Numismatic breakthrough: Coin study suggests ‘fake’ Roman emperor was real

A horde of coins found in Transylvania in 1713 contained several unlike other Roman coins in style and make, with enigmatic features including bungled legends and historically mixed motifs. The four gold coins depicting the “Roman emperor” Sponsian were long regarded as forgeries and Sponsian himself a fake. 

However, in a breakthrough new study in the scientific journal PLOS One, researchers have concluded that the coin of Sponsian locked away for years in a museum cupboard in Glasgow is a genuine third-century artifact and that Sponsian was a real claimant to the title. 

The team examined the Sponsian coin as well as three others of well-known Roman emperors Gordian III and Philip I found in the same horde and housed in Scotland.

“Scientific analysis of these ultra-rare coins rescues the emperor Sponsian from obscurity,” explained lead researcher Paul N. Pearson of University College London. “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.”

The Sponsian coin is about the size of a quarter, though thicker and heavier.
(The Hunterian, University of Glasgow)


The third century was a period of intense turmoil for the Roman Empire. Archeological studies have established that Dacia, a Roman province that overlaps with modern-day Romania, was cut off from the rest of the empire around 260 A.D.

Pearson and his colleagues suggest that Sponsian was a local army commander who declared himself emperor to protect the military and civilians of Dacia until order was restored, and the province evacuated between 271 and 275 A.D.

The coins were minted with his likeness to support a functioning local economy in the isolated frontier. 

“They may not have known who the actual emperor was,” Pearson told the BBC.

Coin of the "emperor" Sponsian in The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, U.K.

Coin of the “emperor” Sponsian in The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, U.K.
(Pearson, PN et al. in PLOS ONE)

The researchers used cutting-edge techniques that guarantee this and the other Sponsian coins, housed in Vienna, Austria, and Sibiu, Romania, will be given attention for years to come.

The team found minerals on the coin’s surface that were consistent with it being buried in soil over a long period of time, and then exposed to air. These minerals were cemented in place by silica, a process that occurs naturally. 


The researchers also examined the coin using optical imaging and electron microscopy, revealing similar patterns of wear and tear that genuine coins feature. Thus, the coin was likely to have been in circulation for several years, jingled around in purses. 

The research counters the work of 19th-century numismatist Henry Cohen in particular, who argued that the Sponsian coins were poorly made and “ridiculously imagined.”

Specialists at the Brukenthal National Museum in Romania had classified their Sponsian coin as a fake but changed their minds when they saw the new study.

Professors Paul N. Pearson and Jesper Ericsson, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, look at the Sponsian coin under a microscope.

Professors Paul N. Pearson and Jesper Ericsson, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, look at the Sponsian coin under a microscope.
(The Hunterian, University of Glasgow)

The interim manager of the museum, Alexandru Constantin Chituță, said, “For the history of Transylvania and Romania in particular, but also for the history of Europe in general, if these results are accepted by the scientific community, they will mean the addition of another important historical figure in our history.”

More work remains to be done to confirm the authenticity of all the Sponsian coins. George Green, an Oxford archeologist and expert in ancient gold, suggested to The Wall Street Journal that the metal used to make the coins ought to be examined to see if it matches metal from mines known to have operated in Dacia during ancient times.

While the work has been lauded by most, there are detractors to the conclusions regarding Sponsian.


“They’ve gone full fantasy,” Richard Abdy, curator of Roman and Iron Age coins at the British Museum told The Guardian. “It’s circular evidence. They’re saying because of the coin there’s the person, and the person therefore must have made the coin.”

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