Numismatic Breakthrough: Coin Study Suggests ‘Fake’ Roman Emperor Was Real
A hoard of coins found in Transylvania in 1713 contained several coins unlike other Roman coins in style and manufacture, with enigmatic features such as mistaken legends and historically mixed motifs. The four gold coins depicting the “Roman Emperor” Sponsian were long considered forgeries and Sponsian himself a forgery.
However, in a groundbreaking new study in the scientific journal PLOS One, researchers have concluded that the Sponsian coin locked for years in a Glasgow museum cupboard is a genuine 3rd century artifact and that Sponsian was a genuine claimant of the title
The team examined the Sponsian coin and three others of the known Roman emperors Gordian III and Philip I found in the same horde and housed in Scotland.
“The scientific analysis of these ultra-rare coins rescues the Sponsian emperor from obscurity,” explained lead researcher Paul N. Pearson of University College London. “Our evidence suggests that he ruled over Roman Dacia, an isolated gold-mining outpost, at a time when the empire was beset by civil wars and the borderlands were overrun by marauding invaders.”
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The third century was a period of intense agitation for the Roman Empire. Archaeological studies have established that Dacia, a Roman province that overlaps present-day Romania, was separated from the rest of the empire around 260 AD.
Pearson and his colleagues suggest that Sponsian was a local army commander who declared himself emperor to protect Dacia’s military and civilians until order was restored and the province evacuated between 271 and 275 AD.
Coins were minted in his likeness to support a functioning local economy on the isolated frontier.
“Maybe they didn’t know who the real emperor was,” Pearson told the BBC.
The researchers used cutting-edge techniques that ensure that this and the other Sponsian coins, housed in Vienna, Austria, and Sibiu, Romania, will receive attention for years to come.
The team found minerals on the coin’s surface that were consistent with it having been buried in the ground for a long period of time and then exposed to the air. These minerals were cemented into place by silica, a naturally occurring process.
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The researchers also examined the coin using optical imaging and electron microscopy, revealing similar wear patterns to genuine coins. It is therefore likely that the coin was in circulation for several years, jingling in purses.
The research counters the work of 19th-century numismatist Henry Cohen, in particular, who argued that the Sponsian coins were poorly made and “ridiculously imagined”.
Specialists at Romania’s Brukenthal National Museum had classified their Sponsian coin as a fake, but changed their minds when they saw the new study.
The interim manager of the museum, Alexandru Constantin Chituță, said: “For the history of Transylvania and Romania in particular, but also for the history of Europe in general, if these results are accepted by the scientific community, they will mean the addition of another important historical figure in our history.”
More work remains to be done to confirm the authenticity of all Sponsian coins. George Green, an Oxford archaeologist and expert on ancient gold, suggested to The Wall Street Journal that the metal used to make the coins should be examined to see if it matches the metal from mines known to be operate in Dacia during antiquity.
While the work has been praised by most, there are detractors to the conclusions about Sponsian.
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“They have become a complete fantasy,” Richard Abdy, curator of Roman and Iron Age coins at the British Museum, told The Guardian. “It’s circular evidence. They say that because of the coin there is the person, and therefore the person must have made the coin.”