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Ibiza’s History - Part V: Ibiza in Roman Times

By Emily Kaufman

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Published in Ibicasa Magazine on 15/08/2018

As Rome extended its hegemony over the Mediterranean, Ibiza drifted inexorably into its orbit. The Pax Romana that followed Rome’s victory over Carthage in the Second Punic War left the Balearic Islands as the only territories in the Western Mediterranean still unclaimed by Rome. Mallorca and Menorca retained their local ‘Talayotic’ culture, while Ibiza carried on as a satellite of Carthage with no detectable break in political continuity. Local culture remained thoroughly Punic: Tanit still presided as the island’s chief goddess (in fact, her sanctuary at es Culleram was enlarged after the war); Punic remained the official language; agriculture, salt-mining and commerce flourished; and, most tellingly, Ibiza continued to mint her own coins - evidence of a robust economy. The island’s entire modus vivendi, which for the past 400 years had proved such a good recipe for success, persisted undiminished. Those halcyon days would end, but not without a final blaze of splendour. Let’s start by getting our historical bearings in order to better understand Ibiza’s precarious position during the rise of the Roman Empire.

The Second Punic War started in Iberia, with Ibiza’s proximity bringing her directly into the fray. One of the first acts of war was Scipio’s attempted siege of the island’s citadel in 217 BCE. It was a fruitless folly on the part of the Roman general, who, in his eagerness to capture this Mediterranean jewel, overlooked two self-evident truths: Ibiza had massive walls and they were manned by utterly loyal defenders. After three days Scipio realized that his efforts were in vain, so he turned his attention to the main objective of driving the Carthaginians out of Hispania. After eleven gruelling years, he subjugated the Punic dominions and established Rome as the sole power in Iberia (206 BCE). Four years later, he defeated Hannibal at Zama (202 BCE), decisively winning the war but sparing the city of Carthage itself.  

Where did these upheavals leave Ibiza in the new geopolitical map? In an ambiguous, but not altogether unfavourable position. Several facts come to bear: The island had successfully withstood attack and remained proudly unconquered by Rome. Carthage was also still unconquered and, though crushed militarily, quickly rebounded economically. Hence, with the lifeline between Ibiza and her alma mater intact, the island’s pre-war operating system automatically rebooted. And yet, things were not really the same… in fact, they were better. As Roman ships plied the surrounding seascape and maritime traffic increased, new opportunities for trade and innovation multiplied. Ibiza was a free agent open to all comers, and it was swept along in an impressive economic upswing.
Then, war came again. The third and final Punic War was short and brutal, starting in 149 BCE with Rome’s unprovoked invasion of North Africa, and ending three years later with the total destruction of Carthage. Now Ibiza was alone. Her alma mater had been razed to the ground, its inhabitants variously starved, killed or sold into slavery. What would be the fate of the world’s only remaining Punic city, namely Ibiza? First, brief prosperity; then, prolonged misery. As an unconquered territory, she was initially treated with respect. Rome was well aware of the island’s great potential and made every effort to cultivate its lucrative commerce. Ibiza eventually came under Roman rule, as summarized by archaeologists Benjamí Costa and Jordi Fernández: “At an unknown date, Ibiza became a federated city of Rome. This meant submission to the Roman state in exchange for relative internal autonomy and the gradual breaking up of the Punic-Ebusitan socio-economic structures to become part of the Roman ones.” Roman technology brought advances in several areas, and, for roughly a century Ibiza continued to flourish economically. Agriculture was one of the sectors that benefited enormously from the innovations, especially in the extraction of olive oil. This laborious process was streamlined by the introduction of huge stone mills that performed the preliminary task of separating the flesh of the fruit from the pit. The pulp was then placed in a press with counterweights designed to squeeze out the maximum amount of oil. The grinding of grain into flour was also improved by the use of biconical millstones. Roman agrarian reform invariably improved a region’s irrigation systems, and Ibiza would have been no exception in this regard. Her known exports in this period were wine, olive oil, salt and honey, with dried figs and raisins almost certainly completing the list. 

In the realm of fishing both capture and processing methods were upgraded, making Ibiza an important piscatorial centre. Almadraba fishing, a system that deployed an elaborate maze of underwater nets – already in use in Punic times – was carried over and intensified in the Roman period. Whole schools of tuna and other large prey were channelled through the nets right to the fishing boats. Because fish stocks in the ancient Mediterranean were so plentiful, the entirety of each catch was not needed. Surplus fish were kept in aquatic enclosures, one of which was located near Santa Eulària. Here garum (fish sauce) and salazón (salt fish) were processed for local consumption as well as export. A third sector that flourished during the early Roman period was the pottery industry. With such abundant harvests from land and sea, more and more containers were needed to ship the produce to distant markets. Amphorae, antiquity’s packing vessels par excellence, were manufactured in greater volume, as were kitchen and tableware. Other ceramic goods produced locally were small pots and jars for cosmetics, especially perfumed oils, decorative vases and funerary urns for the ashes of the dead.
This economic Golden Age lasted roughly from 25 BCE to AD 75, but then the honeymoon abruptly ended. In AD 74, Emperor Vespasian granted Latin Right to all Iberian territories still not under direct Roman jurisprudence. This meant that Ibiza became a municipium of Rome rather than an autonomous though allied city. It soon became an afterthought due to the vast array of new lands that Rome was acquiring. The island faded into oblivion, or, as Benjamí Costa puts it, “Ibiza died of normality.” Rome’s vast trade networks favoured large suppliers rather than small purveyors. Ibiza simply could not compete with the new market conditions, a situation comparable to today’s battle between corner shops and large-scale retailers. One sign of the downturn was that the island’s larger fincas were abandoned toward the end of the first century AD. Agriculture dwindled to mere self-sufficiency by single-family units, often on let land. Without the divine protection of Tanit, whose sanctuary at es Culleram had ominously caved in a century earlier, Ibiza began her descent into a dark and vulnerable chapter of its history. •

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