Linguist Deciphers 1,800-Year-Old Letter from Egyptian Soldier

Mar 21, 2014 by Sci-News.com

A 1,800-year-old private letter from the Egyptian recruit Aurelius Polion of legio II Adiutrix stationed in Pannonia Inferior (modern day Hungary) has been translated into English by Rice University Religious Studies graduate student Mr Grant Adamson. Writing home, Aurelius Polion complains of receiving no letters and mentions furlough. There is a third-party address on the back. The Greek hand has Latinate features, including the occasional use of interpuncts.

1,800-year-old letter from the Egyptian soldier Aurelius Polion. Image credit: University of California / Berkley's Bancroft Library.

1,800-year-old letter from the Egyptian soldier Aurelius Polion. Image credit: University of California / Berkley’s Bancroft Library.

The letter was originally discovered in 1899 by the expedition team of Grenfell and Hunt in the ancient Egyptian city of Tebtunis.

It had been catalogued and described briefly before, but to this point no one had deciphered and published the letter, which was written mostly in Greek.

“This letter was just one of many documents that Grenfell and Hunt unearthed. And because it was in such bad shape, no one had worked much on it for about 100 years,” Mr Adamson said.

Even now portions of the letter’s contents are uncertain or missing and not possible to reconstruct.

Aurelius Polion’s letter to his brother, sister and his mother, the bread seller, reads like one of a man who is very desperate to reach his family after sending six letters that have gone unanswered.

He wrote:

“Aurelius Polion, soldier of legio II Adiutrix, to Heron his brother and Ploutou his sister and his mother Seinouphis the bread seller and lady(?), very many greetings.

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 … while away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger … I departed … and you are glad that(?) … the army. I did not … you a … for the army, but I … departed from 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. You also, write back to me … write to me. Whoever of you …, send his … to me.

Greet my(?) father(?) Aphrodisios and Atesios my(?) uncle(?) … his daughter … and her husband and Orsinouphis and the sons of the sister of his mother, Xenophon and Ouenophis also known as Protas(?) … the Aurelii …

(left margin) … the letter … (back) … to the sons and Seinouphis the bread seller … from(?) Aurelius(?) Polion, soldier of legio II Adiutrix … from(?) Pannonia Inferior(?) … Deliver to Acutius(?) Leon(?), veteran of legio …, from Aurelius Polion, soldier of legio II Adiutrix, so that he may send it home …”

Mr Adamson believes that Aurelius Polion was stationed in the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior (Lower Pannonia) at Aquincum (modern day Budapest), but he said that the legion to which Aurelius Polion belonged is known to have been mobile and may have traveled as far as Byzantium (modern day Istanbul).

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

Mr Adamson believes Aurelius Polion wrote home in Greek because writing home in Egyptian was not really an option at the time, and because his family in Egypt most likely did not know much Latin.

To establish an approximate date for the letter, Mr Adamson depended on handwriting styles and a few other more specific hints.

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

Another hint is the soldier’s Roman name Aurelius; he could have acquired it as part of a widespread granting of Roman citizenship in the year 212.

And another hint is Aurelius Polion’s reference to a consular commander, which suggests a date after 214 when the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior came under consular governance.

The details on the letter have been published in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists (paper in .pdf).

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Grant Adamson. Letter from a Soldier in Pannonia. Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 49 (2012), 79-94