Post-classical history

The End of the Paphlagonians

[1041-2]

God is not unjust. I am guilty of grave crimes, and must now suffer the punishment that is my due.

The Emperor Michael ,V, shortly before his blinding

John the Orphanotrophus was deeply affected by the Emperor's death. Schemer and intriguer though he was, his love for Michael had been deep and genuine; and he kept vigil by the body for three days and three nights until its burial. His two other brothers behaved very differently. Determined as they were to establish their nephew firmly on the throne before any rival claimant could be put forward, they introduced him into the Palace almost before his predecessor had left it and would doubtless have pressed on with the coronation itself had they had the power to do so; fortunately they were obliged to await the return of the Orphanotrophus from his devotions. Psellus was actually in the Palace when he arrived, and describes the scene as an eye-witness:

When the brothers heard that John had crossed the threshold of the outer Palace, they approached him as if they were about to meet God Himself. The ceremonial was prepared beforehand: they gathered about him and smothered him with kisses, all kissing different parts of his body at once. Even his nephew stretched out his right hand towards him, as if there were some virtue to be gained from his very touch.

At the family conference that followed, John insisted on one point above all others: that nothing must be done without the consent, real or apparent, of the Empress. She alone, as niece of Basil II, represented the legitimate succession; her support was essential if Michael Calaphates were to be accepted as the new basileus. And so to Zoe they went,

Michael flinging himself at the feet of his adoptive mother and all four of them arguing that only through him could she regain the power that was her birthright. He would, they promised, be Emperor only in name; she herself would take over the reins of government — unless she preferred to rule through him, in which case he would still serve as her puppet-Emperor and mouthpiece. In either event he would continue to be her slave, ready at every moment to do her bidding. Old, weak, gullible, not particularly intelligent and with no one to advise her, Zoe was - as they had foreseen - easily persuaded. And so, with her blessing, Michael V proceeded to his consecration.

The Roman Empire of the East had now been in existence for a litde more than 700 years, during which the throne had been occupied by fifty-five different sovereigns. Some had acquired it by heredity, others — like Michael IV - by marriage. Yet others - Nicephorus Phocas, for example, or John Tzimisces - had seized it, more or less by force; but they had done so as victorious generals, and had been acclaimed by their men according to a tradition older than Byzantium itself, going back as it did to the time of Augustus. It can thus safely be said that no Emperor in the whole history of Byzantium had less title to the throne than Michael Calaphates. The uncle had at least been the husband of the Empress; the nephew was not even her lover. His birth was lowly, his military record non-existent. He possessed no particular qualities of character or intelligence to recommend him beyond the lowliest of his subjects. The unpleasant young man who was now acclaimed as God's Vice-Gerent on Earth and Equal of the Apostles owed his elevation to two things only: to the machinations of a corrupt and self-seeking minister, and to the weakness of a foolish old woman.

During the first weeks of his reign he maintained an appropriate - if somewhat sickening - humility, addressing Zoe as 'my mistress, my sovereign' and the Orphanotrophus as 'my lord and master', even giving him a throne to sit on next to his own. But this preliminary phase did not last long, and a few weeks later John - who was no stranger to Michael's duplicity - was not surprised to discover that his nephew's attitude towards him was beginning to change dramatically the moment his back was turned. Soon, too, he made another discovery, more worrying still: that his own brother Constantine, for whom he had secured the position of Grand Domestic, was doing everything he could to encourage Michael's hostility to him.

Constantine, it appears, had long been jealous of his brother's success and had determined to destroy him as soon as he could safely do so; and to this end, from the moment that Michael had been created Caesar, he had assiduously cultivated the young man's friendship. So successful had he been that Michael on his accession had raised him to the rank of nobilissimus and now kept him permanently at his side; while Constantine, his position now assured, dropped even the pretence of civility towards the Orphanotrophus and openly insulted him whenever the opportunity arose. After one particularly violent altercation between them during a dinner with the Emperor, John rose angrily from the table and strode out of the Palace, going not to his own residence but to one of his country estates: a sign of displeasure which, he imagined, would soon bring Michael to his senses. Sure enough, a letter soon arrived bearing the imperial seal. It reproached him for his excessive pride, but asked him to return - in order, John assumed, to discuss certain secret government business. He therefore complied at once, expecting to be received by a suitably contrite nephew; but when he reached the Palace it was only to find that the Emperor had gone off to watch a performance at the theatre, leaving no message. Furious, he turned on his heel and went straight back to his estate.

Psellus, who tells this story, leaves us in no doubt that the Orphanotrophus had seriously underestimated the degree of the Emperor's hostility towards him. After this incident, he did so no longer. At last he saw, all too clearly, that the whole plan to raise his nephew to the throne had been a disastrous mistake; he saw, too, that unless he now directed all his energy and ingenuity to the task of overthrowing him, he must himself be overthrown. Unfortunately for him, Michael and Constantine had reached the same conclusion. They may have lacked his intelligence; they had, on the other hand, the whole power of government behind them. Some days later a vessel flying the imperial standard appeared at the landing-stage of John's estate - it was presumably somewhere along the Bosphorus or the Marmara shore -with a summons to present himself at once at the Palace to explain his recent conduct. The Orphanotrophus must have had his misgivings, but decided none the less to obey. Even now, it seems, he believed that he could bring his nephew to see where his own best interests lay.

But he was given no chance to do so. As he approached the Great Palace the Emperor, watching from the topmost terrace, gave a prearranged signal. The boat swung about; then another, larger vessel came alongside, took John on board and carried him off to exile - probably in the distant monastery of Monobatae, though Psellus claims that it was suitable only for bandits. He never saw Constantinople again. Michael, after his anger had cooled, is said to have relented to the extent of allowing his former benefactor a few primitive comforts; but Michael was not John's only enemy, nor were exile and imprisonment to be bis only punishments.

After the removal of John the Orphanotrophus, and with him the last restraining influence on his own behaviour, Michael Calaphates could finally put into effect the ideas which, ever since his accession, had been germinating in his mind. His first target was the court aristocracy. It is not hard to imagine the barely concealed contempt with which they had treated him from the moment of his coronation: imperial protocol would have been minutely observed, but they would not have allowed him to forget either the baseness of his origins or the manner of his elevation. Determined on revenge, he now set about their destruction — abusing them, threatening them, humiliating them, depriving them one after the other of their privileges until they trembled for their lives. He dismissed his imperial guard (by now a semi-permanent force of Varangian and Anglo-Saxon Vikings), replacing it with a company of 'Scythians' - probably Slavs, and eunuchs to a man — whose loyalty he ensured by disproportionate rewards and who were consequently ready to act on his every whim. Meanwhile, writes Psellus, he gave ever more liberty and licence to the masses, on the grounds that his authority must be based on the love of his people rather than on any pampered elite. Not surprisingly, the masses responded. When the Emperor rode through the streets, purple hangings were draped from the windows and rich carpets spread in his path. All too soon, drunk with this adulation, he began to see himself as universally beloved, the father of his people, his position secure: so secure that he now resolved to pass on to the next stage of his plan - the elimination of his adoptive mother, the Empress Zoe.

To be sure, she had done him no harm. Indeed it was to her, almost as much as to his uncle, that he owed his elevation. But that alone was reason enough for him to treat her as he had treated John, since his character never allowed him to forgive those who done him a service. To him, moreover, Zoe represented everything he hated most: the old aristocracy, the Macedonian line, the hidebound and ossified traditions of the Byzantine court. It infuriated him to see her given precedence over him in church and court ceremonial, her name read out before his own in official proclamations. She was a constant reminder of his own miserable background, and of the humiliation he had felt in making those grovelling assurances with which he had gained her approval for his coronation. Did he also believe, as Glycas and Scylitzes maintain and as he himself later claimed to believe, that she had been responsible for the death of his predecessor and was already plotting his own? Perhaps he did: unbalanced as he undoubtedly was, he might have been persuaded of anything. The question must remain unanswered - but in any event hardly matters, for his mind was already made up. It was not enough that Zoe was old, and living in relative obscurity; into exile she must

The old Empress had already suffered hardship enough at the hands of her two husbands, but this was nothing compared with the treatment she now received at the hands of her adoptive son. For the third time she was confined to the gynaeceum she detested, cut off from the imperial treasury that was rightfully hers and obliged to exist on the most meagre of allowances; in the past, however, she had always received the outward respect due to her rank. This time no attempt was made to conceal the fact that she was being held prisoner. Even her rare public appearances -usually on the great Feasts of the Church - were forbidden. Her ladies and serving-women were removed; she was now consigned to the care of ill-educated and brutal warders appointed by Michael himself.

Yet even this did not satisfy him. On the Sunday after Easter, 18 April 1042, soldiers burst into the gynaeceum and arrested the luckless Zoe on a charge of attempted regicide. The tribunal that followed, at which several false witnesses gave the testimony they had been paid to give and the Empress was not even permitted to speak in her own defence, was a shameless travesty. Her hair was cut off and taken straight to the Emperor as he had commanded; she herself was then hustled down to a waiting ship and borne away that very night to a convent on the Marmara island of Prinkipo. Psellus writes affectingly of her grief as she tearfully called upon the spirit of her uncle, Basil II, imploring his protection. By the time of her arrival, however, she was quiet and seemingly resigned to her fate. She had, it seems, feared a worse one.

The next morning the Emperor called a meeting of the Senate. Whether its members believed his account of Zoe's repeated efforts to murder him we shall never know; but they were fully aware of the consequences of any protest, and obediendy signified their approval. A public proclamation was accordingly read out by the City Prefect in person, to a large crowd assembled in the Forum of Constantine. Once again Zoe was accused of having brought her punishment on herself by her repeated attempts to murder her co-Emperor. Michael, it was stressed, had taken the only action possible in the circumstances, and had dealt similarly with Patriarch Alexis, who had been her accomplice in her nefarious designs.

We should like to know more about the involvement of the Patriarch. Our Greek sources tell us tantalizingly little; it is left to the thirteenth-century Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir - who clearly had access to other authorities now lost - to record that the Emperor had his own reasons for wanting to get rid of him and had tricked him into visiting a monastery a little way up the Bosphorus, where a detachment of his Scythian guard was lying in wait to kill him. Alexis, however, managed to escape and returned at once to Constantinople, where he had all the church bells rung to summon the people to rise in revolt. We can believe this story or not, as we wish; but a popular uprising is precisely what now took place. Scarcely had the Prefect finished his reading when a voice was heard from the crowd, calling for the overthrow of the blasphemer Michael and his replacement by Zoe, the rightful Empress. Immediately the crowd took up the cry, one section of it making straight for the Prefect, who narrowly escaped with his life.

For, strangely enough - she had after all done little enough to deserve it — the people of Constantinople had taken Zoe to their hearts. It was not simply that she was the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Emperors, and the niece of the greatest that Byzantium had ever known; there was also the fact of her age. She had been Empress since before most of them had been born; almost without being aware of it, she had become an institution. Everyone knew that she had voluntarily adopted young Michael, and that it was to her that he owed his elevation only four months before; the idea that she should immediately try to murder him was as ridiculous as Michael's treatment of her was contemptible. Psellus gives a vivid eye-witness description of the scene that followed:

Since there was no longer anyone to stop them - the revolt having spread through the entire population - they took up their positions ready for action. At first they formed small groups, as if divided into companies; later, a citizen army, they marched in one body to the attack. Every man was armed; one grasped an axe, another brandished a heavy broadsword, another a bow, another a spear; but the bulk of the mob, some with huge stones in the folds of their clothing and holding others ready in their hands, ran in general disorder. Someone had thrown open all the prisons to swell the number of insurgents.

I myself was standing in the outer porch of the Palace, dictating confidential despatches when suddenly our ears were assailed by a noise as of horses' hooves, and the hearts of most of us trembled at the sound. Then there arrived a messenger with the news that all the people were roused against the Emperor. They were gathered in one body; they were marching under one common standard, with one single purpose — I straightway mounted my horse, and going through the midst of the city I saw with my own eyes the sight which I can now hardly believe.

It was as if the whole multitude shared some superhuman inspiration. They seemed different from their former selves. There was more madness in their running, more strength in their hands, the flash in their eyes was more fiery and inspired, the muscles of their bodies more powerful...

It was decided first to attack the Emperor's family and to tear down their proud and luxurious mansions. With this object the mob advanced to the general assault, and all was razed to the ground. Of the buildings, some were covered over, others left open to the sky; roofs falling to the ground were covered with debris, foundations were revealed as if the very earth were throwing off its burden and hurling away the floors. Nor was this the work of strong young men alone; young girls and children of both sexes assisted in the destruction. Every building fell at the first assault, and the destroyers looted the contents with utter indifference. The objects were all put up for sale, without a thought for the noble mansions from which they had come.

One of the first houses to be destroyed was that of Constantine, the Emperor's uncle. Somehow he and a group of retainers had made their way through the mob to the Great Palace, where they found Michael alone, deserted by his guard, cowering in a corner. Their one chance of survival, they realized, was to bring Zoe back at once from exile, and a boat was hurriedly sent to fetch her. Meanwhile Constantine - who, unlike his pathetic nephew, was not lacking in courage - gathered what few loyal forces he could find and prepared to defend the building until her arrival. All that day they fought, firing volley after volley of arrows and bolts from the towers and upper windows. Many of the insurgents were killed, but for each that fell several more arrived to take his place. The defenders were well-nigh exhausted by the time the old Empress arrived.

She herself was in little better state. Despite his situation, she was still terrified of Michael Calaphates: she was certainly in no mood to crow over him and the fate that he had brought upon himself, if only because it seemed that she might very easily be obliged to share it. She therefore readily agreed to do whatever she was asked: in particular, to show herself to the people as their lawful ruler and once again to make common cause with her adopted son. Her coarse woollen habit was hastily removed and replaced with a robe of purple, while the imperial diadem was arranged in such a way as to cover, so far as possible, the few wisps that were all that remained of her hair after her forcible tonsuring. So arrayed, she and Michael advanced tremblingly to the kathisma, the imperial box of the Hippodrome, to which there was direct access from the Palace.

The insurgent leaders, however, would have none of them. Zoe by herself they might have accepted, but the presence of the Emperor at her side was enough to convince them that she was still effectively his prisoner; so far as they were concerned there could be no solution to the crisis while Michael remained on the throne. Then, suddenly, a new thought struck them: what about Theodora? It was now fifteen years since Zoe, in a fit of wholly unjustifiable jealousy, had had her younger unmarried sister immured in the convent of the Petrion. Theodora had never re-emerged, and was by now largely forgotten: Psellus even goes so far as to maintain that when Michael Calaphates succeeded he did not even know of her existence. But she was still very much alive and still technically an Empress, with as much claim to the throne as Zoe and without her obvious disadvantages. Therefore, since Zoe could no longer be trusted to reign alone, she and her sister must do so jointly. That same afternoon a party led by the Patrician Constantine Cabasilas — and including all the eunuchs who had previously served her father and had later been dismissed by Michael — was sent off to the Petrion with orders to bring Theodora back immediately to Constantinople.

They found their mission far from easy. Theodora showed a good deal more spirit than Zoe had done, refusing absolutely to listen to the pleas of her father's old friends and taking sanctuary in the convent chapel. But Cabasilas and his followers were equally determined. They pursued her to her place of refuge and after a furious struggle dragged her forcibly out into the street. There she too was obliged to change her monastic habit for an imperial robe, after which she was borne in triumph to St Sophia where the Patriarch was waiting. And so it was that, late in the evening of Monday 19 April, the furious old lady received - with the greatest possible reluctance - the crown of Byzantium, while a vast concourse of people of every rank and from every class of society cheered her to the echo. Michael Calaphates for his part was condemned as a usurper and declared deposed. As soon as the ceremony had come to an end the congregation left the Great Church, reassembled outside, and marched towards the Palace.

Michael's position was now desperate. For hours he and his uncle, high in the kathisma, had tried to make themselves heard above the angry tumult in the Hippodrome below, pushing the miserable Zoe in front of them, repeatedly prostrating themselves before her in vain attempts to persuade the crowd that she, not they, held the reins of power. But the shouting grew ever louder and when the mob began throwing stones, and even firing arrows, in their direction they had been forced to retreat once again into the Palace where, not long afterwards, the news was brought to them of Theodora's arrival and coronation. By now Michael thought only of escape, of taking a ship from the imperial harbour of the Bucoleon along to the great monastery of the Studium, in the Psamatia district where the land walls met the Marmara shore, and there claiming sanctuary. His uncle Constantine, however, forbade it. An Emperor, he insisted, could never take flight. He must conquer, or die fighting. He himself was determined to defend the Palace to the last man, and he expected to have his nephew at his side.

At this moment, by an extraordinary coincidence, there arrived at the Bucoleon the Empire's most distinguished general, Catacalon Cecaumenus, thanks to whose valour and determination in the previous year the city of Messina had been saved for the Empire when the rest of Sicily had fallen to the Saracens. It was hardly the homecoming that he had expected; Michael, however, seemed to derive some degree of encouragement from his sudden appearance and agreed to stand his ground. All that night the fighting continued; but the first streaks of dawn revealed that the Palace had been completely cut off by the rebels from the landward side. Moreover, they were now launching a three-pronged assault: one group attacking the kathisma from the Hippodrome, one the Chalke Gate from the Augusteum and the third marching on what was known as the Tsykanisterion, a vast open arena established two centuries before by Basil I for the exercising of his horses.

Tuesday, 20 April 1042 was one of the bloodiest days that Constantinople had seen in all its history. The carnage was appalling especially that suffered by the insurgents, for the most part defenceless against the fully armed and mail-clad imperial troops. In that one day, we are credibly informed, and in the night that followed, over 3,000 perished. But in the end, inevitably, numbers prevailed. In the early hours of Wednesday morning the Palace fell, and the whole vast complex of buildings was overrun by a frenzied, furious mob, pillaging and looting wherever it went but always with one supreme objective in mind: to find the Emperor and to kill him.

No longer could there be any question of a last stand. Shortly before dawn Michael and Constantine, pausing only to disguise themselves in dirty, tattered clothes, together boarded the waiting ship, sailed along the coast to the Studium, submitted to immediate tonsure and were forthwith accepted as members of the monastic community. Zoe, meanwhile, left alone in the Palace to fend for herself as best she might, was soon found by the insurgents, who immediately raised her on to their shoulders and set her upon the imperial throne. With the departure of Michael and Constantine, her courage had in some measure returned. Gratified as she was by this sudden reversal of her fortunes, she was nevertheless outraged when informed of the arrival and subsequent coronation of Theodora, whom she had thought - and devoutly hoped -never to see again. Her first reaction was to order her immediate return to the convent that she should never have left; only when she heard the cheering outside St Sophia and was told that it was for her sister did she begin to understand. This lugubrious and unattractive elderly virgin, forgotten by all until a few hours before, had suddenly and inexplicably become the idol of the populace. Reluctantly - and, we may be sure, fairly ungraciously - Zoe agreed to the partnership. It was better to reign as joint Empress than not to reign at all.

The scene now shifts to the Studium, where the Emperor and his uncle had hoped to lose themselves in monkish obscurity. They had, however, underestimated the strength of the popular feeling against them. As soon as their place of refuge became known, the mob left the Hippodrome and surged westward along the Mese, bellowing for their blood. Psellus followed, with a detachment of the imperial guard, and has left us a terrifying account of the events that followed:

We found the monastery already surrounded by huge crowds, many of whom were trying to smash down the building in their eagerness to get inside. We had appalling difficulty in forcing our way through the hysterical throng, all shouting abuse and threatening the miserable fugitives with unspeakable atrocities.

Until that moment I had had no strong personal feelings one way or the other, although I had deplored the abominable way in which the Empress had been treated; but when I arrived in the chapel and saw the two unfortunates — the Emperor on his knees, clutching the altar, the nobilissimusstanding on his left, both of them scarcely recognizable in their sordid rags, their very faces transformed by mortal fear, I stood there dumbfounded and my eyes filled with tears.

Realizing from his expression that Psellus was not entirely ill-disposed towards them, the two men cautiously approached him. Constantine earnestly protested that he had neither helped nor encouraged his nephew in the plot against Zoe. He had not tried to restrain him only because he feared the consequences: had he had any real control, would his whole family have suffered mutilation as it did? Michael, on the other hand, made no attempt to justify his conduct. He was guilty, and now he was paying the price.

All that afternoon the two men cowered at the altar while the mob, conscious of the respect due to the holy sanctuary, held back. How long it might have continued to do so we shall never know, because at dusk there arrived the new City Prefect, a certain Campanarus, claiming that he had orders from the Empress Theodora herself to take charge of the fugitives and promising them safe conduct back to the Palace. Michael and Constantine refused: they did not believe his assurances - rightly, as it turned out - and clung still more firmly to the altar. But the Prefect was not disposed to waste any more time: he ordered his men to seize them, and they were dragged, shouting and struggling, from the building. Many of those present - Psellus included - sought further guarantees from Campanarus that the two would come to no harm in his custody; but public opinion was overwhelmingly against them. There was, it seems, a widespread fear throughout the city that Zoe — whose jealousy of her sister was known to be such that she would have infinitely preferred to have Michael as her co-ruler — would somehow intervene to reinstate him. It was a risk that simply could not be contemplated.

This fear was shared in full measure by Theodora herself. If Scylitzes is to be believed, she had given secret instructions to the Prefect that the Emperor and his uncle should be blinded without delay; and Campanarus for his part was determined to carry out his orders. The two men - still surrounded by the mob, whose imprecations had now given way to mockery - were mounted on donkeys and borne along the MesS towards the Palace. Psellus continues:

They had not gone far along the way when they were met by the executioner who had been commanded to carry out the blinding. Showing their instructions to the mob, his men there and then began to sharpen their irons. Meanwhile the victims saw the fate that lay in store for them and were struck dumb with terror. They would have nearly died on the spot had not one of the senators present consoled them in their misery and restored some courage to their hearts.

Despite these efforts the Emperor, overwhelmed by his misfortunes, moaned and wailed aloud, begging for help, calling upon God, the Church, and anything else that he could think of. His uncle, on the other hand, summoned all his strength and faced his destiny with courage. Seeing the executioners ready, he calmly approached them, offering himself as their first victim. As the crowd surged round him he turned to the senior officer present and said in a firm voice: 'Make these people stand back, and you will see how bravely I shall bear my fate.' When they tried to tie his hands he refused, saying, 'If I move, you will be free to bind me to a stake!' With these words he lay flat on the ground and remained motionless, without a cry, a groan, or any change of colour. His eyes were then put out, one after the other. The Emperor meanwhile, seeing the fate that was so soon to overtake him, beat the air with his hands, tore his face and filled the air with his lamentations.

The Nobilissimus, rising to his feet unaided, pointed to his bleeding sockets and, leaning for support on one of his close friends, spoke to all those who approached him with such astonishing calm, such superhuman courage, that one might have thought him almost indifferent to what had occurred. Then it was the turn of the basileus, who was now in such a condition that the executioner was obliged to bind him fast and to hold him down with considerable force, so furiously did he struggle. After he too had been blinded the insolence of the mob, so marked before, died away, and their fury was abated.

And so the reign of Michael V came to a close, and with it the Paphlagonian dynasty. Soon afterwards he was sent to the monastery of Eleimon on Chios, his uncle Constantine to another religious house on Samos. Whether the two of them lived out their full span in the darkness to which they had been consigned or whether, like John the Orphanotrophus, they eventually suffered a still more dreadful fate we do not know.

What are we to make of Michael? Professor Bury, doyen of British Byzantinists, suggests that he has been unfairly maligned, and that he was

in fact an ambitious and far-sighted ruler who aimed at nothing less than a radical reform of the imperial administration. Since this could not conceivably be realized while Zoe and John remained in power, their removal from the scene was, he continues, entirely justified: John in particular was by the time of his dismissal universally detested. For the rest, Michael can be credited with the release from prison of his uncle's arch-enemy Constantine Dalassenus and of George Maniakes - whom he sent back to Italy as catapan -as well as with the appointment, as his chief minister, of Constantine Likhoudes, destined to become one of the greatest statesmen of his day.1

Now all this may be perfectly true so far as it goes. Michael may — though the point is far from being proven - have had good intentions and, whatever we may think of his treatment of his adoptive mother, his elimination of the Orphanotrophus was probably a necessary measure. There remains, however, the inescapable fact that he managed to get himself deposed by a popular insurrection after only four months and eleven days on the throne. Any would-be reformer, if he is to succeed in his task, must tread warily; above all he must take account of popular feeling and make every effort to carry the people with him..Michael did neither of these things. Praiseworthy as his long-term ideas may have been, his statesmanship was consistently deplorable; and for this reason alone he could never have made a good Emperor. The story of his last days is scarcely edifying, and his subjects emerge from it with little credit; but they were right to get rid of him, and we too can be glad to see him go.

1 Professory Bury's opinion, not mine

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