In the year 218 B.C, at the beginning of the Second Punic War, the Roman Consul Titus Sempronius Longus invaded the Maltese islands while on his way to North Africa. It was this which led to the Maltese islands being considered part of the Roman province of Sicily, and having the status of an allied city (civitas foederata) within the Roman Empire. The natives of the islands were not regarded as a conquered people, but rather as allies of Rome, and this meant that the Maltese were able to keep their own laws, mint their own money, and sent their ambassadors or legates to Rome.
At the time, the Punic city of Maleth, located on present-day Mdina, the island’s old capital city, became known as Melite under Roman rule, and in fact became the hub of the island. Eventually, Melite was given the status of municipium, being granted the same rights as other Roman cities. The word Melite itself is Greek in origin, and refers to the island’s production of honey. At the time, the island served as a kind of haven from the hustle and bustle of Rome, which led to Roman citizens viewing it as a kind of resort in which to relax.
From a number of archaeological remains found, there is a clear indication that the defense system of the Maltese archipelago was much improved during this time. The main administrative and mercantile centers were located in the central part of Malta (today’s Rabat), the central part of Gozo (today’s Victoria and Citadel), as well as the Grand Harbour area. Archaeological excavations have unearthed various Roman structural remains of buildings, walls, columns and pottery in various parts of these localities. With regards to Melite (that is, Mdina), there are indications that show that cemeteries were located outside the city walls, for reasons of sanitation.
The most important Roman building found in the Rabat area is undoubtedly the Roman domus (or townhouse), which for a long time was commonly known as the Roman Villa. This was excavated for the first time in 1881. Other archaeological excavations were continued between 1920 and 1924, during which remains of other Roman houses and roads were brought to light. The most interesting part of the Roman domus is its peristyle, an open-air shaft surrounded by a colonnade of Doric style. This and the adjoining halls are decorated by a series of fine mosaic pavements that generally show abstract motifs. It is important to mention that a number of Roman statues, including two important busts of the Roman Imperial Period, were excavated in this house.
Another important find shows that the Punic temple of the goddess Ashtarte at Tas-Silġ, overlooking Marsaxlokk Bay, continued to be used for religious purposes during Roman times. The Romans in fact, re-dedicated this temple to the Roman goddess Juno, who was the counterpart of the Phoenician Astharte. During the excavations at Tas-Silġ, archaeologists unearthed hundreds of inscriptions.
It is also worthwhile mentioning that the remains a number of other Roman villas were found around Malta and Gozo, not to mention those of a Roman thermal complex at Għajn Tuffieħa which was uncovered in 1929. In certain parts of Malta, a number of circular towers, which at the time most probably served as watch towers, were also discovered. A number of structural remains of what appear to have been walls were also uncovered in various parts of Victoria, in Gozo. The Romans at the time also developed the way the local limestone was used and worked, this can be determined from a number of old quarries dating back to this particular period.
This article was written by me and originally published on LivingInMalta. To take a look, please go here.