previous next

MELITA (Malta).

A small island 96 km S of Capo Passero. It was a Phoenician trading post until the Carthaginians colonized the island for strategic reasons in the 6th c. B.C. Its Punic tradition persevered throughout the Classical period. Malta was annexed by Rome in 218 B.C. and incorporated into the province of Sicily, with whom it had formed strong trading ties over the previous century. Cicero, in citing the Maltese as victims of the despoliations by the Quaestor of Sicily, Q. Verres, draws a picture of quiet prosperity at the beginning of the 1st c. B.C. The island declined in the following troubled years of piratical raids and the civil wars from which, despite the appointment of a Procurator by Augustus, it was unable to recover until the mid 1st c. A.D. By the early 2d c., Malta and the neighboring island of Gozo (Gaulos) were granted municipal status, but their history in the later Empire is obscure; under Justinian they became once again part of Sicily and in 553 are mentioned as a bishop's see from the suffragio of Syracuse.

The Carthaginians founded capital towns on commanding inland positions on each island, but owing to continuous occupation of these sites ever since, little now can be seen. Of the town of Melita, present-day Mdina and Rabat, apart from a short section of the town wall, only the site of a large town house is preserved as the “Roman Villa” Museum, which contains the majority of Punic and Roman finds to be seen on Malta. In its earlier phases the house dates to the 3d and 2d c. B.C., but it was extended in the Augustan period with a set of rooms arranged on a peristyle atrium, decorated with sculpture, architectural ornament, and mosaics to Roman taste. The numerous tombs of the period that honeycomb the rock along the roads leading S from the town do, however, attest the size of the population. Most notable are the extensive catacombs, the largest and most elaborate of which, St. Paul's and St. Agatha's, are predominantly Christian, of the 4th and 5th c. A.D. Smaller, finer ones in country districts—at Salina Bay and Mintna—are earlier. Purely pagan complexes exist at Hal Barca and Taċ Ċaghqi, near Rabat. Of the town of Gaulos, modern Victoria, on Gozo, only the general plan of the ancient grid of streets may be traced in the warren of Arab alleys, but the small museum on the citadel contains several fine pieces of sculpture and chance finds from the town.

The original Phoenician trading settlement and later Carthaginian port lay on the shores of Marsascirocco Bay in the S of Malta, but in the 3d c. B.C. trade with Magna Graecia led to the development of harbor facilities at Grand Harbor which faces NE. During drainage operations in the 18th c. on the silted-up inner basin at Marsa, large warehouses and evidence of a wharf (1350 m long) were found. Further wharves and storehouses were excavated in the same region in 1947 and 1959. Other rich finds, among them large baths with polychrome mosaics of fishes indicate a wealthy port.

Although a corresponding decline in the importance of Marsascirocco may be inferred, the sanctuaries that grouped around the old harbor flourished into the 1st c. A.D. Temples to Melqart (Herakles) and Astarte (Hera) are attested by many chance finds; and the site of the latter at Tas Silk, on the ridge of the Delimara promontory, has been excavated (1963-68). A Copper Age megalithic temple was taken over in the 6th c. B.C. as the sanctuary of the Punic temple, entered from the W through a finely paved colonnaded courtyard. In the 3d c. B.C. this courtyard was surrounded with a further portico and a high “temenos” wall, 28 m of which survive on the S side. A complex of ancillary buildings was laid out to the N, and the large cistern at Bir Ricca was probably constructed to supply the site. Despite evidence of repairs made in the 1st c. A.D. the temple appears to have fallen into disuse soon after; a Christian basilica was built within the colonnaded court in the 4th c.

At Ras-il-Wardija, on the edge of cliffs 90 m high on the extreme SW tip of Gozo, another sanctuary was discovered in 1965-67. A small inner chamber was cut into a low rock face, fronted with a monumental facade, in the 3d c. B.C. A deep rectangular pool with rock-cut steps down one side lies to the right of the entrance, and the forecourt was terraced down to the cliff edge, with associated rooms to the W. Like Tas Silk the site shows strong Hellenistic influences but remains essentially Punic in character. It was abandoned in the 1st c. A.D.

The islands were famed for their fine textiles, and the widespread production of olive oil is evident. The late Punic villa at Birżebbuġia, overlooking Marsascirocco Bay, was built round a small central court which covered a cistern, with a staircase leading off to an upper story, which probably contained the living quarters. The ground floor houses the press-beds and rooms for processing olive oil, and there is possible evidence for the production of cloth. A small plunge bath was added in the Roman period. The villa at Ras-ir-Raheb, near the W cliffs of Malta, though fragmentary, appears to have been a larger version of the same plan. San Pawl Milqi, on the slopes above Bur Marrod close to Salina Bay, is traditionally the site of Publius' villa where the shipwrecked St. Paul was received in 60 A.D. The main constructional phase on the site is a large residential and agricultural complex, laid out regularly around a peristyle courtyard; it has produced fine architectural fragments of the 2d c. B.C. Beneath the court are traces of an earlier phase. In the 1st c. A.D. this area was damaged by fire and in the rebuilding the living quarters were extended to the W where the walls are decorated with painted wall plaster. The olive oil processing rooms are well preserved. The excavators believe that the Pauline tradition can be confirmed by the special treatment given to one room of the villa in the later Roman period, providing several extra entrances and a small antechamber to the W. A series of later chapels was built over the spot, ending with the present 16th c. chapel of San Pawl Milqi. A double defensive wall was built round the villa, probably in the 3d c.; its foundations can be seen on the S side.

Near Ghajn Tuffieha, an abundant spring on the S side of the fertile Puales Valley, a set of Roman baths was excavated in 1929. Their size has suggested a municipal establishment or at least a large villa, dated to the late 1st or early 2d c. A.D. They comprise an open-air natatio, a set of small changing rooms with mosaic and hexagonal tiled floors, a tepidarium with a fine shield mosaic, a caldarium with a hypocaust of arched brick pilae, and a nine-seat marble latrine.

A surprising survival is the tower of a 3d c. B.C. “towered” house of the type popular in Hellenic Egypt, preserved to the height of the overhanging cornice as part of the parish priest's house at Żurrieq. Other interesting monuments include the circular defensive towers built on the approaches to the town of Melita. Their date is problematic: those of Ta Gawhar, Ia Wilgia, Ta Ċieda L'Imsierah, and the Santi Gap may belong to the 3d c. A.D.; but others, it-Torriet and Misrah Hlantun, certainly reflect earlier crises.


Valletta, Reports of the Museum Department (1904) (in progress)PI; A. Mayr, Die Insel Malta im Altertum (1909); E. Becker, Malta Sotteranea (1913); T. Ashby, “Roman Malta” JRS 5 (1915) 23-49P; M. Cagiano de Azevedo et al., Missione Archeologica ltaliana a Malta, Rapporti Preliminare delle Campagne di Scavi 1963-68 (1964-69)MPI; D. H. Trump, Malta, An Archaeological Guide (1972).


hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: