Ch. 6. Standard-Form Aristocrat-Peasant Society

    By the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE, we have all of the standard elements that would make up aristocrat-peasant society for the next four thousand years. There were monarchs, religious and secular aristocrats, peasants, specialized workers, a command economy, markets, and merchants. The following general description is intended to include all aristocrat-peasant societies from about 2500 BCE to about 1500 CE. 1

Political Institutions

    Kings were originally war leaders. They used their military authority to assume sovereign control of the society, but they knew just how important the religious function was. It was very common for the king to also appropriate a large share of religious authority. In traditional societies, secular and religious leadership were essentially two different sides of the same coin. If they did not work together, it was likely to cause trouble. 2

    In the modern English-speaking and Western-European worlds, we are used to thinking of the religious and secular aspects of society as being two separate things. A large part of the reason for this is that the Pope and the Vatican managed to enforce a fairly tight monopoly over religious affairs. Western European kings and aristocrats governed the secular side, while the popes, bishops, priests, and monks dealt with the spiritual requirements. These two groups had to work closely with each other to keep the system operating. This rather awkward separation of church and state was an unusual situation and seldom happened in most aristocratic kingdoms. 3

    Outside of Catholic Europe, it was fairly normal to have priest-kings and god-emperors. In Egypt, the Pharaoh was certainly a war leader and a king, but he was also a “living god.” The Chinese emperor was the “Son of Heaven,” who ruled as long as he held the “Mandate of Heaven.” Many of the Roman emperors were also considered to be at least semi-divine. Then there was Alexander the Great, “son of Zeus,” and the “god kings” of the Andean, Mayan, and Mesoamerican civilizations. 4

Royal Dynasties

    The aristocratic state was based on the “divine order of the universe” and on the military power of the king, but it was also based on the family. It was not so much individual kings and aristocrats who ruled, it was aristocratic families called dynasties. 5

    “The king is dead; long live the king.” We do not know if this expression went back to the very beginning or not, but it might. As long as the queen performed her job of providing an heir, there would always be a new king. If there was no legitimate crown prince, there was still probably someone in the family who could succeed to the throne and continue the dynasty. If that did not happen and the old dynasty passed away, other aristocratic families would compete with each other to become the next royal dynasty. 6

    The general rule was that the toughest aristocrat, with the most support and the strongest army, would become the new king. In some cases this competition was mostly political. The candidates lobbied for support, built coalitions, and ran power-plays on each other—often by contracting marriage alliances. Sometimes it was a straightforward military competition, as in the English "War of the Roses." The candidates mobilized their forces and hacked away at each other until the decision went to the last one standing. 7

     Sometimes the royal wives and mother got involved, and it became even more complicated. In especially difficult succession struggles, the killing and anarchy went on for decades to the great detriment of society. Times like this reinforced the general understanding that a strong king was a necessary component of the aristocratic state. 8

    Aristocrat-peasant kingdoms were class-based societies. There was an upper class of aristocrats and a lower class of peasants and commoners. The king was the CEO, but no individual could rule a society by himself. The upper-level, mid-level, and lower-level aristocrats—secular and religious—can be thought of as his management team. 9

Feudal or Imperial Bureaucratic

    It is possible to describe two different variations of aristocrat-peasant states with different management systems. The first one is sometimes called an imperial-bureaucratic state. In this model, the central government has its own bureaucracy that reaches out and taxes most peasant villages directly. The Chinese Empire was the primary example of this, but it also included the Roman Empire, Pharaonic Egypt, and many others. 10

    In the imperial-bureaucratic model, the peripheral areas were fairly weak while massive amounts of resources poured into the center. The emperor and the central government had much more authority because they had their own officials throughout the provinces. Lower-level aristocrats were essentially landlords who may have had lots of land, peasants, wealth, and status, but they were not the most powerful force in their district. That would have been the official appointed by the imperial government. 11

    The second variation is often called the feudal model. The most prominent examples were medieval Europe and Japan. In a feudal society, the provincial and district aristocrats were the government in their own areas. These dukes, counts, and daimyo swore fealty to their monarch or shogun and recognized his authority, but this did not overly infringe on their own authority to rule their duchies, counties, and prefectures. 12

    Feudal kings did not have a large bureaucracy, and they did not have the right to go into most villages and tax the peasants directly. This left much more of the society’s authority and resources in the hands of the upper and mid-level aristocrats. The power of the throne was greatly diminished. 13

    It is much easier to describe these two variations of aristocrat-peasant society on paper than to find them in practice. It was very common for both of these models to be mixed together in the same society. Even the Chinese and Roman empires had some feudal aristocrats whose families were powerful enough to dominate their local areas. Powerful regional aristocrats were much more common at times when the imperial authority was weak. Some medieval European monarchs and Japanese shoguns were powerful enough to impose their authority and taxes out in the provinces. The Persian, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires had combinations of both imperial bureaucratic and feudal authority systems. 14

    When Samuel Huntington is describing pre-modern Western Civilization, he is referring to feudal aristocrat-peasant society as it existed in medieval Europe. When he describes Eastern Civilization, he is mostly referring to the imperial bureaucratic model of aristocratic society as it existed in China. In reality, both types of aristocrat-peasant society can be found in Eastern and in Western history. 15


    In all aristocrat-peasant societies, everyone had a rank which determined how much power and authority they could wield. Individuals might get their rank through direct appointment by the king, but that was rare. Most of the time, rank was inherited from the family that you were born into. If you were born the oldest son of an aristocratic family, then you could expect to inherit your father’s title. You could also expect to inherit the land and peasants that went with the title. Pauper aristocrats were of little use to anyone. They needed both the authority and the resources that were required to do the job. 16

    It was not just different levels of aristocrats who had different rank. In many places, there were two or three different kinds of peasants with different levels of obligation. Some were legally attached to the land, which they worked as serfs; others had more individual freedom. 17

    Among craftsmen, there were masters, journeymen, and apprentices. There were masters and servants everywhere. Even commoners were able to have servants; that usually included the right to abuse the servants. The clergy had a special status of their own. Even the lowest holy-man could often demand the privileges of clerical rank. At the very bottom of the pecking-order were the slaves. In aristocratic society, pretty much everything about your life depended on your rank. For the most part, rank was much more important than money. 18

Family Relationships

    Since rank was extremely important and was usually inherited from the family, aristocrat-peasant society led to significant changes in family structure. The concept of legitimate birth became very important. Marriage developed into a much more formal institution. An illegitimate child was much less likely to be able to inherit the family land, peasants, and title. 19

    The question of who a son or daughter was allowed to marry also became very important. If the betrothed was of higher status, the rank of the entire family might increase. A spouse of lower status could lead to a decrease in the family’s position. Arranged marriages became normal in most aristocratic states. This was especially true for the upper class, but it also became customary for many peasants and commoners. Rank and inheritance were much too important for anything to be left to chance. 20

    Aristocrat-peasant society was so authoritarian in nature that even within the family everyone knew exactly where they ranked. The father was the head of the family. The wife was subordinate to her husband. This rule was considered so important that it was usually written directly into the “divine order of the universe.” Fully-modern society runs by different rules which do not require the submission of anyone, but the subordination of women had four thousand years to harden into tradition. This has made it extremely difficult to break with that tradition in modern times. 21

Economic Institutions

    In all human societies from the very beginning right through to the present day, people have traded goods and services with each other in an informal semi-reciprocal way that fades back and forth between sharing and barter. This tribal form of economy could not support cities and complex civilization. 22

    The early temple-administered cities developed a new command-economy system for food distribution with peasant farmers paying a land tax in kind to support religious aristocrats and specialized workers. The kings took over the command system more or less intact, added secular warrior aristocrats, and continued using and expanding it. 23

    The command economy worked just fine within the area administered by the aristocratic governments. Monarchs and aristocrats also began to show off their wealth and power through the lavish display of exotic luxury products, often from foreign lands. This led to an exponential increase in external commerce. Originally this foreign trade was done through some kind of reciprocal barter exchange. 24

    Between 3500 and 2500 BCE, commercial trade continued to increase, diversify, and evolve into something close to what can be called market exchange. By the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE, aristocrats and merchants appear to have been engaged in large-scale buying and selling. Pretty much everything, including food and wine, could be bought where it was plentiful, shipped to where it was scarce, and sold for a profit by anyone with the means. The commercial market system expanded and contracted throughout the four thousand year history of standard aristocrat-peasant society. 25

    By definition, a market exchange is voluntary. That is why marketing did not replace the aristocrat-peasant command economy for food distribution. In a year with bad weather and bad harvests, the aristocrats and non-food producers still had to eat. They could not rely on a voluntary market system based on supply and demand for their food. Market commerce in commodities and luxury goods continued to grow and develop. It was used alongside the command economy for the remaining history of aristocrat-peasant society, but it was not like the all-purpose market economy in modern nation states. 26

The Staff-of-Life

    Grain provided the primary ingredient for bread, porridge, gruel, and beer. It was the staff-of-life. In some areas, peasant farmers occasionally sold some of their harvest into the market system, but that would have been a small percentage of the total. Most of the grain in the wholesale market was originally sold by aristocrats, who acquired it from their peasants through the ubiquitous land tax that was collected in kind. The aristocrats received other more perishable types of food also, but the dried storable staff-of-life was the most important. The aristocrats consumed much of this food within their own households and distributed the rest to non-food producers in many different ways. Bread was often provided to workers; goods and services were purchased with grain, and it was sold to merchants for cash or credit that was used to buy other things. 27

    The Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires sometimes used tax farmers to collect the surplus grain from the peasants. The highest bidder got the contract, and then his men squeezed the peasants for as much as they could get. Most of the grain was sold and the imperial treasury paid in cash. In many aristocrat-peasant societies, the land tax and the market system worked in tandem to accomplish the job of food distribution. 28

    In every city in the ancient world, it was possible to buy grain. We have written accounts giving us prices. Historians can go to their sources and find many details about the market economy. They can also find data about the command economy, but for some reason or another, this aspect of aristocrat-peasant society is generally ignored. Historians know about the command economy, but they do not fully understand it, and they tend not to write about it. This is a mistake. The entire aristocratic governing system existed because it was necessary for the command economy. When the world changed to a market economy for food distribution, the aristocratic class—secular and religious—became superfluous and would have to go. 29

    Aristocrats and the command economy played a very important role in history. For thousands of years, they were necessary for food distribution to cities in complex civilizations. Markets alone would not have been able to do the job. Historians should explain what happened and give credit where credit is due. 30

Conflict and Military Institutions

    The word “aristocrat” comes from the Greek derivation of an ancient word that designated the elite warriors of Indo-European tribal society. As a general rule most historians have normally thought of aristocrats as elite fighters and leaders of men, which they were. That is how most aristocrats thought of themselves. 31

    The aristocrat-peasant system and the command economy had already evolved under the leadership of the priests. Then the “age of warfare” began. The men who were especially good at fighting and leading other men in battle used their military skills to take charge of the government and of the command economy, especially the land taxes paid by the peasants. 32

    In Europe, these warriors continued to call themselves “aristocrats,” which is why I use that term when describing the aristocrat-peasant command economy. They also continued to be elite fighters and continued to lead men in battle. Aristocrat-peasant societies were regularly engaged in warfare. There were wars to see who would be king. As soon as that was settled, there would be rebellions to replace the king. Monarchs fought each other over territory and cities. Lesser aristocrats fought over the possession of villages and peasants. 33

    As a general rule the more land, villages, and cities that an aristocrat controlled the higher his rank. More land and villages could be obtained through a good marriage, a grant from the king, or war. There was a high level of competition in all three possibilities for advancement. In traditional society, people worked just as hard to increase their rank as they do today to increase their wealth. 34


    Most aspects of aristocratic society were governed by tradition. Peasants performed their work in the fields and delivered a portion of the harvest to their lords because of tradition more than coercion. Even the king was very often constrained by tradition. His relations with the upper nobility tended to harden into a set pattern. Their relationship with the lesser nobility tended to do the same. Religion and family values have had their traditional rules, patterns, and structures in all societies. 35

    When natural or outside forces led to rapid change, the aristocratic state was usually flexible enough to accommodate it. If a tougher enemy army appeared and conquered the kingdom, there would be a new conquest dynasty, which might lead to a new set of traditions. Under a strong monarch, the kingdom may grow larger. With a weak king, it might become smaller. The basic structure was flexible enough to take all of this in stride. Much of the time population increased; sometimes it decreased. Usually there was a slow increase in knowledge and technology but not always. There could be spurts of progress but also reversals and declines. Aristocrat-peasant societies could sometimes look highly cyclical in character. 36

Athenian Democracy

    This explanation of history has stated that up until five hundred years ago, all complex civilizations depended on the aristocrat-peasant command economy and aristocratic states. Some readers are probably wondering: “What about the Greeks? What about Athenian democracy?” 37

    Greek terrain was extremely rocky and hilly. There were relatively few areas where it was possible to plow fields and grow grain. In the 1st millennium BCE, however, large amounts of grain could be purchased and shipped to Greece by boat. The rocky hillsides that were useless for growing cereal crops could be used for growing olive trees and grape vines. Wine and olive oil could be shipped out in exchange for grain. 38

    The new society that appeared at the end of the Greek Dark Age in the 9th century BCE depended on this trade. Some of the Greek city-states, like Sparta and Thebes, remained primarily aristocrat-peasant, but Athens and many others developed into market-economy societies. The mechanics of how their market economy worked was in many ways similar to our own. Markets stimulate creativity, learning, and innovation. The Athenians learned to produce high-quality ceramics and metal trade goods. 39

    An urbanized market-economy society does not like to be ruled by aristocrats. The Athenians threw off a large part of the aristocratic structure which was pretty much universal at the time. The result was an extremely precocious society that was developing in many ways along modern lines. 40

    This does not mean that classical Athens could have existed without aristocrat-peasant society. Most of the grain that the Greeks purchased from Egypt, Sicily, the Pontic (Black Sea) region, or anywhere else was originally collected by aristocratic landowners. The Athenians may not have had their own aristocrat-peasant command economy, but they very much depended on foreigners, who were aristocrats, to accumulate large supplies of grain and have it waiting at the docks to trade for Greek wine and luxury products. 41

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