For centuries, the only evidence historians had of the Roman Emperor Sponsian was this hoard of coins with his face found in 1713, believed by many to be forgeries.
Three centuries ago, a hoard of Roman coins was discovered in Transylvania. Eventually, they were dismissed as forgeries: forgeries were prevalent at the time, and the coins had the appearance of a shadowy figure called Sponsian. But new research suggests the coins may be genuine.
And what’s more, that would also prove that the much debated “emperor” Sponsian really existed.
According to a study published in the journal PLUS ONE, the coins appear to be real. The researchers suggest that Sponsian may have ruled the isolated outpost of Roman Dacia when he was cut off from the empire.
“We are very confident that they are authentic,” said Paul Pearson, professor of earth sciences at University College London and lead author of the study. The Guardian. “Our evidence suggests that Sponsian ruled Roman Dacia, an isolated gold-mining outpost, at a time when the empire was beset by civil wars and the borders were overrun by raiding raiders.”
As the BBC explains, the coins were initially believed to be genuine when they were discovered in 1713. But later research suggested they were forgeries. Pearson found out about the coins while he was doing research for a book on the Roman Empire and decided to find out for himself.
According to The Guardianhe and his team examined the coins and discovered numerous factors that suggested they were authentic.
For starters, the coins were made of real gold and were worth $20,000 in today’s money. “If they’re a fake, that’s a big outlay to start with,” Pearson told The Guardian.
In addition, the coins had distinctive markings that suggested they had been in circulation. The New York Times reports that Pearson and his team examined the coins with modern imaging technology that revealed “deep microabrasion patterns.” These patterns were “typically associated with coins that had been in circulation for an extended period of time.”
“I think we have established with a high degree of confidence that they are genuine,” Pearson said. The Guardian.
But if the coins are genuine, who was Sponsian? What The New York Times notes, he appears to be wearing a crown like a Roman emperor. However, there is nothing about a Roman emperor named Sponsian in the historical record.
“It was a figure that was thought to be false and that the experts ruled out,” Pearson explained to the BBC. “But we believe that she was real and that she had a role in the story.”
That story had to do with Roman Dacia, an isolated outpost in present-day Transylvania. Separated from the main empire during civil wars in 260 CE, the territory may have been ruled by Sponsian, a military leader who styled himself emperor during a chaotic period in Roman history.
“Our interpretation is that he was in charge of maintaining control of the military and the civilian population because they were surrounded and completely isolated,” Pearson told the BBC. “To create a functional economy in the province, they decided to mint their own coins.”
Pearson added: “They may not have known who the actual emperor was because there was a civil war.”
A The GuardianPearson suggested that Sponsian assumed the title “imperator” or “supreme military commander” that was normally reserved for the Roman emperor.
“There are other precedents for regional emperors,” Pearson noted. “If we allow Roman emperors to identify themselves, he was a Roman emperor.”
But while some have praised Pearson’s research, other historians have expressed doubt that the coins are authentic.
Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University and author of SPQR: A History of Ancient Romehe wrote that he believed the composition of the coins suggested they were forgeries.
“There is still very powerful evidence that they are fakes,” he said, according to The New York Times.
And Richard Abdy, the curator of Roman and Iron Age coins at the British Museum, was even more skeptical of Pearson’s theory.
“They have become fanciful,” he said. The Guardian. “It is circular evidence. They are saying that because of the coin the person exists, and therefore the person must have made the coin.”
But Pearson and his team have stated that whether or not the coins are fake, they still represent an important historical discovery.
“If the coins were to prove counterfeit, they would be a particularly interesting case study in antiquarian counterfeiting,” the researchers noted in their study. “If they were authentic, they would have clear historical interest.”
After reading about “fake” Roman coins that might actually be real, see how a badger led archaeologists to an “exceptional” hoard of Roman coins in Spain. Or look how hundreds of roman coins possibly worth millions were unearthed in Italy.