A Real Letter from a Roman Soldier

Written in the second century by a kid named Apion from a small town in Egypt.

He enlisted in the Roman army at Alexandria, got on a big government ship, and sailed to Italy. The ship made it through a terrible storm.
As soon as he landed and got his new uniform and pay, he went to have his picture painted for his family and sent it home along with this letter:

Apion to  his father and lord Epimachos: Many good wishes!
First of all I hope you are in good health and that things are going well for you and my sister and her daughter and my brother.  I thank the Lord Serapis [an Egyptian god] for saving me right off when I was in danger at sea.
When I arrived at Misenum [the Roman war harbor, near Naples], I received three gold pieces from the Emperor [Trajan?] as road money, and I’m doing just fine.
Please write me a line, my lord father, about your own well-being, second about that of my brother and sister, and third so that I may devotedly greet your hand, because you brought me up well and I may therefore hope for rapid promotion, the gods willing. Give my regards to Capiton [some friend] and my brother and sister and Serenilla [a family slave?] and my friends. I’m sending you my little  portrait through Euktemon. My [new]Roman name is Antonius Maximus.
All my best!

Here is the actual letter, beautifully written in Greek on papyrus, not by the boy himself but by a hired public letter-writer.

Illustration from Ancient Times: A History of the Early World by James Henry Breasted, Ginn and Company, 1944, p. 708.

Two of Apion’s friends who enlisted with him added their greetings in the left-hand margin.
The letter was originally folded and sealed like this one:

Illustration  from Ancient Times: A History of the Early World by James Henry Breasted, Ginn and Company, 1944, p. 708.

It went by the very efficient Roman military post and made it safely all the way to the little village in Egypt, where the boy’s father and family read it almost two thousand years ago. After the father died, the letter got lost in the household rubbish and archaeologists found it not too long ago under the fallen walls of the house. With it was another letter written by Apion years later to his sister after he had long been stationed somewhere on the Roman frontier and had a wife and children of his own.  That is all we know.

His little portrait was something like this:

Fayum mummy portrait (public domain photo)

This is an encaustic (the colors applied with wax) portrait of a Roman-Egyptian, found at Faiyum, Egypt.  Like others found there, it was attached to a mummy.

My source is  Ancient Times: A History of the Early World by James Henry Breasted, Ginn and Company, 1944, p. 708.   It is an exceptionally well-written and informative presentation of ancient history and was used as a textbook in American schools for nearly two generations. There are still many copies around at second-hand booksellers.



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20 Responses to A Real Letter from a Roman Soldier

  1. Pingback: Having Many Things To Write To You, I Did Not Wish To Do So With Paper And Ink | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Anonymous says:

    Any chance of an article on some of the Vindolanda fort letters?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Possibly because the Egyptians, due to Alexander the Great, were more versed in Greek than Latin at that point in time.

  4. Anonymous says:

    thanks i think i’m going to get an a+ on this report

  5. crazytalK says:

    ….superb and lost for words….thank you for sharing….

  6. Jared A. says:

    Okay thanks a million!

  7. 100swallows says:

    Jared A: Use my text as you like, Jared–it’s just rehashed Breasted. For a “history day project” I don’t think Ginn and Co. would object but if you are going to publish you should contact them.

  8. Jared A. says:

    hey, im using this source for my history day project, is this under copyright or can i just use this? if it does have a copyright, can you email me the written statement giving me permission to use this as a scource? My e-mail is neodrizz@yahoo.com
    Ps. is there any other way i can contact you about this?

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thanks you just made my assingment for me thanks lots bye

  10. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Anonymous. You’re going to love that Breasted.

  11. Anonymous says:

    wow, i really needed a source about a roman soldiers life said by him, and that is what you gave me, thanks a million.

    -someone who needed hellp and found it from you

  12. Anonymous says:

    yoour a great help with sources and things. it is always interesting to read about history.

  13. PIT says:

    History can be so much interesting, thanks

  14. 100swallows says:

    Wpm1955: Thanks. No, I don’t. I wish I did. No more was ever found.

  15. wpm1955 says:

    Very interesting. Do you have the contents of his later letter to add in here to this post (or a follow-up post)?

    Madame Monet

  16. Rrishi says:

    Wonderful! There’s so much to be found in those old books of history — earlier historians had more story and less theory. A propos your last comment, a historian of ancient India recently told me that hardly anybody opted to study ancient India, despite the relatively manageable size of the corpus of sources and the potential for detective work. Instead most history grad students elected to study “modern India”. In addition, she said, and I’m not kidding, that the “worst” students picked “ancient”. It’s dreadful, a vicious circle. What’s one to do??

  17. 100swallows says:

    Ritesh: Thanks. I just ordered the book you are reading–you made it sound good. One good thing about having so few sources for a man like Alexander is that, reading them, you can know as much as anyone ever did–anyone who lived later. Ancient history has become so simplified and standardized that it is not much better than a collection of myths. The discouraging thing about modern events is that there is so much material–so many facts, so many points of view.

  18. Ritesh Ranjan says:

    Great post Swallows. It is great to read an eyewitness account of history. Feels like you have actually gone back in time. Most of what we read today in History is either what the victors wrote or interpretation of historical events by scholars. E.g. what we know about Alexander today is mostly derived from the works of Arrian, Plutarch, and Justin and none of them was Alexander’s contemporary. So, it was great going through your translation of the letter and imagining how life would have been for this young soldier – as he saw it. A few days back I bought a book called ‘Eyewitness to History’ edited by John Carey. I am having a lot of fun reading it.

  19. 100swallows says:

    Ross36: Greek was still the lingua franca all over the Mediterranean. Alexandria was the cultural capital of the world and there they spoke Greek. This soldier and his father had Greek names and at least understood Greek, though they might have spoken some Egyptian language at home. Now as a soldier in the Roman army the young man would have to learn Latin.

  20. ross36 says:

    Why did the Roman soldier write in Greek and not Latin?

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