greek architecture

THE architecture of Greece can be attached a value that is far greater than any of the styles which preceded it. The beauty of the buildings and the astonishing refinement which the best of them display, are unmatched. This architecture has being virtually the parent of styles of all the nations of Western Europe. We cannot put a finger upon any features of Egyptian, Assyrian, or Persian architecture, the influence of which has survived to the present day, except for those that were adopted by the Greeks. On the other hand, there is no feature, no ornament, nor even any principle of design which the Greek architects employed, that can be said to have now become obsolete. Not only do we find direct reproductions of Greek architecture forming part of the practice of every European country, but we are able to trace to Greek art the parentage of many of the forms and features of Roman, Byzantine, and Gothic architecture. This especially applies to features that involve columns.

What they didn't use

Greek architecture did not include the arch and all the forms allied to it, such as the vault and the dome. As far as we know, the Greeks abstained from the use of the tower. Examples of both these features were as fully known to Greeks as were those features of Egyptian, Assyrian, and Persian buildings which they did use. Within the limits by which they confined themselves, the Greeks worked with such power, learning, taste, and skill that we may fairly claim for their highest achievement—the Parthenon—that it advanced as near to absolute perfection as any work of art ever has been or ever can be carried out.


Greek architecture seems to have begun to emerge from the stage of archaic simplicity about the beginning of the sixth century before the Christian era (600 B.C. is the reputed date of the old Doric Temple at Corinth). All the finest examples were erected between that date and the death of Alexander the Great (333 B.C.). After that period, it declined and, ultimately, gave place to Roman architecture.


The domestic and palatial buildings of the Greeks have decayed or were destroyed, leaving only a few remains. We know their architecture exclusively from ruins of public buildings, and to a limited extent of sepulchral monuments remaining in Greece and in Greek colonies. By far, the most numerous and excellent among these buildings are temples.


The Greek idea of a temple was different from that of the Egyptians. The building was to a much greater extent designed for external effect than internal.

A comparatively small sacred cell was provided for to hold the image of the divinity. And in most cases, there was one other cell behind it. It seems to have served as treasury or for storage of sacred items.

But there were no surrounding chambers, gloomy halls, or enclosed courtyards, like those of the Egyptian temples, which were visible only to persons admitted within a jealously guarded outer wall. The temple, it is true, often stood within some sort of precinct, but it was accessible to all. It stood open to the sun and air. It invited the admiration of the passer-by. Its best features and best sculpture were on the exterior.

The attention paid by the Greeks to the outside of their temples, offers a striking contrast to the practice of the Egyptians and Assyrians.

Showing a simple building, steps on all sides, and two columns at each end

Fig. 50.—Plan of a small Greek Temple in Antis.

The temple, however grand, was always of simple form, with a gable at each end. In this respect, it differed entirely from the series of halls, courts, and chambers of which a great Egyptian temple consisted. In the very smallest temple, at least one of the gables was made into a portico with the help of columns and two pilasters (Fig. 50). More important temples had a larger number of columns, and often a portico at each end (Figs. 50a and 55). The most important had columns on the flanks as well as at the front and rear. In fact, the sacred cell was surrounded by them. It will be apparent from this, that the column, together with the superstructure which rested upon it, must have played a very important part in Greek temple-architecture.

Showing a simple building, with surrounding steps and four columns at each end

Fig. 50a.—Plan of a small Greek Temple.


There were three different styles of architecture in Greece, referred as orders. They are distinguished largely by the way columns were dealt with. The Greek orders are named the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.

Each of them presents a different series of proportions, mouldings, features, and ornaments, though the main forms of the buildings are the same in all.

The column and its entablature were the most prominent features in every such building. By these, the order and the degree of its development can be recognized, just as a botanist recognizes plants by their flowers. By reproducing the column and entablature, almost all the characteristics of either of the orders can be copied. The column belonging to any order is always accompanied by the use throughout the building of the appropriate proportions, ornaments, and mouldings belonging to that order.


The origin of Greek architecture is a very interesting subject for inquiry. But, due to the disappearance of almost all very early examples of the styles, information is very limited. Such information, however, taken together with the internal evidence, points to the influence of Egypt, Assyria and Persia, and to an early manner of timber construction.

In Asia Minor, a series of monuments, many of them rock-cut, have been discovered, which throw a curious light upon the early growth of architecture. We refer to tombs found in Lycia, and attributed to about the seventh century B.C.

In these, we obviously have the first work in stone of a nation of ship builders.

A Lycian tomb— represents a structure of beams of wood framed together, surmounted by a roof which closely resembles a boat turned upside down. The planks, the beams to which they were secured, and even a ridge similar to the keel of a vessel, all reappear here, showing that the material in use for building was almost universally timber.

In other instances, the resemblance to shipwrights’ work disappears, and that of a carpenter is followed by that of the mason.

What happened on those Asiatic shores of the Egean, must have occurred on the Greek shores as well. And though none of the very earliest specimens of reproduction in stone of timber structures has come down to us, there are abundant traces of timber originals in buildings of the Doric order. Timber originals were not, however, the only sources from which the early inhabitants of Greece drew their inspiration.

Oriental Influences

Constructions of extreme antiquity, which are not timber structures, mark the sites of the oldest cities of Greece, such as Mycenæ and Orchomenos.

The most ancient of these being Pelasgic city walls of unwrought stone (Fig. 51).

The so-called Treasury of Atreus at Mycenæ, is a well-known specimen of more regular yet archaic building. It was a circular underground chamber, 48 ft. 6 in. in diameter, with a pointed vault. Its vault is constructed of stones arching over one another, but is not a true arch (Figs. 52, 52a). The treatment of an ornamental column found here, and of the remains of sculptured ornaments over a neighbouring gateway called the Gate of the Lions, is of very Asiatic character. It seems to show the influence of Oriental designs.

Fig. 51.—Ancient Greek Wall of Unwrought Stone from Samothrace.

Showing entrance leading to round chamber with a side chamber

Fig. 52.—Plan of the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenæ.

Showing the beehive-shaped round chamber

Fig. 52a.—Section of the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenæ.

Showing highly curved top

Fig. 53.—Greek Doric Capital from Selinus.

Showing slightly curved top

Fig. 53a.—Greek Doric Capital from the Theseum.

Showing uncurved top

Fig. 53b.—Greek Doric Capital from Samothrace.

Hellenic Works

A wide interval of time and a great contrast in taste separate the early works of Pelasgic masonry and even the chamber at Mycenæ from even the rudest and most archaic of the remaining Hellenic works of Greece. The Doric temple at Corinth is attributed, as stated earlier, to the seventh century B.C. This was a massive masonry structure with extremely short, stumpy columns, and strong mouldings. But it presented the main features of the Doric style, as we know it, in its earliest and rudest form. Successive examples (Figs. 53 to 53b) show increasing slenderness of proportions and refinement of treatment. They are accompanied by sculpture which approaches nearer and nearer to perfection.

There are also forms which seem to be impossible to account for. They are present in later and best buildings, as well as in the earliest and simplest. The only explanation would be to suppose that they are reproductions of timber construction, but using stone or marble instead. These forms occur in the entablature. And the column is of a type which seems to have been copied from originals in use in Egypt many centuries earlier.

Fig. 57.—The Greek Doric Order from the Theseum.

Buildings of the Doric Order.

The leading proportions of the Doric order were as follows:—The column was 5·56 diameters high. The whole height, including the stylobate or steps, might be divided into nine parts, of which two go to the stylobate, six to the column, and one to the entablature.

Fig. 58.—Plan of a Greek Doric Column.

Fig. 59.—The Fillets under a Greek Doric Capital.

The Greek Doric order is without a base; the shaft of the column springs from the top step and tapers towards the top. The outline was not straight, but of a subtle curve, known technically as the entasis of the column. This shaft is channeled with twenty shallow channels. The ridges separating one from another are very fine lines. A little below the moulding of the capital, fine sinkings are forming lines round the shaft. And above these, the channels of the flutes are stopped by or near the commencement of the projecting moulding of the capital. This moulding, which is of a section calculated to convey the idea of powerful support, is called the echinus. Its lower portion is encircled by a series of fillets (Fig. 59), which are cut into it. Above the echinus, which is circular, like the shaft, comes the highest member—the abacus, a square stout slab of marble, which completes the capital of the column. The whole is most skilfully designed to convey the idea of sturdy support, and yet to clothe the support with grace. The strong proportions of the shaft, the slight curve of its outline, the lines traced upon its surface by the channels, and even the vigorous uncompromising planting of it on the square step from which it springs, all contribute to make the column look strong. The check given to the vigorous upward lines of the channels on the shaft by the first sinkings, and their arrest at the point where the capital spreads out, intensified as it is by the series of horizontal lines drawn round the echinus by the fillets cut into it, all seem to convey the idea of spreading the supporting energy of the column outwards. The abacus appears naturally fitted, itself inert, to receive a weight placed upon it and to transmit its pressure to the capital and shaft below.

Showing key and leaf patterns

Fig. 60.—Capital of a Greek Doric Column from Ægina, with coloured decoration.

Fig. 61.—Section of the Entablature of the Greek Doric Order.

Fig. 62.—Plan looking up of part of a Greek Doric Peristyle.

The entablature which formed the superstructure consisted first of a square marble beam—the architrave, which, it may be assumed, represents a square timber beam that occupied the same position in the ancient structures. On this rests a second member called the frieze. Its prominent feature is a series of slightly projecting features, known as triglyphs (three channels) (Fig. 63), from the channels running down their face. These closely resemble, and no doubt actually represent, the ends of massive timber beams, which must have connected the colonnade to the wall of the cell in earlier buildings. At the bottom of each is a row of small pendants, known as guttæ, which closely resemble wooden pins, such as would be used to keep a timber beam in place. The panels between the triglyphs are usually as wide as they are high. They are termed metopes and sculpture commonly occupies them. The third division of the entablature, the cornice represents the overhanging eaves of the roof.

Fig. 63.—Details of the Triglyph.

Fig. 64.—Details of the Mutules.

The cornices employed in classic architecture may be almost invariably subdivided into three parts: the supporting part, which is the lowest,—the projecting part, which is the middle,—and the crowning part, which is the highest division of the cornice. The supporting part in a Greek Doric cornice is extremely small. There are no mouldings, such as we shall find in almost every other cornice, calculated to convey the idea of contributing to sustain the projection of the cornice, but there are slabs of marble, called mutules (Fig. 64), dropping towards the outer end, of which one is placed over each triglyph and one between every two. These seem to recall, by their shape, their position, and their slope alike, the ends of the rafters of a timber roof. Their surface is covered with small projections which resemble the heads of wooden pins.. The projecting part, in this as in almost all cornices, is a plain upright face of some height, called “the corona,” and recalling probably a “facia” or flat narrow board such as a carpenter of the present day would use in a similar position, secured in the original structure to the ends of the rafters and supporting the eaves. Lastly, the crowning part is, in the Greek Doric, a single convex moulding, not very dissimilar in profile to the ovolo of the capital, and forming what we commonly call an eaves-gutter.

At the ends of the building, the two upper divisions of the cornice—namely, the projecting corona and the crowning ovolo—are made to follow the sloping line of the gable, a second corona being also carried across horizontally in a manner which can be best understood by inspecting a diagram of the corner of a Greek Doric building (Fig. 57); and the triangular space thus formed was termed a pediment, and was the position in which the finest of the sculpture with which the building was enriched was placed.

One other feature was employed in Greek temple-architecture. The anta was a square pillar or pier of masonry attached to the wall, and corresponded very closely to our pilaster; but its capital always differed from that of the columns in the neighbourhood of which it was used.

Sometimes, the portico of a temple consisted of the side walls prolonged, and ending in two antae, with two or more columns standing between them. Such a portico is said to be in antis.

Fig. 65.—Elevation and Section of the Capital of a Greek Anta, with coloured decoration.

Examples of Remains of Doric Order

The principal remaining examples or fragments of Greek Doric may be enumerated as follows:—

In Greece.

Temple of (?) Athena, at Corinth, ab. 650 B.C.
Temple of (?) Zeus, in the island of Ægina, ab. 550 B.C.
Temple of Theseus (Theseum), at Athens, 465 B.C.
Temple of Athena (Parthenon), on the Acropolis at Athens, fin. 438 B.C.
The Propylæa, on the Acropolis at Athens, 436-431 B.C.
Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
Temple of Apollo Epicurius, at Bassæ,[15] in Arcadia (designed by Ictinus).
Temple of Apollo Epicurius, at Phigaleia, in Arcadia (built by Ictinus).
Temple of Athena, on the rock of Sunium, in Attica.
Temple of Nemesis, at Rhamnus, in Attica.
Temple of Demeter (Ceres), at Eleusis, in Attica.

In Sicily and South Italy.

Temple of (?) Zeus, at Agrigentum, in Sicily (begun B.C. 480).
Temple at Ægesta (or Segesta), in Sicily.
Temple of (?) Zeus, at Selinus, in Sicily (? ab. 410 B.C.).
Temple of (?) Athena, at Syracuse, in Sicily.
Temple of Poseidon, at Pæstum, in South of Italy (? ab. 550 B.C.).

0 Newsletter
Add Comment