A Lawyer's History of Malta

Home Roman - 218 BC-870 AD
Roman (218 BC-870 AD)


It took the Romans about five centuries to establish a republic, unite Italy and finally build an empire which extended from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Euphrates River in the east, covering the whole Mediterranrean basin and from Scotland in the north to the North African desert in the south.

The work of the emperors, who followed Julius Caesar (102-44 BC), consisted of the consolidation and spreading of the Hellenic-Roman civilisation, the building of a network of roads throughout the empire, the establishment of the Roman gold currency that was exchanged and sought after everywhere and a system of centralised government with one religion.

Malta - A Roman Province

first-punic-warFirst Punic War

The Maltese archipelago first came into contact with the Romans during the first Punic War, as Naevius reported, when in about 257 BC the Roman army invaded Malta and caused great devastation. It is not clear from Roman literature whether the Cathaginians subsequently expelled the Romans from the island.

second-punic-warSecond Punic War

It was not until the year 218 BC at the start of the Second Punic War, which the famous historian Livy called the most memorable of all, that Lilybeus sent Consul Titus Sempronius Graccus to Malta and on his arrival he was assigned the Carthaginian praesidium of about 2,000 men led by their captain Amilcar. Two years later the island became a Roman province.

Under the Romans, life was not bed of roses for the Maltese. The Romans made use of the locals to pursue their overall objective of defeating their enemies, the Carthaginians, to take control of the Mediterranean shores still ruled by their rivals. As they had done in Sicily, it is most likely that they imposed harsh taxes on the Maltese and probably used the islands as an exile outpost and a station for slaves or prisoners. At that time there were fewer free persons than slaves living on the Maltese islands.

Government of Roman Provinces

Just like the other provinces, the island was subjected to a Praetor, who was the governor and chief magistrate, and to the Quaestor, the treasury official. A medal of the late Republican period refers to a certain Aruntano Balbo 'Pro-Praetor'. The Praetor had the supreme command, including the administration of justice and military command (iurisdictio et imperium). The provincial Praetor, like the urban Praetor, upon entering office, published his edict, which consisted in a collection of laws, according to which he would govern the province and administer justice.

Sigonius believed that the provincial edict would, of necessity, conform to the urban edict. However, this was contrary to evidence of Proculus, as experienced under Tiberius. Regardless, it was a fact that, in drawing up his edict, the provincial Praetor borrowed heavily from the edicts of the urban Praetors and in some cases made direct reference to them.

The Praetor had a kind of court (comitatus), a council (audience and assessors), a guard (the praetorian cohort), many employed subordinates (clerks, couriers and attendants), some lieutenants, to whom he delegated some of his powers in case of necessity, and a large army (military tribunes).

The second provincial magistrate was the Quaestor, who was in charge of the management of the finances and stood in for the Praetor in case of death or recall and, according to Gaius, had the right to publish edicts. The inhabitants of the provinces did not become Roman citizens, but continued to be considered aliens (peregrini). Land in the provinces belonged to the State and occupiers had only a transmissible and hereditary right of possession and use (usufruct).

The provinces that submitted themselves willingly to Rome were subjected to an annual stipend (hence referred to as 'stipendiary') and to a fee on the importation and export of goods, which in the ports of Sicily amounted to one-twentieth (5 percent) of their value.

Cicero, Verres and the Maltese

The situation in Malta started to improve when Rome appointed two kind Praetors for Sicily, Sextus Peduceus and Caius Sacerdote and a Quaestor by the name of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great Roman orator. When the latter noticed that the other Praetor of the time, Caius Verres, was a cunning thief, who befriended the wealthy and powerful to exploit everyone and steal the most precious and dear objects from everywhere, promising people protection from pirates - something that the Maltese had to live with in those days - Cicero decided to take action against Verres.

At that time Malta formed part of the province of Sicily and was subject, at least for some time, to the same Praetors. The Maltese and the Sicilians sent their delegates to Rome to report the bad deeds of Praetor Verres' government to the Roman Senate. There is no better evidence of these times in Malta than Cicero's defence to allegations made against him by Verres in the Senate. First Cicero emabarrased him for stealing from the whole of Sicily and from there shipped the cloth woven in Malta. "Why did you need all that fabric from Malta as if you were going to clothe the wives of all your friends?" asked Cicero. He accused Verres of wanting to steal the treasures of one named Diodorus who lived in Marsala, Sicily, but came from a rich Maltese family. Upon hearing from Diodorus that these treasures were held by his relatives and located in Malta, Verres sent his men to steal them. However, Diodorus was quicker off the mark and managed to alert his relatives who were instructed to advise Verres' men that the traesures had been sent to Marsala.

However, apart from the charges of extortion and abuse of power, committed or attempted with his accomplices in Malta, without ever setting foot on the island, in his speech to the Senate, Cicero's most serious accusation against Verres Cicero related to "the plundering of the temple of Juno" in Malta on the promontory between Castel Sant'Angelo and Vittoriosa, the ruins of which still existed until 1533. Cicero's address to the Senate included that following passage:

"Judges! There is an island called MELITA. On it there is a city of the same name. Although Verres himself never visited it, in the last three months he established there a cloth-weaving factory for women's clothing. Not far from that city, on a peninsula [now known as Delimara point] there is an old temple of Juno, which was always regarded of such great holiness not only by the soldiers who fought in the Punic Wars which were fought almost exclusively in those areas by the sea powers but also by the locals. Moreover, it is said that once when Massinissa's fleet had to enter those ports to take refuge, the sultan's admiral stole some elephant ivory tusks from the temple of such size that is hard to believe, and took them with him to Africa for Massinissa. At first the sultan was very pleased with the present, but then, when he was told whence they had come, he immediately sent the tusks back with people that he could trust. Engraved on them in Punic was the writing that Massinissa had welcomed them because he did not know where they had come from; but then, when he was told the truth, he made sure to return them. Also in that temple of Juno were many ancient ivory objects of fine workmanship. Massinissa picked up all the items and sent them back with the slaves of Venus. ...

The representatives of Malta, who were sent here by the leaders of their land, give evidence that the theft from Juno's temple; that this person left nothing inside it, that that place, where often the ships of the enemy took refuge, where pirates every year typically spent spent their winters, but no pirate ever desacrated or destroyed the temple, it is only Verres who emptied it."

It is not known whether the Senate eventually condemned Verres.

As regards the conditions in the Roman provinces, Diodorus of Sicily, who lived under Augustus, related that the island of Malta continued to prosper in commerce and industries, which had been learned from the Phoenicians.

Malta - A Caesarian Province

Having overthrown the aristocracy and become sole master of the State, Emperor Augustus preserved the republican forms, but introduced his subjects to taxes and got them used to the present prosperity forgetting the tempestuous past. One of the means that he used to consolidate himself in power was the division of the Roman provinces between the emperor and the people. On the pretext that the provinces, where the armies were stationed to defend them from exposure to continuous danger of enemy invasion, needed the direct and immediate administration of the emperor (Caesarian or Imperial Provinces), only those that were secure and peaceful were to be administered by the Senate (Senatorial Provinces) as provinces of the people. Malta became a Caesarian Province.

While consuls and quaestors continued to govern the Senatorial Provinces, the emperor sent envoys every year to Caesarian Provinces, including Malta. Among them was a procurator charged with the management of the finances, since, according to Gaius, quaestors were not appointed in the emperor's provinces. Sometimes the procurator performed the role of president of the province (praeses provinciae), a new vocabulary, which was introduced to indicate the governors of one or other type of province.

Even in Augustus' political system the governors of the imperial provinces embodied in themselves every civil and military power, appearing, according to Gibbon, in the civil magistrate's robe ("toga") in tribunals and as head of the Roman legions in combatant's breast-plate.

Under the Romans the most important person on the island was called either Protos (a Greek term) or Primus Omnium (a Latin term) as St Luke calls Pubblius in the narration of St Paul's shipwreck in Malta in the Acts of the Apostles, or Patronus Arxas, like Claudius Julius and M Vallius. They were not necessarily appointed procurators by Caesar.

Constantine, divided the empire into four large prefectures - Orient, Illyrian, Italian and Gaulian - each prefecture in dioceses and every diocese in provinces. After taking away their military power, he distributed among the four praetorian prefects the administration of the provinces and gave them, among other powers, the authority to supervise, remove and punish the provincial governors. The Mediterranean islands fell under the Italian prefecture. That should have improved the conditions of the provinces, which had already been oppressed by the ministers of the Republic. The emperor was master, no longer the accomplice of the governors' oppression.

The governors, upon appointment, continued to publish their edicts. They administered justice and, as much as it pleased the emperor, even inflicted capital punishment. The right to mitigate the punishments they handed down and condemn to exile was reserved to the praetorian prefects. No governor could be a native of the country where he was to be posted, and once appointed, he was not permitted to form relationships, or acquire slaves or land. In this way, there would be less scope for abuse and corruption. Even Constantine himself and his successors did not kept suing the governors and their ministers for the sale of their prohibited belongings.

Malta - a Roman municipality

At the start of the second century BC the Maltese islands were given the status of municipality and the inhabitants became citizens. Gozo was a separate municipality independent from Malta.

The political law of Malta changed once Malta became a Roman municipality. One writer, Bres, believed that this happened under Emperor Claudius, though his only proof is that Claudius indiscreetly conferred Roman citizenship on the subjects. However, Maltese legal epigraphs indicate that the status of municipality was at the earliest granted under the industrious Hadrian, certainly not later. While the precise time of concession may be doubtful, the existence of municipal orders in the island and the allocation of the Maltese to the tribe of Romulus (Quirine), already established by the Roman year 511, were beyond doubt. This indicated that the Maltese municipality was of the suffrage type.

Initially, municipality or municipio meant the class of those who, subservient to Rome, had to submit themselves to the same burdens that the Romans had, that is military service, tributes (munus) and in return benefited from commerce and marriage, but without any right to suffrage or office. Later on, another type of legal relations arose. Many cities were granted community statehood and ceased to be a State unto themselves. However, their inhabitants remained united in local interests and their assembly was called 'municipium'. When, after the social war, the whole of Italy was granted full citizenship, the local councils survived, that is, each city formed a kind of corporation for local interests.

According to Bres, Malta immediately became a federated or united city (foederata civitas) with the right to issue its own money, send representatives to Rome, govern itself with its own laws and with other privileges. It is true that Malta did have its own coins with the words Melitaion and Gayliton on them and there was a reported case around 70 BC where Malta sent representatives to Rome to complain about Verres (see above). However, this did not mean that Malta had the status of 'federated city', as that Latin term implied a mutual binding agreement with specific conditions. There is no proof that Malta had such status. It is believed that the Romans simply wanted to treat the Maltese well.

After eliminating the mercenary soldiers and with peace finally reigning in the whole Mediterranean, the Romans decided that the Maltese archipelago should be given the status of a free city with internal autonomy, for as long as it pleased the Romans.

The Government of Municipalities

The form of government in the municipalities was very similar to that of Rome. Under the name of curia, there was a senate, to which belonged the administration of the city. Under the name of decurioni or curiali were the patricians, and last were the plebs. Some were decurioni by birth and others became such by nomination, which was possible only after turning eighteen years of age.

The names of the decurioni were written in an album. At the top of the list came the honorary members (patroni), of whom there were two types: first those who were exempt from active service due to their high dignity, and second the persons of high standing not belonging to the Curia, but whom the senate introduced through its own vanity or through the aggregate membership. The decurioni in office were similarly distinguished in grades, that is, of those who were veteran officials by virtue of their grade, of those of the same grade by virtue of their seniority, and of those who had not yet exercised any office by virtue of seniority in the curia. One did not ascend to the supreme dignity of honorary member except gradually and on publicly recognised merit.

Roman Law - Influences and Modifications

The new State constitution, the study of philosophy applied to jurisprudence, which gave birth to the concept of 'natural law' that is common to all humanity and all ages, Christianity initially persecuted, later triumphant and finally becoming the religion of the Roman Empire, all left their mark on Roman Law and caused it to reform itself, since wherever society changes the laws cannot stay stationary.

All these influences resulted in numerous modifications: the re-emergence of the domestic morality, the encouragement of fertile marriages, the state regulation of the emancipated, their participation in citizenship rights, the succession rights of the children of the emancipated side by side with those of the non-emancipated and that of the mothers and relatives in the female line, the recognition of natural obligations, the respect of the wishes of testators where equity and good faith require it.

Codification of Roman Law

Fearing that Constantine in order to favour Christianity might get rid of all the laws passed by his predecessors, two jurists, Gregory and Hermogenes, pulled together the imperial enactments, probably from Hadrian to Diocletian, creating two codes which became known as the Gregorian and Hermogenian Codes - a private work without legislative authority.

Theodosius II, taking advantage of the works of Gregory and Hermogenes, had them compiled by a commission of jurists under the direction of Antioch, ex-prefect of the praetors, and published them as the Theodosian Code in AD 438. He ordered that from 1 January AD 439 the code had to be considered as the only source of imperial law in the East. Valentinian III in the same year gave it legislative force in the West.

The Theodosian Code is divided in sixteen books, and each book is subdivided into titles, in which the enactments of the Christian emperors are listed in chronological order. The code included all laws, private and public, civil and criminal, lay and ecclesistic.

Roman Law in Malta

While, generally speaking, the law existing in the Roman provinces prior to the conquest would have been respected, with the locals being considered foreigners incapable of many civil acts and unable to own provincial land, it could not be asserted, without any special evidence, that Malta would have continued to govern itself with its own laws during the Republican era or as a Roman municipality under the Empire.

First of all, when the island was conquered for the Republic, the efficacy of the ius gentium, which Caius defined as the law established by natural reason in all human beings, equally observed by every nation and accepted by all peoples, had already had an impact on the laws of the Romans.

Second, while on the one hand the status of socii was supposed to grant to the Maltese certain privileges of independence, albeit a sham autonomy, on the other, it had to provide them with a certain participation in the rights of Roman citizens.

Third, almost three centuries of Punic domination should have well rendered obsolete the laws of Greek wisdom, and the Maltese, who backed the politics of the Romans against the Carthaginians, would have had no reason or interest in preferring the laws of Carthage to those of Rome.

Fourth, in the absence of a legislative power on the island, the laws that Rome enacted for the provinces would have necessarily applied to the Maltese. Caius, for example, referring to certain provisions relating to the removal and exemption from guardianship, stated that they were equally observed in Rome and in the provinces.

During the Roman domination, while retaining their role as a "warehouse" for imported and exported goods and as a tourist attraction, Malta and Gozo lost their strategic importance. since for many years there was no other foreign power that could match the Romans in the Mediterranean.

Peace reigned in Malta even during the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar. Cicero wrote that, when war broke out in Macedonia, Egypt, Asia Minor, Spain and Africa, had it not been for his friends who persuaded him to get involved, he would have gone to Malta, as he was not interested in that war. He had changed his mind and fought on Pompey's side against Caesar.

The civil war came to an end in 48 BC in Pharsalia with a victory for Caesar and all those who fought for Pompey expelled from Italy. Cicero quickly befriended Caesar and was allowed to remain. The Roman orator did not think only of himself. Once freed, he intervened on behalf of his Maltese friend Aulus Licinius Aristotle who had fought against Caesar. While of Greek origin, Licinius had lived in Malta for some time and had intervened to defend the rights of the Maltese against Verres in Rome, where he is likely to have met Cicero. In a letter to someone named Rex, Cicero wrote that Licinius was Maltese and an old friend of his, and he would strongly recommend that he be set free.

Introduction of Christianity in Malta

Around 60 AD St Paul was shipwrecked in Malta during his jouney to Rome. St Luke was on the same boat and described in some detail St Paul' stay in Malta in the New Testament (Acts 27:26). St Paul had to spend three whole winter months in Malta as no ships could sail in those months. While the feast of St Paul Shipwreck is celebrated in Malta on 10 February, it is highly likely that the shipwreck occurred in November, as the ship had departed from Crete around the end of October, despite St Paul's advice to the ship's captain not to set sail at that time of the year. No ships sailed between October and March.

st_pauls_journey_to_romeSt Paul's Journey to Rome via Malta

Around March St Paul and his co-travellers resumed their journey on a wheat cargo ship sailing from Alexandria to Rome with stops in Syracuse and Pozzuoli.

St Paul preached Christ's teachings in Malta and introduced christianity to the Maltese islands. According to one publication (but not in St Luke's description), Pubblius, the first Maltese citizen, is said to have adopted the new religionand before leaving the island, St Paul consecrated him bishop.

No doubt many Maltese are likely to have been converted to christianity, particularly those who witnessed St Paul shake off the viper into the fire, heal Pubblius' father and other miracles, although St Luke is slient about how many were converted.

It is true that in Malta St Paul did not encounter wise men and philosophers as he did in the cities of Greece. No matter how uncultured the people in Malta may have been, such that St Luke wrote that initially they thought that Paul was a murderer, then that he was god, when he shook the viper from his arm, it is certain that Paul exploited their credulity to inform them that he was not a god but simply an apostle of God. If one were to believe Paul's words "But we must fall on a certain island" (Acts 27:26) which he uttered to the centurion, they could only mean that God intended him to spread the Good News to the Maltese, thereby introducing the christian faith among them.

According to GA Vassallo (Storia di Malta, 1890), many years had to pass before the christian faith established itself as the religion of the people of the islands. Officially, pagan religion was still being practised in the temples of Apollo, Hercules, Proserpine and Juno at a place called "Tas-Silg" which were open for public worship. Pagan religion was still the sanctioned religion under the laws of Rome. The local authorities could not permit those who converted to christian religion to practise their new religion which was not approved by Rome. It was not until the fourth century that Emperor Constantine gave the Christian Church its freedom in the Roman Empire so that it could preach the message of Christ and build churches and cathedrals, with christian signs and symbols, such as, a fish, a palm, a deer, a peacock and the cross. Such symbols started to appear in various locations on the islands of Malta and Gozo.

Some Italian archeologists, who dug under and around the Church of St Paul Welcomed (San Pawl Milqi) at Burmarrad in Malta, found many christian remains, including stones on which were engraved a fish, a cross, the Greek letter T, the word "Paulos" and a picture of St Paul holding a sword on one side of a stone and the vessel that was shipwrecked on the reverse side.

The Byzantine Empire

With the fall of the western Roman Empire around the fifth century AD, when Vandals and Goths destroyed Rome, Malta passed under the Byzantines - that part of the Eastern Roman Empire with Constantinople created by Emperor Constantine as the "New Rome".

For a few years between 456 and 464 the islands that formed part of Sicily were first invaded by Genseric, king of the Vandals from 427-477 AD, who reigned in North Africa, and later by the Goths. There is no proof of what the Maltese islands went through during this period.

Very little is known about the four centuries of Byzantine period in Malta. What is known is that the Maltese continued to pay taxes and worked hard in ceramics work, which was apparently the only industry at that time.

The destiny of strategic islands is often determined by the existence of wars. in 533 AD the situation in the Maltese archipelago ironically started to improve, when fighting broke out and Emperor Justinian decided to send his imperial army, consisting of 500 transport ships, 92 sailing ships and 3,000 sailors. Thousands more soldiers including Lombards had to join them under the high command of Belisarius (AD 505(?)- 565), the last great general of Imperial Rome.

Rising from obscure beginnings, Belisarius became the right-hand man of the Emperor Justinian I in his 6th century bid to reconquer the lost western provinces of the Roman Empire. In an epic sequence of campaigns, Belisarius destroyed the Vandal kingdom in North Africa and the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy, but ultimately, the exhausted resources of the weakened empire and intrigues of the imperial court in Constantinople resulted in the undoing of the man and much of his work.

Belisarius and his men left from Caucana on the west coast of Sicily, where they sourced food, horses and other provisions, and passed through the islands of Malta and Gozo. While they may have stopped in Malta for a short while, they soon left as they found favourable winds that took them to the shores of Tunisia in North Africa.

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