The name of the continent of Africa is derived from the Afri tribe who, in antiquity, dwelt in the region near Carthage. The Romans began to use the term ‘Africa” to refer to the whole area that is now known as Tunisia.
Rome’s first involvement in Africa began during the Punic Wars. Rome made a botched attempt to conquer North Africa in the First Punic War, and did not ultimately defeat Carthage until the Third Punic War, culminating in 146 BC with the total annihilation of Carthage and it’s inhabitants in what some historians have called an ancient “genocide”.
With Carthage finally destroyed, the Romans acquired the northern portion of modern Tunisia and called it 'Africa Proconsularis', in that it was a province that would be ruled by a Roman Proconsul. Since Carthage had been raised to the ground, the Romans established the capital of Africa Proconsularis at the other major Punic city of the area: Utica. Many of the remaining Punic North African cities and the native North African kingdoms such as Numidia maintained a nominal independence for the duration of the Roman Republic. (See map 1 – 100 BC)
However, during the Civil Wars that would lead to the demise of the Roman Republic and rise of the Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Numidia sided with the Republican ‘Optimates’ against Julius Caesar. This led to the Roman Emperors taking a more direct role in governing Africa. Julius Caesar added Cirta and much of Numidia to Africa Proconsularis, and Emperor Tiberius added the area of Tripolitania (modern Libya). By the 40s AD, the entire Mediterranean coast of Africa had come under direct Roman Rule. In 42 AD, Emperor Claudius divided the area west of Africa Proconsularis into 2 new provinces known as Mauretania Caesariensis and Mauretania Tingitana. (See map 2 – 50 AD)
As time went on, Roman Africa was further divided into additional provinces. In 193 AD, Emperor Septimus Severus made the region of Numidia in Western Africa Pronsularis into its own province. (See Map 3 – 200 AD) During the reign of Emperor Diocletian, drastic reductions in the size of many of Rome’s largest provinces was undertaken in order to reduce the power of provincial governors. The 4 provinces of Northwest Africa were split into a total of 8. (See map 4 – 285 AD)
Roman Ruins of Leptis Magna
North Africa was considerably more fertile in Roman times than it is today, this is attested to by the fact that many of the Roman ruins actually lie within deserts today (Leptis Magna, Thamugadi, etc.) and could not support the kind of populations that they appear to have supported in ancient times. Africa was one of the most important possessions of the Roman Empire, it provided Rome with much of the exotic wild animals used in the Coliseum and it became known as the granary of Rome, owing to its immense tracts of productive agricultural land, but this would not last for ever.
Like the European portions of the Roman Empire, North Africa succumbed to the various invasions of Germanic tribes in the 5th Century AD. The Vandals were the tribe that came to dominate North Africa, followed shortly by the Arab invasion. The Arab invaders abandoned the complex irrigation system that the Romans had developed and replaced it with a largely nomadic, herding economy, mainly of goats, which quickly led to overgrazing and desertification.(Source) The process of desertification may be one of the principle reasons why North Africa was unable to recover to it’s former glory. For much of the rest of its history it remained a backwater, a stepping stone between the Middle East and Al-Andalus during the Islamic Golden Age, and then a center for piracy during the late medieval and modern ages.