During ancient times, both the Greeks and the Romans established settlements along the northern coast of Africa. The Minoans of Crete and the Mycenaeans of southern Greece had formed commercial and cultural ties with Egypt as early as 1400 B.C. The Phoenicians, an ancient seafaring people from the eastern Mediterranean, colonized the city of Carthage about 750 B.C. In the late 600s B.C., the Greeks established trading centers in the Nile delta of Egypt and founded colonies along the Mediterranean coast of Africa.
One of the most important Greek settlements was Cyrene (in present- day Libya), which became a flourishing commercial and learning center. During this time, the Greeks also explored farther along the African coast, perhaps as far as the Atlantic coast of West Africa. Alexander the Great conquered Egypt about 330 B.C. and made it part of his empire. He founded the city of Alexandria in the Nile delta, and the city soon became one of the leading cultural centers of the Mediterranean world.
Roman influence in Africa began in 146 B.C. after Rome defeated the city of Carthage in the Punic Wars. The Romans rebuilt Carthage, and the city and surrounding territory (an area that included much of present-day Tunisia) became the first Roman province in Africa. It was known as Africa Vetus or “Old Africa.” During the rule of Julius Caesar, the Romans pushed westward into a region they called Africa Nova or “New Africa” (present-day Algeria).
Augustus Caesar extended Roman control in Africa southward to the Sahara. He also combined Africa Vetus and Africa Nova into a single province. During his rule, Roman colonization of North Africa increased dramatically. The most important Roman colony in Africa was Carthage, which developed into the second greatest city in the Western Roman Empire.
Under the emperor Claudius, the Romans advanced as far west as the Atlantic coast of northern Africa, creating two new provinces in A.D. 44 in the region of Mauretania (now Morocco). Thereafter, Roman territory in Africa continued to expand, reaching its greatest extent in the late A.D. 100s during the rule of Septimius Severus, the Roman emperor who came from Africa.
Africa proved to be a vital asset to the empire. The fertile coastal region, which the Romans enhanced with an extensive system of irrigation, became the “breadbasket” of Rome. Much of the best land was controlled by a handful of wealthy landowners. Africa provided marble, wood, precious stones, gold, and dyes.
Exports of agricultural and other products made Rome’s African provinces very prosperous. Impressive buildings were erected in the towns and cities. As Roman culture flourished, the African provinces became leading intellectual centers and produced many notable individuals, such as the writer Apuleius. Christianity also spread rapidly in Africa.
Africa provided the Roman Empire with much of its food supply. In addition to fish caught by fishermen, such as the ones depicted on this mosaic from the A.D. 400s, Africa produced corn, olives for olive oil, and wine. So fertile was the coast of North Africa that it became famous throughout the empire for its great wealth.
Many important church figures, including Tertullian, Cyprian, and St. Augustine of Hippo, came from Africa.
By the A.D. 300s, Roman control in Africa had begun to weaken as a result of local power struggles and the waning power of the empire. In the early 400s, the Vandals, a Germanic tribe, invaded Mauretania and later took Carthage, hastening the decline of Roman civilization in North Africa. (See also Augustus, Caesar Octavianus; Caesar, Gaius Julius; Colonies, Greek; Colonies, Roman; Mycenae; Trade, Greek.)