Sunday, September 18, 2016

Mallorca's Roman Link To Catalonia

One day, two thousand, one hundred and thirty-nine years ago, the people of Mallorca woke up and discovered that the island had been occupied by the Romans. The mission under Quinto Cecilio Metello had been ordered by the Roman senate, and so in 123BC Mallorca entered its Roman era.

When actually in 123BC did this occupation occur? As we now move beyond the middle of September, it is feasible that it happened a few days ago 2,139 years in the past. Bearing in mind that calendars were not quite as they are now, it has nevertheless been suggested that the best time for sailing to Mallorca from Rome was considered to have been between the end of July and the middle of September. Perhaps somehow, someone can establish that it was 12 September, and so this would give a further reason to retain that date as Mallorca Day.

The arrival of the Romans wouldn't have come as a complete surprise to the Talayotic period Mallorcans. It wasn't as though there wasn't contact prior to 123BC. Indeed, it might be asked why it took the Romans so long to formally take the island (and Menorca) over. They had long taken charge of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and had established themselves on the Iberian peninsula around one hundred years previously.

There were perhaps two principal reasons. The Gymnesian islands of Mallorca and Menorca don't appear to have been looked upon as having had much going for them. What comparatively little there was wouldn't have equated to a great deal in terms of any fiscal returns that the Romans (or anyone else) might have wished for. Mallorca was poor, so much so that it isn't totally clear how payments were ever made to the Ibizans, who operated the economic powerhouse in the archipelago back in those days.

Trade there most certainly was, though, between Ibiza and Mallorca, even if it was mostly one way. Pigs were one source of export, there was also wine and there were mules, but otherwise it has been suggested that remuneration was made through the export of men, and the slingshot warriors of the island in particular, whose skills were certainly highly prized.

The trade with Ibiza had existed for centuries before the Romans took over. A principal Punic site in Mallorca is the islet of Na Guardis near Colonia Sant Jordi which operated as a type of factory, and it dates from around the start of the fourth century BC. But evidence from Mallorca's Talayotic sites indicates that the trade was older, at least two centuries older.

Ibiza had come under the control of the Phoenicians when a port was established in 654BC. It was later to be under Carthage, the former Phoenician city state (Rome's name for Carthaginians was Poeni, which was derived from Poenici, an earlier form of Punici and so a reference to the founding of Carthage by Phoenician settlers). The extent of Phoenician-Carthaginian influence on Mallorca, however, has been somewhat exaggerated. There was some, but the principal link was the trading one with Punic Ibiza.

A second reason, therefore, for hypothesising why the Romans were as late as they were in colonising Mallorca probably has to do with the fact that Carthage didn't fall until 146BC. With this, the Romans established dominance in the region and acquired far greater naval skills. There was no one to oppose them taking over Mallorca, though in truth there never really had been.

There was by 123BC a great deal of strategic sense in having control of the Gymnesian islands. (Ibiza was federated to Rome.) There was also the convenience of having a stopping point on the way to Hispania and to Hispania Citerior in particular. This was the eastern part of modern Spain, with the Roman administration centred on Tarragona in Catalonia. In 123BC, for administrative purposes, Mallorca came under the orbit of Hispania Citerior. It was therefore run from Catalonia.

In all the discussion of Roman times in Mallorca and of events centuries later with the Catalan invasion of the thirteenth century and indeed today's Catalan-oriented politics, it is easy to overlook that 2,139 years ago Mallorca not only became Roman it also became, if only administratively, a part of what was to become Catalonia.

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