Demetrius Resurgent

THE EARLY HELLENISTIC period is studded with extraordinary personalities, but none of their stories is more amazing than that of Demetrius the Besieger over the next few years. It simply should not have happened. After Ipsus, the Antigonid cause seemed hopeless: Antigonus was dead and Demetrius in flight, his forces few and scattered. But then, if anyone was going to stage a remarkable recovery, it would be Demetrius, the most energetic and flamboyant of the kings. Within seven years, he had seized the throne of Macedon and, even if unrealistically, revived his hopes of imperial power.

It may be that some of our amazement would be mitigated if we could fill more of the gaps in the record. The narrative of the historian Diodorus of Sicily has sustained us so far, but his account ends on the eve of the battle of Ipsus, and the rest of his history, as of all others of the period, is lost. We are condemned to try to piece the picture together out of incomplete and often disparate fragments—of literature, and of archaeological and epigraphic data. Informed guesswork is sometimes the way forward. At least in Demetrius’s case some of the problems are offset by the fact that he earned a Life in Plutarch’s collection. But Plutarch was a biographer, not a historian, and he chose as his subjects men who could serve as paradigms to emulate or avoid. For Plutarch, Demetrius was a model of wasted talent.


Ipsus was a critical battle, but only in a counterfactual sense: if Antigonus had won, there would have been little to stop him achieving his ambition of ruling all Alexander’s empire, or at least of bequeathing that distinct possibility to his son. But the fact is that Antigonus lost, and so Ipsus was critical only in that it stopped him. In other respects, little changed. True, ever since Alexander’s death, warfare had been given its impetus because someone aspired to rule over the entire empire: Perdiccas at first, and then Antigonus. After Ipsus there was at least the possibility of less warfare and more consolidation, so that a balance of power could emerge, but that did not happen immediately. It is illusory to think that Antigonus’s death “marks the final passing of the idea of an empire reviving that of Alexander.”1 The remaining Successors, and Demetrius above all, still entertained imperialist ambitions, as we shall see. They did not see Antigonus’s death as ending grand imperialist dreams; they saw it as creating space for theirdreams. But first they had some consolidating to do. All Ipsus did was slow things down for a while.

After the battle, “the victorious kings sliced up Antigonus’s domain like an enormous carcass, each taking his portion.”2 The prisoners of war, and the three thousand talents Antigonus had brought from Cilicia, were divided among the victorious kings, but it was by partitioning the Antigonid realms that they made really significant gains.

Lysimachus, who had commanded the coalition forces, was the biggest winner, since he was awarded all of Asia Minor up to the Halys River. Asia Minor was not a whole, however. There were independent cities such as Heraclea, and the princelings of Cappadocia had taken advantage of the constant warfare to gain a kind of independence. The countries on the south coast of the Black Sea, protected by the sea on one side and formidable mountains on the other, had never been fully under Macedonian control, if at all. Bithynia had always been independent, and it is testimony to the survival skills of its ruler, Zipoetes, that he held his territory for forty-seven years, from 327 until his death in 280. A noble Persian called Mithradates had recently established himself in Pontus. Both Bithynia and Pontus turned out to be successful kingdoms, which lasted until, respectively, 74 and 63 BCE. Paphlagonia too had attained a similar kind of independence, but Lysimachus soon brought it within his sway. All these dynasts valued their independence, but had to accept the fact that they were surrounded by bigger fish than themselves.

Essentially, Lysimachus now held, in addition to Thrace, pretty much the same territory that Antigonus had held in 318, before his expansion eastward. It had been the foundation of Antigonus’s power; it could do the same for Lysimachus too. He was only sixty, or a little over; he had some time. His most valuable new possessions were the Asiatic Greek cities, famed for their wealth (from both commerce and natural resources) and rich in manpower. After Ipsus, many cities were cowed into surrendering of their own accord, but Antigonid garrisons remained in Ephesus, Miletus, and elsewhere. No doubt many cities had built or repaired their walls over the past few years of peace in their land, in preparation for just such an emergency. Lysimachus’s first job was the subjugation of these cities, to consolidate his hold over Asia Minor and gain the ability to exploit its wealth. It took a few years of almost unremitting effort.

Cassander (who traveled from Macedon to Asia Minor to attend the post-battle conference) gained nothing, but Greece was left vulnerable by Demetrius’s departure and the collapse of the Hellenic League he had revived a couple of years earlier. Cassander clearly expected to recover Greece, and just as clearly expected no interference from the others while he did so. In other words, he expected recognition of his kingship of Macedon, even after eliminating the last Argeads to obtain it. He got this, but no more; after all, he had not been present on the battlefield. By the same token, Ptolemy officially gained nothing either, but there was no resentment against him on the part of the others for the meager part he had played in the final campaigns. He had done his bit by fighting off the Antigonid invasion of Egypt a few years earlier.

Cassander’s brother Pleistarchus, however, who had taken part in the battle, was given Cilicia as his personal fiefdom. This may have been at Cassander’s insistence, since he looked out for his family’s interests: he also had a dotty brother called Alexarchus, who was allowed to found a utopian community called Ouranopolis, “The Heavenly City,” on the Athos peninsula, within Macedon. He dressed as the sun, and his citizens were the “children of heaven.” Official documents were written in a complex, archaic form of Greek—”too difficult even for the Delphic oracle.”3 In an era of literary utopias and escapist literature, one eccentric tried to make it real.

Seleucus added Mesopotamia and Syria to his enormous kingdom. The stretch of Mediterranean coastline he gained was critically important, but his pleasure was not unalloyed. First, northern Syria was an undeveloped region. The small population was relatively prosperous, but almost entirely rural, with only one city (Antigonus’s half-built Antigonea) and a few scattered trading towns—and Seleucus had rivals to the north and south. Second, the cities on the coastline south of the Eleutherus were currently in Ptolemy’s hands (with the extra anomaly that Demetrius held Tyre and Sidon), and, having finally reestablished himself in the region, Ptolemy was disinclined to make way for their new owner. Trouble therefore brewed once again for Phoenicia, but postwar fatigue on both sides gave Ptolemy the chance to settle in. Seleucus made out that he refrained from attacking Ptolemy out of friendship, but everyone knew that the real reason was that he was in no position to challenge Ptolemy at sea.

The known world, as it emerged from the settlement, appeared relatively stable. All the kings had core territories and sons who seemed destined to become kings after them. Phoenicia, Greece, and the western seaboard of Asia Minor were the most likely trouble spots in the short term, as the kings sought to gain firm control of the areas they had been allotted. But such consolidation was not their only focus; they still looked out for opportunities for expansion. What emerged after Ipsus was not so much a balance of power as a balance of fear. They also reverted to the default Successor position of helping one’s neighbor only in the direst emergencies—and then only if significant gains could be made out of it.


Demetrius fled from the battlefield with several thousand men, chiefly members of the cavalry contingent he had been commanding. He holed up in Ephesus, where he had a garrison, and took stock of his position. His last remaining strength was his command of the sea. He had a substantial fleet. He held Cyprus, Tyre, and Sidon; most of the original Cycladic League and other strategic Aegean islands, including Euboea; a few places on the Hellespont and the Aegean coast; and the most important ports on the Greek mainland. He had sufficient funds to be able to retain his men and maintain his fleet. He could certainly still make a nuisance of himself at sea, even if he was a spent force on land. It was not in his nature to give up. He determined to stay in the game, the only game he had ever known in his harsh life. He felt he had enough strength at sea to survive by moving between his safe havens and by making raids as the opportunity presented itself. He decided, then, on a course of grand piracy.

Demetrius set sail from Ephesus for the city he had come to regard as the center of his kingdom, Athens. But, possibly prompted by Lysimachus (who was to woo Athens with benefactions over the next few years), the Athenians turned against him. Embarrassed by their earlier obsequiousness, they passed a resolution that they would from now on strive for neutrality. One of Demetrius’s wives, Deidameia, was still resident in the city, along with his eighteen-year-old son by Phila, Antigonus Gonatas, who was being educated in the university town; the Athenians bundled them off to Megara.

An Athenian delegation found Demetrius on Delos. He accepted their insulting decisions with good grace, or icy calm, and asked for the return of some warships that were docked in Piraeus. The Athenians agreed, in keeping with their posture of neutrality. Demetrius settled the members of his family in garrisoned Corinth, a more secure bolt-hole than Megara. Then he sailed to Cilicia, where he recovered other family members, who were made safe on Cyprus. Then he waited. One thing he had going for him was the near certainty that the post-Ipsus rapport between his enemies would not last.

While he waited, he continued to provoke Lysimachus. In 300 or 299 he sent a sizable raiding party to the Thracian Chersonese. It was a nasty little campaign, in the course of which Lysimachus killed thousands of his own men to quell a mutiny after Demetrius captured their baggage train.4 Not one of Lysimachus’s former coalition partners raised a finger to help him.


Seleucus’s first priority after Ipsus was to secure northern Syria. Within a few years—a remarkably few years—he had demolished Antigonea and started to build five major cities, which were named, in typical Macedonian fashion, after himself and members of his family. The “Syrian tetrapolis” consisted of Antioch with its port of Seleucia Pieria, and Apamea with its port of Laodicea; and the fifth foundation, Seleucia-on-the-Euphrates (also known as Zeugma), controlled the main Euphrates crossing. The cities were ringed with protective forts and were designed with security in mind: each of them had a strong acropolis, which was not entirely surrounded by the rest of the city, so that in an emergency the garrison could still communicate directly with the outside world. The area as a whole was called Seleucis and was to be the heart of his kingdom, both secure and splendid.5

Farther east, another Seleucia had already been started, not far north of Babylon. The ancient city had been badly damaged in the war of 311–309 and never fully recovered. Seleucia-on-the-Tigris was designed to supplement and partially replace Babylon as the center for trade routes from the east—for overland caravans from the Hindu Kush, or cargo that was offloaded at the head of the Persian Gulf. Babylon, on the Euphrates, was reduced to a lesser role and became more parochial, but it retained one of the most important Seleucid treasuries. Seleucia flourished, however, and within a short space of time the coastline of the Persian Gulf had become developed and important enough to the Seleucid economy that it became a satrapy in its own right.6

These foundations served a number of functions. First, as with all the foundations of Alexander the Great and his Successors, they pleased the native populations (mostly nomads and peasant farmers) by increasing land use and stimulating the local economy. Second, they pleased the local Greek and Macedonian settlers, many of whom (in Syria, at any rate) had been brought in by Antigonus, and so might have been inclined toward the Antigonid cause. Third, they attracted new settlers, to develop the economy and strengthen the army. Fourth, they had military and long-distance commercial functions as ports, on roads or river crossings, or near borders. In short, within the space of a few years Seleucus succeeded in developing the rich potential of the farmland of northern Syria and turning it into a center of commerce and culture. The magnitude of the project and the speed of its execution constituted regal display on an unprecedented scale.

Seleucis was also a front line against southern Syria, a reminder to Ptolemy that, sooner or later, an attempt would be made to drive him out of his illegally held Phoenician ports. No fewer than six wars were fought over the region between 274 and 168, when some kind of balance was imposed by the Romans, who were by then the power brokers throughout the Mediterranean.


Ptolemy knew that his claim to southern Syria was provocative. Rifts began to appear in the coalition that had defeated Antigonus when in 300, in the face of saber rattling from his former friend Seleucus, Ptolemy approached Lysimachus for an alliance. Lysimachus was happy to agree. The main attraction for him was Ptolemy’s navy, which he needed to facilitate his takeover of Demetrius’s coastal possessions within Asia Minor, and generally to take on Demetrius in the Aegean. The pact was sealed by Lysimachus’s taking Ptolemy’s daughter Arsinoe as his wife. It would prove to be a fateful marriage, not least because of Arsinoe’s ruthless ambition.7

The alliance between Ptolemy and Lysimachus left Seleucus isolated, surrounded by potential enemies, and in urgent need of a navy himself. To whom else could he turn except Demetrius, the old enemy? So, a couple of years later, Seleucus approached Demetrius for the hand of Stratonice, a prime dynastic catch—not just Demetrius’s daughter, but also the granddaughter of Antipater and niece of Cassander. This was Seleucus’s first foray, aged about fifty-five, into the Successors’ endogamous marriage circus. No doubt he was as little averse to polygamy as the rest of the Macedonian dynasts, but as it happened, his Iranian wife, Apama, had died a year or two earlier. So, thanks to the antagonism between Seleucus and Ptolemy, Demetrius was back in the fold.

Demetrius understood Seleucus’s need for a navy, and sailed to celebrate the wedding with an impressive fleet. Before picking up Stratonice and Phila from Cyprus, he found time to land a force in Cilicia and remove the last 1,200 talents of his father’s bullion from the Cyinda treasury. Pleistarchus’s protests to Seleucus fell on deaf ears: he needed the alliance of Demetrius more than the friendship of Pleistarchus. So Demetrius landed at Rhosus, where he was greeted as a king and an equal by Seleucus. The wedding celebrations took place on board Demetrius’s enormous flagship, one of the largest vessels ever built up to that time.

By 298, then, two factions had already emerged: Lysimachus and Ptolemy against Seleucus and Demetrius. The new allies’ attention was on Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean, which is why Cassander was not involved. He had problems of his own, with a new Boeotian–Aetolian alliance cutting him off from southern Greece. There may have been other reasons; Cassander had been plagued all his life by tuberculosis, and it is likely that by now the disease had a terminal grip on him. Under the circumstances, he preferred to wait and see what might fall his way as a result of these alliances.

As if to underline the aggressive purpose of these alliances, Seleucus and Demetrius wrote around to the Greek cities within Lysimachus’s kingdom with assurances of their goodwill toward them. Before long, Demetrius turned his attention to his and Seleucus’s other opponent, and carried out raids in southern Syria. War looked imminent, but Ptolemy suspected that Seleucus would want peace for a while yet, to finish the consolidation of his kingdom. At Ptolemy’s instigation, Seleucus brokered a pact of friendship between Demetrius and Ptolemy, centered on the betrothal of Demetrius to one of Ptolemy’s daughters, called Ptolemais. War in the Middle East was averted, for the time being.


The peace that ensued, however, was marred by constant infringements. Immediately after the Rhosus wedding in 298, Seleucus took his new bride to the building site that was Antioch, and Demetrius turned once again to warfare. Having already probed Cilicia on his way to Rhosus, he now occupied it with his forces. Pleistarchus fled to his friend Lysimachus’s court. Apart from this passive support, however, no one took up arms. Cassander should have helped his brother, but Demetrius sent Phila to Macedon to appease him. No doubt she pointed out the danger of going against the formidable new coalition of Demetrius and Seleucus, but the deciding factor was undoubtedly that Phila’s advice matched his own policy of waiting on the sidelines. In fact, though, as we have already seen, Seleucus next brokered a marriage alliance between Demetrius and Ptolemy, so that there was actually a breathing space, with no large-scale fighting going on, except that Lysimachus’s gradual takeover of Antigonid cities in Asia Minor continued.

Having eliminated Pleistarchus, Demetrius made Cilicia his headquarters from 298 to 296. These were vital years for him, and he used them well to build up his strength. The cedars of Lebanon were still being cut down for shipbuilding at Tyre and Sidon, and he had recruited a land army too, making use of the bullion he had taken from Cyinda, turned into coin at his new mint in Tyre. All the other Antigonid mints were in territory that was lost after Ipsus. Of course, this resurgence worried everyone else, including his erstwhile ally Seleucus, who now began to regret his part in allowing Demetrius to recover. He tried to bring Demetrius to heel by offering to buy Cilicia from him, and, when Demetrius refused, by demanding the surrender of Tyre and Sidon. Demetrius is said to have responded by saying that he would never pay for the privilege of having Seleucus as his son-in-law.8

By 296, however, his position in Cilicia had become untenable. He saw it only as a place to exploit, and his rule had not proved popular. And Lysimachus had already intervened militarily once, in an attempt to relieve a town that Demetrius had under siege. It is likely, though we have no direct evidence, that Seleucus was ready to abandon his supposed ally, and cooperate with Lysimachus to get rid of Demetrius. At any rate, when Demetrius withdrew from Cilicia and moved to Cyprus instead, Seleucus did nothing to help, and then, by agreement with Lysimachus, took Cilicia for himself. Lysimachus gave Pleistarchus a safer (and much smaller) realm in western Caria.9 But Demetrius did not stay long on Cyprus. The situation in Greece was calling out for him.


The Athenians’ bid for neutrality had not gone very well. The problem with neutrality was that they automatically lost the benefactions of a protector king. Before long, several bad harvests stressed their neutrality beyond breaking point. They could hardly turn to Demetrius, so they asked Lysimachus for help. He was able to supply them with grain, but if he hoped for more—perhaps for an alliance—he was foiled. After a period of civic unrest the city fell under the control of the pro-Macedon faction, led by a man called Lachares. By 296, Lachares’ opponents had left Athens and made Piraeus a democratic enclave, so that the city and the port were once again divided. Lachares declared a state of emergency and made himself the effective ruler of Athens. The schism in Athens tempted Demetrius. Perhaps, as in the 300s, he could make the city his headquarters again and recover Greece.

And Macedon too was in turmoil. Cassander died, as expected, of tuberculosis in 297. He had been regent since 315 and king since 305, and had kept Macedon’s borders secure. No battles had been fought on Macedonian soil for twenty years, but his death ushered in two decades of instability and occasional chaos for Macedon. For all its inopportune and brutal start, then, Cassander’s rule had been good for Macedon, and he had proved himself, after all, a worthy successor to his father. In eliminating all rivals to the throne, he was no more ruthless than many a Macedonian predecessor.

His eldest son inherited the throne as Philip IV, but also died of tuberculosis four months later. Philip’s illness must already have been obvious, and before his death Cassander had arranged marriages for his younger sons, even though they were still teenagers, in an attempt to ensure a succession. Antipater took a daughter of Lysimachus, and Alexander a daughter of Ptolemy.

Antipater I and Alexander V reigned jointly, under the regency of their mother Thessalonice, but not amicably. The country fell apart, depending on where the two brothers found the most support: Alexander reigned in western Macedon and Antipater in the east, with the river Axius as the boundary between them. Macedon was divided between two squabbling teenagers, and civil war was imminent.

When Demetrius returned to Greece in 296, he must at least in part have wanted to be in a position to keep a close eye on events in Macedon. For years, he had maneuvered for the chance to make himself king of the homeland—the homeland he scarcely knew, since he had left there as a young child to join his father in Phrygia. But his immediate target was Athens, where he hoped (somewhat in vain, as it turned out) for help from Lachares’ opponents. On the way, however, a storm destroyed many of his ships. On landing in Greece, he sent urgently to Tyre and Sidon for replacements, and occupied his time, while waiting for their arrival, by attacking some of the cities of the Peloponnese, very nearly losing his life in the course of a siege when a catapult bolt pierced his jaw and mouth.

The bulk of the new fleet had not yet arrived when he renewed his assault on Athens in 295. This time he was more successful, and cut off all the supply routes to the city. Before long, Athens was in the grip of a deadly famine. Anecdotes tell of a father fighting his son over the corpse of a mouse, and of the philosopher Epicurus counting out the daily ration of beans for the members of his commune.10


Epicurus was not the only philosopher resident in Athens, which as yet had no rivals as the university town of the Greek world. His parents were Athenian settlers on Samos, and Epicurus had originally come to the city as a young man when all the Athenians left Samos in accordance with Alexander the Great’s Exiles Decree. In 306 he returned and bought some property which he turned into a commune for himself and his followers, called “the Garden.” Only a few years later, a young thinker from Citium in Cyprus, called Zeno, founded his own school; many of the school’s lectures and discussions took place in one of the famous stoas of the Athenian agora, and so the school came to be known as the Stoa, or Stoicism.11Two older schools—the Academy originally founded by Plato, and the Aristotelian Lyceum—were still going strong, and since the city was the acknowledged cultural center of the world, it attracted philosophers and teachers of all other persuasions too. The most popular philosophers were superstars, with their lectures attracting audiences of hundreds or even thousands.

The new philosophies, of which the most successful were Epicureanism and Stoicism, differed from one another and argued, often with considerable rancor. Nevertheless, there was common ground. As we have seen when surveying the Hellenistic aesthetic, artists were increasingly focusing on the expression of individual emotions. A focus on the individual also characterized the philosophical schools. Philosophy climbed down from the abstract realms of Platonic metaphysics or Aristotelian polymathy, and learned also to appeal to a wider audience with promises of self-improvement. This is why we can still apply the names of the new Hellenistic schools to ordinary people; even though the meanings of the words have shifted over the ages, we still say that people are stoical or epicurean (or skeptical, or cynical), but not usually Platonist or Aristotelian. The new emphasis on the common man made provincial Athens a more congenial environment for most philosophers than the courts of kings.

All the schools set out to demonstrate how individual human beings should live and provided methods for achieving this goal. They all saw philosophy as the remedy for human ills, but differed in what they saw as the fundamental problems and in how to go about attaining enlightenment. The three main branches of philosophy in Hellenistic times were logic (understood as the way or ways of discovering the truth of any matter), physics (the nature of the world and the laws that govern it), and ethics (how to achieve happiness). The first two branches were subordinate to the third. For Epicurus, for instance, the point of understanding the nature of the world was to free your mind from fear, as an aid toward attaining mental tranquility.12

Philosophy was critically different, then, from today; it was not conceptual analysis, undertaken in libraries and classrooms, although all three branches of philosophy involved intricate and complex theories and argumentation. These are the aspects of ancient philosophy which primarily engage philosophers today, but in those days philosophy was a way of life as much as an academic discipline. Hence philosophers presented a public image that stressed poverty, or at least frugality, as a way of advertising the success of their teaching: they themselves had moved beyond the superficial values of the world, and could teach others to do so too. The pupils they wanted were those who already felt somewhat at odds with the world.

It is hard not to read this trend as a reaction to the violence and uncertainty of the times. Ordinary individuals were impotent to change the world at large, but they could at least try to change themselves and their inner worlds. There lay the appeal of the new philosophies. None of the schools, in this early period, encouraged their students to play an active part in politics. Philosophy was largely for dropouts, and so dovetailed with the escapism that we have already seen was a dominant feature of the literature of the time.

The great era of the philosophical schools lasted throughout the third and second centuries. Teaching and erudition began to be seen as professions in their own right, not mere eccentricities; schools disputed points great and small with one another; learning became systematic, spread around the Hellenistic world, and for the first time became valued as a way to get on in the world. This did little to alter elementary schooling, but gradually an intermediate stage evolved, between the elementary schools and attendance at the feet of a philosopher or a teacher of rhetoric. In his teens, then, a boy might learn grammar, rhetoric, logic, and geometry, as well as receiving further military training, to supplement the schooling of his younger years, with its emphasis on the three Rs and acculturation. Education was one of the prime engines of hellenization, and it is no surprise to find that Hellenistic gymnasia around the world expanded their curricula beyond physical fitness to encompass more aspects of Greek culture.

If there was originality within the philosophical schools, however, the same cannot be said of rhetoric, which began to form a major element in higher education. Quite early in the Hellenistic period, a canonical list was drawn up of the ten Athenian masters of rhetoric,13 and their speeches were endlessly studied and imitated. Pedantic purists refused to use vocabulary or figures of speech which did not have precedents in the works of these masters. “Atticism,” as their style was called (Attica being the district whose urban center was Athens), was worshipped as good in itself, and there were bitter fights, by word and occasionally fist, between its exponents and those of the florid Asianic style. Still, the schools of rhetoric flourished and polished their discipline, until writers of all stripes fell under their spell as much as orators and politicians.

But it must have been hard for even the philosophers resident in Athens to maintain their saintly detachment in the face of starvation; to many, it must have seemed the end of the world. Demetrius was poised to retake the city, and no one was coming to their help. Lachares did not give up easily, however. He quelled a near mutiny among his troops by robbing temples of their treasures and melting them down into bullion. Even the world-famous statue of Athena in the Parthenon, the symbol of Athenian greatness, was stripped of its golden robe. Ptolemy sent help in the form of a substantial fleet of 150 ships, but just as it approached Demetrius’s replacement fleet hove into view, double the size of Ptolemy’s fleet, which prudently withdrew. Lachares fled, and the starving Athenians opened their gates to Demetrius in April 295. They had insulted him in 301, and expected little mercy.

Demetrius staged a dramatic entry into Athens. Having ordered a general assembly in the Theater of Dionysus, he posted guards around the area, entered from the rear, and walked in silence down the steps, past the seated crowd, until he reached the stage. He announced the immediate distribution of plenty of grain—that was the good bit—but also the installation of garrisons not only in Athens and Piraeus, but in several outlying towns and fortresses. Now was not the time to let the ideology of freedom impede his progress. He also ensured that an oligarchy of his supporters formed the ruling elite. There could be little doubt that this time, his third period of residence in the city, he came not as a liberator but as an occupier of Athens.

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