In 1713 a cache of Roman coins was discovered in Transylvania, several of which bore the portrait and name of Sponsian – but there is no historical record of a Roman emperor of that name. The coins have been largely dismissed as fakes for more than a century, but a re-analysis using a variety of physics-based methods has provided evidence that they may be authentic, according to a recent paper published in the journal PLoS ONE. So Sponsian may have been a real emperor after all.
One of the Sponsian coins is now in the Brukenthal National Museum in Sibiu, Romania; another is part of the Hunterian collection at the University of Glasgow. “This has been a very exciting project for the Hunterian and we are delighted that our findings have inspired research collaborations with museum colleagues in Romania,” said co-author Jesper Ericsson, Curator of Numismatics at the Hunterian. “Not only do we hope this encourages further debate about Sponsian as a historical figure, but also the investigation of coins related to him held in other museums across Europe.”
Sponsian (or Sponsianus) appears to have been an obscure Roman military commander in the Roman province of Dacia, an isolated gold-mining outpost overlapping modern-day Romania. According to the authors, he was most likely active during a critical period of unrest during the 3rd century AD. After the assassination of Emperor Severus Alexander—by his own troops, no less—the Roman Empire was besieged by barbarian invasions, peasant revolts, civil wars, a pandemic (the Plague of Cyprian), and the rise of several usurpers vying for power. Due to the resulting currency depreciation and economic collapse, by the 260s there were three competing states: the Gallic Empire, the Palmyrene Empire, and the Italo-centric Roman Empire caught between them. Things did not stabilize politically until Diocletian came to power and restructured the imperial government in 284.
Sponsian is so obscure that the coins bearing his name are the only concrete evidence of his existence. At the time of discovery, the coins were considered authentic. But doubts about their authenticity grew over time, and in 1868 the French numismatist Henri Cohen declared the Sponsian coins to be “modern forgeries of very poor quality” – possibly the work of a Viennese forger who thought inventing an emperor would better capture the collectors’ interest attention. . So the Sponsian, by extension, may never have existed. The coins were heavier than usual, with inscriptions that did not match other Roman coins. Others have argued that there were so many self-proclaimed rulers during the chaotic period, and their time in power so fleeting, that the discrepancies should not be surprising.
Co-author Paul Pearson of University College London spearheaded this latest project – the first time a Sponsian coin has been subjected to scientific analysis. Pearson saw photographs of the Hunterian coin while researching a book on the history of the Roman Empire during the pandemic. He noticed small scratches on the surface and thought this could be evidence that the coin may have been in circulation since coins carried around in bags or pouches tended to get scratched.
Pearson and his co-authors applied a range of analytical techniques to four of the coins from the 18th-century cache in the Hunterian collection, including the Sponsian coin and coins inscribed with the names of Plautius, Philip the Arab and Gordian III. (The coins once belonged to a William Hunter, who probably obtained them from the estate of a noted Viennese antiquarian named Joseph de France.) These methods included classical light microscopy, ultraviolet imaging, scanning electron microscopy, and reflection mode Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. They did the same for two other Roman coins whose authenticity had been confirmed for comparison purposes.
The analysis confirmed the presence of scratches and other signs of wear often seen on genuine Roman coins. Furthermore, the chemical analysis indicated that all four coins had been buried in soil for centuries before being exposed to air. Based on the analysis of Pearson et al.the Brukenthal National Museum has placed a Sponsian coin on public display as a genuine object.
“I think we have established with a very high degree of confidence that they are genuine,” Pearson told the Guardian, although he admitted that the question of Sponsian’s identity was “more speculative.” However, the authors believe that the Sponsian may have assumed command as emperor (“supreme military commander”) of Dacia when the population was cut off from the rest of the empire, surrounded by hostile enemies. Given their mining resources, Dacia could have minted its own coins with Sponsian’s image, which would have helped cement his authority and maintain economic stability and social order until the area was finally evacuated between 271 and 275 AD.
The research has received mixed responses from other experts. Adrastos Omissi of the University of Glasgow told the Guardian that it was a “brilliant piece of work” and that he found the case for both the existence of the Sponsian and his role as a self-appointed ruler of Dacia quite convincing, especially since at the time, “the bar for being emperor was very low.” But Richard Abdy, curator of Roman and Iron Age coins at the British Museum, did not mince his scepticism. “They’ve gone full fantasy,” he told The Guardian. “It’s circular evidence. They say because of the coin it’s the person, and therefore the person must have made the coin.”
DOI: PLoS ONE, 2022. 10.1371/journal.pone.0274285 (About DOIs).