Ancient gold coin found in Transylvania proves that emperor Sponsian really existed

An ancient gold coin proves that a 3rd-century Roman emperor who ruled Dacia, until now considered a fictional character, really existed, scientists say, quoted by the BBC. The story was told  by the University College London and published in the PLOS ONE magazine.

The coin bearing Sponsian’s name and engraved with the emperor’s portrait was found more than 300 years ago in Transylvania, which was an outpost of the Roman Empire. It was believed to be a fake, and the coin remained locked away in a museum cabinet. Now scientists say the scratch marks visible under a microscope prove that the coin was in circulation 2,000 years ago.

The coin is part of a small hoard discovered in 1713. Until the middle of the 19th century, it was believed that the coin was original. Then, due to the rather rudimentary design, researchers suspected that the coin might have been produced by counterfeiters of the time. In 1863, when Henry Cohen, the greatest coin expert of the time, emphasized this point when he compiled his great catalog of Roman coins. Other specialists held the same opinion, and Sponsian was considered a “false” emperor.

However, Pearson had doubts about this theory after seeing photographs of the coin while doing research for a book on the history of the Roman Empire. He saw scratches on the surface of the coin and thought they might have come from the fact that the coin had been in circulation. He contacted the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow, where the coin was located. He examined the coin, along with 3 others, under a powerful microscope and confirmed that there were indeed scratches and the coins appeared to have been kept with others in money pouches. A chemical analysis also showed that the coins had been buried in the ground for hundreds of years, says Jesper Ericsson, curator at the Hunterian Museum.

Lead author Professor Paul N. Pearson (UCL Earth Sciences) said: “Scientific analysis of these ultra-rare coins rescues the 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.”

Now researchers must find out who Sponsian was. They believe that this was a needy military commander who declared himself emperor of Dacia.

The Roman province of Dacia, a territory overlapping with modern-day Romania, was a region prized for its gold mines. Archaeological studies have established that the area was cut off from the rest of the Roman empire in around 260 CE. Surrounded by enemies, Sponsian may have been a local army officer forced to assume supreme command during a period of chaos and civil war, protecting the military and civilian population of Dacia until order was restored, and the province evacuated between 271 and 275 CE.

nly four coins featuring Sponsian are known to have survived to the present day, all apparently originally from the 1713 hoard. Another is in Brukenthal National Museum in Sibiu, Romania. High magnification microscopic analysis performed there, following the research on the coin at The Hunterian, has revealed similar evidence of authenticity.

coinDaciaemperorfictionalgoldmuseumProfessor Paul N. PearsonRomaniaSponsianTransylvaniaUCL Earth SciencesUniversity College London
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