1,800-year-old ancient Egyptian letter reveals hopes and fears of young soldier
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.
These are the desperate words of a young soldier to his family, which were brought to life thanks to the translation of an 1,800-year-old letter by an ancient Egyptian soldier serving in the Roman army.
The letter was written on papyrus, mainly in Greek, by Aurelius Polion, an Egyptian man who served with the legio II Adiutrix legion, probably as a volunteer, around modern-day Hungary, and was addressed to his mother (a bread seller), sister and brother. It was discovered more than a century ago outside a temple in the Egyptian town of Tebtunis during an archaeological expedition led by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt and was translated for the first time earlier this year.
The ancient town of Tebtunis, where the letter was found. Image source: Wikimedia
In the letter, Polion pleads with his family to respond to his letter and tells them he is going to request leave to make the long journey home to see them. According to his note, he has written six letters to his family without a response.
I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me...While away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger. I shall obtain leave from the consular (commander), and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother …
The letter was translated by Grant Adamson, a doctoral candidate at Rice University, using infrared images of it, a technology that makes part of the text more legible. His translation was published recently in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists.
According to Adamson, the soldier, who served at a time when the Roman Empire controlled Egypt, may have volunteered for the army not realising that he was going to be posted so far away from home.
We are only left to wonder whether the letter ever reached the soldier's family and if they responded to his pleas.
Featured image: Part of the newly translated papyrus letter. Photo credit: Bancroft Library