It seems that the trope of the ‘homesick soldier’ is a timeless image, whether it’s from a dusty tent in Helmand Province, a muddy trench by the Somme or among Roman legionnaires almost 2,000 years ago.
This is the finding of Rice Religious Studies graduate student Grant Adamson, who has recently translated a letter from an Egyptian soldier serving in a Roman legion in Europe at the beginning of the third century AD.
The papyrus letter by Roman military recruit Aurelius Polion is written in Greek and addressed to his family in the ancient Egyptian city of Tebtunis, where the private missive was originally discovered by the expedition team of Grenfell and Hunt in 1899.
And homesickness is not the only emotion that chimes with the experiences felt by modern-day soldiers. Polion also appears increasingly frustrated that the repeated correspondence to family has not been similarly reciprocated.
“I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf,” he writes.
“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.”
But his displeasure at his brother, sister and his mother, “the bread seller”, does not stop there.
“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(?) neighbour … I am your brother.”
Clearly, the ancient squaddie’s frustration is growing and he appears desperate to reach his family after sending six letters that have gone unanswered.
Polion is believed to have been stationed in the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior at Aquincum (modern day Budapest) – a far cry from his homeland in Egypt. Adamson said Polion’s legion is also known to have been mobile and may have travelled as far as Byzantium (modern day Istanbul).
It seems that for a young man posted strange, unfamiliar lands – hundreds, if not thousands of miles from where he grew up – word from home was just as important then as it is now.
The letter was just one of many documents discovered by Grenfell and Hunt in their original dig. The poor state of the message meant it was all but ignored for over 100 years. Portions of the letter’s contents are still uncertain or missing and not possible to reconstruct.
It is thought by Adamson that the letter was written in Greek because Egyptian script was not commonly used at the time, while Latin – the language of the Romans – would not have been known by the soldier’s family.
“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 the translation into English all the 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.”
But it is personal nature of the letter that has captured the imagination of modern-day historians.
April DeConick, chair of Rice’s Religious Studies Department and Adamson’s faculty adviser, said: “One thing that I think is important about this letter is that it reflects the emotions of a soldier in the ancient world.
“His emotions are really no different than those of soldiers today, who are longing to go home.”