An Expert Opinion on Sponsianus

Aleksander Bursche is a numismatist at the University of Warsaw and has a plain opinion on the so-called Sponsianus coins: they are modern fake products.
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Did a Roman emperor called Sponsianus exist and mint coins? A recent study claims this but has been widely refuted by experts. Two experts on the topic of Roman gold coinage from the period of the soldier emperors, Aleksander Bursche and Kyrylo Myzgin from the University of Warsaw present their arguments on this matter:

We are pretty sure that the all-known Sponsianus gold coins (or better “medailles” using a terminology from that time) as well as Gordianus III and Philippus known from different collections in Europe that reached them at the same time, i.e. in the 18th century, are forgeries from the period.

Most arguments were presented in the contribution by Münsterberg in 1923 (in German) and by Bursche 1998, 25-29 (in Polish, unfortunately). In practice, the authors of the new study omitted many arguments presented in these previous articles and did not engage in a real discussion with them.

Let’s review the 11 most important arguments:

  1. These pieces (as the ones with the names of Gordianus and Philippus) were cast. No original Roman gold coin from the 3rd century AD was cast. Even barbarian coins from that period were struck.
  2. The weights of the individual pieces (Sponsianus, Gordianus and Philippus) are much too diverse and have no connection with the Roman weight system (as multipla always have). Also, barbarian imitations of Roman aurei do not exceed 7 g in weight and almost always are pierced.
  3. The obverse legend in genitive form (IMP SPONSIANI) is rather unusual for Roman coins (it should be a nominative: IMP SPONSIANVS or an abbreviated form), but typical of products from the 16th-18th centuries.
  4. The style of the lettering is different from the letters on the original coins. Even local usurpers who ruled for a few weeks (e.g. Quietus, Julianus II) struck their coins in good style from high-quality gold.
  5. The iconography of the Sponsianus pieces is completely unusual for the 3rd-century coin. On the other hand, the corona radiata (radiate crown) on the obverse and the way of presenting it, is typical of 18th century forgeries. On the reverse, there is a clumsy imitation of a Republican coin (RRC 242/1; 243/1). Furthermore, it seems to us almost impossible that in the 3rd-century AD an image from a Republican coin minted in 134 BC should have been used. There are no examples of such a combination either in barbarian imitations, or in the official coinage. Silver Republican coins from the 2nd century BC were far more accessible to the 17th-18th century collector than to the moneyer of the 3rd-century crisis in the province of Dacia.
  6. The coins appeared at least in five European collections, i.e. Vienna, Glasgow, Paris, Gotha, Sibiu (German: Hermannstadt) and Herzogenburg (near Vienna) in the 18th century, often in the same set, with gold bearing the name of Gordianus and Philippus. No one such piece is known from finds made without a doubt in the 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries (the metal detector era!), despite 95% of 3rd century Roman gold coins have been found in that period. If they are originals, even one new piece would have to be found in the last two hundred years.
  7. The name Sponsianus could have been seen and noted in an inscription in Rome by any nobleman having classical education during his “grand tour” or a person working for him. Sponsianus medailles/forgeries received alleged provenance and context along with gold coins of the emperors Gordianus and Philippus, by the way also cast forgeries. In Siebenbürgen some famous hoards were found in this period (like Szilagy-Somlyo etc.), which is why such a provenance was chosen. By the way, the presence of the title IMP from Latin imperator (emperor) in the legend of these Sponsianus pieces and the absence of AVG for Augustus (typical for Roman emperors in the 1st-3rd c. AD) is completely understandable from the perspective of the territory of Habsburg Empire’s competitors to the Augusti of the Wettings dynasty.
  8. All these pieces were purchased for sums much higher than the intrinsic value of the gold. So, a profit was, without doubt, the reason for the production of these forgeries.
  9. We are not specialists on analytical methods, however 93% of gold (as for analysed Sponsianus piece) is much too low for original Roman gold coins, even from the late 3rd century AD as well as Barbarian imitations (made from local gold) and is very typical of forgeries.
  10. We are not sure that the coins taken for comparison are correctly selected. From a methodological point of view, it should be first of all 3rd century aurei with known provenance/findspot and 18th century cast copies.
  11. On what basis do the authors date the time of wear of the coins?


In our numismatic Who’s who you will find Aleksander Bursche.

On you can find the profile of his colleague and co-author Kyrylo Myzgin.

A festschrift for Aleksander Bursche gives testimony of his vast knowledge of Roman coinage.

We also have Aleksander Bursche to thank for the successful INC in Warsaw 2022. You can find our report here.