Scientists have determined that four 3rd-century Roman coins found in 18th-century Romania that were once thought to be forgeries are not only authentic, but also the only evidence of a Roman imperial claimant.
In 1713, the four coins were discovered and documented in Transylvania, now in present-day Romania.
The coins were discovered by officials of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, according to British researchers’ study of the coins published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.
The four coins involved in the study, housed at the Hunterian Museum in partnership with the University of Glasgow, were chosen because one coin bore the name and symbol of a third-century Roman general and pseudo-emperor, Spongian.
The strange metal composition of the coins, the use of a mold rather than a typical Roman coin, and the peculiarity of Sponsian’s name led experts to conclude that the coins were counterfeit.
This Spongian coin, along with three others, two in Vienna and one in Sibiu, Romania, are the main evidence of the man’s existence, according to the study.
While the researcher’s initial hypothesis also leaned toward forgery, they determined that 18th-century counterfeiters would have gone for well-known figures rather than nobody.
“Historical counterfeits usually fit a well-known classical aesthetic, or are casts of real coins, not like these strange designs,” co-author Paul Pearson told Courthouse News.
Instead, the researchers concluded that Sponsian may have laid claim to the Imperial throne during the Crisis of the Third Century. The region of Transylvania was the Roman border region of Dacia at the time and was known for its mines.
“Sponsian may have reigned in the distant and exposed mining province of Dacia – where there was a lot of gold – during the 260s to early 270s when we know Dacia was cut off from the Imperial center but before the legions and people were evacuated,” Mr Pearson told to Courthouse News.
However, researchers do not think Sponsian fits the typical rebellious general mold for Imperial claimants of the period. Chaos in the Roman Empire would have cut Dacia off from both central authority and military aid.
They think Sponsian was persuaded to take the title to protect the region during the chaos, before it was finally evacuated by Emperor Aurelian in the early 270s.
“Our interpretation is that [Sponsian] was in charge of keeping the military and civilian population under control as they were surrounded and completely cut off. To create a functioning economy in the province, they decided to mint their own coins,” co-author Jesper Ericsson told the BBC.