Document-Based Essay: The Collapse of Empires



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Document-Based Essay: The Collapse of Empires
This task is designed to test your ability to work with historical documents and is based on the accompanying documents (1 - 10). Some of the documents have been edited for the purposes of this question. As you analyze the documents, take into account both the source of each document and any point of view that may be presented in the document.
• Directions: The following question is based on the accompanying documents in Part A. As you analyze the documents, take into account both the source of the document and the author's point of view. Be sure to:

  1. Carefully read the document-based question. Consider what you already know about this topic. How would you answer the question if you had no documents to examine?

  2. Now, read each document carefully, underlining key phrases and words that address the document-based question. You may also wish to use the margin to make brief notes. Answer the questions which follow each document.

  3. Based on your own knowledge and on the information found in the documents, formulate a thesis that directly answers the question.

  4. Organize supportive and relevant information into a brief outline.

  5. Write a well-organized essay proving your thesis. The essay should be logically presented and should include information both from the documents and from your own knowledge outside of the documents.


Task - Part B:

A number of complex and enduring empires have dominated large parts of Afroeurasia, and Meso-America. Among these were the Han Empire in China, the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Basin, and the Maya in Meso-America. In spite of their vast size, wealth, and power, all of these large empires suffered catastrophic collapse. So how did these great empires find themselves plummeting to an unfortunate collapse? The collapse of these empires were due to multiple factors and did not occur based on one problem or events. Although there are many similarities in the reasons for the desecration of these empires, there are also several contrasting reasons for the declines.



"Were the reasons for the collapse of two of these empires similar or different?"
Choose two Empires, and for each one:

  • Describe at least three specific reasons for the fall of each empire.

  • Explain at least three similarities that exist between the reasons for the collapse of the two empires you have chosen.

You must use at least seven documents!!
Part A:

Read the documents in Part A and answer the questions after each document. Then, read the directions for Part B and write your essay.




Document One:

. . . The near constant need to mount an effective military defense against nomadic raids demanded manpower, food, horses, and weapons. To maintain itself, the central government imposed increasingly heavy taxes on the peasants in the north. The growing power of China's private land owners however, brought a dramatic drop in the number of tax-paying peasants, particularly in North China and the northern frontier regions. Eventually, the tax burden became unbearable. Many peasants fled south where taxes were lower, or moved onto the estates of the great land owners, where rent was a far less crushing burden than the taxes paid by free peasants. The inevitable result of this population shift was a dwindling number of tax-paying peasants in the north. The government persisted in its demands for money, imposing an ever-increasing tax burden on a diminishing tax base. Hard-pressed peasants faced the choice of turning to banditry or open revolt, either of which further weakened the dynasty's finances. Once this downward spiral began, nothing would stop it.

The decline of the Later Han Dynasty accelerated toward the end of 2nd century, yet the Chinese government took no effective measures to control the disintegration of its empire. While Chinese bureaucrats spent much of their time redistributing the empire's wealth among themselves, the collapse of the tax-paying peasantry ruined both the forced manual labor system and the peasant draft army. China's professional armies generally became the private forces of the rich land-owning generals who commanded them. These private armies grew in both size and power until the generals became virtually independent warlords, men too powerful to be curbed by the central government. Soon, these warlords completely overshadowed the central Chinese government; in fact, they controlled it.


  • http://www.koreanhistoryproject.org/Ket/C02/E0203.htm

  1. Why did the Han Empire have to impose heavier taxes?

  2. What was the result of this increase in taxes?

  3. What happened to China’s professional armies?


Document Two:

Because of the weakened Han military, the Yellow Turban Rebellion also caused the Han government to desperately recruit men to fight for their cause. However, charismatic leaders managed to form their own paramilitary groups and join the Han army to deal with the uprising. An example of this can be seen in the first chapter of Romance of the Three Kingdoms where the emperor issues a call for volunteer fighters against the rebels. The protagonist, Liu Bei, decides to recruit his own army instead of joining up with the government forces. Another example deals with a volunteer army recruited from Southern China to deal with the rebels. According to Sun

Jian’s biography in the Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, the young military officer, Sun Jian, gathered recruits from his home district and joined up with the Han army to fight against the Yellow Turban rebels. While the central government decayed, these paramilitary groups grew in strength.


  • http://kongming.net/novel/writings/jiangzhi/long_united_must_divide.php

  1. Why did paramilitary groups develop?

  2. Why these paramilitary groups did grow in strength?


Document Three:
As powerful and prosperous as Han China was, it had an inherent weakness, namely that it was based on a huge army and bureaucracy that put a tremendous strain on the economy. This had two main results. First of all, the peasants, who bore the brunt of the taxes, increasingly lost their lands to nobles whose power grew in opposition to the central government. This caused revolts both by oppressed peasants and power hungry nobles. Secondly, as the economy faltered under the strain of heavy taxes, nomadic raids stepped up, which hurt the economy even more, triggering more raids, and so on. Together, these raids and revolts weakened the Han Dynasty, forcing it to increase the army and taxes, and so on. Finally, in 220 C.E., the Han Dynasty fell, ushering in another period of turmoil.

  • http://www.flowofhistory.com/units/asia/8/FC54

  1. What was the inherent weakness of Han China?

  2. What were the results of these weaknesses?


Document Four:

A record of the atmosphere trapped in Greenland's ice found the level of heat-trapping methane rose about 2,000 years ago and stayed at that higher level for about two centuries.

Methane was probably released during deforestation to clear land for farming and from the use of charcoal as fuel, for instance to smelt metal to make weapons, lead author Celia Sapart of Utrecht University in the Netherlands told Reuters.

"Per capita they were already emitting quite a lot in the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty," she said of the findings by an international team of scientists in Thursday's edition of the journal Nature.

Rates of deforestation "show a decrease around AD 200, which is related to drastic population declines in China and Europe following the fall of the Han Dynasty and the decline of the Roman Empire," the scientists wrote.


  • http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/03/us-climate-romans-idUSBRE89212020121003

  1. What is the effect of methane upon the atmosphere?

  2. According to Celia Sapart, what caused the release of methane gas during the Roman and Han Empires?



Document Five:
The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic... The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them formidable to the enemy; . .. the vigor of the military government was relaxed and finally dissolved by the partial institutions of Constantine [who divided the empire into an eastern and a western section]; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of barbarians

As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse, of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity [cowardliness] buried in the cloister; a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity [monks and nuns] ... the Church, and even the State, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable [unforgiving]; . . . the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country . . . The sacred indolence [laziness] of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age . . . the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine to Christianity. heartedness]; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were



  • Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. B. Bury, ed.) London. Methuen, 1898, IV, 161-63; VII, 308.

  1. Why does the historian Edward Gibbon feel that Christianity was to blame for the decline of the Roman Empire?


Document Six:
Hence resulted the grievous troubles of his subjects, and the ruinous items of [tariff/taxes] imposts that had been instituted, long continued practice in oppression . .enfeebled (weakened) and cut the fortunes of rich and poor alike. Finally the burden of tributes (payments) and the repeated increase in taxes compelled some of the most distinguished families, hounded by the fear of the worst, to leave the country; others, crushed by the severity of the tax-collectors, having nothing to give, became permanent inmates of the prisons; and some of these, now weary of life and light; died by the noose (by hanging) as a welcome release.

  • Amnianus Marcellinus, III, 337-39.

  1. Why does Ammianus feel that the tax system is to blame for the problems facing Roman society?



Document Seven:
This map shows the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire prior to 476 C.E.



  • World History: Patterns of Interaction. McDougal-Littell: 1999

  1. According to the map above, what was the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire?

  2. Was this a unified attack?


Document Eight:
In the first study, published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Arizona State University analyzed archaeological data from across the Yucatan to reach a better understanding of the environmental conditions when the area was abandoned. Around this time, they found, severe reductions in rainfall were coupled with a rapid rate of deforestation, as the Mayans burned and chopped down more and more forest to clear land for agriculture. Interestingly, they also required massive amounts of wood to fuel the fires that cooked the lime plaster for their elaborate constructions—experts estimate it would have taken 20 trees to produce a single square meter of cityscape.

  • Joseph Stromberg,Why Did the Mayan Civilization Collapse? A New Study Points to Deforestation and Climate Change, August 23, 201 http://www.smithsonianmag.com/...-civilization-collapse-a-new-study-points-to-deforestation-and-climate-change-30863026

  1. What were the environmental conditions at the time that the Maya abandoned the area?

Document Nine:
“There were three exceptionally severe drought events, lasting three, six, and nine years, during which there was very little to no rainfall at all,” says Hughen. “And during an already dry climate, even these fairly short periods of nearly zero rainfall, of absent rainy seasons, could have pushed the Maya civilization to the breaking point.”

The droughts occurred around 810, 860, and 910 CE, dates which correspond to the three phases of Maya collapse shown by archaeological evidence. The Maya civilization depended on a consistent rainfall cycle to support its agricultural production. Their primary food was maize (corn), which they started growing around 2000 BCE, and maize production was their main economic activity. So scientists believe these droughts, during which there was almost no rainfall, probably forced the Maya civilization to the brink of collapse by putting a strain on their resources. Some scientists also believe that the droughts may have led people to question the power of the ruling class in Maya society because the established ceremonies failed to “bring back” the water during these dry periods.



  • Dr. Gerald Haug

  1. How could fairly short drought periods have pushed the Maya civilization to the breaking point?


Document Ten:
From 205–600 CE, it is believed that Mayan warfare was more or less restricted to the kings and other royals: they were kidnapped by rivals as a means of absorbing their power as rulers. However, in the late Classic period, the Toltec people infiltrated the Mayan territory and influenced their culture, including how the Mayan elite waged war. Maya rulers began to involve large segments of the population in war. With entire communities engaged in warfare, fields were left fallow and water control systems deteriorated.

Classic Maya kings were also believed to be gods on Earth. As such, they were responsible for bringing rain to their land and ensuring that enough food was produced. This belief system worked well when resources were bountiful, but when they were not, some people may have turned against their kings in anger. Others may have fled city centers to escape their dissatisfaction. Maya leaders fought among themselves as well, and many began wars to expand their territories. When resources were scarce, regional centers most likely waged wars against one another to compete for food and water. The shortage of food and water, combined with the wars between regional centers, helped to trigger a collapse in their civilization.



  • Profesor Emily Keen, University of California: San Diego

  1. What was the result of the change in Maya warfare?

  2. What else may have helped trigger a collapse of the Maya civilization?

Task - Part B:
A number of complex and enduring empires have dominated large parts of Afroeurasia, and Meso-America. Among these were the Han Empire in China, the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Basin, and the Maya in Meso-America. In spite of their vast size, wealth, and power, all of these large empires suffered catastrophic collapse. So how did these great empires find themselves plummeting to an unfortunate collapse? The collapse of these empires were due to multiple factors and did not occur based on one problem or events. Although there are many similarities in the reasons for the desecration of these empires, there are also several contrasting reasons for the declines.
"Were the reasons for the collapse of two of these empires similar or different?"
Choose two Empires, and for each one:

  • Describe at least three specific reasons for the fall of each empire.

  • Explain at least three similarities that exist between the reasons for the collapse of the two empires you have chosen.


You must use seven documents!!
Guidelines: When writing your essay, be sure to

  • address all aspects of the Task by accurately analyzing and interpreting all documents.

  • incorporate information from the documents in the body of the essay.

  • incorporate relevant outside information throughout the essay.

  • richly support the theme with relevant facts, examples, and details.

  • write a well-developed essay that consistently demonstrates a logical and clean plan of organization. introduce the theme by establishing a framework that is beyond a simple restatement of the Task and conclude the essay with a summation of the theme.






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