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Rare Gold Coins Reveal New Roman Emperor

A new analysis of rare Roman coins said to have been unearthed more than three centuries ago but long dismissed as forgeries provides compelling evidence that the gold pieces are authentic—and that the crown-wearing man whose likeness appears on one of them was a real historical figure who ruled as a Roman emperor almost 2,000 years ago.

“The coins are the only evidence that he existed,” Paul Pearson, a University College London professorial research associate, said of Sponsian, the man depicted on the coin. “There’s no historical written evidence at all. It’s a real thrill to sort of bring somebody back from obscurity.”

The research, published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, suggests that the coins date to the third century and rules out the idea that they are 18th-century fakes, Dr. Pearson added. He is lead author of the new study.

The coins were said to have been discovered in 1713 in the Transylvanian mountains of present-day Romania and found their way into several European collections in ensuing decades. By 1782, four had come into the hands of a Scottish collector who later bequeathed them to the University of Glasgow, where the coins have remained ever since.

Researchers Paul Pearson and Jesper Ericsson look at the Sponsian gold coin under a microscope.



Photo:

The Hunterian/University of Glasgow.

Dr. Pearson’s team, including researchers from the university, compared the coins—including one about the size of a quarter bearing Sponsian’s name and likeness—to ancient Roman coins known to be authentic. Close examination with microscopes, ultraviolet imaging and infrared spectroscopy—a technique that shows how an object absorbs and reflects light—revealed that they all bore similar patterns of microscopic wear.

A chemical analysis of small patches of dirt on the surfaces of the coins found in Romania showed that they had been buried for a prolonged period after acquiring the wear patterns. An analysis of dirt from the reference coins showed similar results.

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The researchers called this finding compelling evidence that the coins were authentic—the wear shows they were handled in countless transactions over an extended time period before being buried. “They were used as a part of a monetary economy,” Dr. Pearson said.

He and his colleagues hypothesize that Sponsian oversaw the minting of coins in the region, then known as Dacia, to pay soldiers and officials after the province was cut off from the rest of the empire around the year 260. At the time, Rome was racked by civil war. For the next decade or so, communication between Dacia and authorities in Rome would have been impossible, Dr. Pearson said, adding that Sponsian was likely an army officer who declared himself emperor to solidify authority at a time of crisis.

“Striking coins with your face on them is a massive public statement of your independent authority and your right to rule,” said George Green, a University of Oxford research fellow in Roman archaeology and an expert in ancient gold. “They’re circulating monuments. When you see the images, they’re a reminder of the truth of the fact that you’re the emperor,” he said.

Dr. Green, who wasn’t involved in the research, said the conclusion that the coins are authentic is “a really legitimate hypothesis” but not proof. He called for additional validations of their authenticity. One possibility, he said, would be to examine whether the metal used to make the coins matches metal from mines known to have operated in Dacia during ancient times.

The Sponsian coin is about the size of a quarter, though thicker and heavier.



Photo:

The Hunterian/University of Glasgow

The research upends the work of a 19th-century French coin expert named Henry Cohen, who concluded in 1868 that the coins were “ridiculously imagined modern fakes” and excluded them from his catalog of ancient Roman coins.

Coins in ancient Rome were typically made by striking blank pieces of metal with stamps known as dies, according to Dr. Green. But the coins found in Romania were made by pouring molten metal into molds—a technique known as casting that was commonly used by historical forgers. That fact, Sponsian’s absence from written records and the coins’ crude workmanship—some of the engravings were bungled—led skeptics to conclude that the coins were fakes made to dazzle unsuspecting collectors.

“There was a huge collecting market amongst the rich elite in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries,” Dr. Green said. “Forgers would cast fakes in the hope of getting past these people collecting cabinets of curiosities.”

Write to Aylin Woodward at aylin.woodward@wsj.com

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