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New Roman Emperor Revealed By Gold Coins Once Thought To Be Fakes

Many doubted whether Sponsian was a real Roman leader, but this analysis suggests this guy was not fake news.

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockNov 24 2022, 15:07 UTC
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Coin of the ‘emperor’ Sponsian, currently in The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, UK.

Was Sponsian, pictured here, a real leader or just a fake? Image credit: Pearson et al., 2022, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

Was the mysterious Roman leader Sponsian a real man, or just a fictional character who managed to sneak onto some dodgy coins? A hoard of ultra-rare gold coins has now indicated that this long-lost ruler was, in fact, a real historical figure and not the “fake emperor” some suspected.

Researchers have recently been looking at a bunch of coins that were allegedly discovered in Transylvania in 1713. The coins feature the side profile of a Roman leader along with the name "Sponsian". 

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It’s typical that Roman mints would produce coins stamped with the emperor or prominent local leaders of the time. Most unusually, however, there are no historical written records of anyone with the name Sponsian. The Transylvanian coins also weren’t stylistically typical of ancient Roman coins either, which led some previous researchers to assume they were fakes. 

In a new study, scientists from University College London (UCL) and the University of Glasgow have authenticated the coins, suggesting that Sponsian was a real long-lost regional emperor. 

They achieved this using a number of fancy imaging techniques, including visible light microscopy, ultra-violet imaging, scanning electron microscopy, and reflection mode Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy.

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First up, this analysis revealed that the coins featured many deep micro-abrasion patterns that suggested they had been in circulation for many centuries. Tiny earth deposits on the coins also indicated the coins had been buried in the ground for a significant amount of time before being dug up. 

This led them to conclude that the coins are indeed real and likely date to the time of the Roman Empire. In particular, they suspect that Sponsian was a powerful army commander in Dacia, the former Roman Province in modern-day Romania, during a period of military strife around 260 CE.

However, many uncertainties around this man remain. Why, for instance, are there no written records of this apparently important ruler? Equally, why haven't more coins with his name on them been discovered?

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The team hopes this latest piece of evidence will encourage historians and archeologists to pry deeper into the identity of this mysterious figure and shed light onto this potentially undiscovered patch of Roman history. 

“Scientific analysis of these ultra-rare coins rescues the regional emperor Sponsian from obscurity. Our evidence suggests he ruled Roman Dacia, an isolated gold mining outpost, at a time when the empire was beset by civil wars and the borderlands were overrun by plundering invaders” Paul N. Pearson, lead author of the paper from the Department of Earth Sciences at the UCL, said in a statement

"Not only do we hope that this encourages further debate about Sponsian as a historical figure, but also the investigation of coins relating to him held in other museums across Europe", added Jesper Ericsson, curator of Numismatics at The Hunterian. 

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The new study was published in the journal PLOS ONE


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