Early Christmas Present – a new Roman Emperor!

Fans of Roman history have been given an early Christmas present thanks to researchers at University College London (UCL) – a new Roman emperor!

New research has reconsidered a find from Transylvania involving a coin previously thought to be fake. The gold coin bears the image of a Roman emperor Sponsian, who was thought to be a governor of Dacia, part of the Roman empire that was cut off from the empire in around 260AD.

Map showing Roman Dacia (Image by Milenioscuro, Wikipedia CCL)

In the early 18th century, four gold coins were recovered from Transylvania – now modern-day Romania. The Roman province of Dacia overlapped the country we now know as Romania. Dacia was famous for its gold mines during the Roman era.

However, when discovered, it was thought the coins were forgeries. They were kept at the Hunterian Collection Glasgow, Scotland – and recently a team from UCL took another look at the hoard.

Lead researcher Professor Paul N. Pearson (UCL Earth Sciences) now says that further scientific analysis of the “ultra-rare coins” has rescued Emperor Sponsian from languishing in 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.”

The team adds that Sponsian could have been a local army officer “forced to assume supreme command during a period of chaos and civil war, protecting the military and civilian population of Dacia until order was restored”.

The province was evacuated between 271 AD and 275 AD.

Because the province was cut off from the empire, it seems that Sponsian could not receive official orders from Rome about issuing coins – and so ordered his own to be made locally. However, when they were first discovered, their appearance resulted in them being classified as forgeries. Researchers who examined them originally felt that the coins were crude, with “jumbled inscriptions” and “strange designs”.

Recently, however, the UCL team found minerals on one coin’s surface consistent with it being buried in soil over a long period of time, and then exposed to air.

“These minerals were cemented in place by silica – cementing that would naturally occur over a long time in soil,” said the researchers.

A pattern of “wear and tear” suggested the coin had been actively in circulation.

Curator of Numismatics at The Hunterian, Jesper Ericsson, added:

“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.”

The research is published in PLoS One (Public Library of Science) – you can read more about the coins at www.ucl.ac.uk/news.

Images UCL/Hunterian except where stated

Want to know if you are a Roman or a Dacian?

Inspect your own earlobes! Romans have long, fleshy lobes, while Dacians have short, neat earlobes. If we look at the image of Sponsian, we can see he has Dacian earlobes, so could well have been local army officer who assumed control. Compare his lobes with those of other Roman leaders, like Julius Caesar: never an emperor but perhaps the most famous Roman – fleshy lobes!

Julius Caesar

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