For years, experts said a Roman emperor wasn't real. Scientists say a coin could prove otherwise.

For years, experts said a Roman emperor wasn’t real. Scientists say a coin could prove otherwise.

An ancient emperor thought to be made up could be real after all, according to researchers who’ve analyzed an ancient coin bearing his face.

There are four coins on display at the University of Glasgow: one bears the visage of the Emperor Gordian III, two of Emperor Philip and one features Sponsian, said Professor Paul Pearson from the University College London.

The Sponsian coin was found over 300 years ago in 1713 in Transylvania, or present-day Romania. Sponsian has barely a footprint in history and was deemed fictional by historians long ago, Pearson said.

According to Pearson and his team of researchers, the coins contain elements that match authentic Roman coins, suggesting Sponsian was a real emperor after all.

“We know absolutely nothing about the emperor Sponsian from any sort of historical record,” said Pearson. “The only evidence that someone of that name ever existed is the coins, which bear his image and name and title.”

To learn more, he and his team analyzed the coins using modern techniques, including a powerful microscope. It’s the first time the Sponsian coin has been looked at using powerful microscopes in visible and ultraviolet light, and with scanning electron technology.

The findings were published the findings in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

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If he did exist, who was Emperor Sponsian?First things first, Pearson stressed one thing about Sponsian. “Nobody is claiming he ever ruled in Rome,” he told USA TODAY.

Researchers believe he was a military commander in the Roman province of Dacia, which overlapped with modern-day Romania, and was known for its gold mines.

The area was cut off from the rest of the Roman empire around 260 CE and there was an ongoing civil war.

Researchers think he was a military commander who found himself in a difficult situation. He became an emperor to protect both members of the military and civilians in Dacia until things calmed down.

“They were surrounded by hostile tribes and the borderlands were devastated at that time,” Pearson said. “We think that they held out in this area, minting coins of a very sort of strange and almost homemade type manufacture, because there was no regular Roman mint available to them.”

If things played out this way, Pearson said, this allowed Sponsian to hold the local economy at bay until order was restored in the 270s.

This hypothesis, he said, is just that. He and other researchers are trying to piece together exactly who he was and how the coins were created, but more evidence and discussion will be needed to figure it out.

“We hope our work will stimulate that kind of debate and discussion,” he said.

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Modern technology and new discoveriesThe coin was discovered in the 18th century and was originally thought to be genuine, the researchers said. In the 1860s, experts deemed it fake because of its “strange” design and “jumbled inscriptions.”

Pearson’s team compared the Sponsian coin with other Roman coins kept at The Hunterian collection at the University of Glasgow, including two previously proven to be authentic.

The team found signs of wear and tear that coincides with coins previously in circulation. However, Pearson warned, the scratches are not proof of authenticity, because “sophisticated forgers in the past” would tamper with the surface of coins to make them look worn.

“We cannot know for certain that these little scratch patterns indicate these coins are genuine,” Pearson said. “However, we can say they look basically identical to wear patterns on genuine Roman coins that we know have been in circulation.”

But perhaps the most convincing piece of evidence his team found are dirt deposits on the coins. The scientists found minerals suggesting the coin was buried in soil over a long period of time and then exposed to air.

They also found a layer of tiny sulfate crystals, which form when items have been buried underground and then exposed to air, as well as silica, which naturally occurs when items spend a long time in soil.

“There are tiny spots of silica all over the surfaces of these coins, even on the most microscopic level,” Pearson said. “This is exactly what you see on real coins.”

Another convincing factor? The dirt deposits are on top of the coin’s scratches. The scratches are from before they were buried, which leads the team to believe they were in fact in circulation.

Another coin with Sponsian’s face is at the Brukenthal National Museum in Sibiu, Romania. A crew there performed a high magnification microscopic analysis and said it’s likely the coin is the real deal.

“In all these senses, the coins are identical to genuine Roman coins that we know have been buried,” Pearson said. “We can very confidently rule out the prevailing view since the 1860s that these coins were fakes made in Austria in 1713 or shortly before.”

There are also two other known Sponsian coins to have survived in Vienna.

Pearson said the coin in Glasgow is on display for the first time in 300 years to accompany his team’s work. The one in Romania is on display as well, he said.

“People can see them in museums,” he said. “For tourists in the U.K. or in Romania, they’re definitely worth going to see.”

Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY’s NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia – the 757 – and loves all things horror, witches, Christmas, and food. Follow her on Twitter at @Saleen_Martin or email her at

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