Ibiza’s History - Part VI: Dark Centuries after Rome
By Emily Kaufman
When Rome fell, the last embers of Classical Antiquity were extinguished. As the Empire broke up, its outlying lands were overrun by barbarians pressing in from the north and east. Despite Rome’s desperate attempts to retain control its western territories – Spain and the Balearics among them – were lost in the course of the 5th century. The breakdown of imperial rule was reflected in the Pitiuses by the sudden abandonment of villas and settlements as oligarchs, soldiers, civil servants and attending personnel were recalled to Rome. One testimonial of the exodus exists at Can Blai in Formentera, where a castellum (a type of Roman fortification) was deserted before it was finished. Exactly when the Romans left Ibiza is unknown, but we can get a rough idea from events on the mainland where Germanic tribes including the Vandals and the Visigoths roved restlessly throughout Hispania as Roman power disintegrated.
The Vandals, having been pushed out of their Germanic lands by the Huns, began scavenging for territory on the peninsula in 409. As they shifted from place to place, they pillaged and plundered, even raiding the Balearic Islands in 425. The Visigoths chased the Vandals out of Spain into North Africa where they established a new seat of power at Carthage. From there they fanned out to conquer the Western Mediterranean islands of Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Malta and the Balearics. Ibiza was seized by the Vandals in 455 - four months after they had famously sacked Rome.
Their occupation lasted only 80 years, yet it comprised a distinct part of the island’s historical picture, creating in Ibiza a unique cultural overlay. The relevance of the barbarian invasions is that they marked the end of Classical Antiquity and the beginning of Medieval Europe. On the one hand the invaders disrupted Roman civilization; on the other hand they facilitated its continuity by imitating key elements of Roman culture, thus perpetuating the Latin legacy. Language, law, religion and the seeds of feudalism are some of the Roman constructs carried forward by the Germanic tribes. The Vandals, after being maligned by historians for centuries, have recently been rehabilitated in the light of archaeological evidence. They are now given credit for maintaining high volumes of trade and export in North Africa and keeping the economy of the region afloat. During this time Ibiza continued to function as an active port-of-call in the trade networks linking North Africa with the western Mediterranean, but the settlements abandoned by the Romans would remain vacant throughout Vandal rule.
However, the Vandal period was not a complete non-event.
The Arian Controversy, one of Late Antiquity’s most vicious religious disputes, brought a bit of Ibiza into the historical record. Through contact with the Roman world the Vandals had been converted to Christianity. They were of the Christian sect known as Arians, which followed the teachings of Arius. The other main branch of early Christianity was the Nicene Trinitarians, who adhered to the dogma established by the Nicene Council in 325. The difference between these two doctrines was so obscure as to be incomprehensible to the majority of followers on either side. Stated very simply: Arians worshipped Jesus as the Son of God, but did not believe him to be of the same substance as God. Trinitarians claimed that Jesus and God were of the same substance and thus coeternal. Interestingly, Emperor Constantine (272-337), who had legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, was baptized on his deathbed by an Arian bishop. Hence, the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople leaned toward Arianism for several decades, while the Western Empire based in Rome was Trinitarian (thus the name Roman Catholics).
Meanwhile, in North Africa, the Vandals remained vehemently Arian - persecuting Catholics, confiscating Church property and exiling recalcitrant bishops. In a provocative move, the Vandal king Huneric summoned bishops from across his kingdom to discuss the pros and cons of Arianism vs. Catholicism. The year was 483, and among the prelates who attended the synod was the Catholic Bishop Ophelius of Ibiza. At the end of the debate, the Balearic bishops refused to foreswear their Catholic faith and were martyred on the spot. This aggression blatantly violated a pact drawn up eight years earlier between the Byzantine Emperor Zeno and the Vandal King Genseric. The pact stated that Vandal domains would be respected as long as Catholics living within them were allowed to worship in peace. Huneric’s violent breach of the agreement was temporarily overlooked… but it was not forgotten.Fifty years later the zealous Emperor Justinian I came to power in Byzantium (the surviving eastern branch of the Roman Empire).
He was determined to re-conquer the Empire’s former western domains and bring back the one true faith, i.e. Catholicism. In 534 his army defeated the Vandals in North Africa, and the following year he took the Balearics and the rest of the Vandal islands. Ibiza became part of Byzantium, but there was no great change in island life. A slight upturn in demographic and economic activity is evidenced as abandoned dwellings were rebuilt on the remains of old ruins, and new settlements came into existence. Cattle-breeding seems to have taken precedence over agriculture, while in the ceramic sector we see an important uptick in production with a growing emphasis on Christian motifs. Costa and Fernández (authors of the Ibiza Archeology Museum Guide) describe Ibiza’s Byzantine ceramics as “richly decorated with incised and printed patterns”.
The island was endowed with its own Catholic bishopric and a small corps of civil servants. Beyond that one can only imagine that life was arduous and lean… a bare thread on the medieval loom. The Byzantine period eventually fizzled out. Nobody knows exactly when. Costa and Fernández inform us that, “Archaeological testimonies end in the 7th century; the following centuries up to the Islamic conquest of 902 are completely unknown.” In the interim people apparently lived as best they could with no government, no taxes and no war. Join us next time as we explore the revitalization of culture that will be ushered in by the Moors.