Coins study suggests ‘fake emperor’ was real, say scientists

Hoard once thought to be a fraud appears to be genuine, indicating mysterious Roman Sponsian lived

A hoard of gold coins once thought to be fakes have been authenticated by researchers who say the artefacts reveal a long-lost Roman emperor.

The coins bear the name and image of a shadowy historical figure, Sponsian, whose existence was previously placed in doubt by experts who suggested the coins were the work of sophisticated 18th-century fraudsters.

But a scientific analysis has concluded that the coins are genuine third-century artefacts, and the researchers make the case that Emperor Sponsian was also the real deal.

“We’re very confident that they’re authentic,” said Prof Paul Pearson, of University College London, who led the research. “Our evidence suggests Sponsian ruled Roman Dacia, an isolated goldmining outpost, at a time when the empire was beset by civil wars and the borderlands were overrun by plundering invaders.”

The hoard of coins are said to have been unearthed in Transylvania, in modern-day Romania, in 1713. Several depict recognised Roman emperors of the third century, including Gordian III and Philip the Arab. But four coins bear the name and image of Sponsian, who does not appear in any other historical records.

When the coins were discovered, they were initially thought to be genuine. But from the mid-19th century, attitudes changed owing to the coins’ crude designs and jumbled inscriptions. One expert suggested they were the work of a sophisticated Viennese fraudster who had invented an emperor to appeal to collectors, and this became the prevailing view.

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 corresponding with Jesper Ericsson, the numismatics curator at the Hunterian museum in Glasgow, which holds a coin in its collection, and the pair decided to perform a full scientific analysis.

This revealed that simply based on their weight in gold, the coins are valuable – the assemblage would be worth $20,000 (£16,700) in modern value. “If they’re a forgery, that’s a big outlay to start with,” said Pearson.

When examined at high magnification using optical imaging and electron microscopy, the coins showed similar patterns of wear and tear to genuine coins, suggesting they had been in circulation for several years. Minerals on the surface of the coins were consistent with them having been buried for an extended period, and the scientists detected sulphate crystals, which typically form when an object is deprived of oxygen for a long time and then re-exposed to air.

“I believe we have established with a very high degree of confidence that they are genuine,” said Pearson, adding that the question of Sponsian’s identity was “more speculative”.

It is known that the Dacia region was cut off from central command during a period of military strife in the 260s CE. Writing 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 coin mint.

“He took on the title imperator – supreme military commander – that was reserved for the emperor,” said Pearson. “There are other precedents of regional emperors. If we allow Roman emperors to self-identify, he was a Roman emperor.”

Dr Adrastos Omissi, of the University of Glasgow, who was not involved in the research, described the analysis as “a brilliant piece of work”. “I think they’ve made a really convincing argument for the existence of Sponsian and of him being a real emperor,” he said, adding that the late 3rd century was a period of such turbulence and unrest that “the bar for being an emperor was very low”.

However, others were more sceptical. “They’ve gone full fantasy,” said Richard Abdy, the curator of Roman and iron age coins at the British Museum. “It’s circular evidence. They’re saying because of the coin there’s the person, and the person therefore must have made the coin.”


Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Roman coins found in Yorkshire revealed after years of secrecy
Detectorists who found silver treasure led archaeologists to high-status site in 2015

Nazia Parveen north of England correspondent

26, Aug, 2018 @5:29 PM

Article image
Discovery of Roman coins in Devon redraws map of empire
Discovery by metal detector enthusiasts at Ipplepen is beyond what was thought to be western limit of Roman influence

Steven Morris

22, Jun, 2016 @10:06 AM

Article image
Vikings brought their animals to England, research suggests
Experts find evidence at Derbyshire cremation site of horses and dogs originating from the Baltic Shield

Nicola Davis Science correspondent

01, Feb, 2023 @7:00 PM

Article image
Cerne Giant in Dorset dates from Anglo-Saxon times, analysis suggests
Sand samples examined by National Trust experts indicate hillside chalk figure was created in the 10th century

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

12, May, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Chickens were first tempted down from trees by rice, research suggests
Close human contact only started about 3,500 years ago and birds were initially venerated, find archaeologists

Helena Horton Environment reporter

06, Jun, 2022 @7:00 PM

Article image
Stonehenge builders feasted on animals brought from Scotland, study shows
Analysis for Feast! exhibition suggest workers ate hog roasts and beef stew made from animals taken to England by boat

Steven Morris

19, Oct, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
The 1066 diet: Normans passed on their love of pork, study suggests
Study suggests pork and possibly chicken became more popular after arrival of William the Conqueror

Steven Morris

06, Jul, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
Scientists discover Machu Picchu could be at least two decades older than thought
A team of investigators used enhanced carbon dating methods to examine human remains from the site in Peru

Kevin Rawlinson

03, Aug, 2021 @11:01 PM

Article image
Jewish remains found in Norwich well were medieval pogrom victims – study
Advances in DNA analysis enabled researchers to identify victims and sequence oldest genomes from Jewish individuals

Nicola Davis Science correspondent

30, Aug, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Medieval villagers mutilated the dead to stop them rising, study finds
Archaeological research may represent first scientific evidence of English practices attempting to protect the living from the dead

Maev Kennedy

02, Apr, 2017 @11:02 PM