The Balearic Islands are an archipelago in the western Mediterranean Sea, near the eastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula. The four largest islands are Majorca, Minorca, Ibiza, and Formentera. The archipelago forms an autonomous community and a province of Spain, of which the capital city is Palma. The co-official languages in the Balearic Islands are Spanish and Catalan.
There is little history on the earliest inhabitants of the islands, though many legends exist. The story, preserved by Lycophron, that certain shipwrecked Boeotians were cast nude on the islands, was evidently invented to account for the name Gymnesiae. There is also a tradition that the islands were colonized from Rhodes after the Trojan war.
The islands had a very mixed population, of whose habits several strange stories are told. In some stories, it is said that the people went naked or were clothed only in sheep-skins — whence the name of the islands (an instance of folk etymology) — until the Phoenicians clothed them with broad-bordered tunics. In other stories they were naked only in the heat of summer.
Other legends hold that the inhabitants lived in hollow rocks and artificial caves, that they were remarkable for their love of women and would give three or four men as the ransom for one woman, that they had no gold or silver coin, and forbade the importation of the precious metals, so that those of them who served as mercenaries took their pay in wine and women instead of money. Their marriage and funeral customs, peculiar to Roman observers, are related by Diodorus.
In ancient times, the islanders of the Gymnesian Islands constructed talayots, and were famous for their skill with the sling. As slingers they served, as mercenaries, first under the Carthaginians, and afterwards under the Romans. They went into battle ungirt, with only a small buckler, and a javelin burnt at the end, and in some cases tipped with a small iron point; but their effective weapons were their slings, of which each man carried three, wound round his head (Strabo p. 168; Eustath.), or, as others tell us, one round the head, one round the body, and one in the hand. (Diodorus) The three slings were of different lengths, for stones of different sizes; the largest they hurled with as much force as if it were flung from a catapult; and they seldom missed their mark. To this exercise they were trained from infancy, in order to earn their livelihood as mercenary soldiers. It is said that the mothers only allowed their children to eat bread when they had struck it off a post with the sling.
The Phoenicians took possession of the islands in very early times (Strabo iii. pp. 167, 168); a remarkable trace of their colonization is preserved in the town of Mago (Mahon in Minorca). After the fall of Carthage, the islands seem to have been virtually independent. Notwithstanding their celebrity in war, the people were generally very quiet and inoffensive. (Strabo; but Florus gives them a worse character, iii. 8.) The Romans, however, easily found a pretext for charging them with complicity with the Mediterranean pirates, and they were conquered by Q. Caecilius Metellus, thence surnamed Balearicus, in 123 BC.
Metellus settled 3,000 Roman and Spanish colonists on the larger island, and founded the cities of Palma and Pollentia. (Strabo, Mela, Pliny the Elder) The islands belonged, under the Roman Empire, to the conventus of Carthago Nova (modern Cartagena), in the province of Hispania Tarraconensis, of which province they formed, the fourth district, under the government of a praefectus pro legato. An inscription of the time of Nero mentions the PRAEF. PRAE LEGATO INSULAR. BALIARUM. (Orelli, No. 732, who, with Muratori, reads pro for prae.) They were afterwards made a separate province, probably in the division of the empire under Constantine.
The two largest islands (the Balearic Islands, in their historical sense) had numerous excellent harbours, though rocky at their mouth, and requiring care in entering them (Strabo, Eustath.; Port Mahon is one of the finest harbours in the world). Both were extremely fertile in all produce, except wine and olive oil. They were celebrated for their cattle, especially for the mules of the lesser island; they had an immense number of rabbits, and were free from all venomous reptiles. Among the snails valued by the Romans as a diet, was a species from the Balearic isles, called cavaticae, from their being bred in caves. Their chief mineral product was the red earth, called sinope, which was used by painters. Their resin and pitch are mentioned by Dioscorides. The population of the two islands is stated by Diodorus at 30,000.
In the chaos surrounding the fall of the Roman Empire, the islands were conquered by the Vandals. They were subsequently reconquered by the Byzantine Empire, but soon fell to the Moors after the their conquest of Iberia.
Between 1113 and 1115, a Tuscan and Lombard fleet, led by Ugo da Parlascio Ebriaco and Archbishop Pietro Moriconi of the Republic of Pisa, made a successful expedition against the Balearic Islands. The expedition was launched with the support of Constantine I of Logudoro and his base of Porto Torres.
In the 13th century, king James I of Aragon conquered the islands which led to subsequent founding of the Kingdom of Majorca, but in 1344 it ceased to exist and it was directly incorporated into the Crown of Aragon, which was later united dynastically with Castile as a result of the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon to become part of the newborn Spain.
The Balearic Islands were frequently attacked by Barbary pirates from North Africa, the Formentera was even temporarily left by its population. In 1514, 1515 and 1521 coasts of the Balearic Islands and the Spanish mainland were raided by Turkish privateer and Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa.
The island of Minorca was a British dependency most of the 18th century as a result of the Treaty of Utrecht, when Spain ceded Gibraltar and Minorca to Great Britain after being captured during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was finally and permanently ceded to Spain by the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 during the French Revolutionary Wars.
Map of Balears Island: