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The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites

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 Tac Caghqi, 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 Birzebbugia, 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 Zurrieq. 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 Cieda 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.

A. Claridge, ed.
This text is from: The Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites, Princeton University Press 1976. Cited Nov 2002 from Perseus Project URL below, which contains bibliography & interesting hyperlinks.


Greek & Roman Geography (ed. William Smith)

Melita

  Melita (Melite: Eth. Melitaios, 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. iii. 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. v. 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. s. v.), 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. xxi. 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. Verr. iv. 4. 6, 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. ad Att. iii. 4, x. 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. Verr. ii. 7. 2, iv. 46; Diod. v. 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 (xxvii. 27), in the manner that was customary under the Roman Empire, as corresponding to the Ionian and Sicilian seas of geographers. 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. iii. 8. s. 13; Mel. ii. 7. § 18; Ptol. iv. 3. § 37; Itin. Marit. p. 518; Sil. Ital. xiv. 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. i. 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 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. v. 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. Verr. iv. 4. 6); 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. iv. 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. 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. i. 1. p. 16.)
  Ovid terms Melita a fertile island (Fast. iii. 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 (v. 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. xii. p. 518; Plin. iii. 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.)

This text is from: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD). Cited September 2004 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks


Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities

Melita

   The modern Malta, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, about seventeen miles long and nine in breadth. It was colonized by the Ph?nicians, and afterwards belonged to the Carthaginians, from whom it was taken by the Romans in the Second Punic War (B.C. 216). It is celebrated as the island on which the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked; though some writers erroneously suppose that the Apostle was shipwrecked on the island of the same name off the Illyrican coast. The inhabitants manufactured fine cloth (Melitensia, sc. vestimenta); and the lapdogs (catuli Melitaei) were much petted by Roman ladies. Cicero speaks of it as the home of pirates, but himself often thought of making it a place of exile. The Ogygia of Homer is sometimes identified with Malta. In the fifth century A.D. it was taken by the Vandals, then by the Goths, and in 870 by the Arabs.

This text is cited Oct 2002 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks


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