Dissolution and instability

Seen against the background of the millennia, the fall of the Roman Empire was so commonplace an event that it is almost surprising that so much ink has been spilled in the attempt to explain it. The Visigoths were merely one among the peoples who had been dislodged from the steppe in the usual fashion. They and others, unable to crack the defenses of Sāsānian Persia or of the Roman Empire in the East (though it was a near thing), probed farther west and at length found the point of weakness they were seeking on the Alps and the Rhine.

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What really needs explaining is the fact that the Western Empire was never restored. Elsewhere imperial thrones were never vacant for long. Thus in China, after every time of troubles, a new dynasty received “the mandate of heaven,” and a new emperor, or “son of heaven,” rebuilt order. For instance, in 304 ce the nomadic Huns invaded China, and a long period of disruption followed, but at the beginning of the 7th century the Tang dynasty took charge and began 300 years of rule. Similar patterns mark the history of India and Japan.


John; Magna Carta
King John signing the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede, England.

However, there was a dynamism in European society that prevented it from setting permanently into any pattern. The evolving Europe of privileged orders was also the Europe of rising monarchies. With many setbacks the kings clawed power to themselves; by 1500 most of them presided over bureaucracies (initially staffed by clerics) that would have impressed any Roman emperor. But universal empire was still impossible. The foundations of the new monarchies were purely territorial. The kings of England, France, and Spain had enough to do to enforce their authority within the lands they had inherited or seized and to hammer their realms into some sort of uniformity. That impulse explains the wars of the English against the Welsh, Scots, and Irish; the drive of the French kings toward the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Rhine; and the rigour of the Spanish kings in forcing Catholicism on their Jewish and Moorish subjects. Uniformity paved the way for the most characteristic governmental form of the modern world, the nation-state.

This entity, like the city-state that it superseded, had and has a double aspect. A nation or people can exist without taking the form of a state: physical geography, economic interest, language, religion, and history, all together or in ones and twos, can create a generally accepted and recognized identity without a political organization. The Kurds are an example of such a nation. But such an identity can, in the right circumstances, provide a solid foundation for government, and the territorial monarchies’ quest for external aggrandizement and administrative uniformity soon began, half deliberately, to exploit that possibility.

Emergence of the modern world

The rise and fall of absolute monarchy

The development of the nation-state was not easy, for the monarchs or anyone else. The legacy of the Middle Ages was so intractable that the emergence of nation-states was very slow. It may be argued, however, that the modern period was born during the reign of Henry VIII of England (reigned 1509–47), when that king more or less simultaneously declared himself head of the national church and his realm an empire—sovereign and unanswerable to any foreign potentate, particularly the pope.

The rise in power of Henry VIII and other early modern kings may be attributed in part to the use of gunpowder, which had enabled the kings to overbear their turbulent nobles—cannons were extremely effective at demolishing the castles in which rebellious barons had formerly been quite safe. But artillery was exceedingly expensive. A sufficient revenue had always been one of the chief necessities of monarchy, but none of the great European kingdoms, in their autocratic phase, ever succeeded in securing one permanently. The complexities of medieval society had permitted very little coercion of taxpayers. For the rest, money could only be secured by chicanery; by selling offices or crown lands (at the price of a long-term weakening of the monarch); by robbing the church; by a lucky chance, such as the acquisition of the gold and silver of Mexico and Peru by the king of Spain; or by dealing, on a semi-equal footing, with parliaments (or estates, as they were most generally known).


Martin Luther
Martin Luther, portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
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The conquest of the Americas opened a new epoch in world history. The Spanish overthrew the monarchies of the Aztecs and the Incas, thanks partly to the Spaniards’ superior weapons and partly to the diseases they brought with them. It was a spectacular episode, the first to proclaim that the old struggle between the steppe and sown land had been bypassed: the drama of history was now going to lie in the tension between the oceans and the land. The globe was circumnavigated for the first time. European ships bearing explorers, traders, pirates, or people who were something of all three penetrated every sea and harbour, and, although the ancient civilizations of Islam, India, China, and Japan saw no need to alter their customs to take account of European innovations, the signal had been given for their fall. Portuguese and Spanish explorations gave far-flung overseas empires to both countries—and as many difficulties as benefits. Other countries—France, England, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark—thought it both undesirable and unsafe not to seek such empire themselves, and the Iberian monarchies were thus involved in a perpetual struggle to defend their acquisitions. Those battles entailed incessant expenditure, which was more, in the end, than the kingdoms’ revenues could match. Financial weakness was one of the chief causes of the decline of Spain.

But by then the inadequacies of the monarchical system had been cruelly exposed in such episodes as the revolt of the Netherlands against its Spanish overlord, the defeat of Spain’s Invincible Armada by England, and, worst of all, the snail’s-pace development of the Spanish colonies in the New World. The Spanish king Charles V and his son Philip II were as able as all but a few monarchs in recorded history, but they could not overcome the structural weaknesses of hereditary monarchy. There was no mechanism by which they could devolve their most crushing duties onto their ministers, so government moved slowly, if at all. As lawful sovereigns, they were bound by the customs of their numerous realms, which frequently blocked necessary measures but could not safely be challenged, as Philip found when he tried to rule the Netherlands autocratically. They also were unable to guarantee that their heirs would be their equals in ability. The only remedy discoverable within the system was for the king in effect to abdicate in favour of a chief minister. Unfortunately, a minister equal to the task was seldom found, and no minister, however gifted, was ever safe from the constant intrigues and conspiracies of disgruntled courtiers. Problems tended to accumulate until they became unmanageable. The same difficulties eventually ruined the French monarchy as well.

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Charles V with his hunting dog, oil on wood by Jakob Seisenegger, 1532; in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.