Lost Roman Emperor Long Thought to Be Fake Was Real Leader in Time of Chaos

A lost "Roman emperor" long thought to have never existed may be a real historical figure, a study analyzing several gold coins has found.

The ancient Roman leader, known as "Sponsian," is known only from a group of coins allegedly found in Transylvania—a region in central Romania—in 1713.

Throughout the history of ancient Rome, a civilization that dominated much of Europe for hundreds of years, coins often featured portraits of current emperors.

Some of the coins in the set found in 1713 feature a portrait alongside the name "Sponsian." But there are no historical records documenting a Roman emperor with such a name.

While the coins show stylistic similarities to Roman coins from the mid-third century, they also display a number of key differences, such as historically mixed motifs. As a result, the Sponsian coins have long been dismissed as forgeries.

In a study published in the open-access journal PLOS One, a team of researchers from the United Kingdom analyzed the coins in an attempt to unravel the mystery of Sponsian. Their findings indicate that the coins are authentic and that Sponsian was likely a real leader from the third century.

Coin of the Roman "emperor" Sponsian
The coin depicting the Roman "emperor" Sponsian, seen above, is currently located in the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland. Analysis of this coin has shed new light on the life of Sponsian, indicating that he was likely a real historical figure. Pearson et al., 2022, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

The idea for the study originated with Paul Pearson, a researcher at University College London, who during COVID lockdowns decided to write a new account of Rome's third-century crisis—a time of economic stagnation, inflation, civil anxiety, pandemic and war—because of the apparent relevance to the current global situation.

As part of Pearson's research for his book, Pen and Sword Books: The Roman Empire in Crisis, 248–260, he came across the story of the supposedly "fake" emperor Sponsian.

"[It] seemed an interesting case and not entirely clear-cut, and [I] decided to investigate," Pearson told Newsweek.

He contacted Jesper Ericsson, the curator of coins and medals at the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland, where one of the Sponsian coins is being held, asking him to photograph the artifact for the book.

"We were both quite surprised by the appearance of the coin and noticed it appeared worn and was covered in dirt, which we didn't expect from a fake," Pearson said.

Intrigued by what they had noticed, the researchers decided to assemble a team of technical specialists from Glasgow University to conduct a battery of non-destructive imaging and analytical tests with the goal of determining whether the coin and three others associated with it were ingenious frauds or authentic.

To do this, the team used a state-of-the-art microscope and high-resolution digital camera to examine the surface of the coins and the deposits on them. The researchers also used an electron microscope, a powerful machine that can take pictures at a far higher magnification than an ordinary microscope.

They also used other laboratory equipment to determine the chemical makeup of the coins and their tiny deposits. Alongside these tests, the researchers compared the questionable coins with confirmed real ones that are known to have been lost and buried in Roman times.

The tests revealed that the coins are deeply scratched and battered in exactly the way that genuine coins become worn with everyday use, Pearson said. Analysis of deposits on the coins also revealed that they were in extensive circulation before being buried for a very long period of time.

A Roman soldier and an emperor statue
Stock image: An illustration of a Roman soldier inlayed with a bronze statue of a Roman emperor. Who was the "Roman emperor" Sponsian? iStock

These strains of evidence indicate that the coins were in circulation in antiquity and cannot be fakes from the 1700s as previously thought.

When the coins were found in 1713, specialists initially considered them to be genuine. They are of third-century style and were found with coins featuring the names of two known emperors from the middle of this period, Gordian III and Philip I.

Sponsian—or Sponsianus, as his name is sometimes written—was regarded as a possible rebel at the time of Emperor Philip, whose reign ended in a civil war.

"He still appears on lists of possible rebel emperors to this day," Pearson said.

But in the nineteenth century, Henry Cohen, the leading authority on Roman coins at the time, argued that the Sponsian coins were poorly made fakes.

"This has been the consensus among coin specialists down to the present day," Pearson said. "Accordingly, historians have written Sponsian off as a person not to be considered, given that the coins are 'almost certainly fake.'"

But given the findings of the coin analysis, indicating that Sponsian was a real, historical figure, the researchers have now proposed a new hypothesis about who he really was, although the evidence available to the team was limited.

"For understanding the historical Sponsian, all we have to go on is the coins themselves—what they show, their condition, and the fact they were found in Transylvania," Pearson said. "Sponsian is a Roman name, albeit a very rare one. He wears a radiate crown, which was reserved for emperors and he has the Roman title 'IMP' for imperator, signifying supreme military command and the root of the English word emperor."

Taking into account the historical record and analysis of the coins, the researchers have proposed that Sponsian was a military commander in the Roman Province of Dacia in the tumultuous period of the 260s and early 270s CE.

An autumn landscape in Transylvania, Romania
This stock image shows an autumn landscape in Transylvania, Romania. This region once formed part of Dacia, Rome's most exposed province and is where the Sponsian coin was discovered. iStock

"He likely commanded Roman legions and would have regarded himself as a Roman, at a time when every free man of the empire was a Roman citizen. So it is reasonable to call him a 'Roman Emperor,' even though he certainly never ruled in Rome."

The territory of Dacia, which covers parts of what is now Transylvania, was Rome's most exposed province—the last to be conquered and the first to be abandoned. It is home to huge gold ore deposits, which the Romans mined extensively.

The era in which Sponsian was likely in charge of a military force was a time of "chaos" and civil war—one in which rival emperors existed in Italy and North Africa (Emperor Gallienus, who was recognized in Rome), the western provinces of Gaul, Britain and Spain (ruled by Emperor Postumus for almost a decade) and the east from Syria to Egypt (ruled briefly by Emperor Macrianus).

At this time, the empire was also facing threats from plundering invaders at the borderlands of Rome's territory.

"We think Sponsian fits best as a regional commander in the exposed province of Dacia who assumed supreme military command at a time when the borderlands were devastated by raiders, contact with Rome was all but severed, and a powerful and hostile Gothic confederation threatened outright conquest," Pearson said.

He likely commanded a military force consisting of the two legions there and their associated auxiliary personnel, totaling tens of thousands of soldiers, the researchers said. His priority would have been to protect local populations in the region.

Those who thought Sponsian might be real have grouped him with two fairly obscure rebels from the last days of Emperor Philip, around 248-249 CE, perhaps because it was a convenient place to list him in the absence of hard evidence, Pearson said.

Illustration of an ancient Roman soldier
This illustration depicts an ancient Roman soldier. Sponsian was likely a military commander in Dacia during the third century. iStock

"However what impresses us is the fact that his coins are deeply worn and therefore must have been in regular circulation for a considerable amount of time. Yet, they are unknown outside Transylvania, the Roman province of Dacia," he said.

A much more likely time for Sponsian—as the researchers' new hypothesis suggests—is the 260s to early 270s, which was something of a lost decade in the history of Dacia. Archaeological evidence shows that, at this time, the external money supply from Rome was cut off.

"The last thing we know is that the two legions there won some sort of victory in 260 and were commended by the Emperor Gallienus in Rome, who reigned from 260-268, for their loyalty," Pearson said. "However, historical sources tell us that the Province of Dacia was lost in his reign. But they also tell us that the military and population were evacuated in an orderly way by a subsequent emperor Aurelian, who reigned from 270-275."

The researchers propose that Dacia became almost entirely cut off from Rome in the 260s, that a successionist regime filled in this historical gap, and that Sponsian was its ruler.

"This helps explain how the coins could have become so worn, and also why they are so rare because they would have been recalled and melted down at the time the province was abandoned," Pearson said.

There is no evidence that Sponsian challenged the authority of Rome or ever aspired to rule the whole empire.

"He may even have lived out his retirement in comfort, but of course this we cannot know for sure," Pearson said.

"We hope our work on these rare gold coins inspires a new look at the end days of Roman power in Dacia and the possible place of the Emperor Sponsian in history," he added.

Richard Brickstock, an independent researcher who specializes in Roman coinage and was not involved in the PLOS One study, said this subject is "clearly worthy" of academic discussion rather than summary dismissal of Sponsian, as has been the response of most coin experts to date.

"My first impression is that it is a well-conducted piece of work and that the conclusions are measured and reasonable—though also open to discussion," Brickstock told Newsweek.


REFERENCES

Pearson PN, Botticelli M, Ericsson J, Olender J, Spruženiece L (2022) Authenticating coins of the 'Roman emperor' Sponsian. PLOS ONE 17(11): e0274285. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0274285