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Ancient Coin Proves ‘Fake’ Roman Emperor was Real

 coin depicting and naming Sponsian roman emperor
Ancient gold coin with an image of the Roman leader Sponsian. The four coins held at The Hunterian and analyzed in the study. The coin depicting and naming Sponsian is top left. Credit: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow / Public Domain

An ancient gold coin of a long-lost third century Roman emperor once believed to have been fake has now been proven to be real.

Sponsian, the military leader of a breakaway Roman state in Europe, had been written out of history as an imaginary character. Yet now it appears he actually once existed.

Coin depicting Sponsian in circulation 2,000 years ago

More than 300 years ago, one of four gold coins bearing his name and shadowy portrait was found in what was once a far-flung outpost of the Roman empire.

They were long dismissed as forgeries by experts who suggested the coins were the work of sophisticated 18th-century fraudsters stashed in a museum cabinet.

Today however, new scientific analysis has proven from the scratch marks on the coin only visible under a microscope that it had been in circulation 2,000 years ago.

Prof. Paul Pearson of University College London led the research and told BBC News that he was amazed by the finding. In his words,

We’re very confident that they’re authentic. What we have found is an emperor. He was a figure thought to have been a fake and written off by the experts. But we think he was real and that he had a role in history. 

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.”

Real or fake?

The small hoard of coins was unearthed in Transylvania, which became modern-day Romania in 1713.

They were initially thought to have been a genuine Roman coin until sometime in the mid-19th century. Those same experts nevertheless suddenly became convinced that they were fakes produced by forgers from the time due to their crude design and jumbled inscriptions.

Their belief held for centuries, in spite of the fact that several coins discovered in the same period depicted Roman emperors of the third century such as Gordian III and Philip the Arab.

One expert claimed they were the work of a sophisticated Viennese forger, for example, who had invented an emperor merely to attract collectors; a point of view that afterwards was soon widespread.

Pearson versus Cohen

In fact, 1863 Henry Cohen, the leading coin expert of the time at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, considered the matter in question for his great collection of Roman coins.

Cohen then asserted that they were not only ‘modern’ fakes, but ‘poorly made’ and ‘ridiculously imagined’. Other researchers followed in his footsteps by making the same assertian and, to this day, Sponsian was removed from scholarly catalogues. It was only many decades later that Cohen’s argument was invalidated.

The person who managed to change that long-held scholarly opinion was Prof Pearson, an earth scientist as well as author of The Roman Empire in Crisis, 248-260.

Pearson stated that he had suspected otherwise at once as soon as he saw photographs of the coin while researching for a book on the history of the Roman empire as a lockdown project.

He contacted Jesper Ericsson, the numismatics curator at the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University which holds a coin in its collection, and asked if he could work with the researchers there to perform a full scientific analysis.

Sponsianus Aureus
Sponsianus Aureus. Credit: Pearson PN, Botticelli M, Ericsson J, Olender J, Spruženiece L (2022), CC-BY-SA-4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Scratches found on surface of coins

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

A chemical analysis detected sulphate crystals on the surface of the coins. The crystals form when an object buried for extended periods of time lacks oxygen and is then re-exposed to air.

Using optical imaging and electron microscopy, each was examined at a high magnification. What it showed were scratches with similar patterns of wear and tear to genuine coins, and it was the fact which convinced Pearson and Ericsson that they had been in circulation for several years before their were buried.

As Pearson explained:

We found scratches that are thousandths of a millimeter in length and less than that in diameter, just as you see on real coins. There was no evidence they’ve been scrubbed or artificially abraded and battered about to try to age them. 

What is more compelling is the dirt, which you can see cemented onto the surface. We thought this could have been baked on, glued on, rubbed on or painted on with some artificial substance.

Pearson additionally debunked his predecessors theories by arguing:’s natural dirt and is cemented in place by silica. Very fine silica spots occur absolutely everywhere on these coins. Gold is unreactive, but provides a template for cement to crystallize onto the surface or cling in cracks and crevices. $

We compared that pattern to genuine coins and it’s exactly the same. I would go as far as to say that can’t be faked. At least, it would be very, very difficult to fake now and it would have been beyond anyone’s imagination during the 18th century.


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