Why The Roman Military Conquered the Balearic Islands

Strategically located between Italy and Spain, the Balearic Islands were an essential base for Roman maritime control of the Western Mediterranean and home of the famous Balearic slingers.

Jun 4, 2021By Tatiana Valente, Archaeologist, Field Archaeologist, and Researcher
balearic slinger illustration harbor of sanitja
Balearic Slinger by Johnny Shumate, 2016; with the Harbor of Sanitja (Menorca, Balearic Islands)


Located 200 kilometers east of the Spanish coast, the Balearic Islands are a Mediterranean archipelago whose largest islands – Mallorca, Menorca, Eivissa, and Formentera – have been inhabited since prehistoric times. In the 1st millennium BC, they were under the trading spheres of both Greeks and Phoenicians/Punics, with settlements established in Eivissa. Later on, when Carthaginians and Romans opposed each other in the Punic Wars, local populations could not escape the violence. The locals served as mercenary slingers in the Carthaginian army, for which they were famous. With the fall of Carthage, the Romans quickly perceived the islands’ location as strategic for their economic, political, and military control of the area. Thus, their conquest was inevitable. 


The Balearic Islands During The Bronze Age: The Talaiotic Culture

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Talaiotic settlement of Torre d’en Gaumés by Menorca Talayotica, via Apunt, la guia de Menorca


By the mid-2nd Millenium BC, Mallorca and Menorca had developed vibrant cultures characterized by emblematic and monumental structures. Several large villages, built with cyclopic stones, exhibited ‘talaiots:’ structures with communal, defensive, and lookout purposes; and hypogea (underground chambers) for the burial of their dead. In Menorca, the ‘taulas’ – thought to have religious and astronomical purposes – and  ‘navetas’ tombs are two other singular structures found in Talaiotic culture


The islands’ settlement organization suggests that inter-community interactions were significant and sustained by a kinship social structure. Social homogeneity seems to have been a critical factor as well, with each settlement/community organized to manage its territory and economic activities effectively. Nevertheless, social complexity is observed in their burial places, where prestigious objects associated with certain individuals suggest different social ranks. 


Their economies were based primarily on the herding of cattle, sheep, and goats, while agriculture was considerably less significant. The lack of favorable agricultural conditions may have helped agglomerate Mallorca’s and Menora’s populations into large settlements, where the social and territorial organization was pivotal. Foreign trade with Greek and Phoenician/Punic colonies existed but was not regular, since they didn’t have much that could be of economic interest. 


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However, the island on Eivissa experienced the complete opposite. Phoenician/Punic settlements have been established there since the 7th century BC, and the island became a booming economic center, producing and redistributing numerous goods. After the decline of the Phoenician civilization, Eivissa fell under the political sphere of Carthage. When the Punic Wars began, it took direct control of the recruitment of Balearic mercenaries from Mallorca and Menorca. 


Balearic Mercenaries 

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Balearic Slinger by Johnny Shumate, 2016, via Ancient History Encyclopedia


The Balearics were recorded as excellent slingers; they were trained in this skill until it became second nature. Up until today, Balearics still practice this art and associate it with herding practices, probably much like Prehistoric and Classical times.


According to both historical and archaeological records, Balearic slingers used simple hand slings made of a variety of woven materials and leather, with two strings connected to a pouch where the projectile was held. One of the strings had a loop or knot to keep it from sliding from the hand, while the other was left free to facilitate the release. The projectiles could be simple smooth stones, ovoid biconical clay, or cast lead bullets. The throwing technique would vary among users, distances, and types of targets. Nevertheless, an expert slinger was expected to make seven shots per minute and reach a distance of approximately 300 yards (274 meters), if not more. In combat, these slingers in combat would create a deadly front against the enemy. 


However, this skill wasn’t limited to the Balearic Islands. Archaeological studies show that the sling might have first appeared between 12,000 and 8,000 BC. It was a weapon as much used as the bow in Mediterranean Neolithic cultures, and the use of slingers as military forces is attested in ancient Egypt, Assyria, Persia, and Rome. Also known as the “shepherd’s bow,” the sling was a common weapon in Central Asia as well, and even in South America, where Incas and Aztecs are said to have attacked the Spanish conquistadores with it. Up until the 20th century, in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, it was a recurrent weapon for crop and livestock protection, hunting, fortress defense, and infantry/cavalry attack. 


The Punic Wars And Western Shifts Of Power

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Punic and Roman spheres of influence by the time of the Second Punic War, via Encyclopedia Britannica


Given the economic and political situations of the Balearic Islands at the time of the Punic Wars, it is not difficult to understand why local populations were dragged into it, whether by direct Punic allegiance or because of their military skills.  


Three Punic Wars opposed Carthage and Rome. The first broke out in Sicily, in 264 BC, due to Rome’s expansionist pretensions. Up until then, Carthage had been the dominant power in the Western Mediterranean. When Rome decided to expand to Sicily, fights immediately broke out, as well as in Corsica, Sardinia, and North Africa. Carthage ended up having to pay reparations, and Sicily was annexed to Rome. 


Carthage, unable to pay their mercenaries who fought in the First Punic War, was faced with deadly mutinies from the soldiers of their dependent territories. For several years, Carthage fought these rebellions until their suppression in 237 BC. However, when they decided to reoccupy Sardinia after these internal conflicts, Rome saw it as an act of war and occupied Sardinia and Corsica themselves. However, not much was done as Rome was most concerned with conflicts happening further east. 


Years later, in 219 BC, when Carthage had risen from their internal struggles, they decided to retaliate against the Romans by attacking the city of Saguntum, in modern-day Valencia, which was known to be pro-Roman. The year after, Rome sent a declaration of war. The stage was set for the Second Punic War.


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Balearic slingers represented in Trajan’s Column by Jon C., via University of St Andrews


An attack on Italy had been in preparation for years by the Carthaginian general Hannibal. It was expected that their victory over Rome would be decisive and quick. However, it was not. The conflict lasted for 17 years and ended up stripping Carthage of all its overseas provinces. It was during this time that the Balearic slingers, serving in the Carthaginian army, saw their economic and political ambitions fall to the ground and become completely overshadowed by Roman rule.  


The Fall Of Carthage And Republican Crisis

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Cypriot sling lead bullets, via The Met Museum, New York


By the end of the Second Punic War, Rome had shifted its expansionist attention to the territories of Hispania. Determined to colonize and control the former Carthaginian provinces and local allies, Rome launched several incursions on Hispania to completely seize its power. As history tells us, its conquest would be brutally long – almost two centuries. In the meantime, the Balearic Islands, strategically close to Hispania, would be a perfect bridge between Italy and its prize. 


When Carthage lost its overseas provinces, the Balearic Islands seemed to have become completely free of any imposing power. Although Talaiotic islanders had never been conquered before, they were under the political and economic sphere of the Carthaginians. In Eivissa, the Punics who were settled there seemed to have experienced a moment of complete independence. This, however, would change in 123 BC when Rome decided to conquer the islands. 


With the complete destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War, Rome was free to continue expanding towards Hispania and North Africa. These expansions were, however, more often instigated by personal gains rather than real political decisions, which seems to have been the case for the Balearic Islands.


Ancient Roman Families: Power Struggles And Triumph Of Quintus Caecilius Metellus

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Roman ruins of Pollentia, founded in 70 BC on the island of Mallorca, via SeeMallorca


At the time of the Roman Republic, power was exerted by the senate, which in turn was represented by some of the most prominent families of Rome. By the mid-2nd century BC, one of these families, the Gracchus, attempted to implement a series of political, economic, and military reforms. However, these reforms weren’t welcomed by all of the prominent Roman families, particularly those with conflicting economic interests. 


In 124 BC, Gaius Gracchus became a tribune of Rome and tried to impose a series of reforms. Some of these limited the distribution of conquered land to the senators, distributing the remainder to poorer citizens. Although this might seem to be the most sensible choice, the distribution reforms angered and weakened the senate, which saw its full ownership of land as a hereditary right. The Metellus family, which included Quintus Caecilius Metellus, the nominated consul in 123 BC, was among the few who supported Gaius Gracchus’ reforms. 


Quintus Metellus was responsible for conquering the Balearic Islands, allegedly defending them from an outbreak of piracy. However, it seems that he was mainly defending territorial and economic interests on behalf of his and Gracchus’ clients in Hispania. Although such an action would require senate approval, they may have prompted it so that Gracchus couldn’t exploit the situation for its own political benefit. 


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Type of denarius found in the military camp of Sanitja (Menorca) which helped suggest the site was founded by Q.C. Metellus, the Balearicus, via Ancient Coin Gallery


The conquest of the islands seems to have been quick and simple. From the records obtained, when the fleet led by Quintus Caecilius Metellus reached the islands, a naval confrontation began against the pirates. Some Balearic slingers had apparently sided with the pirates. When the fleet was able to close upon the pirates, it is said that these dispersed and fled to the hills. Metellus seized the islands and began a manhunt where 5000 men were said to have been slaughtered. This number, however, may be exaggerated. Quintus Caecilius Metellus remained in the islands for approximately two years, exerting his power over the Talaiotics, building military forts, and founding several cities. In 121 BC, he returned to Rome, where he claimed his triumph and gained his epithet, “Balearicus.”  


The Piracy Excuse To Conquer The Balearic Islands

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Second century AD relief representing roman supremacy over piracy, photographed by Dea/Scala, via National Geographic


Although the Romans conquered the Balearic Islands in the name of protecting against piracy, their reasoning was a bit faulty. Piracy, in fact, had been common throughout the Mediterranean since the beginning of time and was something which the Romans were quite accustomed to. So why take such dramatic actions? Were the Balearics really engaged in such terrible acts of piracy that a Roman army needed to intervene?


Both historical and archaeological sources seem to indicate that the islanders were quite peaceful toward outsiders and not likely to be interested in acts of piracy. It is possible that some may have favored pirate-like actions or served as mercenaries, as seen with the naval attack on the islands by Metellus, but the islanders weren’t pirates themselves. 


Records inform us that at the time, pirates were causing unrest in Hispania Citerior and Ulterior. These were likely pirates with bases in the coasts of Sardinia and Southern Gaul. When Romans tightened the control over these territories, they were pushed to southern bases, particularly to the Balearic Islands. Off the continental coast, with a population of islanders who wouldn’t oppose their presence and a convenient location between Italy and Spain, the Balearic harbors were a perfect hide-out to launch their piracy attacks. This might have created considerable instability for the economic trade between Italy and their Spanish clients and affected the fluid movement of troops and goods to support the expansionist pretensions of Rome in Hispania.  


The Balearic Islands And Their Strategic Location

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Harbor of Sanitja (Menorca, Balearic Islands), the Roman military fort was located on the right side of the harbor, while the city of Sanisera was located on the left, via Menorca Diferente


Before the Roman conquest, the Balearic islanders seem to have kept their social and cultural features intact despite their communication with surrounding cultures. They had always been a peaceful people, living, trading, and sometimes allying with neighbors when there were shared interests. However, the islanders were never belligerent people and were even less interested in piracy.


The conquest of the Balearics seems to thus have been purely strategic for the Romans, particularly because of its location. Although freeing the area from any pirates would have accelerated the pacification of Transalpine Gaul and Sardinia, the major benefit of holding the islands was facilitating the maritime traffic between Italy and Spain. 


As expected by the Romans, after the initial confrontation with the pirates, the Balearics presented no opposition to Roman dominium. Quintus Caecilius Metellus immediately ordered the foundation of several towns in Mallorca and Menorca, which likely had military functions. This effectively “Romanized” the area and prevented any  resurgence of piracy. 


This idea can be defended upon recent excavations on the island of Menorca at a site called Sanitja. Located in the northernmost harbor of the island, a Roman military camp and city were founded at this time. At the military fort, evidence for the permanent station of a small garrison exists, which includes the local Balearic slingers. The fort was active until 45 BC, being used to control and patrol the maritime networks that passed through the area and as a training camp for the Balearic slingers, after which their conquest became a constant presence as auxiliaries in the Roman army. When the fort was dissolved, the nearby town continued to thrive up to the 7th century AD.

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By Tatiana ValenteArchaeologist, Field Archaeologist, and Researcher Tatiana is an archaeologist and researcher in Classical and Middle Eastern History, graduated at Porto University (Portugal). Her main lines of research are on social, economic and political relationships, with a focus on the ceramic and metal artefacts found on excavations. She is also fascinated by religious and military viewpoints of ancient societies. She believes that History must be understood, and not simply observed through its remnants. Because history tends to repeat itself, knowledge about the past can allow us to better understand our present, and thus prepare us for the future.