Malta first clashed with Rome in 255 B.C when the Romans raided Carthaginian Malta and destroyed its countryside. This led the Carthaginians to fortify the island and in 218 B.C. Although Carthage had 2000 soldiers under the command of Hamilcar, it fell without a fight to a Roman naval attack. As the power of Rome grew, it realized that control of Sicily was essential. Once Sicily was in Roman hands they had to conquer Malta which, as a Carthaginian base, was too near for comfort. Romans called the island Melita, which was probably derived from Malat, the name that the Phoenicians had given to the island.

San Pawl Milqi Roman country villa complex - note the olive-pressThe three wars between Rome and Carthage, known as the Punic Wars, were fought from 264 to 146 B.C., ending with Carthage being sacked and set alight. Malta became part of the Roman Empire during the Second Punic War and remained so till the Vandals raided the islands in AD 395. We do not know what part Malta played in the civil wars that brought about the collapse of the Roman Republic which was followed by the murder of Julius Caesar. But we do know that Cicero, the great orator, was at one point considering going into voluntary exile on the island. The Maltese islands obviously prospered immensely under Roman rule as may be seen by the fine houses that have been unearthed, and it was during this period that Malta became famous for its honey, fine cloth and sailcloth.

The Romans set about reforming the island by introducing the Hellenic-Roman systems of centralized government strengthened by a single religion and currency. Malta was grantedthe right to govern itself and was allowed its own representation at Rome. Furthermore, Malta and Gozo were also given the title of "Civitas Sine Foedere Libera", which means "A State, Autonomous and Free". Malta was so important that the person in command, either civil or military, was not a Proconsul chosen by the Senate of Rome but a Procurator appointed by the Emperor himself and selected from his top-ranking officers.

San Pawl Milqi Roman room under churchThis is proved in an inscription found among the remains of a temple at Mtarfa restored by "Procurator Melitae et Gauli' that is 'By the Procurator of Malta and Gozo'. Early in the second century, the Maltese were granted Roman citizenship, and Malta and Gozo were given the new title of 'Municipium'. References to Malta in surviving Roman literature are scant. However important monuments like the Roman house at Rabat, artistic statues like the bust of Tiberius, cold and heated baths at Ghajn Tuffieħa, as well as mosaic works, tombs, amphorae (oil jars made of clay), coins and images of Roman gods, all indicate a lively civilization.

Three different cultures and languages met in Malta. The Roman administration introduced Latin (at least for official work), and its own cultural fashions. Punic culture however seemed to have survived till the first century A.D and beyond, along with Greek culture which had already spread in the Punic world and became stronger with the growth of Rome.

It was alsoduring this period that Christianity was introduced to the islands in AD 58, when St. Paul, on his way to face trial in Rome, was shipwrecked on the island. But early Christians could only celebrate their religion in secret in the catacombs until Constantine I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and the persecution of Christians stopped. Rabat is home to the famous Catacombs of St. Paul and of St. Agatha which give a fascinating view into the lives of the early Christians. The catacombs were used in Roman times to bury the dead as, according to Roman culture, it was unclean to bury the dead in the city, so the network grew, winding like a maze, much of it still unexplored. The city of Mdina and parts of Rabat were built on top of an ancient Roman city.

When the Roman Empire split into Eastern and Western divisions in the 4th century, Malta was controlled by the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire from 395 to 870, which ruled from Constantinople. Although Malta was under Byzantine rule for four centuries, not much is known about this period other than that Germanic tribes, including the Goths and Vandals, briefly took control of the islands before the Byzantines launched a counter-attack and retook Malta.


Michael Busuttil


Heritage Malta (C) Reproduced with permission.

Amphorae at Domus Romana  Detail of mosaic floor at Domus Romana, Rabat 


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