Western Civilization Expository Essay


The Roman Empire’s Collapse

The Roman Empire is one of the most prominent governance setups in the history of western civilization. It was a socio-economic and military force to reckon with. Given the tenacity and vision of its rulers, the empire inevitably grew into a global behemoth whose control span much of Europe, parts of Asia, and North Africa. Some of the inventions developed by the Empire had great ramifications for the whole of Western civilization. An example of this engineering prowess is the construction of aqueducts, which supplied water to the city of Rome via a sophisticated system of pipes, thereby enabling the use of public toilets and underground sewage systems (Andrews par 2). In spite of this legacy, the Roman Empire still ended due to a combination of reasons discussed below.

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Grounds for the Fall

Unsustainable Expansion

One definitive feature of the Roman Empire was its ability to conquer foreign lands, thereby putting vast areas under its control. The empire subdued many nations and other smaller kingdoms in battle and brought them into its fold. While this presented many gains, the cost of rapid expansion effectively outweighed the benefits. More land required more troops to defend in addition to providing the necessary administrative infrastructure to ensure governance. Over time, these functions became difficult to fulfill, when the central government in Rome began losing control over regional lands. Therefore, this overexpansion, coupled with internal rebellion from conquered people, led to the collapse of the empire.

Unchecked Military Expenditure

The Roman Empire engaged in many military adventures. While some of these adventures held strategic advantages regarding acquiring foreign lands, others were authorized to quell a rebellion from malcontents within the empire. Still, military units were frequently engaged in combat activities aimed at defending the empire from outside invaders. Such expeditions required significant outlays to cater for both men and equipment. Consequently, limited financial resources were disproportionately allocated to military spending, causing other economic sectors to suffer massive declines. Additionally, the rapid expansion of territory required a commensurate increase in military strength. This increase led to unsustainable military expenditure, which eventually contributed to the collapse of the empire.

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Unbridled Corruption

Rampant corruption within the empire ultimately contributed to its demise. Bribery pervaded almost every echelon of government. This unethical wave affected all branches viz the executive, judiciary, and the legislature. Government functionaries engaged in practices aimed at maximizing their wealth at the expense of the taxpayers. In fact, at the height of this corruption frenzy in the fourth and fifth centuries, even army command posts were put up for sale to the highest bidder (Williams par 3). The consequences of such decay in values were substantial and widespread. Inefficient commanders took over the army with disastrous consequences in battle. Judges issued verdicts that favored those with money to bribe, thus eroding confidence in the judiciary while public officials reserved services to those with enough financial clout. Influence peddlers restricted access to top government officials by financial ability. Other staff members embezzled government property for private gain while some exploited taxation at the expense of the ordinary citizen. All these factors led to massive losses for the Empire, both regarding finances and credibility among the people. In the long run, these practices led to its weakening and ultimate fall.

External Invasion

In its quest to expand, the Roman Empire forcibly acquired vast swathes of land from other regional people. This annexation inevitably led to the emergence of many enemies within Europe. It is worth noting that this was the age of empire where every emperor in the world sought to maximize his or her power by invading other empires. It is against this backdrop that several groups of people in Europe attacked the Roman Empire with the view of subduing it and controlling its wealth. Some were also bitter because the Romans had annexed portions of their lands in battle. Frequent attacks by external enemies became relatively common. While successive Roman emperors deterred such attacks, they became increasingly vicious. The Germanic Goth armies were unusually persistent in their endeavors. In the long run, defending the empire in the face of a multiple of powerful enemies wore down the empire’s resources. This situation was worsened by policies, which treated non-Roman citizens of the empire unfairly. Naturally, these discriminated citizens facilitated the barbarian armies to attack the empire.


Traditionally, the Roman people believed in several deities who they considered to dominate different aspects of human life. These gods were looked up to for good weather, desirable victory in military affairs, and general blessings for the people. Consequently, Roman rulers commonly associated themselves with certain gods to consolidate their power. Therefore, traditional religious practices received state support and encouragement. This system held on for many years until the era of Emperor Constantine. He embraced Christianity as a religion and influenced its adoption within Roman society. Moreover, he enacted reforms aimed at increasing religious tolerance, mainly with a bias for Christianity.

The spread of this new religion presented several difficulties for both the Roman society and its government structure. Christianity demanded belief in a single deity, unlike the traditional polytheistic system. Moreover, rulers could not arrogate certain mystic powers to themselves by associating themselves with God, as this was not acceptable in the new religion. Consequently, people began to question the transgressions of their rulers since they no longer considered them to have divine authority. Finally, Christianity appealed to the poor as it advocated for equality and the fair treatment of all people. Such a philosophy infused a certain sense of discontent in the people regarding government policies. This discontent, in the long term, fed into a sense of disillusionment with the government, a factor that contributed to the collapse of the empire.

Overdependence on Slave Labor

The Roman Empire thrived on the subjugation of slaves and their exploitation for various purposes. The primary purpose for owning slaves was to provide cheap labor for agricultural production and other economic endeavors. These slaves came to the Empire as spoils of war from conquered lands. Given their ubiquity in almost all productive sectors of the economy, the slaves were the engine that ran the whole economy. As overexpansion and unsustainable military expenditure exerted financial pressure on the government, it became increasingly difficult to acquire new territory. This drawback meant that slave labor started to decline, thereby significantly impacting economic production in an adverse manner. Consequently, the economy took a major hit. This situation was worsened by a new school of thought, which gradually demanded the emancipation of slaves. Many crafts that relied on slave labor suffered diminished productivity, as the Romans could not engage in them for lack of skills. The economic woes generated by a decline in slave labor thus contributed to the fall of the empire.

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Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was a movement aimed at restructuring the religious orientation that formed the foundation of Christian belief in the 16th century Europe. In the advent of Christianity and its spread in Europe, the Roman Catholic Church became the most powerful institution in the continent. Its power and influence extended beyond the confines of religion and matters of spirituality to the arena of politics. The Pope, as the head of this institution, amassed enormous political power that manifested in his influence in the administration of empires in Europe. He had a say in the economic fortunes of many people within the continent. In this regard, the Roman Catholic Church is the most prominent of the formative pan-European institutions. It is against this backdrop that the Protestant Reformation took place.

The Roman Catholic Church incorporated many of the cultural traditions of the people it sought to bring into its fold in its practices and doctrine. Moreover, given the vast amount of wealth that the church controlled, its leadership sometimes engaged in practices which were intended to maximize their power rather than to cater to the spiritual needs of the membership purely. These factors arose questions by Martin Luther, a German monk of the Augustinian order, thereby generating considerable debate both within the church and across the whole of Europe. Luther disagreed with certain tenets of the church’s doctrine. He believed that the existence of Jesus Christ eliminated the need for mediators between believers and God, something the church had practiced for a long time. Additionally, he denounced the practice of exchanging monetary and non-monetary goods for the forgiveness of sin, which was a common practice in the church. Moreover, Luther challenged the authority of the Pope as a divine representative of God on earth.

The controversy elicited by Luther’s assertion resulted in his excommunication from the Church. It is worth highlighting the fact that while Luther popularized these ideas, others before him had expressed similar views. In essence, Luther’s contribution was to bring the ideas into the mainstream. It is also important to state that while Luther made an enemy in the form of the Roman Catholic Church due to his challenge to its doctrine, some political leaders also expressed hostilities to his ideas. The reason for this is that these leaders derived a certain sense of legitimacy by associating with the church. Any force that threatened the fundamentals of the church was, therefore, a threat to their political power. Nonetheless, the ideas spread in Germany and Eastern Europe, leading to the emergence of the Lutheran Church. Other Protestant schools of faith that emerged from this phenomenon include the Calvinist and Presbyterian churches. Around the same time, the Church of England was born out of the efforts of King Henry VIII to challenge papal authority for personal reasons.

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Impact of the Reformation


A major outcome of the reformation revolution was a boost in education levels. Reformers such as Martin Luther based their ideas on the primacy of the Bible as the sole authority on Christian belief and matters spiritual. They, therefore, called on all people to read the Bible and interpret for themselves the message contained therein. This Bible engagement would have been impossible in areas where people did not know how to read. Literacy skills, therefore, became particularly valuable. Many enrolled in literacy classes to be able to read the Bible and the scholarly pamphlets published by the leaders of the Reformation movement. The importance of enrolling children in school, therefore, became apparent to many. A study of data from 19th century Switzerland reveals a notably high level of reading and other cognitive skills among Protestants (Becker, Pfaff and Rubin 23). By increasing school enrolment levels and the general recognition of the need for education, the Protestant Reformation undoubtedly had a significant impact on the education levels in Europe.

Economic Development

Reform leaders such as Calvin emphasized the value of work ethic among their followers. They exalted the act of working hard to achieve one’s objectives in life. This work ethic inevitably led to economic gains for many Protestants who believed that prosperity derived from such efforts is a sign of God’s blessing. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data for selected European countries between 1500 and 2000 indicate a pattern in which Protestant countries outperformed the leading Catholic countries in the period following the Reformation (Becker, Pfaff and Rubin 26). This model could lead to the increased productivity arising out of the Protestant work ethic. Another way to look at this is through some of the teachings of the Reformation. The Bible, which formed the core pillar of the Reformation, advocated for the favorable treatment of strangers with the call to love one’s neighbors. Adopting this mindset may have opened Protestants to trading with other people from foreign lands without prejudice. This open-mindedness would have increased the volume of merchant trading, thereby boosting the income of the traders and bolstering the entire economy in the end. Protestant Reformation can thus be said to be amenable to capitalism, which helped many Western European nations to grow economically.


The Protestant Reformation elicited a paradigm shift in the governance structure of Europe. It radically altered how monarchs related with their subjects and had an impact on how power flowed within governance systems. One significant consequence of the Reformation was the negation of the idea that political legitimacy derived from the church or religious establishment of the time. Kings could no longer appeal to their approval by the Pope as a measure of credibility and legitimacy. Leaders who subscribed to the Reformation ideology instead turned to other institutions to support them and afford them a sense of political legitimacy. For example, in England during the Tudor era, monarchs followed the laws enacted by parliament in exchange for both resources and legitimacy (Becker, Pfaff and Rubin 28).

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The interplay of political and religious factors surrounding the Protestant Reformation led to many wars in Europe. These wars should primarily be viewed in the context of a power struggle between rulers who wanted to break free from the hegemony of the Holy Roman Empire and those who wanted to maintain the status quo. A critical event regarding the resolution of this conflict is the Augsburg Peace of 1555, which affirmed the principle that a leader would choose the religion to which his citizens would subscribe (Becker, Pfaff and Rubin 28). The result of this affirmation is that somterritories could detach from the grasp of the Holy Roman Empire and choose their path in relation to socio-economic policies. In this way, the Protestant Reformation can be said to be a harbinger for the contemporary nation-state system of governance.

The Industrial Revolution

Before the 18th century, Europe’s economy was primarily driven by an agrarian society. This community comprised of the major rural areas in which individual farmers produced food. Agricultural producers processed textile products and other non-food items on a small scale either by hand or with the aid of basic tools and equipment. Such a system had its shortcomings, which limited economic productivity. Merchants would have to align their business practices with the schedule of their suppliers, a factor that inconvenienced many businesspeople. Besides, standardization was hard to achieve as individual producers determined the quality of their product. In such a system, substantial inefficiencies are apparent.

However, all this changed in the period between the 18th and 19th century when significant technical developments took place, especially in the British society. This period heralded the era of mass production. Machinery was invented to increase productive efficiency by increasing output per given unit of time. The textile sector, previously relegated to home production, soon received a boom with the invention of production multiplier engines. This trend pervaded the communication industry with the invention of the telegraph and the construction of railways. Developments in Banking also led to structured financing solutions to the capital needs occasioned by large scale production. Taking into account the fact that the British were a dominant colonial power, sources of raw materials were in abundance. Colonialism also presented the empire with access to a vast market for finished products. Such significant advancement undoubtedly brought with it not just economic gains, but demographic and power gains as well (Van Zanden 3). It is worth noting that while the Industrial Revolution started in Britain, it soon spread to the rest of the Western world.

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Effects of the Industrial Revolution


The emergence of mass production resulted in a demographic shift regarding residence. Many people moved closer to manufacturing centers in search of work. Over time, these settlements developed into towns, which eventually turned into vibrant cities. While the rural areas remained the place to obtain farm produce both for private consumption and for industrial production, the rate of rural to urban migration increased significantly. Increased urbanization brought with it several social ills such as widespread prostitution and increased petty crime. Moreover, rapidly growing urban populations led to poor sanitation conditions in the early stages of industrialization.

Environmental Degradation

Mass industrialization occasioned massive environmental pollution as plumes of toxic smoke frequently rented the air. Given the fact that coal was the dominant fuel for manufacturing activities, the air pollution resulting from the industrial revolution was significant. Toxic wastewater was also another pollutant as manufacturers allowed it to flow into rivers and other drinking water sources. Overcrowding in the settlements surrounding factories, coupled with the lack of appropriate sanitation amenities, further compounded the pollution problem, thereby resulting in the rapid spread of communicable diseases. In fact, some scholars assert that air pollution in Britain was at its worst level in the tail end of the 19th century (Clapp 14). It is worth noting that this trend has persisted through modern times in which concerns continuously emerge regarding the global warming effect of air pollution. The industrial revolution, therefore, signaled the beginning of massive environmental degradation.

Standard of Living

The institutionalization of production rapidly increased overall economic output. The GDP of Britain undoubtedly received a boost. Moreover, factory workers earned income, which placed them in a better position than the unemployed people at the time. However, it is worth noting that this improved economic situation did not necessarily translate into better standards of living for the masses. Grueling factory labor meant more time was spent on work than on leisure or with friends. Additionally, child labor was rampant at the time before legislation was enacted to curtail the practice. The diseases occasioned by environmental pollution made things worse. The Industrial Revolution, therefore, worsened the standard of living especially during its early stages.

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Income Inequality

While the Industrial Revolution brought many economic gains, it resulted in massive income disparities between the owners of capital and the working class. While wages rose over time, so did the cost of living. In fact, research figures indicate that the cost of living was 11% higher in 1831 than in 1790 (Hobsbawm 120).  This disparity explains the emergence of the urban poor in the wake of the industrial revolution. While factory owners and merchants pocketed handsome profits, the working class languished in low-income situations. The presence of a large pool of unemployed people further increased the exploitation of workers since factory workers could easily replace those who were unsatisfied with their wages. It is noteworthy that this pattern of inequality continued throughout the history of industrialization till modern times. The Industrial Revolution thus reflects some of the vagaries of capitalism.

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  1. Andrews, Evan. “10 Innovations That Built Ancient Rome.” 20 November 2012. Web.
  2. Becker, Sascha O, Steven Pfaff and Jared Rubin. “Causes and Consequences of the Protestant Reformation.”
  3. Clapp, B W. An Environmental History of Britain Since the Industrial Revolution. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.
  4. Hobsbawm, E J. “The Standard of Living During the Industrial Revolution: A Discussion.” The Economic History Review 16.1 (1963): 119-134. Print.
  5. Van Zanden, J L. The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution: The European Economy in a Global Perspective, 1000-1800. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2009. Print.
  6. Williams, Stephen. “Corruption and the Decline of Rome.” n.d.
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