This review summarises theoretical studies attempting to assess the population impact of antiretroviral therapy (ART) use on mortality and HIV incidence. We describe the key parameters that determine the impact of therapy, and argue that mathematical models of disease transmission are the natural framework within which to explore the interaction between antiviral use and the dynamics of an HIV epidemic. Our review focuses on the potential effects of ART in resource-poor settings. We discuss choice of model type and structure, the potential for risk behaviour change following widespread introduction of ART, the importance of the stage of HIV infection at which treatment is initiated, and the potential for spread of drug resistance. These issues are illustrated with results from models of HIV transmission. We demonstrate that HIV transmission models predicting the impact of ART use should incorporate a realistic progression through stages of HIV infection in order to capture the effect of the timing of treatment initiation on disease spread. The realism of existing models falls short of properly reproducing patterns of diagnosis timing, incorporating heterogeneity in sexual behaviour, and describing the evolution and transmission of drug resistance. The uncertainty surrounding certain effects of ART, such as changes in sexual behaviour and transmission of ART-resistant HIV strains, demands exploration of best and worst case scenarios in modelling, but this must be complemented by surveillance and behavioural surveys to quantify such effects in settings where ART is implemented.