Ch. 3. Temple-Based Aristocrat-Peasant Society

Author’s note: When I use terms like aristocrat and peasant, it is on a universal basis. The reference is to all aristocrats and all peasants in the entire 6000 year history of aristocrat-peasant society, including: Asian, European, African, and American Civilizations. You have probably heard these terms before but usually from authors who were specialists. They describe aristocrats and peasants in a particular place and a particular time. This makes it possible for them to go into a fair amount of detail in their descriptions. The problem is that many of the details change from one society to another. I am concentrating on those aspects of aristocrat-peasant society that were universal patterns around the world for thousands of years. 1

    For over a century, the archaeologists have been digging in the ancient city mounds of Iraq. This was Mesopotamia, the Land of the Two Rivers: Tigris and Euphrates. At the bottom of the mounds were the foundations of small cities built around a temple complex. The earliest of these first cities have been dated to the second half of the 5th millennium BCE. We know that they were administrative, residential, and manufacturing centers linked to networks of hamlets, villages, and small towns. 2

Political Institutions

    The leaders and administrators of the first cities were priests and high priests. There were large granaries, workshops, storage rooms, workers’ housing, and high-status residential neighborhoods. This was the earliest beginning of complex civilization and aristocrat-peasant society. 3

    The Uruk culture (4200 – 3100 BCE) was clearly something new and different. This was no longer tribal society. Someone was in charge. Most people were being told what to do. It seems that the first aristocrats were priests and high priests. This should not come as a surprise. The most important requirements for the position of aristocrat are authority and the power to have commands obeyed. 4

    Shamans were probably the most powerful figures in tribal society because they could communicate with the spirit world. Now, even more powerful spirits called gods had emerged. The shamans had evolved into priests who could communicate with the gods. This gave them power and authority. 5

Economic Institutions

    Complex civilization requires large numbers of specialized workers. “Specialized workers” by definition means that they do not produce their own food. Someone else had to produce their food for them, and there had to be some kind of distribution system to take the food from the farmer and deliver it to the consumer. This had to be a very reliable system, one that was capable of delivering food every day to every specialized worker. This does not just happen. There had to be a specific mechanism to accomplish it. 6

    It seems that sometime in the 5th millennium BCE, the priests began to use their authority to collect food from the farmers. At first, they probably used this food to provide for themselves along with the workers and skilled craftsmen who built and maintained the temples. Over time, the temple administration began to issue food allotments to various people for various reasons. 7

    The priests also acquired the power to tax the farmers to refill the granaries. This new form of command-economy food distribution probably started out at a fairly low level and grew from there. When it got to the point where the farmers were turning over a substantial part of the harvest every year, they became peasant farmers. When the priests took delivery of a substantial portion of the harvest and used it to feed specialized workers, they became religious aristocrats. A new primary kind of society was up and running. 8

Different Kinds of Farmers

    In economic terms, we can say that there are basically four different kinds of farmers: subsistence farmers, communal farmers, peasant farmers, and market farmers. These four types are differentiated according to what happens to the food they grow. 9

    Subsistence farmers consumed most of the production within the family. Beyond that, there could be some left over which was bartered in exchange for other goods. Subsistence farmers, by themselves, were not able to support a complex civilization. 10

   The early Neolithic villagers were communal farmers. They lived together in villages, worked together in common fields, and shared the food. Some of them may have performed specialized tasks, like: making tools, producing pottery, and weaving cloth. They shared these products with their neighbors who shared food with them. This could work on a relatively small scale because everyone knew one another. They all lived together, and most of them were related to each other.  11

    The communal farming system could not be scaled-up to the size necessary for complex civilization. That would mean the village farmers would have to be willing to voluntarily share their food, in good years and in bad, with specialized workers whom they had never met and who did not directly contribute to the welfare of the village. Modern communism tried to organize this kind of economy, and it just does not work. Complex civilization with urban centers, large workshops, and many thousands of specialized workers required a new mechanism for food distribution that was specifically designed to meet its requirements. 12

Peasant Farmers

    The aristocrat-peasant system established a command economy for food distribution. Peasant farmers were specifically given the role of producing enough food to have a surplus, which could be used to support the specialized workers of the society. 13

    Every year, the peasants delivered a significant percentage of the production to their aristocratic lords, whether it was a good harvest or a poor harvest. The peasants were not paid for this food. This was not sharing; it was not barter, and it was not marketing. It has been called tax, rent, tribute, and many other terms, but they all mean essentially the same thing. It was a compulsory command-economy relationship that came to be governed by tradition. 14

    Aside from their job of producing food and delivering part of the harvest to their aristocratic lords, peasants were usually liable for a certain amount of forced labor. This is also called corvée labor. They had to maintain the roads, bridges, and water systems near their villages. The peasants were also required to provide unskilled labor for large construction projects, such as: ziggurats in Mesopotamia, pyramids in Egypt, the Great Wall of China, and jungle temples and palaces of the Maya. 15

Religious Aristocrats

    Leadership for this new pattern of society was provided by religious aristocrats. In this explanation of history, aristocrats are defined as an upper social class that dominated the political institutions of their society. They also collected food from their peasants and used it to maintain themselves and a significant number of specialized workers. The aristocrat-peasant command economy for food distribution was an important political and economic institution that dominated all complex societies until about 1500 CE and did not fade away completely until the late 20th century. 16

    The new highly-reliable food-distribution mechanism allowed economic activity to go far beyond anything that was possible in tribal society. The earliest form of writing was starting to appear. It mostly had to do with keeping track of economic activity. Everything was organized by priests and temple administrators. The land was owned by the Gods. Peasant farmers paid taxes in kind. Craftsmen were allocated to workshops and provided with rations. Labor gangs were assigned to building projects or sent out to the villages to help with the harvest. 17

    It was archaeologists who dug down to the earliest levels of the first cities and found the large temple compounds and the early economic documents that describe the distribution of food rations. They found the evidence, but they do not use it to describe an aristocrat-peasant command-economy for food distribution. I first identified aristocrats and peasants from more recent historical times and was curious as to how the system had originated. It started in Mesopotamia during the second half of the 5th millennium BCE. 18

Temple-Based Religious Aristocrats Around the World

    When the archaeologists say that priests and temples predate kings and palaces by a thousand years, this is not a major surprise. It just shows that religious aristocrats evolved prior to secular aristocrats. Religious authorities have been an important part of every complex society.  It was the priests and high-priests who organized the first cities and the first aristocrat-peasant command economy in Mesopotamia. Even more interesting, the same universal pattern seems to repeat everywhere else. 19

    The earliest cities in the Nile valley, about 3500 BCE, had temple complexes at their center and the same kind of aristocrat-peasant command economy. When the archaeologists dug down to the earliest layers of Indus Valley cities, they found similar temples that also controlled irrigated agricultural land. Greek and Roman temples had land and peasants. Inca, Maya, and Aztec temples had land and peasants. Christian and Buddhist monasteries were endowed with land that was worked by peasants. 20

    In the Americas, temples have been identified as the earliest large-scale stone structures in the Andes Civilization, starting early in the 3rd millennium BCE. The Mayan and Mesoamerican Civilizations also revolved around temples as far back as can be traced. Ancient Chinese temples were made of wood and have not survived. The earliest written evidence that we have for China is the oracle bones of the Shang dynasty (1700-1100 BCE). They tell us that the king was also the highest religious authority. 21

Divine Order of the Universe

    In every case, religion was tightly interwoven throughout the fabric of aristocrat-peasant societies. This is not just true for the early temple-based variation. It is also the case for all of the later aristocratic states ruled by princes, kings, and emperors. 22

    Every member of these civilizations had a fundamental understanding and acceptance of the “divine order of the universe.” Kings, emperors, priests, and high priests were the gods’ representatives on Earth. Everyone had a role to play in the “divine plan.” Kings ruled by “divine right.” The peasants knew they had been given the sacred job of tilling the soil and growing the food that the entire population depended on. Every group or caste knew how their role fit in with the “divine order.” 23

    Without the concept of “divine order,” it is difficult to imagine how the aristocrat-peasant form of society could ever have existed. In many ways the “divine order of the universe” or the “divine book” were similar to a “constitution” for the aristocrat-peasant world. 24