Letter Home from Egyptian Soldier in Roman Pannonia

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1800 year old Roman soldier letter on papyrus deciphered. Image Rice University video screen shot (detail).

1800 year old papyrus letter from Egyptian Soldier in Roman Pannonia deciphered. Screenshot by Decoded Past, video by Rice University.

Grant Adamson, a Religious Studies student from Rice University, has translated a letter home from an Egyptian soldier serving in the Roman Empire from the original papyrus.

The letter portrays all the drama of a soap opera as it berates the soldier’s family for neglecting him by not writing to him as he serves on a chilly northern frontier.

Ancient Papyrus Deciphered

There are always difficulties deciphering tattered old manuscripts. Guessing what words fill the gaps where the holes are (lacunae) presents only part of the challenge.

Organizers invited Adamson to attend a summer seminar held to decode an ancient papyrus excavated from the Egyptian town of Tebtunis over a hundred years ago by papyrologists Grenfell and Hunt.

As Adamson points out in his article, ‘Letter from a Soldier in Pannonia’ in Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 49; thanks to the University of California, Berkeley, digital and infra-red images of the papyrus were available for study.

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A barely-literate Egyptian using fashionable Roman grammatical flourishes penned Adamson’s example – in rather poor Greek.

Letter Home from Egyptian Soldier

During the rule of the Roman Empire, many thousands of men signed up to serve as soldiers. They were seldom left in their home country; Roman policy was to send soldiers to rule other lands than their own. Some soldiers were literate, and most could at least write a signature.

The soldier writing the letter that Grant Adamson deciphered implores his mother and relatives to please reply. Who knows what may have happened to them that he could have sent this, his seventh letter, without getting a reply to the others?

“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…”

The author of the letter, Aurelius Polion, “soldier of legio II Adiutrix” is an Egyptian from Tebtunis who signed up with the Roman army and been marched away north to guard the east European frontier.

Roman Empire Eastern frontier showing Aquincum in Pannonia Inferior where Aurelius served. Image by Panonian; public domain.

Roman Empire Eastern frontier showing Aquincum in Pannonia Inferior where Aurelius Polion served. Image by Panonian.

A soldier brought up in North East Africa probably felt less than comfortable in the northern provinces. Historians think his base was Budapest, Pannonia; a city with temperature extremes, sometimes winter lows of -23 C, a far cry from Middle Egypt. Perhaps this increased his homesickness?

Historians recognize his unit as a mobile one; but his reference to “the consular” suggests that he remained stationed in the Pannonia region, governmentally a consulate, in the early third century AD.

Homesick Soldier Prays for Family

Piecing together the circumstances, as well as the text, illuminates the story of individual lives, of the experience of enduring Roman domination, and the personal disruption it brought.

Certainly the letter reveals the soldier is not happy to be away with the army if his family is not supporting him at least with the warmth of occasional messages. He kept them very much in mind, and prayed for them.

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.”

Their lack of feeling for him was very worrying. “While away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger.”

The Delivery of the Letter

Polion did not send the letter via the military postal system, he addressed it to a specific veteran; for delivery or collection is not clear. The excavators’ catalogue number shows that Aurelius Polion’s letter was found in the Roman town of Tebtunis near the temple. 

So we know that, in spite of its rather eccentric address details, this papyrus likely did get to the soldier’s family in Tebtunis. We are left wondering whether his family replied, just as he did, 1800 years ago.

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© Copyright 2014 Val Williamson, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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