Ancient Roman Coins Reveal the Existence of a Forgotten Roman Emperor

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Every Roman Emper­or: A Video Time­line Mov­ing from Augus­tus to the Byzan­tine Empire’s Last Ruler, Con­stan­tine XI

Mod­ern Artists Show How the Ancient Greeks & Romans Made Coins, Vas­es & Arti­sanal Glass

What Did the Roman Emper­ors Look Like?: See Pho­to­re­al­is­tic Por­traits Cre­at­ed with Machine Learn­ing

The Ups & Downs of Ancient Rome’s Econ­o­my — All 1,900 Years of It — Get Doc­u­ment­ed by Pol­lu­tion Traces Found in Greenland’s Ice

How the Ancient Mayans Used Choco­late as Mon­ey

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.

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  • Sam Andrews says:

    Hey! As a huge his­to­ry buff, my nephew always tries to find as many ancient coins as pos­si­ble to keep as part of his col­lec­tion. Hence, imag­ine how sur­prised I was upon dis­cov­er­ing that some coins can be traced back to around 1800 years ago. Nonethe­less, he should find a trust­wor­thy sell­er some­time soon in case he wants to secure more coins for him­self.

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