1,800-year-old papyrus turns out to contain homesick Roman soldier's complaint

A graduate student in Rice University's Religious Studies program has deciphered a letter from an Egyptian soldier serving in a Roman legion in Europe that has baffled scholars since its discovery in 1899.

Grant Adamson began the process of textually analyzing the letter in 2011, when he was working at a summer institute at Brigham Young University. The letter -- written by a Roman soldier of Egyptian heritage, named "Polion" -- had been discovered in the late Nineteenth Century by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt, two noted English papyrologists, but because of the condition it was found in, it had been neglected.

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

As the translation below demonstrates, portions of the letter are still too damaged to transcribe and translate. But it is known that it is the sixth in an unrequited set of letters from a desperate Egyptian soldier to his brother, sister, and mother, who is also identified as "the bread seller." The tone of the letter is strikingly modern in its passive aggressiveness.

"I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf," Polion wrote. "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."

"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."

Adamson believes that the soldier, 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 [Budapest]."

Professor April DeConick, the chair of Rice's Religious Studies Department and Adamson's adviser, noted that the letter betrayed a particularly modern sensibility. "His emotions are really no different than those of soldiers today, who are longing to go home," she said.

Watch a video posted to YouTube by Rice University below.

[Image of Roman soldier via sentex64 on Flickr, Creative Common Licensed]