In ancient times Tunisia was part of the mighty Carthaginian Empire. Its chief city, Carthage, was reputedly founded in 814BC by Phoenician traders, who had previously established several small trading posts along the North African coast. The site of Carthage, which became the largest and most famous of these Phoenician settlements, is thought to have been slightly to the north-east of the modern city of Tunis.
The Carthaginian Empire dominated most of North Africa, as well as parts of the Iberian Peninsula, Sardinia and Sicily. By the third century BC, however, trouble was brewing for the Carthaginians, in the shape of the fast-expanding Roman Empire.
Although Rome had signed several treaties with Carthage and recognised its power, the Roman leaders watched closely for an opportunity to overthrow it. War clouds gathered and three bloody struggles – the Punic Wars – were fought. In the third and last of these, which took place in 149-146 BC, the Carthaginians were completely defeated and the city of Carthage destroyed by Scipio's army.
Carthaginian territory, roughly corresponding to modern Tunisia, was made a Roman province known as "Africa Vetus". As a province of Rome, the land was intensively cultivated and provided the Romans with wood, wool, olive oil and wheat. The region's prosperity grew, and a large number of cities spread across the province. Many archaeological sites today bear witness to the splendour of both pre-Roman and Roman Carthage.
With the decline of the Roman Empire, Tunisia fell successively to Vandal invaders during the 5th century AD, to the Byzantines in the 6th century, and finally to the Arabs in the 7th century. Thenceforth, Tunisia remained an integral part of the Muslim world. The region became known as Ifriqiya and the Berber population was converted to Islam. Successive Muslim dynasties ruled, interrupted by Berber rebellions. The reigns of the Aghlabids (9th century) and of the Zirids (from 972), Berber followers of the Fatimids, were especially prosperous. When the Zirids angered the Fatimids in Cairo (1050), the latter ravaged Tunisia.
In the 13th century, the Hafsids, a group subordinate to the Almohad dynasty based in Morocco, restored order to Tunisia. They founded a Tunisian dynasty that, from the 13th to the 16th century, made Tunisia one of the flourishing regions of North Africa. In the beginning of the 16th century, however, Spain's occupation of important coastal locations precipitated the demise of Hafsid rule.
In 1574, Ottoman armies defeated the Spanish, and Tunisia became part of the Ottoman Empire. A period of peace and stability followed, with Turkish imperial rule effected through local governors, known first as deys and later as beys. The first of these, al-Husayn ibn Ali (ruled 1705-1740) founded the Husaynid dynasty and established considerable prosperity in the region.
Much of this prosperity was founded on piracy. This had been an important Tunisian enterprise for several centuries, with Tunisia receiving 'protection money' in the form of bribes from a large number of sea-going nations.
The Barbary Coast of North Africa harboured several corsair bases, all of which flourished during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The end came in 1815, when the US Navy attacked Tunis and put an end to its piratical source of revenue.
During the 19th century, the Tunisian dynasts acted virtually as independent rulers, making vigorous efforts to utilize Western knowledge and technology to modernize the state. But these efforts led to fiscal bankruptcy and thus to the establishment of an international commission made up of British, French, and Italian representatives to supervise Tunisian finances.
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