Did the Roman “emperor” Sponsian finally exist?

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The coin, held in the Hunterian Collection at the University of Glasgow, is one of a handful of coins of the same design discovered in Transylvania, in present-day Romania, in 1713.

Long considered fake, coins bearing the likeness of a mysterious 3rd century 'emperor' appear to be genuine, according to a British study which accredits the existence of Sponsien, likely an army commander in a Roman province corresponding to present-day Romania.

Researchers from University College London (UCL), who recently published their study in the journal < em>PLOS ONE, sifted through a piece from a hoard found in 1713 in Transylvania, and kept at the University of Glasgow.

Professor Paul Pearson and Jesper Ericsson of the University of Glasgow examine the Spondian coin under a microscope.

Early scholars believed these coins to be barbaric imitations of Roman coins frequently made beyond the borders of the empire. This is how Sponsien came to be seen as a short-lived local usurper, who may have sought to rise to power during the civil wars of 248-249.

But in 1868, the French numismatist Henry Cohen, an expert who referred to the time, derided these coins, which he considered to be ridiculously imagined and very poorly made modern dies.

The work of British scientists today seriously challenges this thesis. For them, these coins are neither barbaric nor counterfeit.

By examining and comparing the gold coin they had with others known to be authentic, they concluded that its wear indicated that it had indeed been in active circulation. The minerals on its surface indicate that it may have been buried in the ground for a long time before being exposed to the air.

The importance of this discovery lies in the fact that Sponsien should be rehabilitated as a historical figure, write the UCL researchers. We cannot know anything about him with certainty, but the pieces themselves, as well as their provenance as recorded in the 18th century, give clues to his possible place in history.

Enlarge image

Gold coins dating from the Roman Empire from the Hunterian collection.

He never controlled an official mint and certainly never reigned in Rome, according to scholars. But they believe that these coins were used to pay high-ranking and responsible soldiers in gold and silver by weight, and were exchanged at a high rate for classic imperial coins that were already circulating in the province before the crisis period.< /p>

Scientific analysis of these extremely rare pieces saves Emperor Sponsien from obscurity, said Professor Paul Pearson, lead author of the study. This suggests he ruled over Roman Dacia, an isolated outpost of gold mines, at a time when the empire was in the throes of civil war and the borders were overwhelmed by looting and invasions.

Dacia, which covers present-day Romania, was cut off from the rest of the empire around 260. Surrounded by enemies, Sponsien would thus have been a army officer forced to assume supreme command during this troubled time.

One ​​of Sponsien's four pieces is housed in the Brukenthal Museum in Sibiu, Germany. Romania. For its interim director Alexandru Constantin Chituta, if the results of this study are recognized by the scientific community, they will add an important historical figure to our history.

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