Columns, which are among the most familiar symbols of ancient Greek and Roman architecture, are often seen in what remains of ancient structures. Columns served as vertical supports for buildings, and they all had two standard parts: a tall, cylindrical shaft and a capital, the section at the top of the shaft that connected the column to the rest of the building. Some columns also stood on a base. Because stone columns were large and extremely heavy, builders usually made columns in sections and assembled them at the construction site.

Early Greek columns share certain similarities with the human form. Female (and, more rarely, male) figures were sometimes used as columnar supports, as in the caryatids of the Erechtheum in Athens. Also, the proportions of the column appear human. The relationship of width to height is the same as that of the human body—roughly one to seven. Furthermore, the ancient Greek names for the various components of the column reflect human body parts. For example, the capital is called the head in Greek, and the base is referred to as the foot, which has led some scholars to see the column as an abstract representation of the human figure.

Greek architects developed three styles of columns: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. These styles of columns defined the three main architectural styles, known as orders, of ancient Greece. The Romans adopted the Greek orders and based much of their own architecture on them.

The Doric was the oldest order and also the simplest. Doric columns had shallow grooves, called fluting, down the length of the shaft. The capital was a round block of stone with a curved edge above the shaft, topped by a plain square block. Doric columns had no base.

The Ionic order appeared soon after the Doric order in the 500s B.C. Ionic columns were more ornate than Doric ones. The Ionic column stood on a carved base atop a square block. Its fluting was deeper than that of the Doric column. Its capital was ornamented with carved decorations that resembled two scrolls curving down toward the shaft.

The Corinthian order was still more elaborate. The base and shaft of the Corinthian column were similar to those of the Ionic column, but the Corinthian capital was shaped like an upside-down bell decorated with carved leaves. Sometimes this capital was topped with a scroll. The Corinthian column became popular in Rome, where builders continued to use the Greek orders for some time. (See also Architecture, Greek; Architecture, Roman.)

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