The Greeks and Romans

Europe did not become a center for world economies with high standards of living by accident. Historical events in global development have favored this realm because of its physical geography and cultural factors. In southern Europe, the Greeks provided ideas, philosophy, and organization. Greek thinkers promoted the concept of democracy. The Romans carried the concept of the empire to new levels. From about 150 BCE to 475 CE, the Romans brought many ideas together and controlled a large portion of Europe and North Africa. The Roman Empire introduced a common infrastructure to Europe by building and connecting their roads, bridges, aqueducts, and port facilities. They also understood how to rule an empire by taking advantage of the best opportunities of each region they controlled. The Romans encouraged the best and most skilled artisans to focus on what they did best. This created the specialization of goods and a market economy. No longer did everyone have to make everything for themselves. They could sell in the market what they produced and purchase products created by others, which would be of higher quality than what they could make at home. Regions that specialized in specific goods due to local resources or specialty skills could transport those goods to markets long distances away. The Roman Empire also connected southern Europe and North Africa.

The Vikings

The Vikings of Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, and Denmark; 900–1200 CE) are often inaccurately referred to as rogue bands of armed warriors who pillaged and plundered northern Europe. Though they were fierce warriors in battle, they were experienced farmers, skilled craftsmen, and active traders with trade routes throughout the north. Using their maritime knowledge and skills, the Vikings used Europe’s waterways for transportation. They were some of the earliest colonizers with colonies ranging from modern-day Russia, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada. Their longships were renowned for versatility and provided an advantage on the sea. This allowed the Vikings to make profound advances deep into Europe – all the way to Constantinople. History indicates that the Byzantine Empire employed Scandinavian Vikings as mercenaries.

In a general sense, the regions to the west of Scandinavia, such as Iceland, Scotland, Ireland, and Greenland, were targeted by the Norwegian Vikings. Southern regions such as England and France were more often destinations of the Danish Vikings. Russia and areas of Eastern Europe were standard trading grounds for the Swedish Vikings, though the different Viking groups could occasionally be found in the same destinations. The present-day Scandinavian countries were established after the main Viking period. The Vikings connected northern Europe with trade during the Dark Ages.


It was not until after the Dark Ages of Europe ended that a rebirth of ideas, technology, and progress took hold. The Renaissance of the late fifteenth century prompted activity in Europe that changed the world. In 1492, Columbus and his three ships crossed the Atlantic to land on the shores of the Americas. This event symbolized the beginning of the era of European colonialism, which only diminished after World War II. Colonialism’s effects remain in the colonies or protectorates that European countries still possess. Colonialism was fueled by the economic concept of mercantilism that included the drive of governments to control trade, promoting the acquisition of wealth by the quick gain of gold or silver from their colonies.

Colonialism included the development of colonies outside the home country, usually for the expansion of imperial power and the exploitation of human (slavery) and natural resources. The building of larger ships and an understanding of sea travel allowed an exchange of new goods and ideas between continents. North and South America were opened up to the European explorers for colonial expansion. European colonialism brought newfound wealth from the colonies back to Europe. All the regions of the world outside Europe were targeted for colonialism. Africa was divided up, “Latin” America was created, and Asia became a target for resources and trade. The few powerful countries along the Atlantic coast of Europe began the drive to dominate their world. If you live in the Western Hemisphere, consider the language you speak and the borders of your country: both were most likely products of European colonialism. Most of the current political, geographic boundaries were drawn up or shaped through colonial conflict or agreement.

The Agrarian Revolution

The post-Renaissance era introduced many agricultural changes that impacted European food production. Before this time, most agrarian methods were primitive and labor-intensive, but new technologies were introduced that greatly enhanced agricultural production. Plows, seeders, and harvesting technologies were introduced, and land reform and land ownership transitioned to adapt to the changing times. These innovations supported the expanding port cities that created urban markets for agricultural surpluses. Colonial ships returned from the colonies with new crops such as the potato that revolutionized crop production. This era’s progress in agrarian advancements is often referred to as the agrarian revolution. The agrarian revolution led to industrial developments such as the steam tractor and steel implements that further advanced agricultural production worldwide.

The Industrial Revolution

Great Britain, being an island country, developed the world’s largest navy and took control of the seas. Their colonial reach extended from what is now Canada to Australia. The Industrial Revolution, initiated in northern England in the late 1700s, introduced an industrial period that changed how humans produced products. The shift to coal for energy, the use of the steam engine for power, the smelting of iron, and the concept of mass production changed how goods were produced.

The development of the steam-powered engine provided a mobile power source. Waterwheels powered by steep-flowing rivers or streams were an early source of power. With coal for fuel and steam for power, the engines of industry were mobile and moved full speed ahead. Power looms converted textiles such as cotton and wool into cloth. Powered by a steam engine, a power loom could operate twenty-four hours a day and could be located anywhere. Industrialization with cheap labor and adequate raw materials brought enormous wealth to the industrial leaders and their home countries.

With the mass production of goods and advancements in technology, there was a significant shift in human labor. Fewer people were needed on the farms, and more workers were needed in factories. There was a sizeable rural-to-urban shift in the human population. Europe experienced the development of the major cities of its realm during this period. In Britain in 1800, for example, only 9 percent of the population lived in urban areas. By 1900, some 62 percent were urban dwellers. As of 2010, over 90 percent of Britains live in urban areas, compared to 75 percent urban for the whole of Europe.

The rural-to-urban shift that began with the Industrial Revolution in Europe continues today in developing countries. The Industrial Revolution, which started in northern England’s Pennine mountain chain, rippled through Europe and across the Atlantic to the United States. The majority of countries in Europe are currently in stage 5 of the index of economic development. The five stages of the index of economic development illustrate a pattern of development and population dynamics for a country or region. The model outlines how rural societies with an agrarian economy in stage 1 can make the transition to stage 5: the stage that indicates an urban society with a consumer economy. As a general trend, when a country’s levels of industrial activity and urban growth rise, the outcome is usually a higher standard of living and smaller family sizes.

Additionally, the rural-to-urban shift takes place, driven by the pull of opportunities and advantages in the industrializing and urbanizing areas. Countries in stage 5 of the index have small families with a fertility rate below the replacement level. Their incomes, based on a consumer economy, are generally at high levels.

As Europe industrialized and progressed through the stages of the index of economic development, certain core regions reached the postindustrial stages earlier than others. Western Europe established a core industrial region with an extended periphery. The postindustrial activity in this core area continues today in four main centers of innovation: (1) Stuttgart in southern Germany, (2) Lyon in southeastern France, (3) Milan in northern Italy, and (4) Barcelona in northeastern Spain. These four industrial centers have been referred to by some as the Four Motors of Europe because they promote business and industry for the European community. The European core region extends as far as Stockholm in the north to Barcelona in the south.

Central Business Districts and Primate Cities

European urban development centered on port cities that had industrial activity. Ships could import raw materials, the factories could manufacture the goods, and the ships could export the products. A central business district (CBD) developed around these activities. Since walking was the primary transportation mode, all business activities had to move in the same vicinity. Banks, retail shops, food markets, and residential dwellings had to be close to the factories and port facilities. Modern cities emerged from this industrialization process, and Europe is one of the more urban realms on the planet.

Empire State -  New York City

Many European countries have one central primate city. The term primate city indicates a city that is more than twice as large as their second city and exceptionally expressive of national feeling and heritage. One may instinctively think that the primate city is the same as the capital city of a country; this, however, is not always the case. For example, Washington, DC, is the US capital, but New York City is the country’s primate city. Primate cities represent a country’s persona and often are symbolic of the country’s heritage and character. Though common, not all countries of the world have a primate city. Financial and business centers in cities such as London, Rome, or Paris support the industrial activity that led to their development as primate cities. Most primate cities are ports or are located on a major river.

Rural-to-Urban Shift and Population Growth

Consider the trend that the Industrial Revolution brought to Europe. Recall the population growth principle, which states that as countries industrialize and urbanize, family size naturally goes down, and incomes traditionally go up. Integrate this with the rural-to-urban shift that occurs when countries progress through the five stages of the index of economic development. By understanding these underlying trends, one can determine the average family size in Europe and why it is declining.


Because Europe is an urbanized realm, one can understand why family size in Europe is small. Various countries in Europe have negative population growth rates. Family size in Spain and Italy is around 1.2, with the average family size in all of Europe at 1.4 children. The replacement rate to maintain an even population-growth pattern would be a fertility rate of about 2.1 children. Small families do not provide enough young people to cover the available entry-level service jobs. Europe, the United States, and Japan are all in stage 5 of the index of economic development and are facing low or negative population growth and a deficit in their cheap labor supply. As a core economic global power, Europe has experienced an increase in immigration. With a lower fertility rate and an increase in postindustrial activity, Europe is a magnet for people from poorer peripheral countries and even peripheral regions within Europe who are looking for opportunities and advantages.

With the planet’s human population increasing overall, one might think that smaller family size is a positive trend. It may be, but there are problems along the way. If there are fewer young people in a community—fewer children and fewer people of employment age—consider how this affects the economic situation. With a declining European population, who will apply for the entry-level jobs? Economic core areas attract immigrants seeking opportunities and advantages. Europe follows this pattern. There has been increasing tension between the long-standing European cultural groups and immigrants from developing countries who often speak non-European languages or follow religions other than Christianity. The main religion of immigrants from North Africa or the Middle East is Islam, which is the fastest-growing religion in Europe.

Declining Family Size in Europe

There are six main reasons for the declining family size in Europe:

  • The high cost of living makes supporting a large family expensive.
  • Confined living spaces in urban areas are expensive for larger families.
  • Young people are naturally putting off marriage and family until they are older.
  • Family planning and health care for women is available.
  • More people are earning an education and putting off having children.
  • More women choose professional careers and have fewer children.

The following problems arise with the decline in family size in Europe:

  • Fewer children result in a shrinking workforce for entry-level jobs.
  • The workforce is getting older, and more professionals are retiring.
  • Pension costs are increasing, and there are fewer younger workers to pay for them.
  • The tax burden is shifting to fewer younger professionals in the workplace.
  • More revenues are needed to pay for the health care of a larger population of senior citizens.
  • Immigrants seeking employment may not share the same cultural heritage or values.

Nation-States and Devolution

The agrarian revolution and the Industrial Revolution were powerful movements that altered human activity in many ways. Innovations in food production and the manufacturing of products transformed Europe, which in turn impacted the rest of the world. Even before the agrarian revolution was underway, other transitions in European political currents were undermining the established empire mentality fueled by warfare and territorial disputes.

The political revolution that transformed Europe was a result of several actions that focused on ending continual warfare for the control of territory and introducing peaceful agreements that recognized the sovereignty of territory ruled by representative government structures. Various treaties and revolutions continued to shift the power from dictators and monarchs to the general populace. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and those that followed helped establish a sense of peace and stability for Central Europe, which had been dominated by the Holy Roman Empire and competing powers. The Holy Roman Empire, which was centered on the German states of Central Europe from 962–1806, should not be confused with the Roman Empire, which was based in Rome and ended centuries earlier. The French Revolution (1789–95) was an example of the political transformation taking place across Europe to establish democratic processes for governance.

The political revolution laid the groundwork for a sense of nationalism that transformed Europe into nation-states. The term nation refers to a homogeneous group of people with a common heritage, language, religion, or political ambition. The term state refers to the government; for example, the United States has a State Department with a secretary of state. When nations and states come together, there is a true nation-state, wherein most citizens share a common heritage and a united government.

European countries have progressed to the point where the concept of forming or remaining a nation-state is a driving force in many political sectors. To state it plainly, most Europeans want to be a member of a nation-state, where everyone is alike and shares the same culture, heritage, and government. The result of the drive for nation-states in Europe is in Italy for Italians, a united Germany for Germans, and a France for the French, for example. The truth is that this ideal goal is challenging to come by. Though the political borders of many European countries resemble nation-states, there is too much diversity within the nations to consider truly creating an ideal nation-state.

Various ethnic populations in Europe desire their own nation-state within their countries of residence. They want to devolve or separate from the more significant state. The term devolution refers to the process whereby regions or people within a state demand independence and autonomy at the central government’s expense. There are now several cases where devolution is occurring in Europe. For example, Scotland and Wales seek to devolve from the United Kingdom. The Basque region between Spain and France would like to have its nation-state. Former Yugoslavia broke up into seven smaller nation-states. Various other minority groups in Europe seek similar arrangements. Thus both cohesive cultural forces and divisive cultural forces are active in the European community.

Centrifugal and Centripetal Forces

Cultural forces continually apply pressure on a country. Some of these cultural forces pull the nation together, called centripetal forces, and others pull it apart, called centrifugal forces. Primary sources of these cultural forces include religion, language, ethnicity, politics, and economic conditions.

Centrifugal Forces Divide a State

  • Ethnic conflict
  • Social injustice
  • Poverty
  • Dictatorial leadership
  • Religious intolerance
  • Nationalism
  • Loss of rights
  • Any other divisive forces

Centripetal Forces Hold a State Together

  • Ethnic Unity and Tolerance
  • Social/Economic Equity
  • Just and fair legal systems
  • Religious acceptance
  • Common heritage
  • Common language
  • Any other unifying force

When there is division, conflict, or confrontation, centrifugal forces are at play. When unification, agreement, or nationalism are being exercised, centripetal forces are evident. The sources that tie a country together can also be the sources that divide a country. Ethnic unity can be a positive force, while ethnic division and conflict can be a divisive force. If centrifugal forces become strong, the result may be an outright civil war, as was seen in the United States in the 1860s. Unity can also be evident through national struggles, such as the nationalism displayed immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. After the attacks, an outpouring of goodwill and agreement strengthened the bonds within the United States.

To understand our world, it is helpful to understand the cultural forces that are active in any one location. Disagreement, inequity, or injustice related to the cultural factors of ethnicity, religion, language, and economics of a region or country is the cause of most conflicts. The strong personalities that provide leadership can similarly prove to be powerful forces that either divide or unite a nation. An example of cultural forces in afterward in Europe can be found in Northern Ireland, where political forces use religious differences as a means of social division.

Religion and Language in Europe

Europe has historically been considered a Christian realm. The three main branches of Christianity in Europe are Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox. Rome has been the geographical base for the Roman Catholic Church since the Roman Empire. Operating on the Romance language, Latin, the Catholic Church has provided southern Europe with a common religion for over 1,500 years.

The Roman Catholic Church split when Constantinople, now called Istanbul, gained preeminence. The Eastern Orthodox Church launched itself as the primary organization in the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe and Russia. The reformation of the fourteenth century, led by people such as Martin Luther, brought about the Protestant Reformation and a break with the Roman Catholic Church. Protestant churches have dominated northern Europe to this day.


Three main Indo-European language groups dominate Europe. Though there are additional language groups, the dominant three coincide with the three main religious divisions. In the east, where the Eastern Orthodox Church is dominant, the Slavic language group prevails. In the north, along with Protestant Christianity, one finds the Germanic language group. In southern Europe, where Roman Catholicism is dominant, the Romance languages are more commonly spoken.

European Union

Centuries of fighting and the end of two world wars created an international desire to unify Europe. First, the concept of nation-states, and a desire by European nations to recognize the sovereignty of states that are ruled by representative governments. Many European countries have progressed to a point where the concept of forming or empowering nation-states has helped influence the creation of the European Union.

In 1921, Luxembourg and Belgium signed the Convention of Brussels, creating the Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union. Following World War II, the union included the Netherlands. In 1944, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg established the Benelux Agreement, which is a politico-economic union of the three neighboring states in western Europe.

Following World War II, the United States implemented the Marshall Plan (named after Secretary of State, George Marshal) to help rebuild war-torn Europe with American aid. Shortly afterward, the Treaty of Rome agreement (1957-1993) was signed to provide the economic structure necessary to rebuild Europe following the war. Over time, and several other treaties replaced the Treaty of Rome that lead to the advent of the European Union (EU) in 1993.

The European Union is considered to be a supranationalistic political and economic system. Supranationalism is the voluntary association of three or more independent nation-states, willing to yield some measure of sovereignty for a mutual benefit. As noted by the EU, their stated goals are:

  • Promote peace, its values, and the well-being of its citizens.
  • Offer freedom, security, and justice without internal borders.
  • Sustainable development based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive market economy with full employment and social progress, and environmental protection.
  • Combat social exclusion and discrimination.
  • Promote scientific technological progress.
  • Enhance economic, social, and territorial cohesion and solidarity among EU countries.
  • Respect its rich culture and linguistic diversity.
  • Establish an economic and monetary union whose currency is the euro.

The EU values are common to the EU countries in a society in which inclusion, tolerance, justice, solidarity, and non-discrimination prevail. These values are an integral part of our European way of life:

  • Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected, protected, and constitutes the real basis of fundamental rights.
  • Freedom of movement gives citizens the right to move and reside freely within the Union. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights protects individual liberties, such as respect for private life, freedom of thought, religion, assembly, expression, and information.
  • The functioning of the EU is founded on representative democracy. Being a European citizen also means enjoying political rights. Every adult EU citizen has the right to stand as a candidate and to vote in elections to the European Parliament. EU citizens have the right to stand as a candidate and to vote in their country of residence, or their country of origin.
  • Equality is about equal rights for all citizens before the law. The principle of equality between women and men underpins all European policies and is the basis for European integration. It applies to all areas. The principle of equal pay for equal work became part of the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Although inequalities still exist, the EU has made significant progress.
  • The EU is based on the rule of law. Everything the EU does is founded on treaties, voluntarily and democratically agreed by its EU countries. An independent judiciary upholds law and justice. The EU countries gave final jurisdiction to the European Court of Justice, which judgments have to be respected by all.
  • The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights protects human rights. These cover the right to be free from discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation, the right to the protection of your data, and or the right to get access to justice.

As with most nation-states, the dynamics of centripetal and centrifugal forces are at play with the European Union. But recently, those tensions have increased, causing some nation-states to reconsider the need and purpose of the EU. Those tensions include issues of international migration into the EU, regional movement within the EU, changing the diversity of nation-states, economics, distrust in the political government of the EU, and more.


The most visible example of the tensions within the European Union is currently in the United Kingdom (UK). On June 23, 2016, the citizens of the UK voted to be the first nation-state to leave the EU.


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Introduction to World Regional Geography Copyright © 2019 by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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