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Encyclopedia > Tacitus Cornelius

This article is about the historian Tacitus. For the Emperor Tacitus, see Marcus Claudius Tacitus.

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus

Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55–c. 117), Roman orator, lawyer, and senator, is considered one of antiquity's greatest historians. His major works—the Annals and the Histories—took for their subject the history of the Roman Empire's first century, from the accession of the emperor Tiberius to the death of Domitian.



Tacitus, like many other literary figures of his age, was born around 55 AD to a provincial equestrian family, probably in northern Italy or Gallia Narbonensis. The exact place and date of his birth are unknown, as is his first name (praenomen): in some letters of Sidonius Apollinaris and in some old and unimportant writings his name is Gaius, but in the major surviving manuscript of his work his name is given as Publius. (See Syme, Tacitus, p. 59, note 1).

As a young man he studied rhetoric in Rome as preparation for a career in law and politics. In 78 he married Julia Agricola, daughter of the famous general Gnaeus Julius Agricola. In 81, under Titus, he began his political career as quaestor. He advanced steadily through the cursus honorum, becoming praetor in 88 and gaining acclaim as a lawyer and orator; his skill in public speaking gave a marked irony to his cognomen Tacitus ('silent'). He survived Domitian's reign of terror—that he was serving in the provinces, perhaps in Gaul or Germania from c. 89 to c. 93 doubtless helped—and from his seat in the Senate he became suffect consul in 97 during the reign of Nerva, being the first of his family to do so. In the same year he reached the height of his fame as an orator when he delivered the funeral oration for the famous old soldier Verginius Rufus.

In the following year he wrote and published the biography of his father-in-law Agricola, after which he returned to practicing law. In 100, during Trajan's reign, he, along with his old friend Pliny the Younger, prosecuted Marius Priscus (proconsul of Africa) for corruption. Priscus was found guilty and sent into exile; Pliny wrote a few days later (Letters, 2.11) that Tacitus had spoken "with all the majesty which characterizes his usual style of oratory". After a lengthy absence from politics, during which time he wrote his two major works, he held the highest civilian governorship, that of the Roman province of Asia in Western Anatolia, in 112. He is thought to have died around 117; it is unknown whether he was survived by any children, though the emperor Marcus Claudius Tacitus falsely claimed him as an ancestor.


Five of Tacitus's works have survived. His three minor works are De vita Iulii Agricolae (The Life of Julius Agricola), published in 98; De origine et situ Germanorum, known as the Germania), and the Dialogus de oratoribus, which was dedicated to Fabius Iustus, consul in 102. His major works are the incomplete Historiae written between 100 and 110, and the Annales (or Ab excessu divi Augusti), only parts of which have survived, written after the Historiae and unfinished perhaps due to his death.

Major works

The two major works, originally published separately, were meant to form single edition of thirty books, with the Annals preceding the History. This inverted the chronological order in which they were written, but formed a continuous narrative of the era from the death of Augustus (14) to the death of Domitian (96). Though parts have been lost, what remains is an invaluable record of the era.

The Histories

In one of the first chapters of the Agricola Tacitus said that he wished to speak about the years of Domitian, of Nerva, and of Trajan. In the Historiae the project has been modified:in the introduction, Tacitus says that he will deal with the age of Nerva and Trajan at a later time. Instead, he will cover the period that started with the civil wars of the Year of Four Emperors and ended with the despotism of the Flavians.

Only the first four books and 26 chapters of the fifth book have survived, covering the year 69 and the first part of 70. The work is believed to have continued up to the death of Domitian on September 18, 96. The fifth book contains—as a prelude to the account of Titus's suppression of the Great Jewish Revolt—a short ethnographic survey of the ancient Jews and is an invaluable record of the educated Romans' attitude towards that people.

Tacitus wrote the Historiae 30 years later, not long after Trajan's seizure of power, which bore similarities to the events of the year 69, when four emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian) each took power in quick succession. The mode of their accession showed that because imperial power was based on the support of the legions, an emperor could now be chosen not only at Rome, but anywhere in the empire where sufficient legions were massed.

Nerva, like Galba, came to the throne by senatorial designation, in Nerva's case after the violent death of the previous emperor, Domitian. Like Galba, Nerva had to deal with a revolt of Praetorians and like Galba, he had designated his successor by the traditional expedient of adoption. Galba, described by Tacitus as a feeble old man, had chosen a successor unable, due to his severity, to obtain the faith and the control of the troops. Nerva, instead, had consolidated his power by making a link between the throne and Trajan, who was general of the Upper Rhine legions and popular throughout the army. It is proable that Tacitus was a member of the imperial council in which Trajan was chosen to be adopted.

In the first book of the Historiae, a speech put in the mouth of Galba makes clear Tacitus' ideological and political position. Galba's pure respect for formality and lack of political realism rendered him unable to control events. In contrast, Nerva adopted Trajan, who was able to keep the legions unified, to keep the army out of imperial politics, to stop disorder among the legions, and thus to prevent rival claimants to the throne. Tacitus was sure that the only the principatus (the "prince", that is, the monarchical emperor) could maintain peace, the fidelity of the armies, and the cohesion of the empire.

Discussing Augustus Caesar's rise to power, Tacitus says that after the battle of Actium the unification of the power in the hands of a prince was necessary to keep the peace. The prince ought not to be a tyrant, like Domitian, nor a fool, like Galba. He should be able to keep the imperium safe, while saving the prestige and the dignity of the Senate (Seneca addresses the same point). Tacitus, without any illusions, considered the rule of the adoptive Emperors the only possible solution to the problems of Empire.

The style of narration is rapid, reflecting the speed of the events. The rhythm of the narration leaves no space to slow down or digress. To write effectively in this style, Tacitus had to summarize much information from his sources. Sometimes he skips parts; more usually he divides the story into single scenes and, in this way, creates a dramatic narration. Tacitus is a master at describing a mass of people. He knows how to portray the mass when it is calm; he knows equally how to show the threat of insurrection and panic-stricken flight.

Tacitus writes from the point of view of an aristocrat. He shows fear, mixed with disdain, for the soldiers' tumult and for the rabble of the capital. He also holds in low esteem those members of the Senate, whose comportment he describes with malice, insisiting upon the contrast between their public image and the unconfessable reality: adulation, conspiracy, and ambition. The Historiae is a grim work; it speaks throughout of violence, dishonesty, and injustice.

Tacitus skillfully shows the characters, alterning short and sharp notations with complete portraits. His technique is similar to that of Sallust: incongruency, parataxis, and loose stylistic structure combine to make the characters sharp. The influence of Sallust is clear in the rest of Tacitus's style as well. Tacitus improves on the method, stressing the tension between gravitas, which connects the narrative with the past, and pathos, which makes it dramatic. Tacitus loves ellipsis of verbs and conjunctions. He uses irregular constructs and frequent changes of subject to give variety and movement to the narration. It often happens that when a sentence seems finished, it is extended with a surprising tail that adds a comment, which is usually alluding or indirect.

The Annals

The Annals was Tacitus' final work, covering the period from the death of Augustus Caesar in the year 14. He wrote at least 16 books, but books 7-10 and parts of books 5, 6, 11 and 16 are missing. Book 6 ends with the death of Tiberius and books 7-12 presumably covered the reigns of Caligula and Claudius. The remaining books cover the reign of Nero, perhaps until his death in June 68 or until the end of that year, to connect with the Histories. The second half of book 16 is missing (ending with the events of the year 66). We do not know whether Tacitus completed the work or whether he finished the other works that he had planned to write; he died before he could complete his planned histories of Nerva and Trajan, and no record survives of the work on Augustus Caesar and the beginnings of the Empire with which he had planned to complete his work as an historian.

As in the Annales, Tacitus maintains his thesis of the necessity of the principate. He says again that Augustus gave and warranted peace to the state after years of civil war, but on the other hand he shows us the dark side of life under the Caesars. The history of the Empire is also the history of the sunset of the political freedom of the senatorial aristocracy, which he saw as morally decadent, corrupt, and servile towards the prince. During Nero's age there had been a wide diffusion of literary works in favour of this suicidal exitus illustrium virorum ("end of the illustrious men"). Again, as in Agricola, Tacitus is opposed to those who chose useless martyrdom through vain suicides. In describing the suicide of Petronius, he deliberately insists on the ironic overturn of that man's philosophical models.

Against this generally bleak background, though, a healthy part of the political class continued honest involvement in the governments of the provinces and in the leading of the armies. Tragic historiography, full of dramatic events, has a great role in the Annales. Tacitus shows us the tragedy of the people. The aim is not to raise strong emotions. Tacitus uses the tragic components of his history to dive into the spirits of the characters, aiming to bring to light their passions and ambiguities. The dominant passions of the characters (partially excepting the sometimes pathological Nero) are the political passions. All the social classes, with no exception for any persons, have these defects: ambition, desire for power, desire for social status, and often envy, hypocrisy, and presumption. All the other passions, apart from ambition, vanity, and cupidity, play a minor role.

In the Annales, Tacitus further improved the style of portraiture that he had used so well in the Historiae. Perhaps the best portrait is that of Tiberius, portrayed in an indirect way, painted progressively during the course of a narrative, with observations and commentary along the way filling in details. The moral portrait takes precedence over the physical; there are also a few paradoxical portraits. The most important example of these is that of Petronius, the charm of whose character is in his contradictory appearances. The weakness of his life is in opposition to the energy and competence he demonstrated in public office. Petronius faced death as a last pleasure, giving contemporary proof of self-control, bravery, and firmness. He opposed the tradition of theatrical suicide among the Stoics and he spoke with friends on light subjects. Tacitus does not make him a model, but implicitly suggests that his greatness of soul is firmer than that displayed by the martyred Stoics.

In contrast to the Historiae, the style leaves behind rules and convention in favor of a strangeness that is achieved by the use of unusual forms, of an archaic and solemn lexicon. The Annales are less fluid than the Historiae. They are also more concise and severe. There is even more predilection for incongruity. The unharmonious verbal forms reflect the discordant events and the ambiguity of the characters' behaviour. There are many violent metaphors and audacious uses of personification. Poetic styles, especially that of Virgil, are often used.

The style shifts throughout the work. From the 13th book on, Tacitus uses a more traditional method, closer to the fundamentals of the classic style. The writing becomes richer, more elevated, less concise, less sharp, and less insinuating. In choosing between synonyms, Tacitus changes from the use of selected and decorative expressions to the use of more normal and more moderate expressions. Perhaps the kingdom of Nero is treated with less solemnity because it is closer to the time of writing, while the age of Tiberius was considered was considered closer to the old Republic. The occasional carelessness in the 15th and 16th books has led some to the opinion that the available editions of these books were not the final revision, but an earlier draft.

Minor works

Tacitus also wrote three minor works on various subjects: the Agricola, a biography of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola; the Germania, a monograph on the lands and tribes of barbarian Germania; and the Dialogus, a dialogue on the art of rhetoric.


Main article: Germania (book)

The Germania (Latin title: De Origine et situ Germanorum) is an ethnographic work on the diverse set of Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire. Ethnography had a long and distinguished heritage in classical literature, and the Germania fits squarely within the tradition established by authors from Herodotus to Julius Caesar. Tacitus himself had already written a similar, albeit shorter, piece in his Agricola (chapters 10–13). The book begins with a description of the lands, laws, and customs of the Germans (chapters 1–27); it then segues into descriptions of individual tribes, beginning with those dwelling closest to Roman lands and ending on the uttermost shores of the Baltic, with a description of the primitive and savage Fenni and the unknown tribes beyond them.

Agricola (De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae)

The Agricola (written c. 98) recounts the life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, an eminent Roman general and Tacitus' father-in-law; it also covers, briefly, the geography and ethnography of ancient Britain. As in the Germania, Tacitus favorably contrasted the liberty of the native Britons to the corruption and tyranny of the Empire; the book also contains eloquent and vicious polemics against the rapacity and greed of Rome.

When Trajan's ascent to the imperium in 98 ended the despotism of Domitian, Tacitus used the new freedom to publish this, his first historical work. During the reign of Domitian, Agricola, a faithful imperial officer, had been the most important general involved in the conquest of a great part of Britain. The proud tone of the Agricola recalls the style of the laudationes funebri (funeral speeches). A quick resume of the career of Agricola prior to his mission in Britain is followed by a narration of the conqest of the island. There are some geographical and ethnological digressions, taken not only from notes and memories of Agricola but also from the Commentaries of Julius Caesar. There are enough digressions that the Agricola goes beyond the limits of a simple biography, but these descriptions of Britain serve to exalt the subject of the biography as its conqueror.

Tacitus exalts the character of his father-in-law, by showing how — as governor of Roman Britain and commander of the army — he attend to matters of state with fidelity, honesty, and competence, even under the government of a very bad Emperor such as Domitian. Critiques of Domitian and of his regime of spying and repression are often present. Agricola remained uncorrupted; in disgrace under Domitian, he died without seeking the glory of an ostentatious martyrdom. Tacitus condemns the suicide of the Stoics as of no benefit to the state. Tacitus makes no clear statement as to whether the death of Agricola was from natural causes or ordered by Domitian, although he does say that rumors were voiced in Rome that Agricola was poisoned on Emperor's orders.

For Tacitus, Agricola served as an example of how, even under a despotism, it was possible to behave correctly, avoiding the opposite extremes of servility and useless opposition. The pride of Agricola is an apologia for a large part of the governing class: people who, not desiring martyrdom, had collaborated with the Flavian family and had made a valid contribution to lawmaking, to provincial government, to the enlargement of the limits of the empire and to the defence of its borders. These men, once they had back their freedom, would not have accepted an unjustified condemnation of their work and of their service to the state.

The work has a strong anti-despotic tone. Tacitus sets the despotism of Domitian against the merits of Agricola: an incorruptible officer and a great commander, he fit the model of the mos maiorum ("the custom of the forefathers", the presumed superior morality of an earlier time). The writer implicitly says that, as the Empire should be accepted as a necessary evil, one has to keep one's dignity without mixing up one's own responsibility with the responsibility of an arbitrary despot like Domitian. One can be an honest and scrupulous officer, doing his job with serenity and in collaboraton with the regime, keeping his job and keeping the interest of the state, waiting for a better age, when a writer would be able to write in freedom.

The Agricola mixes various literary genres. It is an elegy evolved into a biography, a laudatio funebris mixed with historical and ethnographical material. For this reason, the book contains portions written in different styles. The exordium, the speeches, and the final peroration show strong influence from Cicero, probably derived from Tacitus's own training in rhetoric. In the narrative and ethnographical portions, two models of the historical style can be seen: that of Sallust (with incongruities, archaism, parataxis and sobriety) and that of Livy (with oratorical style: wide, fluid, hypotaxic and dramatic).


The date of publication of the Dialogus de oratoribus is uncertain, but it was probably written after the Agricola and the Germania. Many characteristics set it apart from the other works of Tacitus, so much so that the its authenticity may be questioned, even if it is always grouped with the Agricola and the Germania in the manuscript tradition. The way of speaking in the Dialogus seems closer to the model of Cicero, refined but not prolix, which inspired the teaching of Quintilian; it lacks the incongruities that are typical of Tacitus's major historical works. It may have been written when Tacitus was young; its dedication to Fabius Iustus would thus give the date of publication, but not the date of writing. More probably, the unusually classical style may be explained by the fact that the Dialogus is a work of rhetoric. For this genre the structure, the language, and the style of Cicero were the usual models.

The dialogue itself, set in the year 75 or 77, follows the tradition of Cicero's speeches on philosophical and rhetorical arguments. The beginning of the work is a speech in defence of eloquence and poetry. It then deals with the decadence of oratory, for which the cause is said to be the decline of the education, both in the family and in the school, of the future orator. The education is not as accurate as it once was; the teachers are not prepared and a useless rhetoric often takes the place of the general culture.

After an incomplete section, the Dialogus ends with a speech reporting Tacitus's opinion. He thinks that great oratory was possible with the freedom from any power, more precisely in the anarchy, that characterized the Roman Republic during the civil wars. It became anachronistic and impracticable in the quiet and ordered society that resulted from the institution of the Roman Empire. The peace, warranted by the Empire, should be accepted without regret for a previous age that was more favorable to the wide spread of literacy and the growth of great personality. At the base of all of Tacitus's work is the acceptance of the Empire as the only power able to save the state from the chaos of the civil wars. The Empire reduced the space of the orators and of the political men, but there is no viable alternative to it. Nevertheless, Tacitus does not accept the imperial government apathetically, and he shows, as in the Agricola the remaining possibility of making choices that are dignified and useful to the state.

The sources of Tacitus

Tacitus was able to consult the official sources of the Roman state: the acta senatus (the minutes of the session of the Senate) and the acta diurna populi Romani (a collection of the acts of the goverment and news of the court and capital). He could read the collections of speeches by some emperors, such as Tiberius and Claudius. Tiberius was a scrupulous historian who paid careful attention to his historical works; Pliny the Younger congratulated him for his better-than-usual precision. He used a great variety of historical and literary sources as well; he used them with freedom and he chose from varied sources of varied tendency.

Tacitus cites some of his sources directly, among them Pliny the Elder, who had written Bella Germaniae and an historical work which was the continuation of that of Aufidius Bassus. Tacitus could use some collections of letters (epistolarium) and various notes. He also took some information from the works of the historical genre named exitus illustrium virorum. These were a collection of books on and by those who opposed the emperors. They tell of the sacrifice of the martyr to freedom, especially the men who committed suicide, following the theory of the Stoics. Tacitus used these materials to give a dramatic tone to his stories, while he placed no value on the theory of the suicides. These suicides seem, to him, ostentatious and politically useless.

Tacitus' influence

Pliny the Younger was the first of Tacitus's admirers, but by no means the last. His works began to have success in the 4th century; there are many literary sources that show us that he was one of the most commonly read authors. During the rise of Humanism and the Renaissance Livy was usually preferred. Francesco Guicciardini considered his work to be instruction on how to build a despotic state. Following the same line of thought, the thinkers of the Counter-Reformation and the age of absolute monarchies used his works as a set of rules and principles for political action. Tacitus was also used by theoreticians of "reasons of state" as a basis for the formulation of a theory of the imperial idea, but other readers of Tacitus used him to construct a method for living under a despotic state, avoiding both servility and useless opposition. Diderot, for example, used Tacitus' works, in his apology for Seneca, to justify the collaboration of philosophers with the sovereign. During the Enlightenment he was admired for his opposition to despotism. In literature, some great tragedians such as Corneille, Jean Racine and Alfieri, took inspirations from Tacitus for their dramatic characters.

Literary style

Approach to history

Tacitus' historical style, which would strongly influence Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall, combines various approaches to history into a method of his own (owing some debt to Sallust); seamlessly blending straightforward descriptions of events, pointed moral lessons, and tightly-focused dramatic account, his histories contain deep and pessimistic insight into the workings of the human mind and the nature of power.

Tacitus was primarily concerned with the balance of power between the Roman senate and the Roman Emperors. His writings are filled with tales of corruption and tyranny in the governing class of Rome as they failed to adjust to the new imperial régime; they squandered their cherished cultural traditions of free speech and self-respect as they fell over themselves to please the often bemused (and rarely benign) emperor. One well-known passage from his writings mentions the death of Christ (Annals, xv 44).

The factual accuracy of his work is occasionally questioned: his Annals are based in part on secondary sources of unknown reliability, and his own experience of Domitian's tyrannical reign gave an unfairly bitter and ironic cast to his portrayal of the Julio-Claudian emperors. His History, written from primary documents and his intimate knowledge of the Flavian period, is thought to be more accurate, though Tacitus' hatred of Domitian has colored its tone and interpretations.

Tacitus' political career was largely spent under the emperor Domitian; his experience of the tyranny, corruption, and decadence prevalent in the era (81–96) may explain his bitter and ironic political analysis. He warned against the dangers of unaccountable power; of the love of power untempered by principle; and against the popular apathy and corruption, engendered by the wealth of empire, which allowed such evils to flourish.

His work gained popularity during the Early Modern era, when it was a favorite of Niccolò Machiavelli, among others. His criticisms of tyranny and love of republicanism earned him the love of the French Revolutionaries and the hatred of Napoleon, who tried (unsuccessfully) to discredit his work as a forgery. One of his polemics against the evils of empire, from his Agricola (biography of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, ch. 30) was often quoted during the United States invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (see for example [1] (http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,930843,00.html)) by those who found its warnings as applicable to the modern era as to the ancient. It reads, in part:

Raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terrae, iam mare scrutantur: si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit. . . . Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

(Punctuation follows the Loeb Classical Library edition; ellipsis is added.) In translation, it reads:

Brigands of the world, after the earth has failed their all-devastating hands, they probe even the sea; if their enemy be wealthy, they are greedy; if he be poor, they are ambitious; neither the East nor the West has glutted them. . . . They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.

Prose style

Tacitus' skill with written Latin is unsurpassed; no other author is considered his equal, except perhaps for Cicero. His style differs both from the prevalent style of the Silver Age and from that of the Golden Age; though it has a calculated grandeur and eloquence (largely thanks to Tacitus' education in rhetoric), it is extremely concise, even epigrammatic—the sentences are rarely flowing or beautiful, but their point is always clear. The same style has been both derided as "harsh, unpleasant, and thorny" and praised as "grave, concise, and pithily eloquent".

His historical works focus on the psyches and inner motivations of the characters, often with penetrating insight—though it is questionable how much of his insight is correct, and how much is convincing only because of his rhetorical skill. He is at his best when exposing hypocrisy and dissimulation; for example, he follows a narrative recounting Tiberius' refusal of the title pater patriae by recalling the institution of a law forbidding any "treasonous" speech or writings—and the frivolous prosecutions which resulted (Annals, 1.72). Elsewhere (Annals 4.64–66) he compares Tiberius' public distribution of fire relief to his failure to stop the perversions and abuses of justice which he had begun. Though this kind of insight has earned him praise, he has also been criticized for ignoring the larger context of the events which he describes.

Tacitus owes the most, both in language and in method, to Sallust; Ammianus Marcellinus is the later historian whose work most closely approaches him in style.


  • Ronald Martin, Tacitus (Los Angeles, UC Press, 1981)
  • Clarence Mendell, Tacitus: The Man and His Work (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1957) ISBN 0208008187
  • Ronald Syme, Tacitus, Volumes 1 and 2 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985) (the definitive study of his life and works) ISBN 0198143273
  • Ronald Syme, Ten Studies in Tacitus (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1970) ISBN 0198143583
  • Various authors, Tacitus (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969) ISBN 0710064322

See also

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
  • Online e-texts of Tacitus' works (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/search?amode=start&author=Tacitus%2c%20Cornelius)
  • Tacitus' Annales (http://www.romansonline.com/sources/ann/indx_ann.asp?Kl=FFFFBA)
  • Tacitus' Historiae (http://www.romansonline.com/sources/his/indx_his.asp?Kl=FFFFBA)

  Results from FactBites:
Tacitus, who ranks beyond dispute in the highest place among men of letters of all ages, lived through the reigns of the emperors Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva and Trajan.
The prosecution was successful, and both Tacitus and Pliny received a special vote of thanks from the senate for their conduct of the case.
It is worth noticing that the emperor Tacitus in the 3rd century claimed descent from him, and directed that ten copies of his works should be made every year and deposited in the public libraries.
Tacitus (1703 words)
Tacitus was primarily concerned with the balance of power between the Roman senate and the Roman Emperors.
Tacitus' political career was largely spent under the emperor Domitian; his experience of the tyranny, corruption, and decadence prevalent in the era (81–96 AD) may explain his bitter and ironic political analysis.
Tacitus owes the most, both in language and in method, to Sallust; Ammianus Marcellinus is the later historian whose work most closely approaches him in style.
  More results at FactBites »



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