was protected and encouraged by the great Latin intellectual, he did nothing to save his life. Another barbarity decided by the triumvirs was the custom of hanging from the rostrums of the forum the heads of slain enemies and giving a proportional reward to those who carried them: 25,000 denarii to freemen, 10,000 to slaves with the addition of manumission and citizenship.

The three men of the triumvirate

The three protagonists of the pact had very different personalities and, as we have seen, made the agreement out of personal convenience rather than sincere identity of views. Mark Antony was eager to pick up and continue the work already begun by Caesar: reform in a monarchical sense of the state and expand the empire eastward. After giving a public reading of the dictator's will, he knew how to use the popular wrath against the Caesars for his own ends, thus becoming the undisputed leader of the Caesarian party.

His consulship in 44 was characterized by demagogic policies and confusing legislation. He soon perceived the danger posed by the young Octavius, both as Caesar's universal heir and because he was well regarded by the optimates. Forced after Modena obtorto collo to share the political stage with his future rival, he unleashed, as we have seen, bloody reprisals against his political enemies. Octavian, Caesar's adopted son, was both astute and skillful in exploiting the confusion created by the struggles between the different parties.

Despite his dangerous parentage, he was initially seen as a champion of the optimates, to be pitted against Antony. Not surprisingly, at the Battle of Modena, he accompanied the consuls as propraetor with militias loyal to him. Soon, however, he made the aristocracy regret their choice, showing that he wanted to avenge his adoptive father and reap his political legacy. He was able to reach immediately in an unscrupulous manner the highest magistracy of the Res publica with a real coup d'état and, as we shall see, once he came into conflict with Antony, he presented himself as a champion of the mos maiorum so dear to the senatorial aristocracy, of the preservation and protection of the values of the republic and its institutions.

He was not only good at knowing his way around the political arena, but surrounded himself with able men, such as that Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa able general, who gave him his most important military successes. Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a supporter of Caesar and then of Antony soon after the Ides of March, was, on the other hand, soon a comprimario, a sidekick to his other two colleagues and in many cases unreliable. As the other triumvirs grew in personality and importance, he was increasingly relegated to the margins of the political scene.

After Philippi, which as we shall see was the final victory over the Caesaricides, he obtained only Africa. Called to support Octavian, against Sextus Pompey in Sicily (36 B.C.), he was a less than loyal ally and eventually came to side with Pompey the Great's son. Abandoned by the soldiers, he had to surrender and ask forgiveness from Octavian (by then master of the West). As punishment, he was forced to give up the eight legions that had come to Sicily in the wake of Sextus Pompey, whom he had taken in command, the magistracies entrusted to him (retaining only that of pontifex maximus, a purely honorific title), and to retire to private life at Circeo until his death (ca. 12 BC).

The pact enabled the three to take political control of Italy and the entire West. After the proscriptions, many optimates took refuge either with the Caesaricides, who were organizing a large expedition against the triumvirs, or with Sextus Pompey. The defeat of the common enemies at Philippi and Nauloco delivered the entire empire into the hands of Octavian and Antony.

Battle of Philippi

Having shown that they had no clear political plan after Caesar's elimination, the conspirators, taken by surprise by the reaction of the Caesarians, fled Italy. This was also due to the threatening attitude taken by the veterans of the newly killed dictator. They were anxious to receive compensation (i.e., the allocation of a plot of land for cultivation) for their services. Also contributing to complicate the situation for the Caesaricides was the reading of Caesar's will, which Mark Antony had made in public on the occasion of his grandiose funeral: 300 sesterces each for the veterans, plus the various provisions in favor of the veterans and the working classes.

Marcus Junius Brutus and Cassius Longinus took refuge in Macedonia, where they enlisted a massive army - 19 legions (ca. 80,000 men) - ready to cross the Adriatic. Decimus Brutus, on the other hand, took refuge in Cisalpine Gaul, assigned to him as a province to govern. After Modena, seeing the situation worsening for him by the day (both because of the mass desertion of his legionaries in favor of Octavian and because he was now isolated from the other Caesaricides), Brutus decided to move toward Macedonia, but was killed by a Gaul loyal to Antony.

Meanwhile, Antony and Octavian, while agreeing and dividing their areas of influence in the West with Lepidus, without worrying about Sextus Pompey's naval blockade, also moved 19 legions to Greece. The clash between the two armies took place in October 42 B.C. at Philippi on the Egnatia road. The battle took place in two separate phases, fought on October 3 and 23, respectively.

At the beginning of the first phase, Brutus instead achieved brilliant success over Octavian's forces. Having put the enemy to flight and won three military insignia (a sign of victory), he lingered in his camp in search of prey. Cassius, not seeing his comrade and believing him dead, took his own life. Brutus wept over Cassius's body, calling him "the last of the Romans," but prevented a public ceremony before the whole army, so as not to lower their morale. Meanwhile, the fleet that Antony had asked Cleopatra for supplies and the conquest of the port garrisoned by the enemies had withdrawn because of a heavy storm. Other sources believe that it was Brutus' hesitation that had made a victory a defeat. His men, in fact, did not pursue Octavian's men, who had plenty of time to reform. As a result of this, at the time when Octavian would take the name Augustus, becoming the first emperor in Rome's history, the saying, "Finish the battle once you've started it!" would be born.

The second clash took place on October 23, three weeks after the first. Brutus' legionaries, impatient to give battle and having no esteem for their commander, urged him to give battle to the two triumvirs, who meanwhile had deployed their forces and had begun to provoke their opponents with shouts and insults. After they had positioned themselves, one of Brutus' best officers surrendered, and the latter decided to start the fight.

Antony, during the battle, having divided his army into three parts (so, since the enemy's left wing had to necessarily proceed to the left in order for his army not to be surrounded, the center of Brutus' array had to widen and weaken in order to occupy the space left by the displacement of his fellow soldiers. An additional space that had been created between Brutus' center and his left wing was exploited by the opposing horsemen, who entered it by pushing the center toward the left wing of their own deployment, while the infantry pushed it forward.

The center then made a 90-degree fall back, to have the front facing Brutus' left wing. On the front of this division was Antony's infantry, on the left flank the cavalry, and on the right flank the infantry. The latter was at the same time opposed to the enemy's right flank, which had been entrusted to it at the beginning of the battle and on which Brutus' center had poured during the retreat. This was Antony's main strategy in this battle. Finally, Brutus's attack was repulsed and his army sent en route. Octavian's soldiers reached the gates of the enemy camp before he could close in on them. Brutus managed to retreat to the surrounding hills with the equivalent of only four legions and, seeing himself defeated, committed suicide.

The success that accrued to the Caesarians can be attributed to the fact that the enemy presented an army that was too heterogeneous and poorly amalgamated, unlike that of the triumvirs, which was more homogeneous and compact. Moreover, Antony, was a skillful strategist and knew how to maneuver his veterans, trained and at the same time attracted by the prey and riches that would open up for them in the opulent East; what could not be said of the militants in the opposing side, who were often unaware of why they were fighting, resulting in numerous desertions.

The defeat of the last Pompeians

The reprisals and vengeance of the Caesarians, as already mentioned, were cruel and bloody; many proscribed fled to Sicily, in the hands of Sextus Pompey, followed closely by many landowners dispossessed of their land, straggling slaves, and Pompeian veterans still circulating in the empire. Meanwhile, the political scene had fallen into the hands of Antony and Octavian, who divided the territory of the state into zones of influence: the superintendence of the East and Narbonne Gaul to the former, the Spagne and the care of Italy (though formally undivided among the triumvirs) to Octavian, who soon had control of the entire West.

Lepidus, on the other hand, was relegated to the role of comprimario, with the entrustment of Africa and the retention of his position as pontifex maximus. This sidelining of him was also due to his ambiguous attitude in the course of recent events. Antony, intent on avenging (as was in Caesar's plans before his death) the snub suffered by Crassus at the battle of Carre against the Parthians, remained in the East for a long time, extorting and harassing cities and provinces guilty of supporting Brutus and Cassius. In this part of the empire he lived an "inimitable life" of divinity on earth together with his mistress, the beautiful and charming Cleopatra.

Octavian, on the other hand, found himself having to manage the most difficult part of the post-Philippian period: settling and distributing the promised lands in Italy to the nearly 180,000 veterans of the Caesarian party. He therefore chose eighteen cities punishable for their disloyalty to the triumvirate (among them are to be mentioned, from north to south, Trieste, Rimini, Cremona, Pisa, Lucca, Fermo, Benevento, Lucera, and Vibo Valentia), confiscated the land of the inhabitants, and distributed it to his own. The operation was carried out indiscriminately, and estates of small and medium-sized landowners who were not at all involved with the Pompeian or Caesaricidal parties were also expropriated. Notable among these was the despoliation of the property of Virgil's family in Mantua, a city loyal to the triumvirs but affected because the agro of nearby unfaithful Cremona was not enough to settle the new settlers.

As a result of these measures, strong discontent arose against the young triumvir, fomented also by Lucius Antony, Mark's brother, and his sister-in-law Fulvia, who were interested in making matters difficult for Octavian. Exacerbating the moment was also the naval blockade of southern Italy operated by Sextus Pompey's fleet, which made it difficult for annonary supplies to Rome. For these reasons riots broke out in the Urbe, caused in part by the financial crisis that had affected the lower classes; dissatisfaction with expropriations throughout Italy was used by Lucius Antony and Fulvia as a reason to take up arms and, disposing of Antony's legions, march against Octavian.

The latter was ready and, thanks to his valiant general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, defeated the conspirators near Perugia (winter 41-40 BC). Antony, recalled to the West by Italian events, came to Brindisi with a powerful fleet. Here, thanks to the intercession of General Asinius Pollonius, Maecenas, and Agrippa, a fratricidal clash was avoided, unwanted even by the legionaries themselves, reluctant to fight against comrades of many battles. An agreement was then reached between the two contenders that reaffirmed the de facto situation: to one the East, to the other the West. In Italy, held in a neutral position between the two contenders, they were given license to enlist an equal number of forces.

A further agreement was reached by the three with Lucius Domitius Enobarbus, a valiant Pompeian general and Nero's great-great-grandfather, and with Sextus Pompey. Thus peace and concord seemed to have been restored in the Republic, so much so that the event was celebrated by Virgil in the Fourth Eclogue, where a new era of peace was heralded with the birth of a puer (what medieval Christian commentators would have interpreted as a premonition of the advent of Christ), that is, the son of Pollonius, a friend of Antony and promoter of the arrangement. Soon, however, the situation degenerated: Sextus Pompey, feeling defrauded of the promises made to him by Antony, resumed infesting the Italian coasts.

Octavian responded by encircling the Straits of Messina with his fleet, but when his forces attempted to land they were severely defeated. In 37 B.C. the two triumvirs met at Tarentum. Antony, leaving Octavian 120 ships to reinforce his 300 units, allowed Octavian to confront Pompey in front of Naulochus, overcome him, and force him to flee to the East. On this occasion the city of Messina was severely sacked. As a result of the fact that Lepidus had once again held an equivocal attitude, finally turning against Octavian, the latter, after his victory, punished him by removing him from Africa: left with only the office of pontifex maximus, he was confined to Circei, where he spent the rest of his days.

The elimination of the last Pompeians gathered around the figure of Sextus Pompeius and the marginalization of Lepidus were the last episodes in the long political contest that preceded the clash between Antony and Octavian. As we have seen, the two soon rivaled each other in contending for Caesar's political legacy. Only Lepidus' good offices and circumstances pushed the two to overlook their mutual hatreds and allowed them to arrive at a mutually beneficial political alliance.

After the meeting at Tarentum in 37 BCE, the empire was divided between the two triumvirs: to Octavian fell the superintendence of the West, while to Antony the rich and coveted East. Also in the Apulian city, the two future rivals agreed that the exceptional triumviral powers recognized by the lex Titia should cease in 32 B.C. and that the following year they would hold the consulship as colleagues; but this pact was not respected, as the final rupture between them was consummated, caused by the struggle for power waged by all means, including defamation. An example of this, in 32 B.C., was the attempted incrimination of Octavian by the consul Sosius, a partisan of Antony. The future emperor, however, reacted promptly to the accusations and had his legionaries surround the curia; the consul, finding himself in difficulty with his colleague Gnaeus Domitius, also of Antony's party, fled to the East.

At the same time, Octavian himself used every means to make his opponent look bad by making public his will, in which he asked to be buried in Egypt. This was unacceptable to the traditionalist senatorial aristocracy, which-in a session of the senate-declared him disqualified from all power. Caesar's son had exploited his former ally's abandonment of traditional customs, the "inimitable life" as a Ptolemaic ruler he led in Egypt, and his supposed intention to want to make Alexandria the new capital of the empire. In the will, however, there was also a truth that was very inconvenient for him: from the union between Caesar and Cleopatra was born a son, Caesarion, who would have every right to demand his father's inheritance and frustrate the propaganda of Octavian, who presented himself as the only true successor to the great leader.

Thus, a strong contrast was created between the two former triumvirates, who personified two models artfully disseminated by Octavian's propaganda: the austere and traditionalist West as opposed to the weak and corrupt East. In truth, if Octavian had been a true follower of Caesar's thought, he would have acted as Antony did, convinced that the Roman-Italic civilization should be framed within the Eastern-Hellenistic civilization, in many ways infinitely superior. But the future emperor was a politician very adept at understanding and pandering to the moods of the Roman population, anchored in the values of the mos maiorum, recognized not only by the senatorial aristocracy but also by the popular classes themselves.

The two, now close to confrontation, while no longer exercising triumviral powers, demanded an oath of allegiance from the allies of the res publica: one from those in the west, the other from those in the east. Octavian, by the way, received the near-unanimous consent of the Senate, while the minority who did not want to recognize him took refuge in Alexandria. After years of great turbulence and fratricidal civil wars, hopes for the final pacification of the state were turned to him.

It was not easy for Octavian to raise the resources to enlist, but in the end he was able to deploy about 80,000 men and 400 medium-sized ships; Antony, on the other hand, could count on 120,000 infantrymen and about 500 large naval units. The two sides faced each other on September 2, 31 B.C., at Actium, a promontory at the entrance to the Gulf of Ambracia (modern-day Arta) in Epirus. It is not known why Antony preferred a clash on the sea rather than an attack with land forces; the fact is probably due to his lack of confidence in the rather motley infantry.

Success accrued to Octavian's forces, well led by the loyal general Agrippa; the precipitous flight of Antony and Cleopatra, who had followed him into battle, hastened Octavian's success. The naval victory was followed by the land victory, when the army surrendered to Caesar's son after waiting in vain for its commander. On this occasion there was a great transfer of forces from one camp to the other. The fact, which was quite usual at the time, can also be ascribed to the ability of individual commanders to flatter and persuade (even with promises of greater benefits) the opposing soldiers: as Caesar had done in his time with the Pompeians who surrendered to him, so did Octavian on this occasion.

After Actium, the future princeps traversed Greece, stopping in major cities; when he finally reached Alexandria, Antony had already taken his own life along with his beloved Cleopatra. Egypt became the victor's personal property and remained so in imperial times, while his government was entrusted to a procurator of equestrian rank. After lingering in the East and rearranging his internal organization, now sole master of Rome, Octavian returned to the capital and celebrated three triumphs there: one over the Pannonians, one over the Dalmatians, and the other for victories at sea and the conquest of Egypt. He could not celebrate success over Antony and his other opponents because they were Roman citizens, and triumph was reserved for victory over foreigners.

The dawn of the first century B.C. saw the res publica now unable to manage with its obsolete institutions the enormous empire created through centuries of warfare. That of this century was a troubled history marked by the rise of elements and trends that led to the end of the republican regime and the emergence of a new political system. The change may not have been inevitable, but certainly the skill and prudence shown by Octavian contributed to it. While presenting himself as a champion of the republican tradition and mos maiorum, he astutely emptied the old magistracies of any real value. In 31 B.C. and in the following years he led the state by holding the office of consul and triumvirate regularly and seamlessly (although, after the second five-year extension, he was to relinquish the powers granted by that office).

Symptomatic of the regime change and the centralization of power in his hands was the recognition, even before Actium, in 36 B.C., of his sacrosanctitas, that is, the inviolability of his body under penalty of death, a characteristic of the tribunes of the plebs. Six years later he saw himself recognized as having another important aspect of tribunicia potestas: ius auxilii (i.e., the ability to give aid and possibly asylum in his own home to a plebeian). By this he became patron of all plebs and made his home inviolable by anyone, including the public force. Another honor bestowed on him in 32, before the clash with Antony, was the oath of allegiance by all of Italy.

In 28, after his return from the East, the people greeted him as princeps, a prestigious qualification that was later clarified into princeps senatus, that is, the one who had the right to speak first in the Senate. As a result of the fact that his opinion, because of the military forces at his disposal, was unquestionable and decisive, the function of the assize as the fulcrum of political power was severely limited. In addition to this he was granted the perpetual title of imperator.

His was thus a mixture of powers, including the regal powers proper to the consulship, proconsulate, and triumvirate; of the prerogatives of the tribunes; and of other honors and recognitions that gave him moral authority and prestige and helped make him a primus over all. Propagandistically, he had also presented himself as a peacemaker of the state; in fact, after Actium, he had the temple of Janus in Rome closed, an ancient symbolic gesture marking the end of a conflict and the beginning of a period of peace.

The changes made were obviously preceded by careful consultation of the most trusted advisers; there were those who, like Maecenas, wanted the establishment of a pure monarchy and those who, like Agrippa, wanted a return to the republic. Octavian, a careful connoisseur of tempers and mindful of the mistakes made by his great adoptive father, opted for a middle way: centralizing all powers in his hands, while making himself guarantor and guardian of the res publica and the smooth functioning of its institutions.

The final act of his political hegemony was, in 27 B.C., the recognition by the Senate in two sittings, of the title of augustus, that is, of a man worthy of veneration and honor, which sanctioned his sacred position founded on the consensus universorum of the Senate and the Roman people. On that occasion he used the stratagem of remitting all the powers vested in him, retaining only those of consul; powers which, after an equally feigned insistence of the senators, were not only reconfirmed, but he was also given the imperium proconsulare-initially of ten years' duration, later for life-so that he might pacify the frontiers; an imperium that was valid for Rome itself and for Italy, traditionally outside the jurisdiction of proconsuls.

After that date Octavian called himself Augustus, and is remembered as such today. Further attribute and new honor bestowed on him was the assignment of tribunicia potestas in its entirety (23 B.C.), renewed annually. Perhaps so as not to arouse the rancor of those nostalgic for the republic, or perhaps because they were unnecessary, he renounced other powers, such as the dictatorship-which he considered contra morem maiorum and outlawed by Antony, certainly also because such a position reminded him of Caesar's negative experience; that of curator legum et morum; the censoria potestas; and the single consulship for life. Instead, he accepted the office of pontifex maximus (12 B.C.), held until his death by Lepidus, after being pushed aside by him. Finally, in 2 BC, he was also given the title of pater patriae.

Octavian Augustus' victory at Actium was thus not only the end of a turbulent and bloody period in Roman history, but represented an important turning point in the history of the Roman state. The regime born of the changes at the end of the first century B.C. is commonly called the empire, while historiography prefers to use the term principate (derived precisely from the title granted to Augustus and inherited by his successors) for the first period, to mark the not-yet monarchical-absolute character of the new course. When, slowly over time, the autocratic and despotic aspect of imperial power prevailed, the term dominated was used, especially from the time of Diocletian (284-305). For the overall historical picture, what matters most is the fact that from Augustus onward it will be individual men, with the exercise of their enormous powers and with their personalities, who will characterize the political, military, and social life of the Roman state, and no longer an oligarchy, closed and bound to its own moral and political traditions and united in a collegial body such as the Senate was.

AA.VV. History, vol. 3, Rome: from the origins to Augustus, 2004, Rome, La biblioteca di Repubblica.


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