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Betting on the Farm: Rural Economic and Environmental History of Greece, 1860–1900


In the second half of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of nuts, citrus, and dried fruits consumed in Europe and North America came from Mediterranean Europe. Demand for these and other Mediterranean agricultural products rose due to a general demographic growth in importing countries combined with the growing prosperity of middle classes in Western Europe. As a result, agricultural production in Mediterranean Europe intensified. This dissertation analyzes the late nineteenth-century boom of commercial agriculture in Mediterranean Europe and the effects of foreign demand for Mediterranean agricultural products on the region’s environmental condition. With a focus on the case of Greece, I examine a variety of sources including contemporary Greek agricultural journals, the records of companies formed to undertake land reclamation projects, historical maps, census records, and statistical records on agricultural production. I argue that to satisfy Western European demand for Mediterranean agricultural products such as olives and raisins, Greeks made immense changes to their environment, reclaiming wetlands, terracing hills, clearing forests, and digging canals. When demand for these products abated at the end of the nineteenth century, the Greek landscape was left permanently altered to suit the needs of a market that was no longer there. I conclude that these changes hindered Greece’s recovery from its late nineteenth-century crisis by removing resources and by creating homogenous ecologies less suitable to diversification, leading to emigration and landscape abandonment. As a result, the rural economy remained impaired throughout the twentieth century. This dissertation focuses on two case studies, each in a region of Greece where foreign demand for Mediterranean agricultural products remade the landscape. The first case study region is the North and West coasts of the Peloponnese, where growing British and French demand for currant raisins caused lowland wetlands to be drained and hills to be terraced to make the landscape better suited to intensive, specialized currant viticulture. The second case study region is Boeotia in Central Greece, where demand for grains and cotton created the imperative to drain a large lake, Lake Kopaïs, and turn it into an irrigated estate for the intensive cultivation of cash crops.

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