We have enough reliable information on the generals of antiquity, the Caesars and Hannibal, but we know practically nothing about the soldiers they led. Today a common military man can express his opinion, within certain limits, in numerous media; on the contrary, there are hardly any records of the soldiers of the past.
When we refer to them it is always in collective terms: the Gauls, the Romans, the Greeks… Our lack of information leads us to think of them as an undifferentiated mass. But each of them felt something different.
Thanks to the efforts of a student at Rice University in the United States, we know what one of them thought. And the surprising answer is that his feelings weren't that different from what the military suffers today. Although yes, it was more difficult to know why someone did not reply to a message.
Grant Adamson began work on a papyrus in the summer of 2011. The papyrus is a private letter, sent by recruit Aurelius Polion To his family; Despite being discovered in 1899, and being written mostly in ancient Greek, no one had yet managed to decipher it.
Adamson takes credit: he says the letter is just one of many documents that the 1899 expedition uncovered, and that until now no one had seriously investigated her due to her poor condition. Even now, it is impossible to know what parts of the letter say.
Polion's letter is addressed to his mother, sister and brother. He claims to have sent six letters to his family, and shows his despair by getting no reply. We imagine that the difficulty of transportation and communications at the time made your wait even more difficult.
"I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always pay homage to all the gods for you. I keep writing to you, but you don't have me in mind. I do my part by writing to you and I never cease to have you in mind and in my heart. But you never wrote to me about your health, how are you doing? I am concerned for you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote to me to know how you are. I sent you six letters. The moment you have me in mind, I will be discharged by the consul [commander], and I will come to you so that you can know that I am your brother. Because I asked… nothing from you for the army, but I blame you because even though I write to you, none of you… has consideration…. I am your brother ”.
Adamson believes that Polion was stationed in the province of Lower Pannonia, in the city that we know today as Budapest. However, his legion was mobile and could have traveled to Byzantium (present-day Istanbul).
An added element of difficulty in deciphering the letter is the soldier's own mistakes: Adamson claims that his handwriting and grammar were deficient. Polion could write, which was not common at the time, but he was not a scholar. And while his family in Egypt spoke Greek and had to use that language in his letter, the legions spoke latin. This must have complicated the writing process.
Determine the manuscript age it was a difficult task. In general, it is not possible to do it with ancient papyri unless they refer to some historical fact.
He got a clue from his name Aurelius: is the name of a Roman citizen. So Polion may have obtained it in 212, when the Empire granted Roman nationality to a large number of inhabitants of non-Italian provinces. Another clue comes from his reference to the consul as a commander. Lower Pannonia became consular government in 214, so the letter could not be sent before that year.
The letter has received media attention for its personal nature. On a very rare occasion do we get to see what an ordinary citizen of such a distant time thought.
The papyrus is currently housed at the University of California, Berkley. Here you can see the letter in full and Adamson's article.