Rice Grad Student Deciphers 1,800-Year-Old Letter From Egyptian Soldier

Lisa Valadez | 3/14/2014, 9:07 p.m.
Rice Religious Studies graduate student Grant Adamson deciphers 1,800-year-old letter from an Egyptian solider.
Courtesy of Rice University

A newly deciphered 1,800-year-old letter from an Egyptian solider serving in a Roman legion in Europe to his family back home shows striking similarities to what some soldiers may be feeling here and now.

Rice Religious Studies graduate student Grant Adamson took up the task in 2011 when he was assigned the papyrus to work on during a summer institute hosted at Brigham Young University (BYU).

The private letter sent home by Roman military recruit Aurelius Polion 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," Adamson said. "And because it was in such bad shape, no one had worked much on it for about 100 years." Even now portions of the letter’s contents are uncertain or missing and not possible to reconstruct.

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

"Polion was literate, and literacy was rarer then that it is now, but his handwriting, spelling and Greek grammar are erratic," Adamson said, which made English translation of the damaged letter even more difficult. "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 believes 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, 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," Adamson said. "But you can make a preliminary decision based on the handwriting."

"One thing that I think is important about this letter is that it reflects the emotions of a solider in the ancient world," said April DeConick, chair of Rice's Religious Studies Department and Adamson's faculty adviser. "His emotions are really no different than those of soldiers today, who are longing to go home."

The papyrus, which was on loan to BYU in 2011, is housed at the University of California, Berkley's Bancroft Library.

To read Polion's complete letter as it survives and Adamson's full paper, go here.