Roman soldier's life unfurls
Princeton grad helps bring ancient writings to light
January 26th, 2004
By Sue Kiesewetter
SHARONVILLE - Nearly 2000 years ago a young Roman soldier wrote home, asking his father's permission to marry his girlfriend.
In another letter, he asks for boots and socks to keep his feet warm during a cold winter. And he tells how he must violently put down those who revolt and riot in Alexandria.
All this - and more - about life for Tiberianus, who lived in Roman Egypt, is being advanced through the work of a Princeton High School graduate now attending the University of Michigan.
Last fall, Robert Stephan (Class of 2001) found some papyri - ancient writings on papyrus, made from the reed plant - stored but forgotten in the university's vault. The papyri had been collected during UM excavations at Karanius, southwest of Egypt's Nile River delta, in the 1920s and '30s.
Unbeknown to today's scholars, 15 papyri collected from the original excavation had been catalogued by the university but never examined or translated. The works may never have been discovered had Stephan not begun an independent study project last fall.
Many archaeologistscall his discovery a breakthrough.
"The significance of this is that the world (did not) know that these existed,'' said Arthur Verhoogt, a UM assistant professor of papyrology and Greek. "It's an important contribution to our understanding of the Roman Empire at large.''
Stephan is spending much of his free time working with professors to translate the papyri and put the writings in context with other archaeological findings. His work will be published next year in Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists. Stephan also is putting together an exhibit of papyri and artifacts from Karanius for the university's museum in October.
"This is a revision of what we know,'' said Traianos Gagos, president of the American Society of Papyrologists.
"This collection of fragments is hard to read - private letters are the hardest to translate because there's not much background. The approach Rob has taken is broader. He's bringing the archaeologist into it - the way it should be studied.''
The work, Stephan said, is fascinating and unusual for an undergraduate to be doing.
"I'm trying to find out what life was like for the average Joe of this society," Stephan said. "I want to find the guy's social status and what his life was like.''