Part II

Living the Good Life

In this part . . .

The Roman world was a system - in fact, the first system in human history - that affected almost everyone who was part of the Roman Empire. That system included living in or visiting cities where you could marvel at Roman architectural achievements and enjoy the fruits of international trade and even on-demand running water; enjoying the first mass leisure industry the world had ever seen, complete with amphitheatres and circuses and more; and finding solace in the gods in an age of extraordinary religious tolerance.

It’s important to remember that, in addition to all the wonders it offered, the Roman world was also a brutal place which enslaved untold millions of people and which made a few people very rich and powerful at the expense of the many.

The good life came at a heavy price.

Chapter 6

The Urban Jungle

In This Chapter

● The genius of Roman architecture

● How Roman cities worked

● Roman roads and finding your way about

The Roman Empire was an empire of cities. Rome was a city, and she used cities to run the Empire. If we look at what Rome became, we can understand a huge amount about what made the Romans tick. It’s no exaggeration to say that without cities, Roman power couldn’t have existed. Throughout this book, there’s a constant theme: The Romans were geniuses at persuading other people that ‘being Roman’ was a good thing. Cities impressed people with Roman power, but they also created a sense of order, permanence, and security, and were an essential part of government and the economy.

This chapter is about getting to grips with the essence of Rome the city and its part in Roman society, the architectural techniques that made Rome’s buildings possible, how those buildings functioned and what they were used for, and how all across the Roman Empire every town of consequence resembled a miniature Rome. It’s also about the communications that held the Roman world of cities together: the roads.

The Idea of City

The essence of the Roman world was the city. Rome herself was often known as simply Urbs, ‘the City’.

In the ancient Mediterranean world of the early first millennium BC, the idea of a city was already synonymous with a community. Egypt’s mighty and much older civilisation was ruled from great cities like Thebes and Memphis, which were home not just to large numbers of people with their homes and businesses but which also gave over vast areas to temple complexes and royal palaces. Greece was divided up into city states where places like Athens ruled their hinterlands. The Phoenician colony of Carthage in North Africa was an important trading city, destined to become Rome’s greatest rival.

Rome itself had grown out of a collection of villages that were drawn together under the early kings thanks to their shared culture and their common interest in defending themselves against enemies in the region. These early kings introduced the ideas of public services and government to the early Romans and were inspired by the cities that already existed in the Mediterranean area including the Greek colonies in Sicily and southern Italy.

The Romans also believed that their city was divinely ordained in the myth of Aeneas and his descendants Romulus and Remus (see Chapter 10 for information on the founding of Rome). So Rome wasn’t just a practical facility, it was also a place with a spiritual identity whose people were destined to rule the world. This provoked an intoxicating sense of community summed up in the way the Romans portrayed the city as a female figure seated on a suit of armour, wearing a helmet, and holding a Victory (a winged goddess) in her hand.

The effect in ancient times was to create the idea that Roman urban civilisation was the bedrock of security. The natural world is dangerous and unpredictable. Cities provide man’s response - it’s why so many of us live in them today. For the Romans, this created a paradox: They felt that Rome and her Empire were the rewards from the gods for a superior civilisation, but that the comforts and easy living had softened them up and created a population that was no match for the hardy tough men who had founded Rome and built her up. As the pressure on Roman civilisation grew from barbarian invasions in the third century AD and later, the Romans grew absolutely terrified at the thought Rome herself might disappear. If that sounds weird, cast your mind back to 9/11 and remember how frightened New Yorkers were when it seemed their city’s very existence hung in the balance.

St Jerome, a Christian teacher, wrote this in a letter of 413, just three years after the sack of Rome by Attila the Hun (Chapter 21). As a Christian, he thought it was all to do with the sins of the Roman people, echoing Tacitus’s feelings three centuries before about the decadence of imperial times, but the point is Jerome thought he was witnessing the end of the world: ‘Shame on us. The world is falling into ruin, but our sins still flourish. The glorious city that was once head of the Roman Empire has been devoured by one mighty fire.’

Rome: The urban template

Rome might have been just one of many cities in the Mediterranean area in antiquity, but no other ancient civilisation developed the city in quite the same way the Romans did. The city of Rome took centuries to grow into the sprawling monster she became in the days of the emperors, by which time Rome was a vast co-ordinated organism of government, public services, utilities, and communications.

Rome’s power and wealth attracted people in vast quantities, who all needed governing, feeding, and entertaining. The more people, trade, and industry there was, the more prestigious were the men who controlled them. During the first century BC, a number of exceptionally powerful men (see Chapter 15) like Caesar and Pompey jockeyed for control of Rome, in part by providing public facilities and entertainments. When the emperor Augustus listed his lifetime achievements, he rattled off dozens of buildings which he had built or repaired to show his power and generosity (listed in the section ‘Improving the model city’, later in this chapter). These men wanted Rome to be the showcase of their own and Rome’s power and divine backing. They succeeded brilliantly.

Even today Rome’s magnificent history and majestic ruins give it a status above all other cities in the world. Rome has had an enormous influence on the development of cities ever since. New York’s Grand Central Station and Washington DC’s Union Station are modelled on Roman architecture. Liverpool’s vast commercial wealth of the nineteenth century led to a suite of public buildings based directly on Roman designs.

The Romans had developed Rome into a huge template for her civilisation. In the centre were Rome’s public buildings, forums for trade and commerce, basilicas for legal affairs, and temples to state religions as well as the imperial palaces. Scattered around these were the theatres, amphitheatres, and the Circus Maximus. A road network radiated from the centre through housing, while above the city, aqueducts carried water in, and below the city, sewers drained it away. Rome’s system of civic magistrates from consuls down to aediles was used to govern not just Rome and her immediate environs but the whole Roman Empire. Various equestrian prefectures were created to control key services like the grain supply, the city garrison, the fire brigade, and the roads (for details of these positions, see Chapter 3). Although Rome had taken centuries to evolve, at its climax it had a number of key features:

● Amphitheatres: Home to gladiatorial and beast fights.

● Basilicas: Law courts and administration.

● Baths: Vast public bathing establishments provided by the state, as well as a host of private smaller concerns.

● Circuses: Home to chariot-racing.

● Curia: Senate house, where the senators met.

● Forums: Public piazzas for trade and politics surrounded by shops and businesses.

● Public services: Mainly defences, aqueducts, drains, fire service, and roads.

● Temples and religious precincts: Temples funded by emperors, rich citizens, or corporations to look after their interests and that of the Roman people, worshipping state, local, specialised and eastern cults.

● Theatres: For comedies, tragedies, and poetry-readings.

Strabo visits Rome

Strabo, a geographer, visited Rome in the days of Tiberius (AD 14-37). He wondered at the extraordinary public buildings, but he was also fascinated by the constant demolition and rebuilding that went on:

'There's a constant need for wood and stone for the endless construction work in Rome. This is caused by frequently collapsing houses, and because of the fires and house disposals which never seem to let up. These disposals are a kind of deliberate demolition, each owner knocking down his house and then rebuilding as the fancy takes him. To this end the huge number of quarries, forests, and rivers in the region which provide the materials, offer superb facilities.'

When Vespasian came to power in 69, he actively encouraged anyone to take over vacant sites caused by fires or collapse and put up new buildings, because he thought they made Rome look unsightly.

No wonder the natural historian Pliny the Elder said ‘there has been no city in the world that could be compared to Rome in magnitude’. Writing about the year AD 73, he said Rome had 14 administrative regions, with roads forming 265 crossroads, and 60 miles of major roads within Rome radiating from a point in the Forum out to the 37 gates in 13 miles of defensive walls.

Improving the model city

The emperor Augustus (27 BC-AD 14) was particularly keen on making Rome into a showcase for Roman imperial power, but he was only following a trend. In the first century BC the general Pompey the Great built a massive theatre, and Julius Caesar was responsible for numerous buildings like the Basilica Julia.

Augustus used his friend Agrippa to organise much of the new work, and this is some of what they achieved (the ones you can still see today are marked with an asterisk):

● Finished off Julius Caesar’s forum and basilica*

● Restored old temples and erected new ones, like the vast temple of Mars Ultor (the Avenger)* which fulfilled a vow Augustus had made before the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, and another one to the deified Julius Caesar

● Built a new forum, the Forum Augusti*

The Forum in Rome is so ruinous that you might be forgiven for wondering whether the Romans were as good at building as is often claimed. Well, what happened is that in the year 667, the Byzantine emperor Constans II decided the bronze and iron clamps which held the stone blocks of the Forum buildings together would be far more useful to him melted down into weapons for his wars to defend the Byzantine Empire. So he had them all removed, which meant that subsequent earthquakes (not unusual in that part of the world) caused most of the buildings to collapse.

● Presided over the Altar of Augustan Peace (Ara Pacis Augustae)*, ordered by the Senate and dedicated in 9 BC

● Built the Theatre of Marcellus* to commemorate Augustus’s nephew (who died in 23 BC)

● Installed new aqueducts

● Built the original Pantheon (later rebuilt and redesigned by Hadrian)*

● Raised a vast mausoleum for Augustus and his family*

Many of the emperors who came after Augustus provided Rome with greater and more impressive public buildings. These are just some of them:

● Claudius (41-54) built an aqueduct.

● Vespasian (69-79) began the Colosseum*.

● Titus (79-81) finished the Colosseum and built public baths.

● Domitian (81-96) built a circus.

● Trajan (98-117) built more public baths and a vast new multi-level forum*.

● Hadrian (117-138) built the huge double Temple of Venus and Rome* and rebuilt the Pantheon*.

● Caracalla (211-217) built a vast bathing complex* which still dominates the southern part of Rome.

● Maximian (286-305) built the Baths of Diocletian. Enough survived of the great vaulted cold room (frigidarium) for it to be converted by Michelangelo (1474-1564) in the Renaissance into the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli*, and today this is one of the great sights of Rome.

● Maxentius (306-312) built a vast vaulted basilica*, part of which towers over the Forum to this day.

The map of the city of Rome

Under Septimius Severus (AD 193-211) a vast map of Rome - the Forma Urbis Romae - was carved on marble and displayed in the city. Measuring 18 by 13 metres, it recorded everything from shops to mighty public buildings.

Sadly, just 10 to 15 per cent survives, broken into 1,186 pieces, but those fragments preserve vital evidence, including its plan of the Theatre of Pompey, which is still buried.

Civic corruption and incompetence

There were all sorts of opportunities for incompetence and corruption to ruin public building projects. In the early second century, Pliny the Younger was governor of Bithynia and Pontus in Asia Minor. He wrote to Trajan (AD 98-117) about various problems with buildings in his province including this moan:

'The Nicaeans are also rebuilding their gymnasium (which was burned down before I arrived in the province) on a much larger scale. They have already gone to considerable expense and I'm afraid it may have been for nothing. The building is irregular and badly proportioned, and the current architect, admittedly a rival of the one who was on the project at the beginning, says that the 22-feet thick walls are not strong enough to hold up the superstructure. This is because the core is filled with rubble, and the walls have no brick facing.'

No-one knows what the outcome was. But it's plain from other excavated buildings that the Romans weren't always brilliant construction engineers, and no doubt incompetence and corruption were sometimes the reasons, just like today.

Copycat Romes

Exploring the Roman world today means visiting places like Pompeii and Ostia in Italy, Ephesus and Aspendos in Turkey, Thuburbo Majus and Dougga in Tunisia, Arles and NTmes in Gaul, and London and Cirencester in Britain - all contain familiar Roman urban features. Every one of these towns has its own history, but in the days of the Roman Empire, they all conformed to the basic Roman urban template. The story was the same throughout the Roman Empire as provincial or regional capitals functioned like miniature Romes. Each had its own forum, basilica, temples to Capitoline Jupiter and the imperial cult, theatres, townhouses, brothels, bars, and public lavatories. Anyone from the Roman period would have recognised facilities and the layout.

But don’t assume everything was copied from Rome. Rome copied ideas from elsewhere. The Romans took plenty of their ideas about classical architecture from the Greeks. In southern Italy, they found cities like Pompeii, which had a stone amphitheatre, stone theatre, and a basilica long before Rome ever did. The Roman genius was combining all these with their idea of city government to create the Roman city.

In each major city, the local civic assembly was modelled on the Roman Senate, electing its local magistrates just as Rome elected her consuls, tribunes, aediles, and quaestors. Rome had her two consuls while Pompeii, like many other cities in the Empire, had her two annually elected magistrates called the duoviri (‘the two men’). Those magistrates were often responsible for commissioning and paying for public buildings. Doing so made them and their cities look good and was a way of buying votes, so the magistrates competed with one another to be the most generous. In a tiny town in northern Britain called Brough-on-Humber, for example, there was an aedile called Marcus Ulpius Januarius who supplied the town’s theatre with a stage during the reign of Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161).

In the Eastern Empire, urban life was already well-established, and cities of Greek origin like Ephesus in Asia Minor found themselves embellished with Roman additions. In the Western Empire, urban life was more of a novelty, especially in Britain and northern Gaul. Towns had to be founded by the Romans and built to conform to a general Roman theme. In remoter areas, it was probably the emperor who had to order and pay for public buildings, rather than the local bigwigs.

Two Brilliant Ideas

The Romans weren’t the most original architects. Many of their designs were borrowed from the Greeks and the Etruscans. But they made exceptional use of two fundamental techniques: concrete and the arch.


Concrete was the miracle of Roman building, called by them opus caementicium, and by us ‘Roman concrete’ (and this is the source of our word ‘cement’). It had just four components:

● Water

● Lime

● Pozzolana (sandy volcanic ash, originally found near Pozzuoli near Naples in Italy)

● Aggregate (brick chips or fragments of stone)

The brilliant thing about concrete is that it can be mixed on-site from easily found ingredients and poured into moulds or shapes to create just about any sort of structure. It’s also extremely strong and very durable. The Romans built walls with concrete cores and faced them with brick or stone. It allowed large and complex buildings to be erected quickly, because it was very nearly as strong as modern concrete. Concrete was in use in Rome by the second century BC at the latest.

By varying the aggregate according to requirements, this simple concrete could form the cores of massive walls or vaults (see the following section, ‘Arches and vaults’) and is found everywhere in the Roman Empire. In its most advanced form, Roman concrete was good enough to be the sole material used in a vault, created by pouring it into wooden moulds. This was concrete’s most dramatic impact because it meant flat wooden or stone ceilings could be done away with. This discovery lay behind most distinctive Roman architecture. All across the Roman world, concrete was used to manufacture major buildings and even modest houses. Concrete used with arches, vaults, and domes made a perfect partnership.

The ultimate example of Roman concrete building is the Pantheon, built in its present form by Hadrian (AD 117-138) (see Chapter 17 for his reign), and still completely intact in Rome today. The Pantheon’s main feature is a massive dome 43 metres (141 feet) wide, sitting on top of a circular drum with a total height the same as the dome’s width. The secret was lightness and strength, so the dome gets thinner from bottom to top, starting at 6 metres (20 feet) where the dome meets the drum and dropping to just 1.5 metres (5 feet) at the top with decorative recesses (coffers) reducing the weight further. The materials used also got lighter towards the top, finishing with lightweight volcanic tufa. Vast wooden moulds were used to hold the dome in place while the concrete set. It’s actually the biggest masonry dome ever built, and architects from all round the world have been fascinated by it ever since.

Arches and vaults

Arches and vaults were used in almost all major Roman buildings. They relieve weight, save stone, and increase a building’s strength.

The Etruscans introduced the Romans to the arch, but it was the Romans who truly mastered the arch and its close relation, the barrel vault. The ideas came from a long way beyond Italy though. Arches and vaults had been used by the mud-brick builders of Assyria and Babylonia. The Greeks picked up the designs, which then found their way to Italy. By the third century BC magnificent arched and vaulted gateways were being built in Italy like the Porta Rosa at Velia (modern Elia), south of Naples.

How arches Work

Arches aren’t just a way of providing an entrance or a doorway that is far stronger than one with a flat top. In rows, they’re the best possible way of making a whole wall lighter. Because it’s curved, an arch transmits all the force from the building above down past it and through the piers that support the arch. A vault is simply a long arch and makes massive buildings far more stable and stronger than solid masses of masonry. Barrel vaults were a key part of Roman bathhouses - they were extremely strong and, unlike timber roofs, resistant to rot from hot, damp air.

Nero’s palace (Domus Aurea, ‘Golden House’) in Rome partly survives because its vast vaulted chambers and passageways were used by Trajan (98-117) as the substructure for his baths. Incredibly, as a result, you can still walk around the very rooms Nero strutted in more then 19 centuries ago.

Using arches and vaults

The Romans used arches together with all the components of Greek architecture like columns, capitals, architraves, and pediments and created a brilliant style of architecture that made cities, villas, palaces, public buildings, forts, and all sorts of public services like sewers and aqueducts possible. I simply can’t stress enough how much this changed the world, and the impact is all around today in modern architecture.

The Romans developed the whole idea of the arch and vault so brilliantly that before long they were able to erect the most extraordinary buildings.

The Colosseum, built by Vespasian and Titus (69-81), is built out of multiple tiers of arches on the outside and radial barrel vaults within. The only reason it’s in ruins today is because it was robbed for stone in the Middle Ages, not because it fell down. The Basilica of Maxentius in the Forum had a 35-metre-high vaulted nave, flanked by barrel-vaulted aisles. It survived until a 1349 earthquake that left just one aisle standing.

Arches Just for show

Arches and vaults were beautiful and functional, but perhaps the most striking use was the triumphal arch. Emperors erected these ceremonial arches to celebrate great military victories and triumphs. Domitian (AD 81-96) was especially fond of them. Some are single arches, some have a pair of smaller arches on either side of a big one, and some were four-way arches. But they were all decorated with carved reliefs of triumphant emperors and inscriptions recording their mighty deeds. Today in Rome, the Arches of Titus (79-81), shown in Figure 6-1, Septimius Severus (193-211), and Constantine I (307-337) all survive, but there are lots of other examples all round the Roman world.

The most famous architect - Vitruvius

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was a professional architect who took part in Augustus’s reconstruction of Rome. By 27 BC, he’d already written ten books gathered together under the title De Architectura (‘On Architecture’), dedicated to Augustus. Those ten books are packed with detail on building materials, techniques, designs, and specifications. This work was used as a standard textbook in Roman times and survived to be copied in a monastery in northern England in the eighth century AD. In the Renaissance, Vitruvius became very influential and was read by all the architects from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries and is still available today.

Figure 6-1: The Arch of Titus, dedicated in Rome's Forum in AD 71 during his father Vespasian's reign, now part-restored

All Roads Lead to Rome

If there’s one thing the Romans are known for, it’s for building long, straight roads. That’s a misconception. They certainly built roads, but they often laid them on top of existing prehistoric tracks, and while Roman roads had long straight stretches, they also had corners and changed direction when appropriate.

Until the invention of railways and petrol engines, it was usually cheaper to go by sea, and the Mediterranean - a sort of watery super motorway or interstate - played a vital role in the transport of goods. But Roman roads were still extremely important. The quality of Roman road construction vastly improved their freight-carrying capacity. They linked cities and provinces into a vast network, which saw a continual traffic in men and goods. It really was true that all roads led to Rome.

Via Appia

The Via Appia (Appian Way) is today the most famous and best-preserved of Roman roads. Appius Claudius built the first part in 312 BC as a result of the experience of the Samnite Wars (explained in Chapter 11) - this metalled road created the Roman version of a high-speed communications link between Rome and Capua, down which troops could move quickly. It acted as the template for all the great Roman roads of the Empire to come. Originally just joining Rome to Capua, the Via Appia was later extended to Beneventum (modern Benevento) and finally by 191 BC to Brundisium (Brindisi). The Roman poet Horace wrote an account of a journey on the Appian Way, saying it was 'less tiring if you go slowly' and how he was nearly burned to death by an innkeeper who set his place on fire when roasting thrushes. The most famous user was St Paul, who came up the road from Appii-Forum (Foro Appio) to Rome in AD 61 - it's the only Roman landmark mentioned in the Bible (Acts of the Apostles xxviii.15-16).

Strabo, the Roman geographer, said: ‘The Romans have built roads throughout the countryside, slicing through hills and filling in dips, so that now their wagons can carry the same-sized loads as boats.’

Road-building basics

The Romans weren’t the first to build roads, and they weren’t the first to make roads with metalled surfaces. But they were the first to build a very large number of roads, which meant that for the first time in European history many places were linked together.

Laying out a road

Laying out a road meant choosing solid ground and the shortest possible route from A to B. As the Romans loved system and order, straight lines were preferred but not always possible. Gradients were measured, and if the slope was more than about 10 per cent, then the road would have to zigzag up the incline. Some roads had curves to go round hills or followed terraces cut into higher ground. If absolutely essential, tunnels were sometimes cut to carry the road through a hill.

Roman surveyors used a groma to lay out lines. A groma had a central post and on top four arms at right angles, each with a plumb line. Two opposite arms could be used to sight a straight line with the help of an assistant standing at a distance and holding a staff. When building streets in a new town or fort, the four arms of a groma helped create neat right-angled junctions so that a grid based on squares (insulae, here meaning ‘blocks’) could be laid out.

Superstitious traffic control

Recent analysis of the deep ruts in Pompeii's streets show Roman traffic had to drive on the right to avoid jams. Romans were highly superstitious and feared anything to do with the left, which is why their words for left and left-hand, sinisterand sinistra, have given us the modern meaning of 'sinister' as something frightening and evil.

Making a road

The real graft came with making the road. Sometimes army legionaries managed the work, but they also used slaves as well as forced local labour in provinces. The road had to remain solid in all weathers, and drain. So a raised bank (agger) was created by ramming wooden piles into soft ground (if necessary) followed by foundation layers of stone, gravel, chippings, clay, and then the cobbled road surface, which was built in a curved profile so that rainwater would run off into the drains on either side.

Being endlessly pragmatic, the Romans used whatever materials were to hand to build roads with. In Pompeii, huge slabs of volcanic lava were used for the road surface. In areas where iron ore was abundant, chunks of ore were used to make the surface. The iron rusted and created a rock-hard road surface.

Helping travellers: Road maps, itineraries, and more

The only way a Roman road system could be of much use was if people could plan their journeys. So the Romans had road maps - not accurate maps like today but more like the kind of schematic plans we use for city metro systems. They also had itineraries: lists of places on a particular road with distances between them. As some of the surviving manuscripts were copied in the Middle Ages, we have their texts.

The Antonine Itinerary (Itinerarium Provinciarum Antonini Augusti) was an itinerary probably compiled for Caracalla (211-217), though it was added to under later emperors. It’s a whole series of 225 tailor-made specific road journeys throughout the Empire with a start and end point and total mileage for each. For archaeologists and historians these routes are extremely useful for finding out the ancient names of towns.


Of course, roads can't go everywhere. Rivers and ravines get in the way. But since the Romans had mastered concrete and arches, rivers weren't much of an obstacle, though in more remote places wooden bridges were often built. Some of Rome's bridges are still intact and in use today. The Pons Fabricius was built over the Tiber in 62 BC out of volcanic tufa blocks and faced with marble. Its two main spars are 24 metres (80 feet) across.

One of the most celebrated Roman bridges ever built was put up over the Danube by Trajan (98-117) to control the Dacians beyond. It was probably designed by Apollodorus of Damascus and it's illustrated on Trajan's Column in Rome (see Chapter 17). The historian Dio described it like this:

● It had 20 stone piers 40 metres (150 feet) high

● Each pier stood 50 metres (170 feet) from its neighbours

● The superstructure was made of timber

Dio was exaggerating because this would make it far bigger than the 800 metre (0.5 mile) wide river, but there's no doubt it was still a mighty bridge. Hadrian (117-138) removed the superstructure to stop the Dacians entering the Empire and Dio says the piers were still standing in his own time a century later (in the early AD 200s).

Another way of helping people to get about was with milestones, which were set up alongside major and minor roads. These vary a lot, but most of the surviving ones are rough cylindrical stone pillars with carved inscriptions naming the current emperor, his titles for the year, and sometimes adding the distance to the next town in whole miles. Others were mass-produced with carved imperial titles and had the distance information painted on when they were set up.

Imperial post (cursus publicus)

Fast communications across the Empire were essential if the emperor was to have any chance of issuing edicts, having his orders obeyed, and keeping an eye on provincial governors and military commanders. Augustus introduced the imperial post system, which forced towns and settlements along roads to have carriages and horses permanently ready. They were a little like service stations on interstates or motorways today: They often had inns which provided travellers with beds, baths, and stabling.

Publicus means here ‘the state’: The service was only available to imperial messengers or anyone else on official business (though it wasn’t unknown for officials to use it for private reasons - Pliny the Younger allowed his wife to use it to visit her aunt after her grandfather died). It was an expensive service and Nerva (96-98) transferred the cost to the government.

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