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Thread: What if: Roman legions vs medieval European army

  1. #46
    Senior Contributor Monash's Avatar
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    Since the thread has started up again .... I think the issue is complicated in a part by what you mean when you say 'roman army vs medieval army'. If you are assuming for instance that a Roman Legion from say the mid imperial period just happened to march through a wormhole onto a Medieval field of battle then you are conceding critical technological advantages to the medievalists, e.g. the stirrup, advances in steel making and hence arms and armor, fortifications - i.e. high period castles and depending on the period early gun powder weapons. In this case you would be putting the Romans at a significant disadvantage.

    On the other hand if you are arguing for a medieval army based on the roman pattern. e.g. say from a hypothetical 'rump' empire or even a slightly altered Byzantium then you have another story entirely. In this case the Romans would have access to all the relevant technology that the 'medieval's had. In other words they would be facing an army trained, organized and lead along roman lines but equipped just as well as they were. This makes a BIG difference. Now they would be facing an army with arguably superior cohesion, discipline, organization and (formation) training.

    In such a scenario instance I suspect however that the roman commander would be sorely tempted to abandon the pilum and javelin as his primary missile weapons and adopt the crossbow (assuming a continental frame of reference) or arquebus instead - depending on the period. The gladius stays as the back-up weapon (made of 'modern' steel of course). Take a look a various falchions and 'hanger' type swords etc from the medieval period and there's not much to choose between them.

    I suspect however that the Roman commander might be strongly inclined to reequip most of his auxiliary cohorts as crossbowmen say (3 men in 4) with the rest retaining the traditional scutum/pilum combo as more flexible substitutes for the medieval pavise. As for the legionary cohorts I also think he would be tempted to drop the scutum/pilum in exchange for polearms such as bills or poleaxes because when it came to 'push and shove' a pole weapon was going to have superior reach - maybe each cohort's command group would retain the old weapons for flexibility, who knows?

    As for the cavalry continent the Romans would 'up-armor' to match their contemporaries as far as they could.

    I say all of the above remembering that the Romans had no qualms about adopting other cultures military technologies when it was to their advantage. So under this scenario I think it would be Roman organization and discipline that would give them the day, all other factors being equal of course.
    Last edited by Monash; 25 Oct 14, at 11:52.

  2. #47
    Senior Contributor Mihais's Avatar
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    There was a Spartan saying which the Romans turned into real life:if your sword is short,take a step forward.There would have been no need for the Romans to adopt longer medieval weapons.Close formation and teamwork could have defeated medieval polearms.And then there is the psychological advantage of a man trained and willing to feel the breath of the dying man as he thrusts the gladius into his guts.
    As for cavalry,the Romans faced heavy cavalry and won consistently.They can make all sorts of nasty things to it.The simplest being choosing a proper terrain to fight them.If there is no such good ground luring them into a field of caltrops works just fine.
    The Romans lost wars to the Parthians and Persians,but usually because of over extension.
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  3. #48
    Senior Contributor Monash's Avatar
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    Mihais, as the medieval period progressed the javelin/shield combination was gradually discarded as main equipment used by the majority of infantry troops in most European armies. Oh, it didn't disappear entirely and it remained in use by light cavalry and skirmishers, particularity in places like Spain where encounters with Moorish light cavalry proved the worth of the javelins/shield combo. However as history progressed and body armor became more common infantry shields became smaller and gradually fell into disuse. Same for javelins. Crossbows had superior range and allowed the user to carry more 'shots'. By the late medieval period European armies were dominated by pole arms and heavy hand weapons of a type that gave you a chance at punching through armored plate.

    I would suggest this progression wasn't a matter of fashion or choice but rather military necessity. If the large shield/javelin combo had still been highly effective in combat against the type of troops medieval opponents faced then it would have been retained.

    Remember the Romans used the pilum and lighter javelins as shock weapons. For most of the Empires existence the legions faced opponents who were armed as they were but less well armored. Their pilums would either kill/cripple an opponent or render his shield useless - in which case the opponent was at a great disadvantage against a shield bearing, armored legionary. Take the shield off the opponent and a large part of the pilums utility goes with it. Give him decent medieval armor (chain or plate etc) and he is on a par with the legionary protection wise. That just leaves the choice of weapons in play and a line of poleaxes, bills, glaives etc are going to give the front ranks of any legionary cohort some grief aka the Dacians and their falxes.

    I not saying the Romans would automatically be defeated, just that obviously there were reasons why their combination of a large shield and 2-3 javelins gave way to different styles of infantry equipment as the middle ages progressed. They wouldn't have been dropped if they had still been highly effective.
    Last edited by Monash; 25 Oct 14, at 11:49.

  4. #49
    Senior Contributor Mihais's Avatar
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    I see your point and it has merits.But the Romans faced both well armored foes in the East and long reach weapons and still won.The pilum was perfectly capable of penetrating armor.No shield is good news for the Romans.
    Second,no medieval army had the training to go real close.The Romans have a psychological advantage.Killing at really close ranges(that is a few cm) requires a certain mindset.If you don't have it,you can't stand the shock.
    For all the warrior culture of the Northern nations,the Thracians in general stood above all of them.Not only they were skilled at skirmishing and maneuvers in general.But they also prefered close combat.Their main weapon was a short curve sword named sica.That could be used to bypass a shield.
    The longer falx or rhomphaia was likely used in some sort of combination as a shock weapon.
    Otherwise a polearm bearer can simply be rushed .

    The main killer at low level for the Romans wasn't the gladius or the pilum.It was team work.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Monash View Post
    Mihais, as the medieval period progressed the javelin/shield combination was gradually discarded as main equipment used by the majority of infantry troops in most European armies. Oh, it didn't disappear entirely and it remained in use by light cavalry and skirmishers, particularity in places like Spain where encounters with Moorish light cavalry proved the worth of the javelins/shield combo. However as history progressed and body armor became more common infantry shields became smaller and gradually fell into disuse. Same for javelins. Crossbows had superior range and allowed the user to carry more 'shots'. By the late medieval period European armies were dominated by pole arms and heavy hand weapons of a type that gave you a chance at punching through armored plate.
    Plate was never that common, it was too expensive but I still think the pilum could punch it. Against typical mail on a padded gambeson we know it could. Also I would argue not to equate the re-emergence of pike formations that were developed to counter cavalry to be automatically superior to the Legions. Pike in the ancient world developed to face more mobile foes including cavalry and the legions developed to counter pike.

    [quote]I would suggest this progression wasn't a matter of fashion or choice but rather military necessity. If the large shield/javelin combo had still been highly effective in combat against the type of troops medieval opponents faced then it would have been retained.[/qute]

    Except that it wasn't discarded in favor of what the medieval armies were using.

    Remember the Romans used the pilum and lighter javelins as shock weapons. For most of the Empires existence the legions faced opponents who were armed as they were but less well armored. Their pilums would either kill/cripple an opponent or render his shield useless - in which case the opponent was at a great disadvantage against a shield bearing, armored legionary. Take the shield off the opponent and a large part of the pilums utility goes with it. Give him decent medieval armor (chain or plate etc) and he is on a par with the legionary protection wise. That just leaves the choice of weapons in play and a line of poleaxes, bills, glaives etc are going to give the front ranks of any legionary cohort some grief aka the Dacians and their falxes.
    The Romans did by an large leave distance combat to specialist troops- archers, crossbowmen, slingers and of course the artillery. The Pilum was less a shock weapon than a softening up device. The real killing power was the punch/push with the scutum then turning it to create a small opening for a gladius stab. It was devastating. During the height of Rome's power, the legions had the same reputation for taking all you could give and still coming on to give you a good drubbing. They were the Lobster Backs of the ancient world. Like the Red Coats they were well lead, well trained and very well disciplined but had the bonus of real armor and real medical care. The Roman legionary could likely fight harder than anyone else because he was less likely to die.

    I not saying the Romans would automatically be defeated, just that obviously there were reasons why their combination of a large shield and 2-3 javelins gave way to different styles of infantry equipment as the middle ages progressed. They wouldn't have been dropped if they had still been highly effective.
    Look at the British Red Cats to see how effective discipline, leadership and a willingness to get up close and personal could be. Both used a couple of volleys and then relished the stabbing and poking.

  6. #51
    Senior Contributor Monash's Avatar
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    [QUOTE=zraver;980704]Plate was never that common, it was too expensive but I still think the pilum could punch it. Against typical mail on a padded gambeson we know it could. Also I would argue not to equate the re-emergence of pike formations that were developed to counter cavalry to be automatically superior to the Legions. Pike in the ancient world developed to face more mobile foes including cavalry and the legions developed to counter pike.[QUOTE]

    Depending on the period we are talking about plate became more common as history progressed - at least in Western European armies. Knights and 'Sergeants' wore full plate with mail and padded underlay. Brigandine also became a common across all classes as did full helms as did 'half plate' rigs. By the end of the period mercenary units and the militias of the larger and more prosperous cities and towns were well equipped by Roman standards:

    E.G.

    Attachment 38354

    I am also aware that throughout their history the the Romans utilized various different missile weapons in support roles. They did have an early version of the crossbow but it does not appear to have been widely adopted and slings had been largely dispensed with by the middle empire. However the pilum remained the of primary offensive weapon of their battle line however with a maximum effective range of what appears to have been about 20-25 meters. Its primary purpose was to kill or would the enemy or at least deprive them of the use of their of their shield - in the process disrupting the enemy battle line and hopefully creating gaps that could be exploited well trained legionnaires. However depending on angle of attack, deflection, thickness and quality of the armor at the point of impact etc it is questionable whether it would have penetrated the type of armor protection pictured above. Chain mail probably yes, plate/mail/gambeson combos I'm not so sure, there's still some debate about how effective the pilum was at longer ranges against plate armor, even roman plate (FYI - either way I certainly wouldn't want to be on the receiving end!)


    [QUOTE]The Romans did by an large leave distance combat to specialist troops- archers, crossbowmen, slingers and of course the artillery. The Pilum was less a shock weapon than a softening up device. The real killing power was the punch/push with the scutum then turning it to create a small opening for a gladius stab. It was devastating. During the height of Rome's power, the legions had the same reputation for taking all you could give and still coming on to give you a good drubbing. They were the Lobster Backs of the ancient world. Like the Red Coats they were well lead, well trained and very well disciplined but had the bonus of real armor and real medical care. The Roman legionary could likely fight harder than anyone else because he was less likely to die. [QUOTE]

    I'm not doubting the effectiveness of their training and discipline for a moment, in fact in the scenario I outlined i.e a medieval period army patterned along Roman lines I think their training in maneuver and combat while in formation would give the Romans a distinct advantage over their opponents. However throughout their history the Romans copied and adopted any military technology they deemed superior to their existing equipment, from swords through to types of armor, to fighting formations and siege techniques. If it gave them what they thought was an edge they adopted it. My point was that a 'medieval period' roman army wouldn't just stop adopting new arms, armor and tactics etc if they saw them providing a clear advantage.

    The poleaxe for example offers advantages in reach and angle of attack over a hand held sword or pilum. Later 'rack and pinion' or 'windlass' crossbows also offered clear advantages in both range and hitting power over conventional roman bows, so why wouldn't they equip archery units with them if they could? For these reasons I think it highly likely that the hypothetical roman army and it's commander would almost certainly adopt later weapons and change their tactics and formations to incorporate them as needed. As I said before this doesn't necessarily mean the wholesale abandonment of the scutum/pilum combo, but I could definitely see it being less common on the battlefield e.g as a substitute for the paviese as previously mentioned.

    With access to arms and armor of the the period (or at least the metalworking technology behind them) I think there is every chance the roman army would win, but they had far less of a chance of doing so if they just stuck rigidly to their javelins and shields - not to mention refusing to adopt the stirrup just because 'barbarians' had invented it.
    Last edited by Monash; 26 Oct 14, at 09:23.

  7. #52
    Senior Contributor Triple C's Avatar
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    Having read Jean de Joinville's Life of Saint Louis (alternative modern title: Chronicle of the Seventh Crusade), I am pretty well convinced that if the hypothetical opponent of the Romans were as poorly provisioned and led as the 7th Crusade, the Roman legions would have plenty of time to adjust their tactics to defeat the medieval army, just like the Saracens eventually threw the crusaders out. Medieval Europeans forgot a hell of a lot in basic strategic planning and logistics. The lasting power of any medieval army fighting against a methodical, knowledgeable and disciplined army is very dubious.
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  8. #53
    Senior Contributor Mihais's Avatar
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    In a close combat situation,medieval polearms offer little or no advantage.The Roman gladius underwent an evolution,that is dependent on training.After the legions became professionals and the enemy were largely other Romans,tha gladius was actually shortened.The gladius became longer again after both the charcater of the legions and the nature of combat changed.In the 3d and 4th centuries,the quality of the legions declined,while combat was less about big battles,but small units actions for protecting the frontiers from raiders.So you have slightly less protection,smaller and lighter shields and the gladius makes way for the longer spatha.And it makes sense,because you have this pattern everywhere,all the time.The Celts were all about small units and individual glory,you have the Celtic longsword.The Germanic nations of the late Antiquity and early Medieval age are the same.The Byzantine army from the 7th century up until the end.
    The Western medieval warfare as a rule wasn't about big battles,but many small ones,sieges and marauding the lands of the enemy.That big battles happened is the exception.But whenever you have a unit dedicated to close combat,like the Byzantine cataphracts,you get shorter weapons,in this case a mace.
    A late Republican/early Imperial army bent on conquering WEstern Europe would take as many castles as needed to provoke a mobilization of maneuver forces from whatever kingdom is attacked.Then the Romans would simply stay in their camp until the Medievals are dying from dysenteria or starvation.And if it comes to a conventional battle,the Romans have the advantage.
    The French knights at Azincourt were killed by English archers.But not by English arrows.They happened to be the only mobile infantry in a field of mud.
    A Roman century deployed as part of a cohort will always enjoy numerical superiority at its frontline.Unless facing a phalanx,which can be killed in other ways.Any billman,swordsman etc... will face2-3 Romans,who will close and knck him with their shields&hack him from front and sides.While he still has to figure how to overcome that damn big scutum,in due time.
    Those who know don't speak
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  9. #54
    Senior Contributor Monash's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Triple C View Post
    Having read Jean de Joinville's Life of Saint Louis (alternative modern title: Chronicle of the Seventh Crusade), I am pretty well convinced that if the hypothetical opponent of the Romans were as poorly provisioned and led as the 7th Crusade, the Roman legions would have plenty of time to adjust their tactics to defeat the medieval army, just like the Saracens eventually threw the crusaders out. Medieval Europeans forgot a hell of a lot in basic strategic planning and logistics. The lasting power of any medieval army fighting against a methodical, knowledgeable and disciplined army is very dubious.
    Agree 100% all my reading tends to confirm the same thing. Until late in the period at least the average medieval grasp of logistics and support services was very bad. Which is one reason I am such an admirer of the Byzantines. They kept and improved upon roman methods when supplying and organizing their own armies and defeated numerous invasions and incursions from the West by the Slavs etc simply by removing all local supply sources along the path of the incursion - then harassing their foraging parties while refusing battle with the main host. Wouldn't have worked on Romans but it did on 'barbarians' with no supply chain to fall back on. In fairness to the medievals however none of the powers of the period ever really developed an empire with the geographical extent of Rome. Great empires by default require their rulers to develop a grasp of the necessities of supply, communication and control etc , otherwise there wouldn't be an empire in the first place, or at least not one that lasted long - empire and good logistics/CCC go together hand in glove. Where would Rome have been with out its roads, ports, regional armories and granaries signal towers and courier services etc,

    Charlemagne and his ilk started to re-learn these lessons early in the medieval period but when those 'empires' fell so did their rudimentary military CCC systems.
    Last edited by Monash; 29 Oct 14, at 04:08.

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    The only real professionals in the medieval period capable of extended ops were the Normans and mercenaries.

  11. #56
    Senior Contributor Monash's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mihais View Post
    In a close combat situation,medieval polearms offer little or no advantage.The Roman gladius underwent an evolution,that is dependent on training.After the legions became professionals and the enemy were largely other Romans,tha gladius was actually shortened.The gladius became longer again after both the charcater of the legions and the nature of combat changed.In the 3d and 4th centuries,the quality of the legions declined,while combat was less about big battles,but small units actions for protecting the frontiers from raiders.So you have slightly less protection,smaller and lighter shields and the gladius makes way for the longer spatha.And it makes sense,because you have this pattern everywhere,all the time.The Celts were all about small units and individual glory,you have the Celtic longsword.The Germanic nations of the late Antiquity and early Medieval age are the same.The Byzantine army from the 7th century up until the end.
    The Western medieval warfare as a rule wasn't about big battles,but many small ones,sieges and marauding the lands of the enemy.That big battles happened is the exception.But whenever you have a unit dedicated to close combat,like the Byzantine cataphracts,you get shorter weapons,in this case a mace.
    A late Republican/early Imperial army bent on conquering WEstern Europe would take as many castles as needed to provoke a mobilization of maneuver forces from whatever kingdom is attacked.Then the Romans would simply stay in their camp until the Medievals are dying from dysenteria or starvation.And if it comes to a conventional battle,the Romans have the advantage.
    The French knights at Azincourt were killed by English archers.But not by English arrows.They happened to be the only mobile infantry in a field of mud.
    A Roman century deployed as part of a cohort will always enjoy numerical superiority at its frontline.Unless facing a phalanx,which can be killed in other ways.Any billman,swordsman etc... will face2-3 Romans,who will close and knck him with their shields&hack him from front and sides.While he still has to figure how to overcome that damn big scutum,in due time.
    M, you raise valid points (although I believe part of the reason for the change the Byzantine armor and weaponry lay in both economic as well as military factors. Their distinctive quilted armor and felt caps/turbans were adopted on a large scale basis (especially by their infantry) in part because it was much cheaper to produce than the mail and lamellar of earlier periods but also because their main opponents of the period were the Muslim horse armies of the East whose primary weapon was the bow, against which the quilted armor was apparently quite effective.

    My point still stands however that the Romans would adopt any medieval weapon/armor they believed might give them an advantage, because this is what they did time and time again historically. I certainly think the cross bow would fall into this category but as for pole arms of some type ?? that would be a matter of trial and error. A roman pattern sword of the relevant period, properly constructed of the right materials would I think stand up quite well on a medieval battlefield as a close-in weapon, medieval armies had their equivalent after all. I do have doubts however about the effectiveness of the pilum against the heavy mail and plate combos that would be worn by a least part of the medieval opposing force, certainly the cavalry and certainly in the late middle ages.

    Against an early medieval army, all other things being equal I'm pretty sure the Romans would emerge victorious, at least if they were well led that is. Early medieval armies (war bands really) had on average less armor protection than most roman armies, not to mention the lack of any equivalent to Romes training, organization or discipline. Against armies of a later period however I believe the outcome might not be so clear-cut, certainly the Romans would be at risk of taking heavier losses which, naturally enough they would seek to avoid. Late medieval armies were simply much better armed and equipped than their predecessors.

    So if the pilums effectiveness is reduced where does that leave the bulk of their force in the face of a potential charge by heavily armored horsemen or event men-at-arms on foot? I'm not saying this is going to happen all the time, right across the entire front of the battle line but there is certainly a realistic chance that it would happen at some point of the line, at some stage during a battle. Of course if they do have a significant part of their army adopting pole arms then that means the scutum goes. Not entirely, as I said I can see them retaining formations armed with their old combo to support/back-up their new weapons, so they would still be on the battlefield, just in far smaller numbers than before e.g. at a guess somewhere in the say 20 to 25% range.

    I'm simply suggesting the Romans would probably look at the potential for incorporating some type or types of pole arm/spear in their battle line as a way of both giving them extra reach and penetration power against medieval style armor while at the same time also giving them a weapon that might stand a chance of disrupting a charge by heavily armored opponents. In this way they would at least be partially for-filling one of the pilums roles in circumstances where it might not be as effective as it once was. As for how well a bill, glaive, poleaxe etc equipped formation would do against a Roman formation, I sure military historians or re-in-actors would love to do the critical research. The same goes for the question of a pilum vs late period medieval armor.
    Last edited by Monash; 29 Oct 14, at 10:00.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Monash View Post

    So if the pilums effectiveness is reduced where does that leave the bulk of their force in the face of a potential charge by heavily armored horsemen
    That would depend greatly on how much horse and of what type they had of their own. One third of their auxilla sagitarii should be horse archers and the remainder of their horse units would be either German light cav or Cataphractoi modeld on the Persians, hopefully with stirrups. The knights would be better at shock charges than the Roman heavy horse, but would also likely be the main target rather than the legions. Even without the pilum the legions carried caltrops and trained to channel cavalry attacks so all is not lost.

    or event men-at-arms on foot?
    I think Roman training, team work and experience at close combat gives them the edge.

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    Senior Contributor Monash's Avatar
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    The horse archers would certainly be useful for scouting, flanking and raiding but I suspect the Romans would up-armor as much of their other horse as they could to match the feudals depending on the period that would include the horses as well, at least for the heavy cav. And speaking of horses, depending on the period I'm pretty sure the Romans would re-stock their stables with the larger heavier breeds that had been developed since their time. As for men at arms and knights they did engage in foot combat at various times i.e. the Wars of the Roses.

    Re: the rest, assuming the effectiveness of their pilums is indeed compromised then they are still left facing charges by any heavy infantry or cav in the opposing force with swords and shields alone. The lighter stuff i.e. peasant levies, town pike, archers etc might not make them sweat much but I can't help feeling they would look real hard for a counter measure for the heavies and while caltrops and field fortifications are useful they are still static defenses which of course lose their utility when your unit has to move. You may be able to channel an attack when the enemy is obliging enough to make one on your terms but that tricks a lot harder when you're the army thats advancing and the enemy for example decides to counter charge you.
    Last edited by Monash; 29 Oct 14, at 10:03.

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    They don't really need to get out much.Their saying was they won wars with the spade.
    Second,their infantry defeated heavy cavalry with feigned retreats and traps in the open desert.If they get good terrain,all the better.

    I agree with your wider point they will adapt in a relative short time to whatever threat they faced.They'll also adapt technology.

    In the greater scheme of things,Rome would enjoy a huge advantage over any feudal society.A unified leadership,doctrine and ability and willingnes to mobilize resources.How feudal like societies fared against Rome,you only need to ask the tribes of Gaul,Spain, Britain and Thrace.
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    Senior Contributor Monash's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mihais View Post
    In the greater scheme of things,Rome would enjoy a huge advantage over any feudal society.A unified leadership,doctrine and ability and willingnes to mobilize resources.How feudal like societies fared against Rome,you only need to ask the tribes of Gaul,Spain, Britain and Thrace.
    Which leads to all sorts of interesting speculation about why they went under.

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