Pablo Hoffman of New York City passed along this Atlas Obscura article on the Sponsian coin issue. It's based on the Hunterian Museum's research, and has some images we haven't published before. There's a funny typo in one of the captions: " images of the Hungarian Museum's Sponsian coin..."
In 1713, eight gold coins of five different designs were dug up in Transylvania, in modern-day Romania, and acquired by a man named Carl Gustav Heraeus. One of them featured a face and the name
Sponsian. Roman coins bore the faces of the ruler who issued them, even if his reign had been brief. The eight coins were discovered to have come from a larger hoard of gold coins that had been spread around at the time. Four Sponsian coins from that hoard are known to exist today. However, Sponsian's name doesn't appear in any ancient texts or sources. Over the years, the coins were written off as fakes—and the emperor was, too.
Pearson decided to look into the story behind this obscure possible emperor as an entertaining digression from the grim book he was writing.
I thought it was an interesting story to research, he says,
partly because it seemed like there was a slightly puzzling issue explaining how that came to be.
While doing his early research, Pearson realized that there were no clear photographs of the slightly infamous coins anywhere.
There were some grainy black-and-white published photographs, but nobody had ever had a close look at these coins. He learned that the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow had one of the Sponsian coins and three others of similar design, depicting Gordian III and Philip (I or II), both of whom were real emperors with brief reigns during the tumultuous third century. So Pearson emailed Jesper Ericsson, the museum's curator of numismatics, to request a photograph of the Sponsian coin.
We were both quite puzzled by the appearance of it, he says,
which had indications of being deeply worn and having incrustations on the surface. Why would a forgery appear to have spent a long time in the ground? Unsure of what it all meant, Pearson and Ericsson assembled a team for a study to get to the bottom of the mystery.
The study, recently published in the journal PLoS, examined the four coins in the Glasgow collection, in addition to two other Roman gold coins of Gordian III and Philip I that are thought to be authentic. The study concluded that the four coins, as appearances suggested, had been buried in soil for a substantial period of time, and were already deeply worn before their interment. This suggests that they had actually been in circulation in antiquity. It seemed possible from the first scientific analysis of a Sponsian coin that he could represent a real, lost Roman emperor.
The third century was a bad time for the vast empire, and it was a period that saw rapid, constant changes in political leadership. Between A.D. 235 and A.D. 284, there were at least 26 claimants to the title of emperor, mostly generals. When the Sponsian coins were first discovered, scholars thought they had identified a new emperor or usurper who had claimed the title in A.D. 249. But then 19th-century French numismatist Henri Cohen dismissed them as
very poor quality modern forgeries. It didn't help that no one had ever heard of Sponsian before. The case seemed to have been closed.
Pearson's study, however, appears to have opened the discussion once again.
There's been a lot of comments since we published the paper, Pearson says. Responses have been posted online, he says, but nobody has
contacted me as the corresponding author with any serious critiques of the paper. Pearson and his team hypothesize that the coins aren't fake, and that they do indeed point to the existence of an otherwise unknown emperor.
Four coins in the Glasgow collection were examined (clockwise from top left): Sponsian, Gordian III, and two of Philip (I or II)
To read the complete article, see:
Can an Old Coin Solve the Mystery of a Lost Roman Emperor?
Wayne Homren, Editor
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