Roman Mosaic

Romans in Malta

It appears that the first recorded contact of the Maltese Islands with the Romans took place in 255BC, during the First Punic War. The Roman fleet was on its way back from an expedition to Africa when they stopped in Malta, pillaged whatever they could carry away and set alight the rest. Clearly, at the time, the Romans did not recognize the strategic significance of the islands.

However, the Carthaginians who ruled Malta in that period, presumed that sooner or later the Romans would return to take over the islands. Therefore, they took some military measures in order to avoid invasion and in 218BC, when the Romans came back, they had a Carthaginian garrison of almost 2,000 men under the command of Hamilcar. Yet this tactic served for nothing as apparently, the Romans did not even have to fight in order to take over Malta in that year.

From 218BC, Malta was included in the newly formed province of Sicily and for many centuries, these islands shared the same faith. It is not known what part Malta played in the civil wars that brought about the collapse of the Republic constitution in Rome in 27BC. Most probably, Malta was not involved since Cicero, the great orator, was at one point considering going into voluntary exile on the island.

Once under their rule, initially, the Romans did not impose themselves on the Maltese people. In fact, from the material evidence available, one can observe that the islands retained Punic artistic fashions and that the Punic language was still spoken, though not written, on official documents till the 1st century AD and probably longer.

Three different cultures and languages met in Malta. Though retaining Punic culture, the Roman administration introduced Latin (at least for official work), and its own cultural fashions. Alongside these two cultures there was the Greek one which had already spread in the Punic world and became stronger with the growth of Rome.

Meanwhile, Roman occupation introduced also new reforms in governance and religion. This development is evident in the coinage of the islands as they change their imagery and language more or less in this order: Egyptian religious imagery, Punic language, Punic divine iconography, Greek language, Hellenized divine iconography, and ultimately, Roman images and Latin language.

As subjects controlled by Rome, the Maltese people enjoyed no special privileges and were subject to an established taxation system. For a time, the islands were granted the right to govern themselves and were even allowed their own representation at Rome. However, this all changed in 27BC with the reorganization of the Roman empire and the introduction of the imperial age by its first emperor Augustus. Consequently, like many other Sicilian cities, Malta and Gozo lost their local self-government and the right to issue their own money.

Christianity was introduced to the islands in 60AD, when on his way to face trial in Rome, St Paul was shipwrecked in Malta. Yet contrarily to the general belief that the locals turned into Christians, material evidence indicates that the religion practiced officially on both islands from the 1st down to the 3rd century was the Roman pagan one, with a high dose of imperial worship. Till now, there is no archaeological record which confirms the practice of Christianity at this time, though some people might have followed this new religion clandestinely without leaving a trace.

Deep political, economic and spiritual crisis affected the Roman empire between the 4th and 3rd centuries AD. This eventually led to its division during the reign of Constantine I, when the seat of power was moved to Byzantium, thereby renaming the city Constantinople and creating the Roman empire of the east or the Byzantine empire.

Although Malta was under Byzantine rule for four centuries, not much is known about this period other than that Germanic tribes, including the Vandals and Ostrogoths, briefly took control of the islands before the Byzantines launched a counter-attack and reclaimed them.

It is during the reign of Justinian, in 535AD, that the Maltese Islands were assimilated within the Byzantine empire, along with Sicily. They remained part of it until they were won over by the Muslim Arabs in 870AD.