Decoded: Egyptian soldier’s 1,800-year-old letter

The letter bears striking similarities to sentiments of those serving on the front line today

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We’re not so different from our ancestors after all, an 1,800-year-old letter sent by an Egyptian soldier to his family has shown.

The letter, which has been decoded by an American religious studies student, has proven that those serving on the front line perhaps share similar sentiments - no matter what historical era they hail from.

The letter, which was written mostly in Greek, was sent by Aurelius Polion, a military recruit serving in a Roman legion in Europe, according to a report by British newspaper The Independent on Friday.

According to graduate Grant Adamson, the soldier addresses his brother, sister and family who have not been writing to him for some time.

(Photo courtesy: University of California / Berkley’s Bancroft Library)
(Photo courtesy: University of California / Berkley’s Bancroft Library)

“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 reportedly says.

“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.”

Literacy and handwriting style

In 1899, an expedition team of Grenfell and Hunt in the ancient Egyptian city of Tebtunis originally found the letter.

Adamson, who was assigned the task in 2011, believes that Polion was stationed in the province of Pannonia Inferior at Aquincum, now Budapest, but may have travelled as far as Byzantium, now modern day Istanbul, as he was part of a legion known to be mobile, the newspaper reported.

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 relied on handwriting styles and other hints such as the soldier's name Aurelius to work out the date of the letter, according to the newspaper.