An 1,800-Year-Old Letter From Egyptian Soldier Deciphered
March 19, 2014

An 1,800-Year-Old Letter From Egyptian Soldier Deciphered

[ Watch the Video: Translating An Ancient Letter From A Roman Soldier ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

An 1,800-year-old letter from an Egyptian soldier serving in a Roman legion has been deciphered for the first time.

Grant Adamson, a Rice University graduate, deciphered the letter sent home by Roman military recruit Aurelius Polion. This letter was originally discovered in 1898 by the expedition team of Grenfell and Hunt in the ancient Egyptian city of Tebtunis, but this is the first time it has been translated.

“This letter was just one of many documents that Grenfell and Hunt unearthed,” Adamson said in a statement. “And because it was in such bad shape, no one had worked much on it for about 100 years.” Even now portions of the letter’s contents are uncertain or missing and not possible to reconstruct.

Adamson began deciphering the letter in 2011 as a project he was assigned to work on during a summer institute hosted at Brigham Young University.

According to Adamson, the letter was written to his brother, sister and his mother, and it reads as if it was a man desperate to reach his family after sending them many other letters. The letter was written in Greek most likely because writing in Egyptian was not an option at the time, and his family most likely did not know much Latin.

“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 (are),” the letter reads, according to Adamson.

“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.”

The researcher believes the soldier was stationed in the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior at Aquincum, which is modern day Budapest. He said Polion was part of a legion known to have been mobile, so the soldier may have traveled as far as modern day Istanbul.

“Polion was literate, and literacy was rarer then that it is now, but his handwriting, spelling and Greek grammar are erratic,” Adamson said. “He 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.”

Adamson said he relied on handwriting styles and a few other hints in order to establish an approximate date for the letter. He added that dating ancient papyri is hard to do very specifically, but it is possible to make a preliminary guess based on handwriting.

The researcher also said the soldier’s Roman name Aurelius helps to date the letter because he would have acquired it as part of a widespread granting of Roman citizenship in 212. Polion’s reference to consular commander in the letter also suggests a date after 214 when the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior came under command.

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