Advanced Agrarian Societies

We now discuss the advanced elaboration of the agricultural structure: advanced agrarian societies. You’ll instantly recognise this kind of society because its emergence marked the beginning of civilisation as we recognise it today.

This type of society dominated from the beginning of the Common Era, through the Middle Ages, to the start of the industrial revolution, and many countries are still fundamentally agricultural. What’s more, this structure remains a powerful influence on first-world culture and values.

The Defining Features of Advanced Agrarian Societies


The defining technological innovations of this age were iron and iron tools.

In the second millenium BC, the Hittites discovered iron ore and invented smelting. They monopolised iron, taking advantage of its usefulness to build their empire, until their nation collapsed in 1200 BC. At this point, technique of smelting spread, and iron came into use in ordinary tools in 800 BC, heralding the advanced agrarian age.

Carburised iron and iron quenching were also discovered around this time, making this metal the most suitable for tools and weapons, and it slowly became more prevalent than bronze.

By the start of the Common Era, advanced agrarian societies were established in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and India and China. Over the next thousand years, this structure dominated most of Eurasia.

Unfortunately, as in the simpler variety, the rate of innovation was slow in advanced agrarian societies, when considering their size and means. Still, a long list of inventions sprung up during this period, including the clock, printing and mills. These societies were far superior technologically to anything that preceded them.

Population of Advanced Agrarian Societies

The new technology, both in agriculture and the military, allowed huge populations to flourish.

The largest simple agrarian state, Egypt, had under 15 million members. In contrast, the Roman empire ruled at least 70 million people, and the population of mid-19th-century China was 400 million.

Another factor driving population growth was the birth rate. Children were considered an important asset for work and assurance in old age, so families were often large, and religion often legitimised this trend.

We must also realise that population growth was checked by high death rates due to war, disease, famine, sanitation and infant mortality. The life expectancy of newborns was very low, and this contributed to the high rate of childbirth. Families had to produce many children to guarantee a significant number would reach adulthood.

Life expectancy was often higher in rural settings due to the horrible conditions of cities. Though history is biased to urban centres since this is where the literate people resided, only around 10% of the agrarian population were city dwellers.

The Advanced Agrarian Economy

As we’d expect given the evolutionary trajectory we’ve traced, agrarian societies saw an increase in division of labour and significant economic specialisation between communities and people, especially in towns and cities. Regional specialisation was very apparent during the Roman Empire.

Urban centres had more than just craft specialists: the areas of government, commerce, religion, education, armed forces and domestic service required specialist workers. This period even saw the rise of illegal occupations like prostitutes and thieves.

The agrarian economy was run not by demand, but by command: those who ruled politics also ruled the economy and dictated production and distribution, much more than in capitalist societies.

We tend to idealise and inflate the artisan agrarian economy, but the artisans and craftsmen played a minor role in the economy. The Roman state derived approximately 20 times more tax derived from agriculture than from trade and crafts. The peasants sweated in the fields with their plows and beasts of burden to supply the surplus and enable the elites to enjoy their refined subculture.

The agrarian economy was like a tree, with the national capital, the kings and the elites in the centre drawing from the various regions, counties and villages by means of taxation.

The elites owned a disproportionate share of the land: the top 1 to 3% owned 33 to 66% of the arable land, which included the people who worked it.

Slavery and serfdom were widespread because owning land was synonymous with owning peasants, who only kept around half of the output they produced.

The ruling class viewed peasants as subhuman, which is unsurprising due to their lack of contact, and their philosophy seemed to be to tax peasants as much as possible. The peasants maintained a very basic and insufficient diet, and their houses were often similarly modest. Many lived short, desperate lives.

The elite, who despised work of any kind, lived luxurious lives in comparison. Servants were very common, and the rich often competed to see who could employ the most. Merchants and artisans were somewhere in the middle and tended to lead lives neither of leisure nor of poverty.

The State

Unlike in either structures, coercion was required to hold peasant masses down and prevent fragmentation. Usually the state was a monarchy headed by a king, whose position was hereditary.

Much of the conflict occurred among classes, not between them, because the classes lived in separate worlds. This would change with the advent of commercialisation later in the period.

Members of government sought wealth and often acted only when bribed. They used the state as a vehicle for generating their own wealth. The income of rulers and governing class usually constituted no less than half of national income, even though they constituted 2% of the population.

That said, the monarch’s position was precarious. For example, 31 of 79 Roman emperors were murdered, six were driven to suicide, four were deposed, and several more were ousted by internal enemies.


This period saw the emergence of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. For the first time in human history, there appeared religions that proclaimed a universal faith: a supernatural force that ruled over the entire world. This reflects a growing outlook, though these societies took to violent conversion to straighten up the non-believers and heathens.

Though the church and state were officially separate, the clergy used religious justification to legitimise the elites during times of unrest, which brought them financial favour in return.

Kinship and Women

The importance of kinship waned as societies grew and governments complexified. One family was unable to fill the government, so power was shared among several.

Many posts were inherited as part of an heir’s patrimony, and nepotism was common and accepted.

Families remained the basic unit of economic organisation: businesses were family enterprises, and a peasant’s work revolved around the family. Corporations were to come later on.

In this era, marriage remained primarily an investment, a strategic financial choice, and families tended to choose a bride or groom on behalf of their children. Opportunities for women were few outside the family, and husbands were quasi-guardians.


The stratification of advanced agrarian societies was similar to the simple variety, but more complex: more people fell between the governing class and peasants, and the class divisions were greater, much more so than in the horticultural era.

The king was in a class of his own and was outstandingly wealthy even when compared to the richest members of the governing class.

At the other end of the spectrum were the expendables: people who had no useful labour or skills to offer and tended to live short, precarious lives. They were often children of peasants who didn’t inherit land and couldn’t marry someone who did.

Despite romantic notions to the contrary, peasant rebellions typically failed or were mounted only to defend or restore the stratified system that was held up by the peasants’ labour. On the other hand, artisans and merchants were often successful with their rebellions.

So much for the agrarian era. What I find interesting is that many of the issues we’re fighting against today, such as economic inequality, gender inequality, and racism, were in many ways entrenched and deepened in the agrarian period. That said, the modern world couldn’t exist without the bedrock of the agrarian age and the earlier structures in this series. Evolution is not always pretty.