by Wikipedia
published on 28 April 2011
Map of Roman Africa (H.Kiepert)

When people spoke of Africa in ancient times, they generally meant the northern coast of Africa, and more specifically the coast west of Egypt (Cyrenaica and the Maghreb). The ancients vaguely knew of the existance of sub-Saharan Africa, but were unaware of its geography.

Despite its location in Africa, Egypt never expanded westwards. The expanse of the Libyan Desert cut Egypt off from the rest of North Africa. Egyptian boats, while well suited to the Nile, were not usable in the open Mediterranean. Moreover the small Egyptian merchant had far more prosperous destinations on Crete, Cyprus and the Levant.

Greeks and Phoenicians settled along the coast of Northern Africa between 900-600 BCE. Both societies drew their prosperity from the sea and from ocean-born trade. They found only limited trading opportunities with the native inhabitants, and instead turned to colonization. The Greek trade was based mainly in the Aegean, Adriatic, Black, and Red Seas and they only established major cities in Cyrenaica, directly to the south of Greece.

Phoenician traders arrived on the North African coast around 900 BCE and established Carthage around 800 BCE. By the 6th century BCE, a Phoenician presence existed at Tipasa. From their principal center of power at Carthage, the Carthaginians expanded and established small settlements (called emporia in Greek) along the North African coast; these settlements eventually served as market towns as well as anchorages. Hippo Regius and Rusicade are among the towns of Carthaginian origin on the coast of present-day Algeria.

As Carthaginian power grew, its impact on the indigenous population increased dramatically. Berber civilization was already at a stage in which agriculture, manufacturing, trade, and political organization supported several states. Trade links between Carthage and the Berbers in the interior grew, but territorial expansion also resulted in the enslavement or military recruitment of some Berbers and in the extraction of tribute from others. By the early 4th century BCE, Berbers formed one of the largest element, with Gauls, of the Carthaginian army.

At the end of the Punic wars in 146 BCE, Rome defeated Carthage and destroyed the city. All Carthaginian possessions were annexed into the Roman empire. In 30 BCE, Roman Emperor Octavian conquered Egypt, officially annexing it to the Empire and, for the first time, unifying the North African coast under a single ruler.

As Carthaginian power waned, the influence of Berber leaders in the hinterland grew. By the 2nd century BCE, several large but loosely administered Berber kingdoms had emerged. Two of them were established in Numidia, behind the coastal areas controlled by Carthage. West of Numidia lay Mauretania, which extended across the Moulouya River in Morocco to the Atlantic Ocean. The high point of Berber civilization, unequaled until the coming of the Almohads and Almoravids more than a millennium later, was reached during the reign of Masinissa in the 2nd century BCE. After Masinissa's death in 148 BC, the Berber kingdoms were divided and reunited several times. Masinissa's line survived until 24 CE, when the remaining Berber territory was annexed to the Roman Empire.

The Roman military presence of North Africa was relatively small, consisting of about 28,000 troops and auxiliaries in Numidia and the two Mauretanian provinces. Starting in the 2nd century CE, these garrisons were manned mostly by local inhabitants.

Aside from Carthage, urbanization in North Africa came in part with the establishment of settlements of veterans under the Roman emperors Claudius, Nerva, and Trajan. In modern-day Algeria such settlements included Tipasa, Cuicul or Curculum, Thamugadi, and Sitifis. The prosperity of most towns depended on agriculture. Called the "granary of the empire," North Africa was one of the largest exporters of grain in the empire, which was exported to the provinces which did not produce cereals, like Italy and Greece. Other crops included fruit, figs, grapes, and beans. By the 2nd century CE, olive oil rivaled cereals as an export item.

The beginnings of the decline was less serious in North Africa than elsewhere. There were uprisings, however. In 238 CE, landowners rebelled unsuccessfully against the emperor's fiscal policies. Sporadic tribal revolts in the Mauretanian mountains followed from 253 to 288 CE. The towns also suffered economic difficulties, and building activity almost ceased.

When the Roman Empire began to collapse, North Africa was spared much of the disruption until the Vandal invasion of 429 CE. Independent kingdoms emerged in mountainous and desert areas, towns were overrun, and Berbers, who had previously been pushed to the edges of the Roman Empire, returned.

Belisarius, general of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I based in Constantinople, landed in North Africa in 533 CE with 16,000 men and within a year destroyed the Vandal kingdom. Many rural areas reverted to Berber rule and the region as whole was lost by the Byzantine Empire during the Muslim Conquests.

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Visual Timeline
  • 5000 BCE
    Organised farming begins in Egypt.
  • c. 3500 BCE
    The Sahara desert begins to spread in Africa due to climate change.
  • 2000 BCE
    Speakers of the Bantu language begin migrating southward.
  • c. 2000 BCE
    Farmers and herders travel south from Ethiopia and settle in Kenya.
  • 1720 BCE
    Egypt is conquered by the Hyksos.
  • 1700 BCE
    The Kingdom of Kush is formed to the south of Egypt.
  • 814 BCE
    Traditional founding date for the Phoenician colony of Carthage by Tyre.
  • 650 BCE
    Iron working spreads to North Africa.
  • 630 BCE
    Greek colonists from the island of Thera found the city of Cyrene in North Africa.
  • 341 BCE
    The Persians complete conquest of Egypt.
  • 331 BCE
    Egypt is conquered by Alexander the Great without resistance.
  • 204 BCE
    Scipio Africanus sails to North Africa in the Second Punic War.
  • 146 BCE
    End of the Third Punic War. Carthage is destroyed and its lands become the Roman province Africa.
  • 429 CE
    Vandals cross Spain to the Maghreb.
  • 534 CE
    Justinian of the Byzantine Empire conquers the Vandal kingdom in Africa.
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