Image by Paul Pearson, University College London
You may think you know your Roman emperors, but do you recognize the face on the coin above? His name was Sponsian, or Sponsianus, and he lived in the middle of the third century. Or at least he did according to certain theories: vanishingly little is known about him, and in fact, this very gold piece (above) is the only evidence we have that he ever existed. Given that numismatists have long written the coin off as an eighteenth-century fake, it’s possible that emperor Sponsian could be a wholly apocryphal figure — but it’s become a bit less likely since the coin went under the electron microscope earlier this year.
“Using modern imaging technology, the researchers said they found ‘deep micro-abrasion patterns’ that were ‘typically associated with coins that were in circulation for an extensive period of time,’” writes the New York Times‘ April Rubin.
“In addition, the researchers analyzed earthen deposits, finding what they called evidence that the coin had been buried for a long time before being exhumed.” In the details of their design, they’re also “uncharacteristic” of forgeries created in the eighteenth century. If this Sponsian-headed money is fraudulent, then, it’s at least authentically old, or at least much older than had long been assumed.
You can find the published research paper here, at the site of its journal PLOS ONE. Summarizing findings in the paper, a University College London site notes: “The coin … was among a handful of coins of the same design unearthed in Transylvania, in present-day Romania, in 1713. They have been regarded as fakes since the mid-19th-century, due to their crude, strange design features and jumbled inscriptions.” According to Professor Paul N. Pearson, the lead author of the research paper: “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.” Jesper Ericsson, a curator at The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow, adds: “we hope that this [research] encourages further debate about Sponsian as a historical figure” and sparks more research into “coins relating to [Sponsian] held in other museums across Europe.”
Keep tabs on the Sponsianus Wikipedia page to learn more about this long-lost Roman emperor.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.