Puzzling debate over Roman coin authenticity could determine legacy of ‘fake’ emperor

Written by Amarachi Ori, CNN

British scholars say they have authenticated several Roman coins previously dismissed as fakes, proving that an emperor who was not considered a fake could actually be genuine.
A coin bearing the image and name of the Roman emperor Sponsianus was among the coins allegedly found in Transylvania in present-day Romania in 1713, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

However, according to the press release, there were no other historical records confirming the existence of a Roman emperor named Sponsianus. And, at that time, “Sponsian” was not a specific name that existed in ancient Rome.

According to research, their design and style, including the enigmatic inscriptions, differed from the authentic style of Roman coins of the mid-3rd century. As a result, they were dismissed as poorly prepared fakes.

The coin's authenticity has been debated since it was minted in 1713.

The coin’s authenticity has been debated since it was minted in 1713. Credit: University of Glasgow

Now, researchers from University College London (UCL) and the University of Glasgow in the UK say they have discovered features that point to authenticity.

They used powerful microscopes in visible and ultraviolet light to study the coins, as well as scanning electron microscopy and spectroscopy — studying how light at different wavelengths is absorbed or reflected.

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In total, they analyzed four coins from the hoard found in 1713, one of which contained Sponsian coins. All four of them are on display at The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow.

A wear pattern has been identified on the Sponsian coin, indicating that it was in active circulation. Scientists have also found soil deposits, meaning they were buried in the soil for a long time before being dug up and exposed to the air.

“Scientific analysis of these extremely rare coins frees Emperor Sponsian from uncertainty,” said lead author Paul N. Pearson, a research professor in UCL’s Department of Earth Sciences, said in a press release.

“Our evidence suggests that Roman Dacia, an isolated gold-mining outpost, was ruled by the empire when it was beset by civil wars and marauding borderlands were overrun by marauding invaders,” he added.

Dacia leader

The province of Dacia, which was cut off from the rest of the Roman Empire in 260, was an area valued for its gold deposits and mineral wealth according to UCL.

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According to researchers, Sponsianus never controlled an official mint or ruled Rome, but may have been a local commander-in-chief responsible for protecting the population of Dacia during a period of turmoil and civil war.

A series of sponsian coins were thought to have been paid to high-ranking soldiers and officials who kept them as treasure troves, the researchers suggested.

High-powered visible and ultraviolet microscopes, as well as scanning electron microscopy and spectroscopy, were used to assess the coin's authenticity.

High-powered visible and ultraviolet microscopes, as well as scanning electron microscopy and spectroscopy, were used to assess the coin’s authenticity. Credit: Hunterian / University of Glasgow

The study concluded that “it seems that Sponsian should be rehabilitated as a historical figure.”

The researchers added that “nothing can be known for sure about him”, but the analyzed coins “provide information about his place in history”.

“Unscientific and baseless”

But not everyone believes.

Despite the findings, some experts, including those in the field of numismatics — the study or collection of currency — still believe the coin is a fake.

“Like everyone in the numismatic world, I firmly believe that this coin is a modern forgery,” Jerome Mairat, curator of the Heberden Coin Room at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, told CNN.

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“This whole theory – the coin is real – is unscientific and baseless,” he added.

Dame Mary Bird, a renowned scholar of ancient Rome and professor of classics at Cambridge University, wrote in a blog published by the Times Literary Supplement that “there is still strong evidence that they are fake”. issues related to their decoration and design.
According to researchers, the coin was used to pay high-ranking soldiers and officials in the Roman province of Dacia.

According to researchers, the coin was used to pay high-ranking soldiers and officials in the Roman province of Dacia. Credit: University of Glasgow

Pearson, however, confirmed that researchers have come to a “clear conclusion” about the coins’ authenticity, telling CNN in an email: “For the great history of Rome, the Sponsian is not only a historical reference, but a footnote. Nevertheless, it must be restored!”

He said the researchers wanted to test their hypothesis about the Sponsian by interviewing Roman historians and archaeologists.

“It has more potential for understanding the dying days of Roman rule in the province of Dacia and the history of Romania, but our results have just been published and the academic debate is just beginning.”

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