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"All Hail Roman Emperor Sponsian!" Topic

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Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian26 Nov 2022 6:49 p.m. PST

…in a breakthrough new study in the scientific journal PLOS One, researchers have concluded that the coin of Sponsian locked away for years in a museum cupboard in Glasgow is a genuine third-century artifact and that Sponsian was a real claimant to the title…

Fox News: link

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP26 Nov 2022 7:11 p.m. PST

Always interesting stuff kept off display in museums. Nice to see someone was open-minded enough to give these another look.

So, how soon do we see a Sponsianic Army list for DBA and troop listings from the major manufacturers?

Arjuna27 Nov 2022 1:27 a.m. PST

So, some Roman military commander, isolated by the tides of history, 'eagerly' awaiting the return of the empire, run his own little gold-digging warlord enterprise, selflessly keeping imperial possessions safe in good faith until the eagle soars again?
A few hundred years later, such people were called kings, crown and all.

Personal logo Parzival Supporting Member of TMP27 Nov 2022 8:09 a.m. PST

Great story. Love it when the assumptions of know-it-alls are shattered by effective science.

But how about that guy at the end claiming it's "circular reasoning." Good grief, how many figures in history do we know of only because of scraps and remnants recorded on durable objects? And the more minor the official, the more likely that's the only record we'd have. To this guy, it's only "circular" because over a century ago some "expert" declared the coins to be "fakes" with no real basis to make such a declaration other than "we've never heard of this guy before." Now *that's* circular reasoning. "We've never heard of him before, so if something exists which names him, it must be a fake, because we've never heard of him before."

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP27 Nov 2022 8:26 a.m. PST

Hush, Parzival. You don't change the minds of tenured professors. They'd have to change their lecture notes. You convince their graduate students, who don't say anything as long as the old boy is still writing recommendations.

Read the history of the decipherment of Cretan Linear B and Mayan some day, and ask yourself what advance of human knowledge some prestigious fossil is currently sitting on.

EvilBen Supporting Member of TMP27 Nov 2022 9:27 a.m. PST

I don't know. Still looks dubious to me, although I may end up persuaded otherwise. There *are* rulers who are known only from their coin issues, so I don't think anyone would really dismiss this on that ground alone. But this coin from the Hunterian seems to be cast, not struck, and the design is weird for a third-century issue in several respects. The old argument that Sponsianus' issues are early modern forgeries still has some force, I think (and it really is more than "we haven't heard of this guy"). This coin may be ancient, but still seems more likely to me to be an imitation rather than a coinage of an actual usurper. That is, it *could* be a "genuine 3rd-century artifact" without necessarily implying that "Sponsianus was a real claimant to the title". Maybe he was, but I retain reservations for now.

But then I'm a tenured professor… Although I am working now with coins that are in a museum and not on display, and I change my lecture notes *every year*, I promise!

Article's here, for anyone who wants to go directly to it: link

Personal logo Parzival Supporting Member of TMP27 Nov 2022 11:57 a.m. PST

Thanks for the full link, EvilBen! Interesting reading. There's a lot of speculation there, but there's also a lot of evidence. One of the interesting points is that at the time of the discovery (and alleged forging), "Sponsian" was not a known Roman name at all— indeed, other than the coin, the first record of such a name wasn't discovered until 1750, nearly 40 years after the discovery of these coins. It would take a remarkably prescient forger to pull off that feat.

Another bit is the IMP claim— which actually isn't to the title "emperor" as we think of it today— that would be CAE (for "Caesar"). "IMP"— "imperator"— is simply the word for "General." So basically the coin says "(of the) General Sponsian," not "the Emperor Sponsian" or "Caesar Sponsian". I would argue that a forger would actually NOT do this, but a local military leader trying to "show the flag" would do this.
Basically it says, "Y'all know me. Y'all know I'm loyal to Rome. Rome is still here, and we're still part of it, doing business the Roman way. Keep calm and carry on." wink

EvilBen Supporting Member of TMP27 Nov 2022 1:17 p.m. PST

Maybe. Two things, though.

One is that it isn't a particularly *unlikely* name, so I'm not sure that it would be remarkably prescient. Also a real possibility, as I say, is that they are ancient imitations, and whoever made it just put his friend's name or something on it. On the other hand it might just be that a forger in the 1700s made up a "Biggus Dickus" type name and it's just coincidence that there actually was a Biggus (as it were) in the household of Livia. Or maybe, given the meaning, it's just a joke on the part of the forger (I don't think this is really the case, but it's not impossible).

The other is just that if you want to send that message of "Rome endures through me, everything's fine" this seems a remarkably inept way to do it, numismatically speaking. It's just so weird that it's really hard to see it as reassuring in that way. And coinages are usually so conservative for precisely this reason (people like what they are used to). I found the authors' argument on this point ingenious but ultimately unconvincing. Maybe it's just incompetent, though, I guess. And maybe that would explain why Sponsianus never left a mark in the records… But it seems just as easy to believe in an incompetent forger.

On the other hand I have also this afternoon realised that I am on the same side of the argument as Mary Beard, which is often slightly disconcerting. . .

Anyway, fun to think about.

advocate27 Nov 2022 1:56 p.m. PST

The Scottish legal system has an occasionally useful verdict of 'Not proven'. It seems appropriate here.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP27 Nov 2022 4:14 p.m. PST

My thanks, Evil Ben. For the record, I have been lectured to from notes probably older than I was at the time. Certainly the paper had yellowed, and my father in law remembered professor and course from 30 years prior. At least we didn't have to buy his book for the course. (That came later.)

The technical stuff is beyond my competence, but I think most of the reasoning holds up. A counterfeiter would have used as little gold as possible. An early modern forger would have used someone famous, and no one with access to a real mint would have cast coins. For me, the use of real gold takes it out of the "joke" range. So we're looking at someone with real gold and no mint, stylistically probably in the latter half of the 3rd Century. "A general in Dacia" sound like a reasonable guess, but I agree we'd want more evidence to call it more than a guess.

Personal logo Parzival Supporting Member of TMP27 Nov 2022 6:44 p.m. PST

The problem with the name is that presumably a person attempting to forge ancient Roman coinage would be somewhat versed in Latin and have a solid understanding of ancient Roman history— so why use a made up name? Why not pick a known but obscure official with enough gaps in his history to have been a "third Caesar" in Dacia? But also, if the "hot product" in 1713 were coins from the era of Caesar Augustus or one of the other truly "ancient" leaders, why forge something from an era of limited historical interest. Every wealthy nobleman wants to show off his ancient gladius "once held by Caesar himself!"— nobody wants to show off a coin minted for Caesar's fifth cousin twice removed on his mother's side. "Oh, yes, that's great, Lord Dibny, very *yawn* authentic looking. But have you seen the earrings Dame Montague is wearing? They once belonged to Cleopatra!"
Seems an odd thing to forge, especially if you're out to make a quick buck.

As for the concept of producing coinage in the circumstances that fit the period:

1.) Dacia is isolated and cut off from Rome proper. There is no source of coins to come in, and everybody knows it. If a sudden batch of coins identical to that of Rome appears, nobody will believe they aren't counterfeit. This will only debase the existing coinage and produce an economic disaster.

2.) The status of Caesar is in dispute. You can't risk picking the wrong one. So don't touch it; base the "faith and credit" that the coins are pure on yourself. The people see you as the leader, and trust your word. So your coins are reliable, when outside coins are not. At the same time, you haven't played any hand which will have you denounced as a traitor by Caesar if the one you didn't pick comes out on top.

3.) It's a crisis. There's no coinage coming in (see 1.). Yet people need to be paid, and need to have a method of exchange. You have the mines, you have the metal-workers. Make local coins to tide things over. Back ‘em with your own name. Promise that exchanges will be possible if necessary when the "official" coinage returns (because surely it will— Rome has existed for nearly a thousand years, and held sway over the Mediterranean for over half that time— and been an Empire for nearly three centuries. Rome isn't going away; it's just all temporary. Soon the legions will come over the hill and it will all be fine. Hey, it's Rome). Makes perfect since as an administrative action.

So all of the above are quite plausible explanations. Yes, they're speculation, but honestly they fit the known facts more than the "18th century forgery" does.
- coins found in the region of Dacia (seems an odd provenance for forgery)
- coins made with highly pure gold (costly forgery approach)
- coins from an obscure period of low interest to 18th century collectors
- coins cast, not struck (which, if forged, would tend to make people suspect forgery. But which also fits the known capabilities and limitations in Dacia)
- one coin (and only one) features an unknown leader with an unusual name, claiming a lower status than Caesar (seems an odd choice for a forger, like making up a classic painter who never existed and claiming to have found his art. Everybody wants a Rembrandt. Nobody wants a Johnny Neverheardofhim).
- Dacia known to have been isolated from Rome during the time period indicated by the other coins.
- Dacia known to have nevertheless contained two Roman legions, who must be paid, and would have been commanded by an unknown Imperatur or Dux.
- tests indicate substances and coin conditions consistent with long burial
- tests do not indicate evidence of deliberately faked age or wear

Conclusive? No. But sufficient to cast doubt on the accusation of forgery, and to demand reconsideration.

Plus, using the Castle* rule, it makes for a better story. grin

*As in the tv show. Been doing a rewatch…

Cavcmdr29 Nov 2022 9:40 a.m. PST

I must have missed it …

Who was he sponsorin' ?

Ok, I'll get me toga.

EvilBen Supporting Member of TMP06 Dec 2022 12:15 p.m. PST

Sorry, didn't mean to drop out of the conversation. Just been a bit of a week.

Thanks, Robert! I am sure that pedagogical best practices are not always followed. . .

Parzival: again, maybe. But I think I still (politely and respectfully) disagree that your story fits the facts better than the early modern forgery one (which is itself actually quite a cool and interesting story, I think, though obviously ymmv).

Without blithering on at greater length the biggest (but not only) point for me remains that the coins are cast: lack of proper mint facilities in Dacia is not a sufficient explanation for me. It's not *that* hard to cut a die, clearly, as it is managed in plenty of other similarly straitened circumstances, even if artistic standards are often compromised.

Having said all of which I am not going to object to anyone's Sponsianan army lists.

People who haven't seen it may find this ANS blog post, presenting a sceptical case better than I can, interesting:

Personal logo Parzival Supporting Member of TMP09 Dec 2022 10:12 p.m. PST

Interesting, yes, but hardly conclusive itself, relying on its own set of assumptions.
I'm troubled by a few things in labeling these coins forgeries:
1.) The claims of "bad Latin." Any clever forger is going to make certain his forgeries contain good Latin so as to be believed as authentic— especially since the collectors he is selling to (wealth gentility) are likely educated in Latin. But a contemporary barbarian goldsmith recruited to remake Roman coins isn't going to care if the Latin is good or not. He's simply making a coin that looks like the other legit coins being used locally— he's not out to fool anyone, he's just out to make replacement/restocked coins.
2.)That name. Why make up a name? Why not just use a known name?
3.) Gold quality— it's too good for a forgery, whose whole purpose is to spend as little as possible in order to make a significant profit— the more you sink into the gold the less you get out of the coin.
4.) Gold casting is as old, if not older, than using a die. It makes sense to me that a local goldsmith might not know how to make or use a die, and would indeed instead use his casting technique, which he knows well, over a process he does not know.

And so on.

But I agree that further testing needs to be done.

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