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ME´LITA (Μελίτη: Eth. Μελιταῖος, Eth. Melitensis: Malta), an island in the Mediterranean sea, to the S. of Sicily, from the nearest point of which it is distant 47 geogr. miles, but 55 from cape Pachynum. Strabo gives this last distance as 88 miles, which is greatly overstated; while Pliny calls it 84 miles distant from Camarina, which equally exceeds the truth. (Strab. vi. p.277; Plin. Nat. 3.8. s. 14.) The island is about 17 miles long, and between 9 and 10 in breadth, and is separated only by a narrow channel from the adjoining island of Gaulos, now Gozo. Notwithstanding its small extent, the opportune situation of Melita in the channel between Sicily, and Africa, and the excellence of its harbours, must have early rendered it a place of importance as a commercial station, and it was occupied, probably at a very early period, by a Phoenician colony. (Diod. 5.12.) The date of this is wholly uncertain, and it is called by later writers for the most part a Carthaginian settlement (Scyl. p. 50.110; Steph. B. sub voce which it certainly became in after times; but there can be no doubt that Diodorus is right in describing it as originally a Phoenician one, established by that people as an emporium and harbour of refuge during their long voyages towards the west. The same author tells us that in consequence of this commercial traffic, the colony rose rapidly to prosperity, which was increased by the industry of its inhabitants, who practised various kinds of manufactures with great success. (Diod. l.c.) But notwithstanding this account of its prosperity we have scarcely any knowledge of its history. The notice of it by Scylax as a Carthaginian colony, seems to prove that it had not in his day received a Greek settlement; and indeed there is no trace in history of its having ever fallen into the hands of the Greeks of Sicily, though its coins, as well as inscriptions, indicate that it received a strong tincture of Greek civilisation; and at a later period it appears to have been in a great measure Hellenised. Some of these inscriptions point to a close connection with Syracuse in particular, but of the origin and nature of this we have no account. (Boeckh, Corp. Inscr. Gr. 5752, &c.) In the First Punic War we find Melita still in the hands of the Carthaginians; and though it was ravaged in B.C. 257 by a Roman fleet under Atilius Regulus, it does not appear that it fell permanently into the hands of the Romans. At the outbreak of the Second Punic War it was held by a Carthaginian garrison under Hamilcar, the son of Gisgo, who, however, surrendered the island to Tib. Sempronius, with a Roman fleet, B.C. 218 (Liv. 21.51): and from this time it continued without intermission subject to the Roman rule. It was annexed to the province of Sicily, and subject to the government of the praetor of that island. During the period that the Mediterranean was so severely infested by the Cilician pirates, Melita was a favourite resort of those corsairs, who often made it their winter-quarters. (Cic. Ver. 4.46, 47.) Notwithstanding this it appears to have been in the days of Cicero in a flourishing condition, and the great orator more than once during periods of civil disturbances entertained the project of retiring thither into a kind of voluntary exile. (Cic. Att. 3.4, 10.7, 8, 9, &c.)

The inhabitants of Melita were at this period famous for their skill in manufacturing a kind of fine linen, or rather cotton, stuffs, which appear to have been in great request at Rome, and were generally known under the name of “vestis Melitensis.” (Cic. Ver. 2.72, 4.46; Diod. 5.12.) There is no doubt that these were manufactured from the cotton, which still forms the staple production of the island.

Melita is celebrated in sacred history as the scene of the shipwreck of St. Paul on his voyage to Rome, A.D. 60. (Act. Apost. xxviii.) The error of several earlier writers, who have transferred this to the Melita on the E. coast of the Adriatic (now Meleda), has evidently arisen from the vague use of the name of the Adriatic, which is employed in the Acts of the Apostles (27.27), in the manner that was customary under the Roman Empire, as corresponding to the Ionian and Sicilian seas of geographers. [ADRIATICUM MARE] The whole course and circumstances of the voyage leave no doubt that the Melita in question was no other than the modern Malta, where a bay called St. Paul's Bay is still pointed out by tradition as the landing-place of the Apostle. (The question is fully examined and discussed by Mr. J. Smith, in his Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul, 8vo. Lond. 1848; also in Conybeare and Howson's Life of St. Paul, vol. ii. p. 353, &c.)

No other mention is found of Melita during the period of the Roman Empire, except in the geographers and the Maritime Itinerary, in which last the name already appears corrupted into its modern form of Malta. (Strab. vi. p.277; Plin. Nat. 3.8. s. 13; Mel. 2.7.18; Ptol. 4.3.37; Itin. Marit. p. 518; Sil. Ital. 14.251.) After the fall of the Roman Empire it fell for a time into the hands of the Vandals; but was recovered from them by Belisarius in A.D. 533 (Procop. B. V. 1.14), and appears to have continued from this time subject to the Byzantine empire, until it was conquered by the Arabs in A.D. 870.

The present population is principally derived from an Arabic stock; but it is probable that the Arab conquerors here, as well as in Africa, have been to a great extent amalgamated with the previously existing Punic population. The inscriptions discovered at Malta sufficiently prove that the Greek language was at one time in habitual [p. 2.321]used there, as well as in the neighboring island of Sicily; and one of these, which is bilingual, shows that Greek and Punic must have been both prevalent at the same period. (Boeckh, Corpus Inscr. Gr. 5752--5754.) The former was probably the language of the more cultivated classes, in the same manner as Italian is at the present day.

Diodorus justly extols the excellence of the ports of Melita, to which that island has always been indebted for its importance. (Diod. 5.12.) The ancient geographers all mention a city of the same name with the island, but its precise site is nowhere indicated; there is, however, good reason to believe that it was the same with that of the old capital of the island, now called Medina (i, e. “the city” ), or Civita Vecchia, situated almost in the centre of the island; the modern town of La Valletta, which is the present capital, was not founded till 1566. Cicero speaks of a celebrated temple of Juno “on a promontory not far from the town” (Cic. Ver. 4.46); but the expression is too vague to prove that the latter was situated close to the sea, like the modern Valletta. Ptolemy also notices the same temple, as well as one of Hercules, evidently the Phoenician deity Melkart. (Ptol. 4.3.37.) The ruins of both these temples are described by Quintino, who wrote in 1536, as existing in his time; but the grounds of identification are not given. The only considerable ruins now existing in the island are those on the S. coast, near a place called Casal Crendi, which are described in detail by Barth. (Arch. Zeitung, 1848, Nos. 22, 23.) These are evidently of Phoenician origin, and constructed of massive stones, in a very rude style of architecture, bearing much resemblance to the remains called the Torre dei Giganti, in the neighbouring island of Gozo. [GAULOS] Some slight vestiges of buildings near the port called Marsa Scirocco may perhaps be those of the temple of Hercules; while, according to Fazello and Quintino, those of the temple of Juno were situated in the neighbourhood of the Castle of S. Angelo, opposite to the modern city of Valletta. (Quintini Descript. Ins. Melitae, p. 110, in Burmann's Thes. vol. xv.; Fazell. de Reb. Sic. 1.1. p. 16.)


Ovid terms Melita a fertile island (Fast. 3.567); an expression which is certainly ill applied, for though it was, in ancient as well as modern times, populous and flourishing, and probably, therefore, always well cultivated, the soil is naturally stony and barren, and the great want of water precludes all natural fertility. Cotton, which at the present day is extensively cultivated there, was doubtless the material of the fine stuffs manufactured in the island; and the excellence of its soft stone as a building material accounts for the splendour of the houses, extolled by Diodorus (5.12). Another peculiar production of the island was a breed of small dogs, noticed by Strabo and other authors, though some writers derived these from the Melita in the Adriatic. The breed still exists in Malta. (Strab. vi. p.277; Athen. 12.518; Plin. Nat. 3.26. s. 30.) The freedom from venomous reptiles which Malta enjoys, in common with many other secluded islands, is ascribed by the inhabitants to the miraculous intervention of St. Paul. (Quintino, l.c. p. 117.)


hide References (10 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (10):
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 10.7
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 10.8
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 10.9
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 3.4
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 3.26
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 3.8
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 21, 51
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 5.12
    • Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 4.3
    • Athenaeus, of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae, 12
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