Nuptiae: Roman marriages
by: M. Horatius Piscinus
So saying, she set the love-lit heart ablaze,
Made bold the wavering mind, and banished shame.
First they approach the shrines, and pardon seek
Amid the altars, duly chosen ewes to Ceres…
Juno before all, mistress of wedlock.
~Virgil Aeneid IV.53-55.

Forms of Roman Marriages

Marriage in ancient Rome took various forms. Some were no more than a contractual arrangement without ceremony, while a confarreatio involved a solemn ritual. An early form of Roman marriage, known as usus, involved the transfer of a father’s authority (manus) over a woman to her husband and did not require any ceremony. Manus is an authority to manage property, different from the potestas that included a father’s power of life or death over his children (ius vitae necisque). Through a father’s potestas he could order a son or daughter to marry.1 It was not unusual for a girl of around age sixteen to be given in her first marriage to a man in his late twenties or early thirties. One example has, "Ennia Fructuosa…took the name wife at age fifteen.2." In a usus the woman was simply given by her father to a man quite literally "to use," although the arrangement was usually made with the woman’s consent. All that was required from the husband was a statement of honorable intent to marry (adfectus maritalis) and the man and woman would then cohabit. After a full year of cohabitation the couple were considered married, where as a woman might end the arrangement at any time during that first year by remaining away from her husband for three consecutive nights.3 Allowing that the wife remained for a full year, the couple would then be married, but technically the father’s manus did not transfer to the husband until the death of the wife’s father.

An arrangement of usus involved the payment of a "bride’s price" by her future husband. This was the same as buying the right to use property of another man and what ceremony attended such arrangements was that used for any contractual arrangement. Along with the use of a bride came a dowry. Among the poorer classes a woman’s dowry might be no more than her household utensils. A woman might instead be given to a man to use as a concubine (praelex), basically sold to the man without adfectus maritalis, in which case the arrangement was not regarded to be a legal marriage. If in the arrangement the bride was herself given as a dowry, it was still considered to be a legal marriage, although it brought great shame to the woman. A wealthier woman might instead have a dowry of property that would be paid over time in three annual installments. Upon the death of the woman’s father, his manus was then transferred to her husband, along with control over any property she might have. A special situation arose in a usus marriage where a father might put into his will that a daughter would be free of his authority upon his death; she became suae iuris. This free form of marriage had certain advantages for a woman, in that she retained a right to manage her own property rather than her husband, and she could initiate divorce. Since a marriage by usus involved a contractual arrangement, the gods were called to witness as they would for any business transaction. If the husband should later divorce his wife, the husband was expected to make a personal sacrifice to the Di inferi since divorce meant a breaking of vows to Tellus, by whom he had sworn his promises of marriage.4 By the end of the Republic the usus had become an obsolete arrangement and was replaced by a more formal form of marriage.

The coemptio formalized the arrangements of a usus. This form of Roman marriage involved a written agreement on tabula legitima. As in a usus, the agreement was made between those who held potestas over the bride and groom. It involved a legal contract that provided for the dowry and other arrangements. Around the signing of the agreement a ceremony grew, since it involved making a sacrifice to the gods called to witness, and auspices were taken to see if the gods approved of the arrangement. Unlike in the augury of the cultus civile where auspices were taken on behalf of the state only under the authority of Jupiter, private auspices were regarded to come from Picumnus, Pilumnus, Feronius, Vesta or other deities.5 Birds that were not considered as auspices in state augury, such as swans or doves, could be regarded as auspices in private auguries.6 The direction from which birds flew could have the opposite meaning in private auguries than is generally stated for state auguries.7 Each family kept their own books on auspices, with their own traditional form of private augury. The bride would be called forward to give her formal consent. The groom would have to purchase his bride, paying for the transfer of the manus from her father. This nummus usus, or bride’s price, later became a token payment of a single copper coin to the bride’s father. A coemptio required five witnesses to sign the agreement before it could be considered a legal contract and a legitimate marriage.

A still more formal form of marriage was the confarreatio. This ceremony required the presence of ten witnesses, including the Pontifex Maximus, flamen Dialis and his wife, the flamenica Dialis. Unlike other forms of Roman marriage a confarreatio was conducted as a sacred rite by which a husband and wife were placed into a union for all time. "Among religious rites, there is none more sacred.8" Divorce was generally not permitted from a confarreatio, due to its sacred nature. Servius, commenting on Virgil’s Aeneid, tries to distinguish between the union of Aeneas and Dido from a confarreatio where "it is unlawful to willingly separate." The confarreatio, Servius says, "is superior and certainly extended to posterity." Even in the death of one spouse, the bond of a confarreatio was considered to remain. The priestly office of the flamen Dialis could only be held by a man who was born of parents that had been married by a rite of confarreatio, and who had himself married by this rite. Should his wife subsequently die, the flamen Dialis was required to resign his office as he could not take a second wife by confarreatio. Later there did develop a form of divorce from a confarreatio, called a diffarreatio, of which little is known. In a confarreatio part of the ceremony involved the sharing of a special spelt cake. In a diffarreatio another spelt cake was made and then the husband and wife would cast it aside in sight of a priest. However, for the most part, it was said, "They shall ever after be intermingled like the abundant clouds and by this (confarreatio) either be in shame or in marriage.9"

Proscribed Days

It was forbidden to perform marriage ceremonies on the kalends, nones, or ides of each month, or on the following day. Marriages could not take place in the month of May, or during the periods of 13-21 February, 1-20 March, or during 5-15 June before the purification of Vesta’s temple.10 Days dedicated to the Manes, or on which the mundus was opened (24 August, 5 October, and 8 November) were prohibited as well, as were the atri (black days) of unfortunate dates like 18 July (Roman defeat at Allia) or 2 August (Cannae) when "religious law forbade sacred acts".11 Other dates, considered unfortunate in a family according to their particular cultus gentilis would also rule out days on which to hold marriage ceremonies. At one time marriages were predominately held in April, seen perhaps by the Carmentalia of 15 January, when the goddess of childbirth was invoked.

The Sponsalia

A preliminary to any Roman marriage was the engagement ceremony called a Sponsalia. This took place at the house of the bride’s parents. Both families would draw up an agreement designating who were to be the bride and groom, this portion of the marriage contract being called the ducenda.12 Other stipulations might be on the bride’s dowry, generally to be paid over three annual installments. Overseeing the handing over of a dowry was the goddess Afferenda. Three coins, called aurei, were used in marriage ceremonies (see below) that probably represented the bride’s promised dowry.13 In some forms of Roman marriage the groom would also pay a "bride’s price." The Coemptio involved a ritual purchasing of the bride using bronze and scales. In front of witnesses the bride would give her consent to the arrangement, and then both parties would sign a document of intent, called a tabula legitima.14 At this time the groom would place an iron ring (anulus pronubis) on the bride’s finger as a pledge of fidelity.15 Then a Pronuba, who was matron that had married only once before, guided by the goddess Manturna, would join together the right hands (dextrarum junctio) of the bride and groom. The intended bride would say, "Nubo," meaning, "I veil myself," to signify she was then promised to a man.16 At that time she became known as a sponsa, pacta, dicta, or a "hoped for" sperata, and her future husband was called the sponsus, while together they were called nova petantur, or "newly promised".17 Afterward there was a betrothal dinner at which speeches were given on the general benefits of marriage, without mention of any particular advantages in the proposed marriage.

The Nuptiae

Inspired by this joyful day
Sing wedding songs with your shrill voice
And shake the ground with your dancing.
In your hand brandish the pine torch.
For as Venus once approached Paris
Now Junia approaches
Manilius; a good maiden
Will marry with good omens.
Come forward, new bride. Do not be afraid.
Hear our words. See our torches
Burn like golden hairs.
Come forward new bride.
As the grapevine
Embaces the nearby tree,
So will you fold the new husband in your embrace.
But the day is waning, come forward new bride.

Domum Deductio

The Nuptia was another ceremony, occurring within a week after the Sponsalia. It began with the bride (nova nupta) being taken from her mother’s house and led in procession (domum deductio) to the house of her groom (novus maritus). It was by this Nuptia that the "newly promised were conjoined" in marriage.18 On the eve of her wedding procession a bride offered her toga praetexta to Fortuna Virginalis19 while her toys and other children’s attire were offered to her family’s Lares and Penates, or else to Venus. "We will lay them on the hearth in homage to our Lar familiaris, so that he may grant my daughter a happy marriage.20" At dawn an auspex nuptiarum would take the auspices for the marriage, and sacrifices would be offered. With favorable auspices, the agreement written on the tabula legitima was carried out. The bride would be embraced by her mother or friends before departing, and then there was a ritual enactment of the groom seizing his bride from her mother, evoking the legend of the rape of the Sabine women in the days of Romulus.

For the procession, the bride was dressed in a traditional costume. She wore a white robe with a purple fringe, or else one decorated with ribbons. It was called a tunica recta as it was vertically woven in an old style, and had no hem.21 Beneath her white tunica recta she was bound with a girdle (corona, zona, or cingulum) that the groom would later untie. The cingulum was tied into a special "knot of Hercules" to ward off the evil eye and also to ensure the bride’s fertility.22 The bride wore a special hairstyle called a tutulus. This consisted of her hair being divided into six locks, fastened by six fillets (vittae) as "the emblem of modesty.23" The locks were drawn up into a cone shape (meta) similar to the hairstyle worn by the flamenica Dialis (wife of the priest of Jupiter). Her hair was parted using a bent iron spearhead (hasta recurva, or hasta caelibaris), and for some for good luck the spearhead had to be one previously pierced into a gladiator.24 She wore a circlet on her head of marjoram, vervain, myrtle, and other herbs, gathered by her own hand.25 The bride’s head was then veiled by a flammeum, a veil of red-orange or else a bright yellow26, and her shoes would be in a matching colour.27 Fashionable among patricians during the Republic was the red Etruscan styled shoes with upturned pointed toes. The bride carried three copper coins. The first she carried in her hand, which she later gave to her husband. A second coin was on her foot, which she placed on the hearth as an offering to the Penates of her new home. She carried a third coin in a purse that she would offer to the lares compitales on an altar at the crossroads nearby her husband’s house.28

The bride was led in procession by a young boy who carried a torch of Ceres, preferably one made of whitethorn (spina), "the best augury for nuptial torches.29" In the domum deductio for a confarreatio, spelt cakes (far) and mola salsa were carried before the bride, which she was to share with her husband as part of the ceremony.30 Two other boys, gemelli, supported the bride’s arms.31 The bride or her friends would carry distaff and a spindle with wool32. Another boy, a camillus, would carry a covered vase, the cumera or cumerum, that along with five candles held her crepundia; that is, her utensils and toys of childhood33. Outside the bride’s house would be standing her friends teasing her timidity with bawdy songs called fescininnae. The groom’s friends would do the same near his house, teasing the groom, and along the way others would join in with more fescininnae34. Along the route of the procession walnuts were handed out to the crowd35. The walnut signified the bride’s fertility to produce sons, and thus good fortune in a marriage. The bride’s procession was a public affair, the entire community joining in a ruckus celebration, with shouts of "Talassio" to wish the bride and groom well in their marriage36.

Arriving at the groom’s house, its door decorated with garlands and flowers, the bride would conduct a little rite by which she blessed his house. This consisted of the bride wrapping filaments of wool around the doorposts, and using a branch of arbutus to anoint the door hinges three times with lard or wolf fat37. The rite performed by a bride probably included prayers to Forculus and Limentius, as well as Cardea, as these three deities were the guardians of the door38. In a story by Ovid, Janus gave Cranae a bough of whitethorn, "to drive dreadful harm from doors." After the marriage ceremony, the whitethorn carried in the bride’s procession would likely be hung over the door as a protective charm, in the same manner as other such charms were placed over bedroom windows to protect children. In becoming a bride, one duty of a wife was to protect her husband’s house, often with magical formulae as may have been spoken in this house blessing. The bride was then carried over the threshold by pronubi, these being male friends of the groom who were only once married, seeing to prevent her foot from knocking the threshold or stumbling, as that would have been regarded as a bad omen. The procession and arrival of the bride at her husband’s house was looked over by Domiducus. Unxia guided the bride in anointing the door of her husband’s house. The installation of the bride as mistress of her new home was under the providence of Domitius39.

Nuptiae Coemptionis

Once inside the groom’s house the ceremonies continued to exemplify the bride’s transition from her father’s house and family to that of her husband’s. In a coemptio the traditional relationship between husband and wife was emphasized. The bride saluted her husband with the formula, "Ubi tu Caius, ego Caia" to signify that she would be his counterpart and that both had their own roles to play in the household40. The husband would receive his new bride by offering her tokens of fire and water. This symbolized that the husband would provide for his bride. She in turn would have to touch these tokens as a sign of her acceptance. The feet of the bride, and perhaps the groom as well, were washed in this water41. The bride would then place her spindle and distaff on a sheepskin, and in return the groom would give her the keys to his house. After this, members of the household, even the husband, would always address the woman as "Domina," recognizing that she ruled inside the house. The groom then gave a dinner for the wedding guests, called the coena nuptalis. At the end of the meal, matrons, who had been married only once before, would conduct the bride from the dining area to the lectus genialis that was set up in the atrium of the house. This was the wedding bed, decorated with flowers, often with saffron-dyed sheets and violets after the fashion of the wedding bed of Jupiter and Juno. Several indigitamenta were said to watch over this first night. Virginiensis saw to the bride’s virginity. Cinxia tied and loosened the bride’s cingulum. Subigus tamed the bride while Prema held her for her husband. Pertunda, along with Venus and Priapus, ensured penetration during coitus, while Perficia ensured the consummation of coitus42. However, for various reasons, coitus did not usually take place on the first night, but was instead delayed until the following night after the final ceremonies had been completed.

The Confarreatio

A confarreatio was a form of matrimonium around which were performed sacred rites. As in other forms of marriage it first began with the Sponsalia and the domum deductio. The Nuptia ceremonies then performed at the groom’s house differed in some respects from those held for a coemptio. A confarreatio included a series of sacrifices, the taking of auspices, the sharing of a special meal by the bride and groom, and then a priestly blessing. Early in the Republican period a group of patricians tried to claim that the rite of confarreatio was restricted to patricians alone, based on another of their claims, that plebeians could not take auspices. The reaction to both claims, taken by patricians as well as plebeians, show that such claims were false43. The facts were that the first consul of the Republic, Junius Brutus, and others that followed afterward, were plebeians and had taken auspices as required of that office. Also, prior to the adoption of the Twelve Tablets, patricians and plebeians had intermarried, presumably by confarreatio. Marcius Coriolanus, as one example, bears the name of a plebeian gens, yet his mother Veturia was a patrician, and while some regard him as a patrician because of his defense of patrician privileges, his wife Volumnia was a plebeian. In contrast there is no mention or other evidence that plebeians did not perform confarreationes, even when the marriage was between plebeians44. What was required was the presence of the flamen Dialis who by tradition had to be a patrician, but there was no restriction that would exclude his participation in plebeian weddings.

For a confarreatio the pronuba first led the bride to the altar and joined her right hand to that of the groom as at the Sponsalia. The groom would then lead the bride three times around an altar in a clockwise direction45. In this they were preceded by the camillus, still carrying the bride’s cumera46. With the Pontifex Maximus and flamen Dialis present, offerings of fruit and far cakes were made to Jupiter. Prayers and sacrifices were also offered to Tellus, Juno, Pilumnus and Picumnus. The vows of marriage were said before Tellus47. Pilumnus and Picumnus were invoked as guardians of children and of women during childbirth. Juno safeguarded the sincerity of those vows.

A sheep was sacrificed, probably in conjunction with the taking of auspices. The victim was first sanctified by the mola salsa carried by the bride. Prayers were offered to the Di inferi, including Pilumnus and Picumnus who were invoked so that they would send auspices. It became customary for a confarreatio to also include a haruspex who would consult the entrails of the sacrificial victim for additional omens. If the omens showed the gods still favoring the marriage, then the ceremony would continue. A second sacrifice was made in conjunction with the swearing of vows. This second sacrifice we may assume was that of a pig, as would be fitting for Tellus, before whom the wedding vows were said48. Part of this sacrifice involved the bridegroom offering the bride a bough of pitch-pine that she would then place into the altar’s flame as a sacrifice. The bride in turn gave the groom a bough of juniper that he would sacrifice along with his vow, "To me, myself, as ever my fate endures to live49." During the remaining portion of the ceremony, the couple’s heads were veiled and they would be seated together on two chairs, over which the single sheepskin of the sacrificial victim was thrown50. If either, but more specifically if the groom would rise from his seat during the ceremony, then the marriage was abrogated. The bride would then say "The king has departed from his arrangement51."

The special feature of a confarreatio, by which it received its name, was the sharing by the bride and groom of a far cake made from spelt. It was required that ten people witness this shared meal, as had witnessed their marriage contract at the Sponsalia, among them the flamen and flamenica Dialis, and the Pontifex Maximus usually attended as well. Juvenal mentions a maestaceum cake being distributed later in the evening to wedding guests and this may refer to the same spelt cakes shared by the bride and groom52. After sharing the far cake, a special formula prayer was said over the couple. "I conjoin you both in matrimony," or else, "By the gods immortal, are you joined together in matrimony53." The couple was warned, "do not come into this (marriage) in the manner of lingerers," and reminded that "this marriage (by confarreatio) is superior and certainly extended to posterity…come to agree that by this accord it is unlawful to willingly separate and bring us into shame." Otherwise, they were also told, "everafter shall you be intermingled like the abundant clouds and by this either be in shame or in marriage54." As for a coemptio, the confarreatio concluded with a coena nuptialis, the bride afterward being led to the lectus genialis.

Final ceremonies

The day following the coena nuptalis, the new husband would host another dinner for his friends and family. The bride would attend, appearing in her new role as domina. On this following day, too, she and women from the husband’s family performed religious rites together. One rite involved the new bride being made to sit upon the phallus of the ithyphallic god Mutunus Tutunus55. As in other parts of Roman marriage ceremonies, this rite was meant to ensure the bride’s fertility and to ward off the evil eye. More importantly, the bride joined with women from her husband’s family in performing the daily rites at the hearth to the Penates, and to the Lares56. She would have to perform these rites from now on in accordance with the cultus genialis of her husband. Each family belonged to a gens that abided in a certain tradition that could in some respects differ from the cultus she had known in her father’s house. The other women from her husband’s family were on hand to guide her in the proper form as she made the daily rites according to her newly adopted tradition. The Penates were the local spirits of the land on which the house was built, who were primarily invoked for safeguarding the household larder. As the domina her primary duty would be to see after the larder and its contents. To the Penates the bride would offer the coin she had carried in her shoe during her procession, along with other common offerings such as incense. The house resided in a certain neighborhood, and thus she would visit the local shrine to offer sacrifices to the lares compitales. This shrine was located at the crossroads that designated the neighborhood in which she would now reside. To these neighborhood lares she would sacrifice such items as fruit, wine, olive oil, milk, incense, and the purse containing a coin that she had carried in her procession57. The other Lares to whom she would sacrifice were the ancestral spirits of her husband’s family, and thus would be for her children as well. The shrine of the family’s Lares, called a lararium, was either at the hearth or in the atrium near the front door of the house. In her new lararium, that of her husband’s, she would place such things as the tokens of fire and water given her the night before by the groom, or her childhood toys, or other personal items. That is, in addition to offering wine and incense that was part of the normal daily worship of the Lares, the bride would offer other things that specifically represented her in her new family. In all, the wedding week beginning in the bride’s house then concluding with the sacrifices she made to the Lares of her husband, signified her transition from one family to another. Not only did she give up her childhood in her mother’s house, she accepted as her own, and was accepted amongst, the ancestors of her husband’s family.
  1. Grammaticae Romanae Fragmenta, G. Funaioli, 1907: Cincius 23: qui parentem necavisset, quod est obvolvere
  2. CIL 8.2756 Burial inscription from Lambaesis, Numidia, 212 C. E.
  3. Gaius Institutiones Iustiniana 1.111: Tablet VI.5
  4. Plutarch Romulus 22.3
  5. Festus De Verborum Significatione 197a; Nonius Marcellus De Compendiosa Doctrina 518
  6. Servilius Ad Aen. 3.241
  7. GRF Nigidius Figulus 38 Ex Auguri Privati Libris; Aulus Gelius.Attic Nights 7.6
  8. Pliny Hist. Nat. 18.10: nihil religiosius
  9. Serv. Ad Aen. 4.339
  10. Ovid Fasti 2.557, 3.339, 3.397-8; 5.488-90; 5.621-2; 6.225-34
  11. Macrobius. Saturnalia 1,15,22
  12. GRF Sulpicius Rufus 3 De Dotibus; Gelius 4.4.1
  13. Juvenal Satires VI.200
  14. Juvenal II.119; VI.25-7
  15. Juvenal II.27
  16. GRF L. Cincius 23, Fest. p.170b.24
  17. Plautus Trinumus II, 4.99; GRF Cornificius 12, Fest. p.170b.24
  18. GRF Cornificius 12; Fest. p.170b.24: Cornificius nuptias dictas esse ait – quod nova petantur coniugia
  19. Arnobius Adversus Nationes 2.67
  20. Plautus Aulularia 386 f
  21. Juvenal 2.124; Pliny H. N. 8.48; Festus p. 364, 24
  22. Festus p. 55, 18
  23. Ovid Ars Amor. 1.31; Pont. 3.3.52
  24. Ovid Fasti 2.560
  25. Fest. p. 56.1-2
  26. GRF Cincius 23; Pliny H. N. 21.8
  27. Catullus Carmina 52.10
  28. Nonius Marcellus De Compendiosa Doctrina p.531.12ff
  29. Pliny Hist. Nat. 16.75 Torches of pitch-pine or larch might be used instead.
  30. Serv. ad Virg. Eclog 8.82
  31. Pliny Hist. Nat. 16.18
  32. Pliny Hist. Nat. 8.48
  33. Plutarch Quaest. Rom. Init
  34. Ovid Fasti 3.675; Livy 7.2; Horace Epist. 2.1.145; Macr. 2.4; Catallus Carmina 61.27; Pliny H. N. 16.22; Virgil Geor. 2.385
  35. Pliny H. N. 15.86 Walnuts were also thrown at certain youths, with lewd taunts to chase them away. In the Epithalamium Catullus refers to them as "sluggish boys" used as concubines and worthy to receive only the empty shells of walnuts. Servius, ad Virg. Eclog. 8.29,30, said that the walnuts "signified that the loitering boys were to be scorned."
  36. Livy 1.9.312-3: Talassio ferri clamitatum. Inde nuptialem hanc vocem factam.
  37. Ovid Fasti 6.155-6; Servius ad Aen. 4.19; Pliny Hist. Nat. 28.9, 29.30. Lard: adeps suillus; wolf fat: adeps lupinus.
  38. GRF Varro 159 Ex Rerum Divinarum Libris; Augustine Civ. D. 4.8
  39. GRF Varro 155 Ex Rerum Divinarum, Aug. Civ. D. 6.9, Tertullian Ad Nationes 2.11
  40. Plutarch Quaest. Rom. 1.c
  41. Servilius ad Aen. 4.104. The union of fire and water, sometimes considered to represent the male and female forces of nature, were thought a precondition producing life, as with Varro L. L. 5.61, and also as necessities of life (Fest. p. 3.2-3). A pronouncement of exile was stated in terms of forbidding anyone to provide fire and water to the exiled person.
  42. Aug. Civ. Dei 6.9.3
  43. Livy IV.3.1-IV.6.3
  44. T. J. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome, 1995, p.255
  45. Plautus Curculio 70; Valerius Flaccus Argonautica 8.243-6: inde ubi sacrificas cum coniuge venit ad aras…dextrum pariter vertuntur in orbem
  46. Fest. p.43.25; p.55.24
  47. Serv. Ad Aen. 4.339
  48. Varro De Rustica 2.4.10: naturam qua feminae sunt, in virginibus appellant porcum,…significantes esse dignum insigne nuptiarum.
  49. Serv. Ad Aen. 4.339 Me si fata meis paterentur ducere vitam
  50. Serv. ad Aen. 4.374
  51. Ibid A quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, said by Dido, "regni demens in parte locavi."
  52. Juvenal Satires 6.201
  53. Catullus Carmen 61: Ego coniugo vos in matrimonium. Catullus Carmen 62: Pro Di immortales vos coniugetis in matrimoniam confarreationi.
  54. Serv. Ad Aen. 4.339
  55. Lactantius Divinae Institutiones 1.20.36, Aug. Civ. Dei 6.9, 7.24: in celebratione nuptiarum super Priapi scapum nova nupta sedere iubebatur
  56. Cicero De Repubilica V.5: "This system provides for legal marriages, legitimate children, and the consecration of homes to the Lares and Penates of families, so that all may make use of the common property and of their own personal possessions."
  57. Nonius p. 531.12 ff.
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