History Forgot a Roman Emperor, Coins Suggest

Sponsian may have ruled over Dacia province 1.8K years ago: researchers
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 24, 2022 2:55 PM CST
History Forgot a Roman Emperor, Coins Suggest
A Sponsian coin.   (The Hunterian, University of Glasgow)

Four coins unearthed in Romania's Transylvania region in 1713 depicted, it was thought at the time, an unknown Roman emperor. A century and a half later, Emperor Sponsian had been almost universally declared to be a fake, invented by forgers. Henry Cohen, a leading coin expert of the 19th century, decided the coins were "ridiculously imagined" forgeries—an idea that may now be overthrown, per the BBC. Paul Pearson of University College London says he was viewing photos of a coin when he noticed scratches on its surface that he thought might indicate it was a genuine coin once in circulation. After reaching out to Glasgow University's Hunterian Museum, where the coins were held, he says he surmised them to be 1,800 years old.

Using powerful microscopes, scientists determined the scratches "were consistent with them being jingled around in purses," per the BBC. According to a study published in PLOS One, a chemical analysis also indicated the coins had been buried for hundreds of years, meaning they couldn’t have been modern forgeries after all. "We're very confident that they're authentic," Pearson tells the Guardian. "Scientific analysis of these ultra-rare coins rescues the emperor Sponsian from obscurity," he adds in a release. Researchers now believe the man whose name and head decorate the coins was a military commander who crowned himself emperor of the province of Dacia, a gold mining outpost that was cut off from the rest of the Roman Empire around 260 AD during a pandemic and civil war.

"Our interpretation is that he was in charge to maintain control of the military and of the civilian population because they were surrounded" by enemies, says Jesper Ericsson, the museum’s curator of coins. "In order to create a functioning economy in the province they decided to mint their own coins," cruder than those from Rome. Officials at Romania's Brukenthal National Museum have since analyzed the museum's single Sponsian coin, bequeathed with the 1807 death of a former Transylvanian governor, which "revealed similar evidence of authenticity," per the release. "If these results are accepted by the scientific community, they will mean the addition of another important historical figure," says Brukenthal's interim manager. (More Roman Empire stories.)

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