Ancient coin reveals unknown Roman Emperor from cut off frontier land

Archaeological studies suggest that the Romanian region was cut off from the rest of the empire around AD 260, only being evacuated between AD 271 and 275.

 Coin of the ‘emperor’ Sponsian (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Coin of the ‘emperor’ Sponsian
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers from University College London discovered a coin depicting a previously unknown Roman Emperor named Sponsian, who may have been an army officer who found himself assuming supreme command in the ancient Roman province of Dacia, an area which was located in modern-day Romania.

Researchers compared the coin with a handful of genuine coins of the same design, unearthed in 1713 in Transylvania, Romania.

The peer-reviewed study was published in the Plos One scientific journal, lead author Professor Paul N. Pearson (UCL Earth Sciences).

Although this coin and others associated with it have long been regarded as eighteenth century fakes, the team were surprised to see apparent superficial wear scratches and ‘earthen deposits’ that seemed to warrant further investigation.

"If the coins proved to be fakes, they would make a particularly interesting case study in antiquarian forgery; if authentic, they would be of clear historical interest," the team said.

Archaeological studies suggest that the Romanian region was cut off from the rest of the Roman empire around AD 260, only being evacuated between AD 271 and 275.

The significance of coinage 

Coinage has always signified power and authority. Understanding this, and considering he was unable to receive official issues from the mint in Rome, Sponsian likely authorized the creation of coins produced locally, with some even depicting an image of his face, in an attempt to keep a functioning economy in his isolated frontier territory.

“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,” Professor Pearson said.

“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.”

Professor Paul N. Pearson

Only four coins featuring Sponsian are currently known to have survived, all which are most likely from the 1713 hoard. Another is in Brukenthal National Museum in Sibiu, Romania.

“This has been a really exciting project for The Hunterian and we’re delighted that our findings have inspired collaborative research with museum colleagues in Romania. Not only do we hope that this encourages further debate about Sponsian as a historical figure, but also the investigation of coins relating to him held in other museums across Europe,” Curator of Numismatics at The Hunterian, Jesper Ericsson, said.