Deciphered Roman Soldier’s Papyrus to Family Complains: ‘You Never Wrote Back to Me’

By Barbara Boland | March 19, 2014 | 5:57pm EDT

A newly deciphered 1,800-year-old letter from a soldier serving in a Roman legion in Europe contains a very familiar message: he asks to hear from his family back home.

The letter was written on papyrus by Roman military recruit, and native of Egypt, Aurelius Polion. The letter is written mostly in Greek and was originally discovered in 1899 by the expedition team of Grenfell and Hunt in the ancient Egyptian city of Tebtunis. It had been cataloged and described before, but due to its poor quality, no one had worked on the letter in over 100 years.

Grant Adamson, a Graduate student in Rice University's Religious Studies program, began the arduous task of translating the papyrus in 2011 during a summer institute hosted at Brigham Young University.

Polion's letter to his brother, sister and his mother reads like that of a modern soldier desperate to hear from his family. He says he is anxious to hear from them after sending six letters that have gone unanswered.

Polion wrote in part:

"I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind. But I do my part writing to you always and do not cease bearing you (in mind) and having you in my heart. But you never wrote to me concerning your health, how you are doing. I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you.

"I sent six letters to you. The moment you have(?) me in mind, I shall obtain leave from the consular (commander), and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother. For I demanded(?) nothing from you for the army, but I fault you because although I write to you, none of you(?) ... has consideration. Look, your(?) neighbor ... I am your brother."

"Polion was literate, and literacy was rarer then than it is now, but his handwriting, spelling and Greek grammar are erratic," Adamson said. That made English translation of the damaged letter even more difficult. Polion "likely would have been multilingual, communicating in Egyptian or Greek at home in Egypt before he enlisted in the army and then communicating in Latin with the army in Pannonia."

"Dating ancient papyri is generally hard to do very specifically unless there happens to be a date or known event mentioned in the text," Adamson said. "But you can make a preliminary decision based on the handwriting."

"One thing that I think is important about this letter is that it reflects the emotions of a soldier in the ancient world," said April DeConick, chair of Rice's Religious Studies Department and Adamson's faculty adviser. "His emotions are really no different than those of soldiers today, who are longing to go home."

The papyrus is currently housed at the University of California, Berkley's Bancroft Library.

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