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image of examples of capitals of the doric, ionic, corinthian, tuscan and composite orders of architecture


In Roman architecture, an Order is a distinct architectural style and system of proportions that is used when building a Roman structure such as a temple or basilica. The order type tells you how high the columns and roof should be, for example, and also how they should look. There are five Roman Orders of Architecture, also known as the "Five Classical Orders of Architecture."

Each order has a unique look and size. The easiest way to recognize any order is by looking at the capital located at the top of the column, as shown in the diagram above. Additionally, the height and look of the various sections above the columns are also determined by the architectural order.

All five orders use the same unit of measurement that is used to calculate the specific heigths and widths unique to each order. This unit of measurement is the width of a column's shaft measured at its bottom because Roman columns get narrower towards the top.

Roman system of architecture measurments superimposed over the Pantheon
Corinthian Temple with Roman system of measurements

For example, a Roman temple constructed using the Corinthian Order (shown above) must have columns whose height equals ten times the width of the bottom of the column shaft. Furthermore, the height of the horizontal section above the columns should be no more than 2.5 times the width of its column shaft bottom. Thus, if a column's shaft is 1 metre wide at the bottom, the column's maximum height (column shaft, column base, column capital on top) should be 10 metres high (30 ft). The image above shows the Pantheon marked with the Roman system of temple measurements based on the width of the bottom of a column's shaft.

Another important rule that applies to all five orders is that the angle of the roof should be between 20 and 22 degrees maximum.


As Roman history progressed, the Romans came to use five orders of architecture. The first three, Greek in origin, were recognized as orders of architecture by Vitruvius (90 - 20 BC/BCE), architect to Emperor Augustus. Those three orders are the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Much of the architecture the Romans used was adopted from the Greeks but they also expanded upon it.

image of capitals from three original greek orders, the doric, ionic, and corinthian

The fourth order, the Tuscan, was used by the Romans because the land where they initially settled was part of the Etruscan civilization. The Etruscans used a kind of simplistic and undecorated architecture which we call the Tuscan Order.

The fifth order, the Composite was not recognized as an official order until the Renaissance era, over eight hundred years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD. Though the Romans had been using the Composite Order since 82 AD, they did not consider it as a unique order of architecture.

Throughout Roman history, the Classical Orders of Architecture were used in the design of Roman Temples, Triumphal Arches, Baths, Basilicas, and other public buildings. And even after the fall of the Western Roman empire, in the last five centuries, the five Orders have been used extensively as evidenced by countless buildings constructed in the Classical style all over the Western World since the Renaissance era.


The five orders have been central to the concept of "classical architecture," which is a system of architecture that can best be described as a point-of-view or design approach that has the goal of creating buildings that are durable, functional, and beautiful, known as Firmitas - Utilitas - Venustas in Latin, as described by Vitruvius.

A building built in the Roman classical tradition should be a building that does not exist merely like a giant boulder. Instead, it should be vibrant, it should stand out, it should draw the eye and uplift the community and the person.

A classical building is more than just the style of its columns, capitals, and architectural adornments. Such a building is the very expression of architectural wisdom built over the ages. One could design a building today that, though Classical in its construction, is not recognizable as a Roman classical construction based on the five Classical Orders of Architecture. Click this link to see a photo of a modern, classical building.


Below you will find a diagram of the five Roman Orders of Architecture showing each order's column and a portion of its entablature structure above it. A column is made up of a long shaft plus the capital above and the base supports below the shaft, such as the torus and plinth.

diagram showing the columns and entablature sections of all five orders of architecture with labels and a scale to show the 
       height and detail differences between the orders

A column of the Tuscan order, for example, should ideally be no higher than seven times the width of the bottom of its column shaft. In comparison to the Tuscan order, a Corinthian column should be no taller than ten times the width of the bottom of its column shaft. In the diagram above you can see the numbers 7, 8, 9, and 10, which I call "Column Base Width Units." The reason why the bottom of the column shaft is used as the basis of measurement is because very often columns are tapered so that the top of the column shaft is narrower than the bottom, a process called "entasis".

In the next section I will define each order and explain its history and usage with the assistance of images and diagrams. Each of the first three orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) will be defined as a "Roman" order so as to differentiate from the Greek version because they are not the same.


image of the parthenon as an example of  the doric order
Parthenon - Doric Temple - Athens
Thank you to Piet Thiesohn for image

The Doric Order was not used often by the Romans - they much preferred the Ionic Order and the Corinthian Order, the latter being used extensively on the outside and interior of buildings due to its height, slenderness, and overall elegance.

The Parthenon in Athens is the most perfect and huge example of a building of the Doric Order - the first architectural order developed by the ancient Greeks during the 7th century BC.

This order was used so infrequently by the Romans that I found it difficult to find a good example of a Roman Doric Temple. It seems that all the great Doric temples that exist in Italy, such as in Paestum for example, were originally built by the Greeks and are not Roman Doric in style.

It is said that the Doric order is very "masculine," whereas the Ionic or Corinthian orders are more "feminine" as they are taller, more slender and graceful.

In my opinion, despite the Doric order being squatter and somewhat more plain, it nevertheless projects an aura of strength, power and majesty, as can definitely be seen when viewing the massive Parthenon temple in Athens, for example.

The Doric order is a very ancient and noble system of architectural proportion and stylization. It is also an order that has inherit strength that has often survived the test of time and periods of turbulent history. Fine examples still exist in the Archaelogical Park of Paestum south of Napels, Italy. There, one can find three large Doric temples built by settlers from Greece, dedicated to the goddesses Hera and Athena. These three Doric temples have survived quite well - a testament undoubtedly to their innate and strong Doric construction and design.


image of a doric capital

As mentioned earlier, a simple way to determine what order any Roman Temple belongs to is by looking at the capital sitting atop the column shaft and then the horizontal section above the columns (entablature) that supports the roof (pediment).

A Roman Doric capital is very different from an Ionic or Corinthian capital. However, the difference between a Doric and Tuscan capital is more subtle because the Tuscan style, originally developed by the Etruscans, is a Roman variation of the Doric.

Below is a listing of some of the most common characterists of Roman Doric columns, which distinguish them from the Greek form.

•  A building built in the Roman Doric Order has columns that are shorter than the Ionic, Corinthian and Composite orders, but are taller than columns of the Tuscan order, which is a plainer and shorter variation of the Roman Doric order;

•  Roman Doric columns are slimmer than the Greek version;

•  The columns were more often composed of drum sections rather than consisting of one long stone piece (monolithic);

•  Unlike Ionic and Corinthian columns which typically have 24 flutes, Doric columns typically have 20 flutes only. A flute is the long, vertical indentation or "gouge" you see running up and down the sides of columns. Not all columns have flutes, such as the Corinthian columns of the Pantheon in Rome which are solid granite with plain, unfluted surfaces;

•  A major difference between Greek and Roman Doric columns is how the bottom of the shaft portion of Roman columns was not placed directly on the floor.

diagram  with labels showing the different parts  that make up the base section of a doric order column
Roman Doric Column - Bottom
Instead, Roman Doric column shafts stood on a base, called a plinth. However, between the plinth and the bottom of the column were two or more "torus" rings separated horizontally by an indentation called a "scotia," - these are shown in the diagram on the right. The purpose was to add more decoration and beauty to the column.

This combination of torus and scotia is used extensively in all the Roman orders and can be noticed at the base of nearly all columns.

Doric column shafts were also often fluted, having a typical maximum number of 20 flutes, unlike the Ionic and Corinthian which typically have 24.

In the diagram at the right you can see the flute, which is the long and vertical indentation as opposed to the "fillet" which is the flat and non-indented surface of the column shaft. Thus, a Doric column might have 20 flutes and 21 fillets.


diagram showing the different sections of a typical Doric entablature showing Triglyphs, Metopes, Architrave, Frieze and Cornice

The entablature is defined as the horizontal bands of stone, or even wood, that lie across the column tops, and which supports the roof above. When looking at a Roman temple, you will notice that the lowest part of the entablature, right above the columns, is usually composed of three horizontal layers, each called a fascia.

In the Doric order, as can be seen in the image above, the architrave is plain and is composed of just one fascia. All the other orders, however, have three fascia that compose the Architrave above which we find a larger horizontal band called the Frieze which typically is the same height as the architrave below. The top-most horizontal band forming the entablature, just below the roof (Pediment) is the Cornice.

The Architrave, Frieze and Cornice is common to all of the Classical Orders of Architecture; thus, any Roman temple, for example, irrespective of the order being used, will have an entablature that is composed of an Architrave, Frieze, and Cornice.

The difference between each order lies in the level of detailing and height of the whole entablature as a proportion of the overall structure. For example, A Doric temple will likely have no fascia differentiation in its architrave and also will have a much shorter entablature than a temple of the Corinthian or Composite Order which, themselves, have much more detailing and a higher entablature.

A unique feature of the Doric entablature, Roman or Greek, is how the Frieze is not uninterrupted like the other four orders. Instead, the Doric Frieze is composed of two repeating rectangular sections named the Triglyph and the Metope, as shown in the diagram above. The Triglyph represents the ends of wooden beams that appeared at regular intervals above the architrave during the time when temples were made of wood and not stone. Above each column a centered Triglyph always had to exist in the Doric Order.


image of the Jefferson Memorial as an example of an Ionic Order structure
Modern Ionic Roman Temple
Jefferson Memorial - Washington DC

image of an ionic capital
Just like the Doric, the Ionic order is one of the three original Greek orders. The Ionic is more slender and elegant than the Doric.

The Romans used this order more extensively than the Greeks and there are many examples of the Ionic order in both ancient and newer buildings. The Ionic order was the second order to evolve, after the Doric.

Like the Doric, the Ionic order can be easily identified by its unique capital which sits above the column shaft. The Ionic capital has a Volute, a swirl or scroll-like ornament, on either side of the column shaft. And below and between the volutes and their joining section above, is found the Echinus which typically contains a horizontal egg-and-dart motif. At the top of the capital is the Abacus, a common structure found at the top of nearly all capitals, which makes contact with the entablature above.

The volute is an architectural feature of Classical Architecture which is also used in the capitals of the Corinthian and Composite orders.

What the volute symbolizes is subject to conjecture; it is commonly thought that it represents a number of things:

•   a papyrus scroll stretched across the top of the column shaft;
•  the swirl of ram horns;
•  a geometric pattern;
•  the swirl of a kind of weed common to Ionia, the part of ancient Greece where the order originated.

image of an ancient and partially unfurled papyrus scroll
Papyrus Scroll
I prefer the concept that the Ionic Volutes are a partially unfurled papyrus scroll stretched across the top of the column, symbolizing wisdom and knowledge. Scrolls were the ancient form of books. What do you think the volutes symbolize?  Email me with your opinion or research on this.

Roman and Greek Ionic capitals are not the same. In my opinion, after observing several Roman Ionic Temples, I have noticed that Roman Ionic Capitals are not as deep as Greek Ionic Capitals and they also are more simplistic in shape.

Also, notice how the Greek capital has a "dip" in the upper section that joins the two volutes, which "dips" down towards the echinus. In the two images below you can see the differences.


image of a Greek Ionic capital
Greek Ionic Capital
  image of a Roman Ionic Capital
Roman Ionic Capital

Notice how the Greek Ionic capital is more detailed, and the fluted shaft below stops well below the bottom of the volutes. Even the Astragal moulding located at the very top of the Greek Ionic capital is more intricate. And, of course, the Greek volutes are larger and more pronounced. The Roman version, though indeed more detailed and elegant than a Tuscan capital, is nevertheless much simpler and smaller when compared to the Greek Ionic capital.


diagram of Ionic Order columns and entablature with labels showing its unique characteristics

As a rule, the Ionic Entablature equals 1/4 the total Ionic Column height. Since a typical Ionic column's height equals 9 times the width of the column shaft bottom, the entablature's height equals 2.25 column shaft bottom widths (9 divided by 4). I have noticed that these rules are somewhat "flexible" and sometimes a column or entablature can be a bit shorter or taller than they should be. Architects, past and present, use a bit of artistic licence for various reasons.

image of dentils being used in a classical structure
At first glance, the Ionic entablature above the columns appear rather similar to the Doric, but on closer examination you can see that the architrave is divided into the three Fascia bands or layers and the Frieze above the architrave runs uninterrupted across the width of the entablature - there are no Metopes or Triglyphs.

The Ionic version of the entablature also has a band of Dentils which are small, rectangular cubes, below the Cornice. Dentils are a very common feature of the Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite orders .. and sometimes in the Tuscan Order, also.

If you examine the three Fascia bands composing this Ionic Architrave, you will notice how the bottom Fascia is shorter in height than the middle Fascia which, itself, is shorter in height than the top Fascia - this is a universal feature found in all Architraves that have three Fascia. Finally, notice how the height of the Frieze is the same height as the Architrave which, again, is a feature common to all five Classical Orders.

The Ionic Order, steeped in so much history and used so extensively by the Romans, is a very noble order that conveys knowledge, wisdom, dignity, gravity and greatness. In fact, I am currently hard at work creating a miniature Roman Ionic Temple built on the same scale as my Corinthian version.

The Ionic is one of my most favourite Classical Orders of Architecture. Next, I will be discussing the Order which has so much splendour, beauty and grace ... the wonderful Corinthian Order.


image of the Maison Carree as an example of a Corinthian Order structure
Maison Carrée - Corinthian Roman Temple
Nimes, France

image of a Corinthian capital
Along with the Composite, the Corinthian Order of Classical Architecture is the tallest, most slender, most detailed and graceful of the Orders. The Corinthian column stands 10 column shaft bottom diameters high. At one quarter the height of its column, the Corinthian entablature height is 2.5 times the column shaft bottom diameter. This ancient Order first appeared in the 5th century BC/BCE and was created by Callimachus, an Athenian sculptor in Ancient Greece.

The Corinthian capital, the most distictive aspect of this Order, is said to be based on a cylindrical, woven basket that had a large tile laying across the top. The basket was also sitting on top of shoots from Acanthus leaves rising up along the sides. When Callimachus saw the beautiful basket he was inspired to create a capital based on his discovery.

Unlike the Romans, the Greeks used the Corinthian order very seldomly - most of their buildings are of the Doric or Ionic order. The Romans, however, absolutely loved the tall and elegant Corinthian Order which they used extensively both on the outside and inside of their structures. The Romans loved luxury and beauty and so the Corinthian Order perfectly suited their tastes and ideals. In fact, I would venture to say that the Romans loved the Corinthian order so much that they created an even more elaborate version called the Composite.

The Pantheon temple in Rome, with its Corinthian Octastyle Portico and Corinthian columns and detailing inside the Rotunda, is a perfect example of the Roman fondness for the Corinthian Order. The Maison Carrée Roman Temple in Nimes, France, is another great example of a superb Roman Corinthian temple.


diagram of Corinthian Order columns and entablature with labels showing its unique characteristics

image of 'egg and dart' motif as used by the Greeks and Romans
The Corinthian entablature spanning across the top of the columns is definitely more complex and decorated than the Ionic version. And just like the Composite Order, the Corinthian entablature has the most height because it is 2.5 column bottom widths high. In comparison, an Ionic entablature is 2.25 column bottom widths high. The Tuscan (like the Doric) is the shortest at only 1.75.

In terms of entablature decoration, though both the Corinthian and Ionic entablatures have dentils, the Corinthian Order adds modillions under the cornice in addition to multiple bands of egg-and-dart motifs and extra bands of dentils. Egg-and-dart patterns (shown on the right) and dentils were used extensively in all the orders, except the Tuscan which is a very simple in style.

A close examination of the Maison Carrée Corinthian entablature, seen in the image below, shows a high level of decoration all along the frieze, and each of the three fascia composing the architrave below is decorated with motifs running along each fascia. In addition, there are four separate bands of egg-and-dart throughout the entablature, the frieze is filled with plant reliefs, and there are additional bands of motifs that continue right up to the Cornice.

image of a closeup of the entablature of the Maison Carree with each layered section and motif labelled
Maison Carrée Corinthian Details

This incredible amount of detail and ornamentation seen in this 2,000 year old Roman Temple is typical of the Roman version of the Corinthian Order - we are fortunate that this beautiful structure has survived into the modern age.

Compared to the Doric and Ionic Orders, the Corinthian really stands out when it comes to sheer elegance, height and beauty and this was why the Romans used this order so much in all their structures. It is my favourite.


image of a building built in the Tuscan Order style
Tuscan Style Building - University of Virginia

The Tuscan Order is uniquely Roman and did not exist in Greek civilization. This order is a simplified, bare-bones variation of the Doric Order of architecture. The Columns are nearly always not fluted, the columns are also the shortest and often typically spaced further apart compared to the other orders. Also, the capital structure above the column is more like the Greek Doric capital - undecorated and very basic in form.

Everything else is also very plain and basic, including an entablature that often has no decoration - no egg-and-dart, no modillions, and no motif patterns. You will also often find no fascia differentiation in the architrave and no dentils.

However, there are exceptions and it is possible to find a Tuscan-styled structure that does have fascia and one band of dentils in the entablature and possibly in the pediment as shown in the image above of the Tuscan Order being used today.

image of a doric capital

Simplicity is the very essence of the Tuscan Order. In terms of detail and decoration, on a scale of one to ten, the Ionic would be an eight, the Corinthian a ten, the Doric a six ... and the Tuscan would rate just a one or two, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The Tuscan Order's simplistic structure and lack of detail makes it a good architectural choice if budget, time and simplicity is required. And because of those qualities, it actually was used quite often in the past, and it continues to be used.

For example, it is perfect for use in verandas, or as a column on either side of a doorway, or for a simple but attractive portico or colonnade. The bottom level of the Colosseum in Rome uses Tuscan-style columns.

Look around any City in the Western World and you will probably see numerous examples of Tuscan columns and its simple entablature being used.

image of Tuscan columns and entablature being used in a modern building
Modern example of Tuscan Order Being Used Today

In the image above, you can see the Tuscan Order at work in a modern structure. This order gets the job done very simply while still retaining the virtues inherent in Classical architecure.

Notice how the entablature above the columns is very simplifed - no architrave fascia, no well-defined frieze, no dentils, and the Cornice is made up multiple mouldings (edges) that crown the top of the entablature. Despite its extreme simplicity, all the elements of this Tuscan Order construct - columns plus entablature - is attractive, definitely Classical, and it adds a wonderful and noble ambiance to the building.

In the image below, I present what I feel is a good representation of what a Tuscan entablature is, with optional details.


diagram of Tuscan Order columns and entablature with labels showing its unique characteristics

The Tuscan entablature and the columns below are the shortest of all the orders. The height of a Tuscan column is only seven times the diameter of the column shaft bottom. And the entablature height is 1.75 times the diameter of the column shaft bottom. Nevertheless, the Tuscan Order is grounded, simple, and wide-spaced, with a long history dating back to pre-Roman times in the Etruscan civilization .. and it is still being used today.

Firmitas - Utilitas - Venustas - Strength, Functionality, and Beauty, which are the three requirements for a Roman Classical Order as specified by the Roman architect Vitruvius. Does the Tuscan Order have all three? It certainly has strength and functionality, but is it beautiful? I think it has inherent beauty in its pure, unadorned structure.

Simplicity can be both practical and beautiful.


image of st. john lateran church in rome as an example of the composite order
St. John Lateran Church, Rome -- / -- Arch of Titus, Rome

image of a Composite Order Capital
Just like the Tuscan Order, the Composite Order was uniquely Roman and did not exist in Greek civilization. Additionally, though the Romans used this order often, they did not recognize it as an official order of architecture. For example, the great ancient Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio never mentions the Composite in his extensive writings that spell out every detail of Roman Classical Architecture.

During the course of Roman civilization, the Composite Order was seen as just a more complex form of the Corinthian Order. Nevertheless, the Composite Order is completely Roman in origin and was first used in the Arch of Titus in 82 AD approximately. Afterwards, this order was often used in the construction of many other Roman Triumphal Arches and other structures.

The Composite Order of classical architecture was finally recognized as an order during the Renaissance period. At first, Renaissance architects were not sure what to call it, using terms such as the Latin, the Roman, or the Italian Order. Eventually, it was decided by the architect Palladio to call this uniquely Roman Order the Composite (Composito in Italian).

And whereas the Tuscan Order had a long history, having arisen during the Etruscan civilization, the Composite evolved from the Roman Corinthian order. The only difference between the two orders is the structure of the capital on top of the column shaft - everything else is the same, such as the columns and entablature above. Additionally, even the height and width proportions of the architecture of the Composite Order match those of the Corinthian Order.

The image below shows the essence of what the Composite Order of Classical architecture is all about. Notice how a Composite capital contains the lower and top sections of a Corinthian capital and then inserts between those two sections four large volutes of the Ionic Order. Between each volute, egg-and-dart detailing is added. Those four circular volutes are arranged around the capital at forty-five degree angles, one volute under each corner of the top Corinthian abacus. This Composite capital is a hybrid borrowing the best features from two different orders of architecture.

diagram explaining how composite capital is a hybrid formed from the corinthian and ionic order capitals

One can easily mistake a Composite Order building for one based on the Corinthian Order. The two styles of architecture are so similar in almost every aspect. You have to look carefully at the capitals above the columns and observe the size of the four volute swirls located at each top corner.

The diagram below comparing a Composite and Corinthian capitals show the obvious difference in volute size. The Composite capital has huge volutes whereas a Corinthian capital has much smaller and slender volutes supported by a long, delicate "stem" that rises up from within the acanthus leaves below.

diagram comparing capitals of the Composite and Corinthian order of architecture showing how the Composite capital has 
   much larger volutes with an Echinus egg-and-dart decoration between them
Composite versus Corinthian Capitals

Another major difference is found in the area between each pair of corner volutes: in a Corinthian capital you typically find two small and vertical volutes. However, in comparison, a Composite capital has an Echinus decoration made of up an egg-and-dart motif pattern above an astragal-like moulding.

You will notice that the very top part of the capital, called the "Abacus" has a decoration in its centre that is different in each capital. These particular decorations can vary in either order, though in the Corinthian the carving is typically composed of a flower-like arrangement.

Despite the differences, overall these two kinds of capitals are nevertheless very similar in their height, their cylindrical shape, and the two rows of acanthus leaves in their lower part. Also, the abacus section running along the top of each capital is very similar. You could say that these capitals are "fraternal twins" - very similar, but definitely not identical.


diagram of Composite Order columns and entablature with labels showing its unique characteristics

As you can see, in the image above, everything is the same as the Corinthian Order ... except the capitals, which are of the Composite order. And just like the Corinthian order, the height of the columns is ten times the diameter of the column shaft bottom and the entablature is 2.25 times the diameter of the column shaft bottom.

It is probably safe to say, at this point, that the only unique aspect of the Composite Order is its Capital and I can understand why some people might question why the Composite actually qualifies to be its own Classical order of architecture. What is your opinion about this?

Because this order was so often used in Roman Arches of Victory, the Composite symbolized victory and triumph. And due to the Composite's large, Ionic volutes, the order was also embued with a sense of wisdom and knowledge. Overall, the Composite Order, due to its complex and elaborate Capital and its association with victory, very much symbolized the Roman love of beauty, grandeur and triumph.

This begs a question:  which is the more beautiful and grand Order? The Corinthian or the Composite? The Ionic or the Doric or Tuscan? For me, I prefer the Corinthian and this is why I create Corinthian miniature temples. Deciding which order is the grandest or most attractive ... depends, ultimately, on personal taste and the architectural purpose of a structure. If you want a structure built in the Classical style that is very elaborate and beautiful, then go with the Corinthian and if you want a structure that also conveys a feeling of triump and great bearing, then go with the Composite, for example.

This concludes the A Touch of Rome exploration of the Five Classical Orders of Architecture. The Romans used these orders to build their great temples, basilicas, arenas, baths, and much more. In the next section below, you can see how the Romans put these orders to work in incredible ways to create some of the most beautiful and impressive buildings ever built.


Please click one of the five images below to explore Roman achievements in architecture that is still great after almost 2,000 years.

With two pages of photos, videos, and diagrams, I look at the history and events of this enormous building that still impresses people 2,000 years after it opened.
I look at all the fascinating details and history of this iconic building and temple. The Pantheon still stands as an example of Roman architecture at its finest.

Just choose which of the six Forums you wish to explore from the opening menu. There is also a page that explains the basics and long history of Roman Forums.
I look at the huge Roman Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Caracalla with great "Then & Now" transformations showing how the baths looked in the past and then today.

Though time has destroyed most of them, I explore fifteen of the most beautiful and important Roman Temples that have survived 1,500 years of history since the fall of the Roman Empire.

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