History Files

European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Early Balearic Islands
Incorporating the Chalcolithic, Naviform Culture / Pre-Talaiotic (c.1500-850 BC / Late Bronze Age), Talaiotic / Talavotic Culture (c.900-550 BC / Early Iron Age), & Post-Talaiotic Culture (c.550-123 BC / Late Iron Age)

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. The task of cataloguing the vast range of human cultures which emerged from Africa and the Near East right up until human expansion reached the Americas is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

Early Iberia formed the south-western peninsula of Europe and comprises the modern countries of Portugal and Spain, plus the principality of Andorra and the British crown colony of Gibraltar. The peninsula's role in human development played a notable role in the first millennium BC, even before the coming of imperial ambitions which reached its southern and eastern shores.

Just off that eastern coast lie the Balearic Islands (Islas Baleares to the Spanish). Today they form one of the Spanish provinces, an autonomous community which comprises the islands of the Balearic archipelago and which have their capital at the former Roman city of Palma.

This archipelago comprises two groups of islands and numerous islets. The first set is known as the Gimnesias Islands (or 'Gymniastics'), consisting of Majorca (Balearis Major to the Romans, or Mallorca to today's Spanish), Minorca (Balearis Minor or Menorca), Cabrera, and some nearby islets such as Dragonera, Conejera, Aire Island, and the privately-owned Colom island. The second set is the Pitiusas Islands, consisting of Ibiza (from the Roman Esebus) and Formentera, together with those islets which surround them such as Espardell, and the privately-owned Espalmador.

The origins of the name 'Baleares' is contested. One school of opinion links it to the Greek word 'ballein', meaning 'to launch', but it was the Greeks who came up with the name Gimnesias to refer to the gymnastics of Majorca and Minorca, and Pitiusas for Ibiza and Fomentera. In fact it was the Carthaginians who used 'Baleares', and the Romans copied them.

The actual name comes from the Punic (Carthaginian), from the word 'ba'le' (singular) or 'ba'le' (plural) plus 'yaroh', a combined word which means 'those who throw stones', referring to slingers. The islanders were well-known for their slinging skills which were mentioned by a number of classical authors, including Pliny the Elder and Diodorus Siculus. It even became the direct cause of Roman defensive tactics when attacking the island in 123 BC.

The Naviform culture is known more readily in English-language publications as the Pre-Talaiotic. However, this name is not considered to be especially accurate or useful when it comes to labelling the Late Bronze Age on the islands. All the main islands show evidence of permanent settlement from the third millennium, during the Chalcolithic (copper) period.

The Talaiotic culture is otherwise known as Talavotic. This formed the Early Iron Age on the islands of Majorca and Minorca, and it was during this period that Phoenician settlements were formed, probably via Gadir. The culture's emergence coincided with similar Iberian Iron Age cultures on the mainland, in the form of the Castro and Tartessian.

The Post-Talaiotic forms the Late Iron Age for the islands. This period heralds the arrival of the first exploring Greeks into the western Mediterranean, while the Phoenicians had already been there for some centuries, initially as seasonal traders but later as colonists.

The ruins of Numantia in Iberia

(Information by Trish Wilson, with additional information from Prehistoria de la Península Ibérica, Martin Almagro-Gorbea & M Fernández-Miranda (Fundación Juan March, 1978, in Spanish), from La intervención de Q. Cecilio Metelo sobre las Baleares (123 a 121 a.C.) Condiciones previas y sus consecuencias, Margarita Orfila Pons (Pyrenae, Vol 39, No 2, pp 7-45, 2008, in Spanish), from Spain under the Roman Empire, E S Bourchier (Forgotten Books, 2018), from Bibliotheca Historica, Diodorus Siculus, and from External Links: Lista de pueblos prerromanos de Iberia (in Spanish, Hispanoteca.eu), and Los honderos balearos (from the now-defunct Amarre website, but still available via the Internet Archive, in Spanish), and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed).)

c.2500 BC

The earliest known evidence of inhabitation on the Balearic Islands dates to around this period or the subsequent two centuries. The arrivals hail either from the Iberian peninsula or southern France and can be associated with Bell Beaker horizon. This is the Chalcolithic period on the islands, its copper age.

Bell Beaker pots
Shown here is a selection of highly distinctive bell-shaped pots which were created by the Bell Beaker folk between around 2900-1800 BC in Europe and the British Isles

c.1500 BC

The Naviform culture, otherwise known as the Pre-Talaiotic, emerges on the Balearics to herald the start of the Late Bronze Age. Settlement from the preceding millennium remains constant, with the islands unlikely to be heavily visited by outsiders.

c.900 BC

In common with Iron Age Iberia, the Early Iron Age also arrives on the islands. While Iberia has the Castro and Tartessian cultures, the islands form the Talaiotic or Talavotic culture.

c.654 BC

In the case of Ibiza and Formentera, the presence of a stable population is similar to that of the larger islands but, around this time, evidence can be seen of Phoenician settlements. The settlers probably come from Gadir rather than from Phoenicia itself, forming communities around Sa Caleta and Vila (Iboshim) on Ibiza, and making this the earliest city to be founded on the archipelago.

Ruins of Gadir (Cadiz)
The surviving ruins of the Phoenician city of Gadir are few in number although some signs of them can be found, but did these pillars provide a name for the nearby 'Pillars of Heracles' (the modern Straits of Gibraltar) thanks to Hercules himself supposedly completing one of his labours here?

Iboshim is located on the coast, from where it generates flourishing trade links with all points of the Mediterranean, with imported or locally-produced products including salt from Ibiza or Majorca.

c.560s? BC

As the Post-Talaiotic cultural period begins to emerge, a story is preserved by the Greek scholar, Lycophron, which tells of certain shipwrecked Greek Boeotians who are cast naked onto the islands.

The story may be an invention to account for the name 'Gymnesiae', but it also shows that Greeks are now exploring the western Mediterranean. Most likely around the same time, Phocaeans first meet the Tartessians on mainland Iberia.

According to Diodorus Siculus, the Greeks name the islands Gymnesiae because the inhabitants are naked during summers. A third legend holds that the islands had been colonised from Rhodes following the conclusion of the Trojan War. This latter event seems to have resulted in an exodus of Trojans and possible integration into the various Sea Peoples of the time.

Map of Iberian Tribes 300 BC
The Iberian peninsula prior to the Carthaginian invasion and partial conquest was a melange of different tribal influences (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The islands already have a very mixed population, with several stories describing the people as having unusual habits. Some state that they go naked all year-round which, according to folk etymology, accounts for the collective name for the islands. Others say they go naked only in the summer, while some that they had worn only sheepskins until the Phoenicians had arrived to provide them with broad-bordered tunics.

FeatureOther stories state that the inhabitants live in hollow rocks and artificial caves, that their men are remarkable for their love of women and will trade three or four men to ransom one woman, that they have no gold or silver coin, and that they forbid the importation of those precious metals. Balearic Iberian Mercenaries instead take their pay in wine and women (see feature link).

c.200s BC

In the form of expert slingers, the people of the Balearics serve as Iberian Mercenaries, first under the Carthaginians and then later under the Romans. They go into battle ungirt, with only a small bucker and a javelin which has been file-sealed at the tip and is only sometimes topped with an iron cap.

Balearics slinger
The effective weapon of the Balearic warrior was the sling, with each man carrying three, wound around the head according to Strabo or, according to Diodorus, one around the head, one around the body, and one in the hand

123 - 122 BC

The fall of Carthage to Rome in 146 BC had left the Balearics virtually independent. With Rome pursuing a programme of total conquest on mainland Iberia, they find their ships frequently being targeted by the slingers of the Balearics. Accusing the islanders of piracy, Rome now finally mounts a coordinated campaign of conquest on the islands.

Quintus Caecilius Metellus takes the cognomen 'Balearicus' thanks to the campaign which takes place in the year of his consulate (beginning during 123 BC). He wraps his ships in leather to avoid the highly accurate slingers from holing them below the waterline. The actual fighting on land seems to be brief and little worthy of mention.

Once he is victorious, Caecilius Metellus settles around three thousand Romans from Iberia on the larger island - Majorca - and founds the cities of Parma and Pollentia. The Balearic Islands settle down to live within what will soon become the Roman empire, initially within the province of Hispania Tarraconensis.

Map of European Tribes
This vast map covers just about all possible tribes which were documented in the first centuries BC and AD, mostly by the Romans and Greeks, and with an especial focus on 52 BC (click or tap on map to view at an intermediate size)

AD 426 - 1299

The Roman decline in the fifth century AD also leads to a decline in the fortunes of the islands, with constant changes of rulers taking place. The Vandals take control in AD 426 following their capture of Carthago Nova. The Eastern Romans take over in 533, followed by the Islamic empire, and then the Crusaders.

It is not until 1299 that James of Aragon is able to capture Majorca, followed by Minorca and Ibiza. The islands become part of the kingdom of Aragon and later, through the marriage between Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, part of the kingdom of Spain to which they belong into the modern age.

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