A Roman emperor, long thought to have been invented by forgers, was found by a coin study to have likely been real.
Coins depicting a Roman emperor called Sponsian were first discovered in Transylvania, modern day Romania, in 1713. Historians in the 19th century dismissed the coins as a poor forgery due to the lack of a Sponsian in the historical record and the unusual design of the coins, which differed from other contemporary designs. However, a study conducted by several professors, published in the journal PLOS 1, discovered that the coins are actually most likely genuine, depicting a real Roman usurper from the chaotic Crisis of the Third Century period.
“What we have found is an emperor. He was a figure thought to have been a fake and written off by the experts,” Prof Paul Pearson of University College London, who led the research, told the BBC. “But we think he was real and that he had a role in history.”
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Examining the coins under an advanced microscope, the researchers found scratches consistent with past usage, as one would expect for coins jangling around in a coin purse. Chemical experiments found that the coins were likely buried for hundreds of years, further suggesting their authenticity. The sole task left for researchers was figuring out why the coins differ so much from contemporaries and accounting for Sponsian’s absence from the historical record.
The researchers hypothesized that Sponsian was most likely a local Dacian Roman ruler during the 260s-270s A.D., at the height of the Crisis of the Third Century. The period saw the mighty Roman Empire reach the precipice of collapse due to constant civil wars, barbarian invasions, economic depression, plague, and ineffectual leadership. The province of Dacia, inconveniently jutting out across the Danube River, was hit especially hard, isolated from the rest of the crumbling empire until its ultimate abandonment by Aurelian in the 270s.
Sponsian, as the hypothesis goes, took matters into his own hands as the empire fractured during the reign of Gallienus, proclaiming himself emperor of the isolated province in an attempt to salvage the situation.
“We suggest that Dacia became cut off from the imperial centre around 260 and effectively seceded under its own military regime which initially coined precious metal bullion using old Republican-era designs, then using the names of the most recent previous emperors who had achieved some success in the area, and finally under the name of a local commander-in-chief,” the researchers wrote.
Sponsian may not have even seen himself as a challenger to Rome, but rather a desperate local regent that cooperated with Emperor Aurelian to help evacuate the population across the Danube into more defensible territory in the 270s.
“We suggest that Sponsian may have been the commanding officer (dux) of these legions and the combined forces of Dacia, and that he led a secessionist regime within a time window extending from 260 to the mid-270s at a time when most of the rest of the empire was wracked by civil war and collapsed frontiers, and secure communication with Rome was impossible. His priority would have been to protect the population and resist being over-run by hostile tribes. In this scenario, he was not technically a usurper challenging central authority, but his imperium might be considered a local necessity,” the researchers concluded.
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The hypothesis of the researchers has larger ramifications into Roman historiography, such as finally answering the confusion as to why Roman historians recorded Dacia as being lost during the reign of Gallienus, but also abandoned by Aurelian in the succeeding decade.