Literature Review: Environmental History and the works of J. Donald Hughes

A dagger from Mycenae, depicting men hunting lions. On the other side (not shown) it depicts lions hunting deer.

My MA dissertation is going to focus on regional and ecological differences in the Aegean Bronze Age, and as part of my preparations it was necessary to become familiar with some of the seminal works of environmental history. J. Donald Hughes was one of the individuals who helped to popularise the study of the environmental history, so this literature review will focus on two of his works: What is Environmental History? (2006) and Environmental Problems of the Greeks and Romans (2014 2nd edition). In this literature review I am going to layout the fundamentals of Hughes’ arguments and to work to a definition of environmental history that I will use within my dissertation.

What is environmental history? is part of series introducing various fields of history and is an introductory textbook to the study of environmental history. His discussion of the main themes of environmental history can be summarised thusly: the effects of the environment on humans, the impact of humans on the natural environment and what humans think about the natural environment (2006, pp.4; 5-6; 7). In an examination of the regional and ecological differences, all three of these themes would be covered, as I aim to show how the natural environment helps to shape societies. This means it will be important to investigate the environment of the two regions I am going to examine, the impact that the two cultures had on the environment and what affect this had on society and looking at how they conceptualised nature, particularly how it was portrayed in art and in religious contexts.

Hughes makes the point that the environmental history of the ancient Mediterranean has been inadequately covered (2006, pp.74). This explains his decision to write Environmental Problems of the Greeks and Romans. My dissertation will also help to fill this gap, since Hughes 2014 deals mainly with the Classical Period, only briefly looking at parts of the Aegean Bronze Age, and instead looking at the Bronze Age of the Near East and Egypt. Within Hughes 2014, the cultures of the Minoans and Mycenaeans are often only mentioned when discussing long term trends, such as the use of the Attic Silver mines (2014, pp.133), species depletion (2014, pp.102) and the comparison of hunting and warfare in relation to the Lion Hunt Dagger (2014, pp.151).

One of the points that is emphasised in both books is what environmental history can do for other fields of history:

“Environmental history is useful because it can add grounding and perspective to more traditional concerns of historians: war, diplomacy, politics, law, economics, technology, science, philosophy, art and literature…it can reveal relationships between these concerns and underlying processes of the physical and living world” (2006, pp.17).

In the Aegean Bronze Age, environmental factors have been considered for why civilisations weakened and collapsed, such as draught in the Peloponnese and the effects of the Volcanic eruption on Thera/Santorini. Within my dissertation I am going to examine how environmental factors affected all aspects of society, not just disasters.

The main argument of Environmental Problems of the Greeks and Romans is that the environment does not determine history, but that it is humanities interactions with the natural environment that are worthy of examination (2014, pp.7). This argument is explored in looking at long term trends, and the observation that “people were not, and are not, often aware of the long-term results of their actions on the natural world.” (2014, pp.6) Examinations of the archaeological record and environmental data can help to examine these patterns, and to analyse them in the context of regional differences, can help to reveal impacts and disparities between different societies.

Another important point that is raised is balance being essential to human survival (2014, pp.23). In the Bronze Age periods of collapse are often instigated by an environmental event that tips the balance and causes chaos, but rather than a single event it is important to examine the trends, both manmade and natural, that led to the disaster, since how a society or culture reacts to change is important to understand; what measures led to the change and how did society respond? These are significant questions that have a resonance given the current Climate Crisis.

J. Donald Hughes provides a solid base for which to embark in research on environmental history, and although he hasn’t provided all the answers I need, he has helped me to develop an approach. An examination of the natural conditions of the societies which I am going to study and how they affected the development of that society, looking at environmental trends and changes that were not man-made and the human response to them and finally how these two groups managed despite the environmental challenges that they faced.


Hughes, J.D. 2006. What is Environmental History? Cambridge: Polity.

Hughes, J.D. 2014, 2nd edition. Environmental Problems of the Greeks and Romans: Ecology in the ancient Mediterranean. Baltimore: John Hopkins University


Figure 1: A dagger from Mycenae, depicting men hunting lions. On the other side it depicts lions hunting deer | Wikimedia Commons |Photo by Zde | CC BY-SA 3.0

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