Exploring Malta’s Roman Roots at the Domus Romana Museum

Malta was ruled, occupied and colonized by a great number of different peoples throughout the last few thousand years. Not surprisingly, since the island is in the heart of the Mediterranean, the Romans were among them.

Situated just outside the popular and atmospheric walled city of Mdina is the small Domus Romana Museum. It was once a townhouse for a Roman aristocrat living in the ancient Roman town of Melite, in what is now Mdina and Rabat. (In Latin, domus means ‘home’ or ‘residence’.) It’s believed that it was built in the 1st century CE.

Since most of the original townhouse was destroyed before being discovered in 1881, a newer museum structure was built over the remains to shelter them. Inside the Domus Romana museum today, there are impressive mosaic floors, columns and marble statues. The museum also showcases an array of everyday items like pottery, coins, oil lamps and hair pins. Having moved my own fragile perfume bottles from Cairo to Germany, I was amazed that the museum’s delicate examples managed to survive so many tumultuous centuries!

Of all the items, it was the mosaic floors that fascinated me the most though. Perhaps this is because they were utilitarian, yet also design focused. In one of the museum’s mosaic pavements, you can see that it’s been altered several times. This made me wonder how many feet had walked over them through the millennia, who repaired them and why they were repaired in different styles. (The museum signs suggest this may show financial struggles as the Roman Empire declined.)

There is also evidence of the people that came after the Romans. Above the Roman-era mosaics, archaeologists found a few hundred Muslim graves. (Malta was under Arab rule during parts of the 9th to 11th centuries CE. You can still detect this Arabic influence in place names like Mdina or Rabat, even in the Maltese vocabulary. Malta is a predominantly-Catholic country, but their word for God is Alla.)

As the sun began to set during our visit, the last of the day’s rays illuminated the ruins outside the museum. Light shone on the mosaics which would’ve once graced the townhouse’s open courtyard. A cat soaked up the sunshine. And Shawn and I headed home to Valletta, mindful of what may be underfoot, and reflective about what traces our civilization will leave behind.

Domus Romana Roman Ruins Museum Malta
The entrance to the Domus Romana Museum.
Roman Villa Malta Tragedy Comedy Masks
A trio of terracotta theatrical masks.
Roman Glass Bottles Malta Museum Domus Romana
Delicate Roman glass bottles.
Muslim headstone Domus Romana Villa Malta
There were more than 200 Muslim headstones found at the site, dating back to Malta’s period of Arab rule (after the Romans).
Roman oil lamp mosaic floor Domus Romana Malta
An intricately-decorated oil lamp (left) and overview of a mosaic floor (right).
Roman Villa Malta Mosaic Floor
The intricately-placed mosaic tiles depict a human figure, a bird, and perhaps a pomegranate. The mosaic might date as far back as far as 125 BCE.
Domus Romana Malta Peristyle Mosaic Floor Courtyard
The remains of the townhouse’s peristyle, or open courtyard (left and right). On the left, note the water well.
Roman Mosaics Malta Domus Romana Ruins
A pair of ‘drinking doves’ are the focal point of the mosaic covering the pavement of what was once the home’s peristyle.
Roman mosaic Domus Romana Rabata Mdina Malta
This pavement features three mosaic styles: the original is the outside border, followed by the inner sections (which are believed to be less-skilled repair attempts).
Roman marble statues museum Malta Domus Romana
The marble head of Emperor Claudius (right) and a figure of what’s believed to be his daughter, Claudia Antonia (left). The statues are believed to date back to the 1st century CE!
Roman townhouse museum Malta columns ruins
A cluster of ruins are scattered about in the museum’s backyard. There would’ve originally been other buildings behind the Domus Romana.
Roman Villa Ruins Malta Columns Domus Romana Rabat

Roman wall painting Malta Domus Romana
A fragment of the home’s wall paintings. It’s fascinating trying to imagine what the style was like back then!
Amphora Roman Villa Malta Museum
Containers known as amphorae. Such vessels were used to transport and store food products, including wine, olive oil, and grain.
Domus Romana Roman ruins Rabat Mdina Malta
A caramel-colored cat lounges in the sunshine, among ruins.

Video of this Experience:

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • The Domus Romana (sometimes spelled Domvs Romana) is located in Rabat, on the border with Mdina. The Roman Domus is just a few minutes’ walk to Mdina’s Main Gate. For opening hours and ticket prices, see the site’s official website.
  • Another Roman-era site are St. Paul’s Catacombs, which are also located in Rabat.
  • Given how small the island of Malta is, it’s rather easy to get around using its bus system. Just know that short distances can be deceiving, especially during peak traffic times! Use Malta Public Transport’s Trip Planner or Route Map to plan your excursions.
  • Ever since we lived in the shell of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia, Shawn and I have been intrigued by this chapter of history. If you are too, you might also enjoy dispatches from our visits to the Roman ruins of Salona, Croatia, as well as Split’s Archaeological Museum.
  • Do you need more Malta trip-planning inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Malta.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. The video is a creation of my husband, Shawn.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

29 thoughts on “Exploring Malta’s Roman Roots at the Domus Romana Museum

  1. I’ve never been to Malta but after reading about its long, rich, and often convoluted history I have now grown a fascination towards the tiny nation. There are just so many interesting places in the world to explore, but thanks to this post I am reminded to not skip Malta when I go to Europe again one day.

    1. Bama, travel has a funny way of showing you how simultaneously small and big the world is, doesn’t it? What I mean by that is that making connections with others in far-flung places can make the world feel connected and intimate. As you keep exploring though, you realize how much there is to left to still see!

      Feel free to get in touch when you eventually visit Malta. Having lived here for almost a year now, I’d be happy to answer any questions you have. I thought we might have developed ‘island fever’ early on during our time here, but surprisingly, we still have a few sites left on our must-visit list. :) Like you, Shawn and I have found ourselves fascinated by Malta’s plethora of historic sites!

      1. Exactly what I’ve been thinking, Tricia. When I went to Sri Lanka, Nepal and India, I felt that the world was very small because I learned so many connections between those places with Indonesia. But when I do some research for my future trips, I’ll always discover places I’ve never heard before, reminding me how big the world really is. Thanks, Tricia, and I will certainly drop a message if I do go to Malta sooner than later.

  2. Great post, great pictures, thank you for taking of your time to put them up for us others to get to see.

  3. Wonderful images, Tricia, but the question I’m dying to ask is ‘have you met Badfish?’ He was last seen wandering in some ancient village streets. :) :) Happy travels!

    1. I must confess that I had to google Badfish, Jo. The results? An American band based out of New England, and then an expat blogger exploring Malta. I’m guessing the latter? Despite Malta being a Lilliputian country, we haven’t yet crossed paths though. :)

      1. No. I haven’t. But I would love to. I sways like places with history. Exploring and acknowledging oneself.

  4. What rich detail can still be seen in those mosaics! Most Roman ruins I have seen are bare stone remnants, so it is easy to forget how colorful the civilization was, how filled with artwork.

    1. You make a great point about the color being lost. When looking at the ruins today, it’s so easy to think of Roman towns and cities as rather monochromatic places. We’re actually in Croatia at the moment, so I’m hoping we might be able to delve into another Roman site or two. :)

  5. Admittedly, I spent most of my time enjoying the secluded Imgiebah Bay. Thanks for the museum photos and history Tricia. It’s fun to see all that the island has to offer.

    1. Ellie, I just had to look up Imgiebah Bay, and from Google Maps satellite view, it looks like a gorgeous spot to soak up the sunshine! Finding a secluded spot on Malta isn’t easy (I think it’s one of the top 10 most densely-populated countries in the world!), but it sounds like you succeeded. :)

      1. I had a friend take me. You have to be prepared because when I went it was a secluded spot, meaning no facilities. It’s a bit of a hike down from the road but worth it!

  6. Thanks for passing on all this fascinating info about the history of this area. The mosaics are just amazing, and as you say it’s pretty cool to think about the feet that walked on them, and the hands that made them sooo long ago!

    1. FarmerFi, we’ve actually just moved from Malta, and I’ve found that our year living there has caused me to look at any potentially historic remnant differently. I suppose I’ve been conditioned to think that there might be Roman ruins, even a prehistoric temple hidden in the countryside of wherever I visit now. :)

      1. Thanks for the wishes, FarmerFi! I thought of you as we’re in the midst of olive harvesting season now in Croatia. We were able to lend some locals a hand a few weeks ago, and I’m hoping to give it a go again!

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