Write to Me

Egyptian letter“Write to me…” penned a young soldier of the Roman legions named Aurelus Polion to his family 1,800 years ago.

Plaintively, he asks his mother, brother and sister to respond to one of the six unanswered letters he has sent them.

“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 … while away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger … I departed … and you are glad that(?) … the army. I did not … you a … for the army, but I … departed from you. I sent six letters to you. ”

Tebtunis 2Grant Adamson, a graduate student at Rice University, recently translated the fragile papyrus that an 1899 expedition unearthed in Tebtunis, Egypt, about 90 miles south of Cairo. Buried in the sand a millennium ago, Tebtunis has yielded tens of thousands of papyri, recording life in the cross-cultural city that melded Greek, Roman and Egyptian lifestyles.

Did Polion argue with his family before he joined the army? Was joining the army the reason he was at outs with his family? Whatever the cause of the breach, the young recruit sounds both upset and worried, writing from far away Pannonia, a central European region that spread across modern day Hungary, eastern Austria, northern Croatia, north-western Serbia, northern Slovenia, western Slovakia and northern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

While Polion’s name Aurelius is Roman, he may still have been Egyptian by birth. After 212 ACE, Rome began granting more widespread Roman citizenship to provincial inhabitants of the empire, and they often adopted Roman names.

tebtunis 3Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the first woman Regent of the University of California, Berkeley, funded the archaeological expedition that unearthed the papyri. The archaeologists recovered texts from the ruins of private homes, government offices and the temple of Soknebtunis as well as from human and crocodile mummies in two cemeteries. The soldier’s letter was recovered from the town, not from a mummy. But about those crocodile mummies…

Tebtunis 4Soknebtunis, the crocodile god — Sobek, Lord of Tebtunis — was the chief deity worshipped in the city. A large cache of papyri was unearthed at his temple, and more were found recycled in the mummy wrappings of sacred crocodiles.

Tebtunis 6

Adult crocodile with babies on back.

Expedition leaders Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, unfortunately, considered the crocodile mummies expendable. Knowing that priests and funeral officials often recycled old papyrus in mummy wrappings, they pulled apart about 1,000 crocodile mummies in their search for ancient texts, but only 31 of the mummies yielded any papyrus fragments. On a few crocodiles they discovered rolls of papyrus wound around the creatures with additional scraps stuffed in their mouths and body cavities. Just a handful of Tebtunis crocodile mummies remain, whether still wrapped in intricate bindings and painted masks or as shriveled husks stripped bare. Researchers at UC Berkeley are now scanning the remaining mummies to unlock more secrets of the sacred crocodiles.

Tebtunis 5Excavators also discovered Tebtunis papyri in an ancient garbage dump and surmised the priests at the temple of of Soknebtunis occasionally emptied the archives to make room for new material.

Read the full text of the letter below and here’s an article about the letter with more information.

THE LETTER

legion-xiiii-at-verulamium-museum-credit-enjoystalbansAurelius Polion, soldier of legio II Adiutrix, to Heron his brother and Ploutou his sister and his mother Seinouphis the bread seller and lady(?), very many greetings. 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 … while away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger … I departed … and you are glad that(?) … the army. I did not … you a … for the army, but I … departed from 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. 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. You also, write back to me … write to me. Whoever of you …, send his … to me. Greet my(?) father(?) Aphrodisios and Atesios my(?) uncle(?) … his daughter … and her husband and Orsinouphis and the sons of the sister of his mother, Xenophon and Ouenophis also known as Protas(?) … the Aurelii … (left margin) … the letter …

BACK OF LETTER: ADDRESS
to the sons and Seinouphis the bread seller … from(?) Aurelius(?) Polion, soldier of legio II Adiutrix … from(?) Pan- nonia Inferior(?) … Deliver to Acutius(?) Leon(?), veteran of legio …, from Aurelius Polion, soldier of legio II Adiutrix, so that he may send it home …”

Tebtunis 7

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