Egyptian Soldier's 1,800-year-old Letter Finally Decoded

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A recently decoded 1,800-year-old letter an Egyptian soldier sent to his family expresses feelings and concerns that might sound familiar to soldiers far from home today.

The letter was first discovered in 1899 in the ancient Egyptian city of Tebtunis by the expedition team of Grenfell and Hunt. Rice University graduate student Grant Adamson started working on the document in 2011, while at a summer institute at Brigham Young University, Utah.

Until the religious studies major made headway with the document, no one had been able to understand the writing. Still, Adamson didn't manage to translate the content of the entire letter.

The missive was mostly written in Greek, and was penned by Aurelios Polion who served in a Roman legion stationed somewhere in Europe. Polion wrote to his brother, sister and family, saying that he had not heard from them for a long time, and was starting to worry about them, according to Adamson's translation.

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 the translation.

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.

Adamson believes Polion was deployed in the province of Pannonia Inferior at Aquincum, present-day Budapest, although it is possible he made it as far as Byzantium, today's Istanbul, because the legion he was part of is known to have moved around.

In a statement, Adamson said, "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."

"Polion was literate, and literacy was rarer then that it is now, but his handwriting, spelling and Greek grammar are erratic. 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's estimate of the date of the letter is based on, among other things, handwriting styles and the soldier's name.

The full translation of the letter is published in the latest volume of the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists.

Screenshot from YouTube video showing the 1,800-year-old letter.

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