A Lawyer's History of Malta

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Phoenician (800-700 BC)


The Phoenicians excelled among the trading nations of the east. They came from Phoenicia consisting of a federation of various cities on the eastern Mediterranean coast, now largely Lebanon. Its main cities were Tyre, Sidon, Berytus (Beirut), Tripoli, Arwad and Byblos.

The Semitic-speaking Phoenicians started their settlements around the Mediterranean about 2500 BC. Their temperament, their slightness and the sterility of their land impelled them to peaceful conquests.

With commerce between Africa and Spain becoming their main preoccupation, the Phoenicians needed safe ports of refuge for their ships. They took possession of Malta and Gozo somewhere between 1500 BC and 1200 BC. Some writers go as far as to attribute the name of "Malta" to the Semitic word malet meaning "asylum, shelter, refuge".

The Phoenicians introduced their religion and their goods into the Maltese islands. Since religion informed the spirit and the social order of the Phoenicians, as in all ancient civilisations, and industry cannot prosper without the protection of the law, it is most likely they also introduced their laws and customs.


Phoenicia was made up of various city states, each with their own hereditary monarchy. The monarch had to share power with the magistrates, since a despotic rule would not have lasted with a people whose power stemmed from trade and business and for whom the wise were the helmsmen (see Ezekiel 27:8; 28:5). The kings and the magistrates assembled at Tripoli, where matters of common interest were discussed. According to Ovid, one of Malta's kings was called Batto.


Laws were promulgated at the city gates where the inhabitants convened in large numbers. Laws so promulgated were over time preserved in public registries, a custom that was passed on to the Greeks.

The same commercial activities that prevented despotism ignored the caste system. The Phoenicians were familiar with all forms of slavery: of origin, of convention, of war and of punishment. Apparently they treated their slaves inhumanely.

The Phoenicians allowed polygamy. Paternal authority was basically limitless to the point that parents could offer their offspring in sacrificial offering to their destructive god, Baal-Moloc. The father could also pawn or sell his son. The law simply required the intervention of the magistrate and a promise made in his presence by the purchaser to treat the son with humanity and to give him benevolent protection.

Fair Dealing in Business

Gerhard Herm in his book The Phoenicians - The Purple Empire of the Ancient World refers to an anecdote of Herodotus that makes it clear that the Phoenicians so thoroughly adopted the principle of fair-dealing in business that they stuck to it even when it was not absolutely necessary. According to Herm (at p.74):

The Greek quotes a Carthaginian who had told him that the seafaring traders used to unload their wares in foreign parts and spread them out on the beach. 'Then,' he continues, 'they got back into their ships again and made a fire that smoked profusely. When the natives of the country saw the smoke, they came down to the sea. Then they laid down gold for the goods and went away again. The Carthaginians then disembarked from their ships to have a look. If the gold seemed to them to be adequate for the goods, they took it. If not, they went back to their boats and sat there. The others, for their part, would come down again and add more gold, until there was enough.'

In this way the first contacts were made. A counteroffer followed the first offering, and then the silent bargaining began, needing much tact, inventiveness and also honesty. The merchants did not want to spoil a possible new market before they had begun, a feeling apparently appreciated by their customers. Herodotus at any rate says, and his careful choice of words shows how amazed he was, 'Neither side cheated the other, because they [the sellers] did not touch the gold until it seemed to them to have reached the value of the goods, and the others [the buyers] did not touch the goods until they had taken up the money.'

It was thus a way of doing business which followed rules which we still rely on today. If one side profited more than the other it was also for the same reasons which can be found today: an over-generous assessment of the cost, hidden faults, or wrong information as to the value of the goods. But even that probably did not occur very often, because the delicate foundation of trust on which all trade is based was the life-blood of the Phoenician towns.

The Greeks were the next foreign domination over Malta.

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