The ancient Phoenicians, seafarers who usually put ashore each night, established stopover points along the Tunisian coast perhaps as early as 1200 B.C. Some of these grew into trading posts and colonies—for example, Utica, Hippo Zarytus (Bizerte), and Hadrumite (Sousse). Carthage, founded about 800 B.C., became the strongest of the Punic (Phoenician) settlements and capital of a North African empire. The native Berbers remained largely independent.

In time, Carthage dominated all the western Mediterranean and came into conflict with Rome. The Punic Wars, fought against Rome (246–146 B.C.), ended in defeat and the destruction of Carthage.