A hoard of gold coins once thought to be fakes have been authenticated by researchers who say the artifacts reveal a long-lost Roman emperor.
The coins bear the name and image of a shadowy historical figure, Sponsian, whose existence was previously questioned by experts who suggested the coins were the work of sophisticated 18th-century fraudsters.
But a scholarly analysis has concluded that the coins are genuine artifacts from the third century, and the researchers argue that Emperor Sponsianus was also real.
“We are confident that they are authentic,” says Prof Paul Pearson of University College London, who led the research. “Our evidence suggests that Sponsians ruled Roman Dacia, an isolated gold mining outpost, at a time when the empire was ravaged by civil war and its frontier regions overrun by marauding invaders.”
The hoard of coins is said to have been unearthed in 1713 in Transylvania, in present-day Romania. Several depictions show recognized third-century Roman emperors, including Gordian III and Philip the Arab. Only four coins bear Sponsian’s name and image, which does not appear in any other historical record.
When the coins were discovered, they were initially thought to be genuine. But from the mid-19th century, attitudes changed because of the coins’ crude designs and confused inscriptions. An expert suggested that they were the work of a sophisticated Viennese fraudster invented by an emperor to appeal to collectors, and this became the prevailing opinion.
Pearson, an earth scientist, learned about the coins and the “fake emperor” while researching a book on Roman history as a lockdown project. He began to correspond with Jesper Ericsson, the numismatics curator at the Hunterian museum in Glasgow, which has a coin in its collection, and the pair decided to conduct a full scientific analysis.
This revealed that the coins are valuable simply by their weight in gold – the assembly would be worth $20,000 (£16,700) in modern value. “If they’re a counterfeit, that’s a big expense to begin with,” Pearson said.
When examined at high magnification using optical imaging and electron microscopy, the coins showed similar wear patterns to genuine coins, suggesting they had been in circulation for several years. Minerals on the coins’ surface were consistent with them being buried for an extended period of time, and the scientists discovered sulfate crystals, which typically form when an object is deprived of oxygen for a long period of time and then exposed to air again.
“I believe we have established with a very high degree of confidence that they are real,” Pearson said, adding that the question of Sponsian’s identity was “more speculative.”
It is known that the Dacia region during a period of military strife in the 260s AD. Was cut off from the central command. In the journal Plos One, the authors speculate that Sponsian was a military leader who assumed authority over the Roman enclave and established a local mint.
“He took the title imperator – commander in chief – which was reserved for the emperor,” Pearson said. “There are other precedents of regional emperors. If we allow Roman emperors to identify themselves, he was a Roman emperor.”
Dr. Adrastos Omissi, from the University of Glasgow, who was not involved in the study, described the analysis as “a brilliant piece of work”. “I think they’ve made a really compelling argument for Sponsianus’s existence and that he’s a real emperor,” he said, adding that the late 3rd century was a period of such turbulence and turmoil that “the threshold to be emperor was very low”.
Others, however, were more sceptical. “They’ve become completely unimaginative,” says Richard Abdy, the curator of Roman and Iron Age coins at the British Museum. “It is circular evidence. They say that because of the coin is the person, and therefore the person must have made the coin.