Chapter 7:  Agrarian Societies

The thousand years or so immediately preceding 3000 BC were perhaps more fertile in fruitful inventions and discoveries than any period in human  history prior to the 16th century.  The innovations of that period included the invention of the wheel and its application both to wagons and to the manufacture of pottery, the invention of the plow, the harnessing of animals to pull wagons and plows and their use as pack animals, the harnessing of wind power for sailboats, the invention of writing and numerical notation and invention of the calendar.

Collectively, these innovations transformed the conditions of life for societies in the Middle East, and eventually for societies throughout the world.  With these new cultural resources, societies expanded their populations, increased their material wealth and developed social organizations far more complex than anything known before (175).

Simple agrarian societies


Although all of the innovations mentioned above were important, the plow had the greatest potential for social and cultural change (175).  It made more permanent cultivation possible in a greater variety of soils, and thereby led to the widespread replacement of horticulture by agriculture (176).  It also facilitated the harnessing of animal energy which led to increased productivity.  The plow and related techniques of agriculture apparently spread by diffusion until agrarian societies were eventually established throughout most of Europe, North Africa and Asia.  The plow presupposed certain earlier inventions and discoveries—underlying again the cumulative nature of technological change (175-176).

Religion and the Growth of the Economic Surplus

In the earliest agrarian societies, religion was an extremely powerful force.  Technological advance created the possibility of a surplus, but to transform that possibility into a reality required an ideology that motivated farmers to produce more than they needed to stay alive, and persuaded them to turn that surplus over to someone else.  Although this has sometimes been accomplished by means of secular and political ideologies, a system of beliefs that defined people’s obligations with reference to the supernatural worked best in most societies of the past (178).

Population:  Growth in Size of Communities and Societies

In the first few centuries after the shift to agriculture, there was striking growth in the size of a number of communities, especially in Mesopotamian societies.  Egypt was the largest and most politically stable.  This achievement was due to its unique environmental situation:  no other society had such excellent natural defenses and was so little threatened by other societies (179-180).

The Polity:  Growth of the State

Conquests posed serious organizational problems for the rulers of early agrarian societies.  Traditional modes of government based on kinship ties were no longer adequate for administering the affairs of societies whose populations now sometimes numbered in the millions.  Through rulers continued to rely on relatives to help them govern, they were forced to turn increasingly to others.  One solution was to incorporate a conquered group as a subdivision of the conquering society, leaving its former ruler in charge but in a subordinate capacity.  Eventually all successful rulers found it necessary to create new kinds of governmental structures that were no longer based on kinship ties alone (180-181).

One consequence of the growth of empires and bureaucracy was the establishment of the first formal legal system.  As empire grew, it was necessary to bring diverse cultures under a single political system (183).

The Economy:  The First Monetary Systems and the Growth of Trade

Money was absent in the first simple agrarian societies, although there existed standardized media of exchange, such as barley.  As these media became too cumbersome the use of currency became common.  The growth of monetary systems had enormous implications for societal development.  Money has always facilitated the movement, the exchange, and ultimately the production of goods and services of every kind.  The establishment of a monetary system  greatly expands the market for the things each individual produces, because products can then be sold even to people who produce nothing the producer wants in exchange.  Thus the demands for goods and services increases (184).

Stratification:  Increasing Inequality

In most simple agrarian societies of the ancient world, newly emerging or expanding social and cultural differences created internal divisions within society, and sometimes conflict as well.  Three cleavages were especially serious:

1.      there was one between the small governing class and the much larger mass of people who had no voice in political decisions and who to hand over all or most of the surplus they produced to the governing class;

2.      there was a division between the urban minority and the far more numerous rural population; and

3.      there was a cleavage between the small literate minority and the illiterate masses.

Because these 3 lines of cleavage tended to converge, their impact was greatly magnified (185).  In many respects the differences within simple agrarian societies were greater than similarities between them (185).

Slowdown in the Rate of Technological Innovation

Another significant development in these societies was a marked slowdown in the rate of technological innovation and progress, beginning within a few centuries after the shift from horticulture to agriculture (185).  This was due largely to the negative feedback generated by the major technological advances, as the ruling class became detached from the subsistence technologies and fought to maintain the status quo (186).

Advanced Agrarian Societies


During the period in which simple agrarian societies dominated the Middle East, the most important technological advance was the discovery of the technique of smelting iron.  Prior to this, bronze had been the most important metal.  But since the supply was limited and the demands of the governing class always took precedence over the needs of the peasants, bronze was used primarily for military, ornamental and ceremonial purposes (188-189). 

Prior to the military collapse of the Hittite empire, iron was 5 times more expensive than gold, 40 times more than silver.  It was not until about the 8th century BC that iron came into general use for ordinary tools.  Thus, it is not until this period that we can speak of true advanced agrarian societies, although many Middle Eastern societies of the previous 3-4 centuries were certainly transitional types (189).

During this transitional period 2 further discoveries greatly enhanced the value of iron.  First it was found that if the outer layers of the iron absorbed some carbon from the fire during the forging process, the metal became somewhat harder.  Later it was discovered that this carbonized iron could be hardened still further by quenching the hot metal in water, thus producing steel.  With these developments, iron became not only more common than bronze but also more useful for both military and economic purposes (189).

Compared with simpler societies, advanced agrarian societies enjoyed a very productive technology.  Unfortunately, the same conditions that slowed the rate of technological advance in simple agrarian societies continued to prevail.  Nevertheless, over the centuries quite a number of important innovations were made including:  the catapult, crossbow, gunpowder, horseshoes, stirrups, wood-turning lathe, auger, screw, wheelbarrow, rotary fan for ventilation, clock, spinning wheel, porcelain, printing, iron casting, magnet, water-powered mills, windmills, and, in the period just preceding the emergence of the 1st industrial societies, the working steam engine, fly shuttle, spinning jenny, spinning machine, and various other power-driven tools (189-190).

Population:  Continuing Trends

1.   Size of Societies and Communities

The populations of advanced agrarian societies were substantially larger than those of any societies that preceded them.  This was due partly to advances in agricultural technology that permitted  greater population densities, and partly to advances in military technology that aided the process of empire building (191).

2.   Fertility and Mortality

Birthrates in both simple and advanced agrarian societies have averaged 40 or more births per 1000 population per year, triple that of most modern industrial societies.  In general, there seems to have been little interest in limiting the size of families, since large families, particularly ones with many sons, were valued for both economic and religious reasons.

One of the few constraints on population growth was the threat of severe deprivation (192).  Large cities were unhealthy places, especially for the common people (193).

The Economy:  Increasing Differentiation

1.   Division of Labor

The growth in both territorial and population size that came with the shift from simple to the advanced agrarian level brought with it an increase in the division of labor.  For the first time, there was significant economic specialization both by regions and by communities, and this was accompanied by increased occupational specialization (194).

2.   Command Economies

Because politics and economics were always highly interdependent in advanced agrarian societies, the people who dominated the political system also dominated the economic system.  How resources should be used and what should be produced and in what quantities including distribution were determined less by the forces of supply and demand than by arbitrary decisions of the political elite.  These were command economies, not market economies (195-196).

3.   The Rural Economy

In most advanced agrarian societies, the governing elite owned a grossly disproportionate share of the land.  Not only did they own most of the land, but also the peasants who worked it.  The basic philosophy of the governing class seems to have been to tax peasants to the limit of their ability to pay (197).  Living conditions for peasants were primitive, and many were worse off than hunters and gatherers had been thousands of years earlier (198).  To compound the misery created by their economic condition, peasants were often subjected to further cruelties (199).  To the governing class this seemed only fitting and proper, since most of them viewed peasants as subhuman (200).  For the majority of peasants, the one real hope for substantial improvement in their lot lay in devastation wrought by plagues, famines, and wars (200).

4.   The Urban Economy

Thus it is with a sense of shock that we discover that rarely if ever did all urban communities of an advanced agrarian society contain as much as 10% of its total population and in most cases they held even less (200).  The population of the city was composed mostly of the governing class, merchants, artisans, slaves, beggars and criminals (200-202).

The Polity:  Continuing Development of the State

In nearly all advanced agrarian societies, government was the basic integrating force.  In any society created by conquest and run for the benefit of a tiny elite, coercion was necessary to hold things together.  Nearly every advanced agrarian society was a monarchy headed by a king or emperor whose position was usually hereditary.  Republican governments were the exception (205).  Because of the absence of commercialization, most conflict was intraclass (205).  Commercialization had the power to change this dramatically.  Not only did a wealthy commercial class itself constitute a potential threat to the power of an aristocratic governing elite, but the introduction of commercial elements into the rural economy could trigger violence (205).  External threats were no less frequent or serious, and warfare was a chronic condition (206).

Most members of the governing class considered political power a prize to be sought for the rewards it offered.  This practice reflects a proprietary theory of the state (208).

Religion:  The Emergence of Universal Faiths

During the era in which advanced agrarian societies were dominant, there were a number of important developments in the religious sphere.  The most important was the emergence and spread of 3 new religions:  Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.  Each proclaimed a universal faith (209).  The emergence of universal faiths reflected the broader social and intellectual horizons that resulted from advances in transportation technology and the spreading web of trade relations (210).

Another important development was the growing separation of religious and political institutions, although leaders in both spheres worked closely together.

Kinship:  Changing Significance in Society

For individuals, kinship ties remained of great importance throughout the agrarian era, although for societies they ceased to be the chief integrating force.  Civil and military offices were so numerous that not even the largest of extended families could fill them all (213).

Leisure and the Arts

Although the life of the peasant was hard, there were occasional opportunities for leisure and recreation, such as weddings, festivals, and raucous games (214).

Stratification:  Increasing Complexity

The basic cleavages in advanced agrarian societies were much the same as they had been in simple agrarian societies and as a consequence, so were the basic patters of inequality.  The principal division in society was still the one between the governing class and the mass of peasants.  But stratification altered in one respect;  it had become more complex.  This growing complexity was seen in a growing overlap in classes and occupations (216).  On the whole, class divisions were greater than those in simple agrarian societies (217).

Variations on agrarian themes

Advanced agrarian societies varied technologically and religiously.  These variations stemmed not from ideological differences but from differences in their social and biophysical environments (218-219).


The initial effect of the shift from horticulture to agriculture was an increase in food production.  Societies that adopted the plow were able to produce more food in a given territory than those that relied on the hoe and digging stick.  This increase in productivity could be used either to expand the economic surplus or expand population, with both usually occurring.  The single most important consequence of the greater economic surplus was further growth of the state and of the power of the governing class that controlled it (221).