The Roman period is of great importance in the Islands’ history. It saw the introduction of Christianity to the Islands and wedded Malta’s future to fortunes of the European continent.
Before the Romans took Malta, they had to subdue their enemy, the Carthaginians (a western Mediterranean branch of the Phoenicians). The Carthaginians were a threat to the emerging, and later supreme, Roman empire. During a series of wars, known as the Punic Wars, between 264 – 146 B.C, the Romans took control of Malta. The Islands became a free municipium, or free town.
Malta seems to have prospered under the Romans. The Islands begin to be mentioned in written records. The Roman senator and orator Cicero commented on the importance of the Temple of Juno on Melita, and on the extravagant behaviour of the Roman governor, based in Sicily. St. Paul’s shipwreck here in A.D. 60 is described in the Bible. Although the villas, temples and baths found here indicate a life of relative stability and well being, the Islands remained in effect an outpost of Sicily.
In the late 19th century, a 1st century B.C. Roman house, known today as the ‘Domus Romana‘ (or Roman Villa), was found just outside Mdina and Rabat. It contains some fine floor mosaics and was furnished with marble statues, some depicting the reigning imperial family.
Rabat is home to two sets of catacombs which were in use throughout the Roman period on Malta: St. Agatha’s, with its frescoes; and St. Paul’s catacombs, where the Apostle is said to have stayed. The Romans here appear to have tolerated religious diversity. St. Paul’s Catacombs, which date to the 4th and 5th centuries, have several Jewish menorah symbols carved in the stone.
Another key Roman site was found near Birżebbuġa, in south-east Malta. Here an enormous cistern some ten cubic metres in volume was discovered. As at other Roman settlements, finds also included an olive-crusher. The frequent occurrence of such implements shows that oil production on Malta was considerable during Roman times.
Some oil lamps exhibited at the Roman Villa bear Christian symbols such as the initial letters of Christ in Greek.
After the division of the Roman empire at the end of the 4th century, the Maltese Islands were left almost in obscurity during the Bzyantine Period, under the jurisdiction of the Roman Empire of the East, based in Constantinople. The Byzantine period lasted for another 375 years until North African Berbers, spearheading the expansion of Islam, took over the islands in 870 AD.
See: St. Paul in Malta