The Roman province Sardinia

In the year 238 BC the Romans took possession of Sardinia and expelled the Carthaginians from the island. This event followed the first of a number of wars the Romans fought with Carthage, the First Punic War (264-241 BC). A year after this war ended Carthaginian mercenaries revolted in North Africa and Sardinia in what has become known as the Mercenary War. When the Carthaginians regained control over the mercenaries in North-Africa in Sardinia they invited the Romans to occupy the island peacefully in 238 BC 1. The Romans obtained an island with a fairly developed urban culture, at least on the coastal strips, and an infrastructure they could build on. With the arrival of the Roman bureaucracy begano for Sardinia the truly historical period: it was not only mentioned in the sources of ancient writers but there are many inscriptions in bronze or stone in Latin, even though some inscriptions were still made in the Punic language which survived for long time 2.

The struggle for hegemony between Carthage and Rome

In 237 BC Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus occupied formally Sardinia in the name of the Roman people and as of 227 BC Sardinia, with Corsica, became an official province (provincia) of Rome 3. With this occupation however the island was far from romanized. The Punic culture had deep roots in the small towns and their surrounding countrysides and the Sardic tribes ruled their own territories. It would take many years before Rome could call Sardinia a pacified island, considering the many triumphs Roman consuls celebrated on the Sardinians. The resistance of the Sardinian-Punic towns and Sardinian tribes, fed relentlessly by the able Cartaginian diplomats much to the dismay of Rome, reached a climax in 215 BC during the Second Punic War (218-210 BC) with the resurrection led by Hampsicora. The Romans would call it the Bellum Sardum 4. One of the most important historical sources on this subject is Livius work on the history of Rome, Hannibal ante portas 5.

Cornus lies just north of the peninsula of Sinis. (source: Map Tele Atlas and Google)
Cornus lies just north of the peninsula of Sinis.
(source: Map Tele Atlas and Google)

The prelude to the Second Punic War had been the Punic attack on Saguntum, a town south of the Ebro in Spain. Rome considered Saguntum as their ally and declared war on Carthage. The Carthaginian general Hannibal gathered a large army, including a number of elephants, and led it into Italy, across the river Rhône and the Alps. Rome came under great pressure because of the defeat of several legions against Hannibal, but the Punic general understood that to take the capital itself would take much more than just his army. He decided to lead his army to the south of Italy in an attempt to weaken the ties of Rome's allies there and to isolate the Romans in Italy 6.

After the humiliating defeat of the Romans at Cannae, where the legions were beaten by the Punic army of Hannibal, it seemd that this tactic worked for the Punics. In fact the Sards sent a delegation to Carthage to ask for help against the Roman legions in Sardinia. The Cartaginian senate promised their support. The leader of the great Sardic-Punic revolt was Hampsicora together with his son Hostus. They both came from the town of Cornus and obtained the support of the neighbouring clans of the Sards (the Sards Pelliti) 7. It seems that the originally Phoenician-Punic towns (Nora, Carales, Sulki, Tharros) remained faithful to the Romans and did not join the revolt. Hampsicora's opponent was Titus Manlius Torquatus and in the battle that followed Hampsicora's troops were defeated, even though Carthage came to their aid with an army that was disembarked near Cornus. Hampsicora's son Hostus was killed and he himself committed suicide when he heard it 8.

Sardic revolts during the Roman Republic

In 177 BC the Sardic tribes of the Ilienses and the Balares revolted against the Romans. This time it was Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (of the same family as the Tiberius of 237 BC) who defeated the Sards. Thousands of Sards were killed or deported to Rome to be sold on the slavemarkets. Because of the large number of slaves offered there the prices went down so sharp that the Romans ever since referred to this phenomenon as the sardi venales 9. In 115 BC another revolt had to be put down. Under the command of Marcus Caecilius Metellus the Sardic tribes were defeated again, their lands confiscated and redistributed. The Table of Esterzili witnesses this event where lands of the Gallilenses were redistributed to the Patulcenses of Campanian origin 10. During one of these revolts, in 177 or 115 BC, the sanctuary of Santa Vittoria di Serri was raided and burned by the Romans 11

Cicero and the fides punica

The fides punica (trustworthiness of the Punics) had become a famous saying of the Romans. The given word of a Punic was not to be trusted. Livius uses this expression regularly in his books on the history of Rome during the Punic Wars and also Cicero made use of the saying in one of his famous oratories, pro Scauro, to characterise the Sards. Marcus Emilius Scaurus, propraetor of the province of Sardinia, was accused by the Sards of corruption and bad administration. For Scaurus and his predecessors abusing their mandate in the province was not at all unusual. Before him Titus Albucius had been accused by the Sards and convicted too thanks to their lawyer Julius Caesar Strabo (uncle of the famous Julius Caesar). Scaurus had been accused by leading Sards for crimen frumentarium, illegal taxation (of the decimus tribus), the murder of a man called Bostar, a resident of Nora who would have been poisoned by Scaurus at a dinner, and to have driven the wife of Arinus to suicide, because she took her own life rather than to be dishonoured by him. Cicero compared Sardinia in that occasion to Africa, Africa ipsa parens illa Sardiniae, and equated the trustworthiness of the Sardic witnesses to that of the Punics, all with the past Punic Wars in mind that had left deep scars in the Roman society. In the end Cicero won the case for Scaurus thanks to his brilliant oratorical art. Long after that the Sards would complain about the damage to their reputation Cicero had caused them 12.


1 Mastino 2005, p 64-65
2 Two of the most important works on Roman Sardinia are that of Attilio Mastino, Storia della Sardegna Antica (2005) and Piero Meloni, La Sardegna Romana (1990)
3 Mastino 2005, p 66
4 Mastino 2005, p 68
5 Livius: Hannibal ante portas, in a dutch translation by H.W.A. van Rooijen-Dijkman.
6 In books XXI and XXII Livius describes the reason for the outbreak of the war and how Hannibal led his army to Italy, defeating several consular armies.
7 The Sardi-Pelliti were called this way because of the goatskins they wore. It is said that this has survived in the rituals of Carnival where the Mamuthones still wear goatskins and masks.
8 Mastino 2005, p 70-71; Mastino 2004, p 82; Ruggeri 1999, p 115; Livius, p 203, 206 en 212-214
9 Mastino 2005, p 95; Mastino 2004, p 83
10 Mastino 2005, p 99
11 Zucca 1988, p 18; Lilliu 2003, p 533, this is mentioned by Strabo.
12 Mastino 2005, p 101-114, 172; Mastino 2004, p 84


1. Livius, Hannibal voor de poorten. De geschiedenis van Rome XXI-XXX, original title Hannibal Ante Portas, translated in dutch and commented by Hedwig W.A. van Rooijen-Dijkman 1998 (derde druk), Amsterdam
2. Mastino, A. 2004, La Sardegna romana in: Storia della Sardegna, Brigaglia M. ed., Cagliari, p 75-130
Mastino A., 2005, Storia della Sardegna Antica, Sassari
Ruggeri P., 1999, Africa ipsa parens illa Sardiniae studi di storia antica e di epigrafia, Sassari
Zucca R., 1988, Il santuario nuragico di S. Vittoria di Serri, Sassari

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