MALTA DIARY: The Roman burial rituals – elaborate and extensive in catacombs in Malta
The Carthaginians ruled Malta before they were ousted by the Romans in about 250 BC during the Punic Wars. There are strong reasons to believe the Carthaginian General Hannibal (the man who led the elephants over the Alps to attack the Roman Empire) was actually born in Malta.
The islands fell under Roman rule and were declared a ‘municipium’, that is a free town. Their six hundred year rule, before the collapse and disintegration of the Roman Empire in the 4th Century AD, had various significant features but they also left behind a number of unique Roman remains.
Perhaps the most significant was the shipwreck of Paul of Tarsus (later declared the Martyr St Paul) estimated to have taken place in about 60 AD, where he converted the islands to Christianity while on his way to Rome to attend trial.
In time, the 10th February was declared as the date for the commemoration of his arrival, celebrated with much pomp and circumstance in the capital city Valletta by the Parish of St Paul’s Shipwreck, a gem of a church in the capital city.
History 2,000 years ago being history, some contend this to be nearer the date when he actually left Malta to continue his travels to Rome and that he was probably washed ashore sometime in November. Still, who is to quibble?
The 600-year sojourn of the Romans in the islands are still very much manifest today in various important remains, mostly centred around the old Maltese capital city Mdina, which they named ‘Melite’ (thought to have originated from the Greek word for honey), but later renamed Mdina by the Arabs after their own city of Medina today in Saudi Arabia, second importance to Mecca.
On the outskirts of Mdina are two complex burial chambers, catacombs, as Roman Law prohibited burials to take place inside a city. These are the St Paul’s Catacombs and the St Augustine Catacombs.
Malta seems to have prospered under the Romans in a lengthy period of relative peace and began to be mentioned in various Roman documents. The Roman Senator and orator Cicero commented on the embellishment of the Temple of Juno (found near Marsaxlokk and the site of a former Phoenician brothel for sailors) and the extravagance of the Roman Governor at the time!
In the late 19th Century the ‘Domus Romana’ was excavated near Mdina, a lavish villa containing floor mosaics and marble statues, some depicting the reigning imperial family.
Nearby a complex of Roman baths was also excavated, compete with an underground network of pipes carrying hot water and steam to warm the waters in the baths.
The catacombs were discovered in Rabat (another Arabic name), then a stretch of agricultural land on the outskirts of Mdina but today a thriving town of its own. These included a number of Jewish menorah tablets signifying clearly that Jewish people were also interred there.
Another significant site was discovered in Birzebbuga (another Arabic name meaning a well of olives) which included an enormous water cistern of ten cubic metres and an olive crusher, providing the precious olive oil so much esteemed at the time.
Last Sunday (12th February), Heritage Malta commemorated the lengthy and elaborate funeral rituals during Roman times, an enactment open to the public.
These were explained in detail by the St Paul’s Catacombs Curator, David Cardona who estimated that over 10,000 people had been buried in these catacombs.
The lengthy ritual included a person making a eulogy speech, followed by musicians, then followed by paid wailers who cried and wailed in anguish over the body. A mimer also imitated the life form and achievements of the deceased person followed by slaves who had been released from slavery as an act of benevolence following the person’s death. Others carried funeral masks while bringing up the rear would be the funeral bier bearing the body of the deceased person, surrounded by family and relatives.
A funeral meal which started in Punic times and continued in the Roman tradition was held, with a meal on the day of the funeral, as well as on the following nine days during which visits to the catacombs were held. A further meal on the anniversary of the death was held as well as another meal on the day commemorating the dead known as ‘Mortem’, an event known as the Roman ‘parentalia’ – today reflected by All Souls Day in November although in Roman times this was between the 13th and 21st February.
The meal was held on tables carved out of stone in the catacombs known as ‘agape’. David Cardona said these are now unique because they do not exist anywhere else in the Mediterranean region.
The tables were placed in a particular place in the catacombs, generally somewhere near the entrance, tables found in pairs and situated near the entrance probably to enable a better lighting effect but also to try and avoid the smells of decaying corpses. The meal would normally be among those family members who were close to the deceased person. Space was limited and the persons attending had to lie on their side, on their elbow, and eat with one hand.
Right, this is the age and era of technology, but the past remains an enormous fascination – and Malta undoubtedly has a rich past!