Marble, a stone that shines when polished to a high degree, was one of the favorite building materials used in the ancient world. The ancient Greeks and Romans also used the term marble to refer to granite, porphyry, and other types of polished stones. Glistening white, colored, or veined, marble was used in the construction of temples, government buildings, marketplaces, and other structures throughout ancient Greece and Rome. Sculptors also used marble to create statues of lasting beauty. The elegance and versatility of ancient marble can be appreciated in the numerous edifices and statues that have survived to the present.
Marble was sought after for its color and the ease with which it could be worked. White marble was the most desirable, but gray and green types were also valued. In Greece, the best white marble came from Paros; the best gray marble came from Naxos. The white marble used in the architecture on the Acropolis in Athens came from Mt. Pentelicus in Attica. The marble from Pentelic contained deposits of iron that became visible after years of exposure to the weather. Because of this feature, structures built of Pentelicon marble took on a golden glow after time.
Although marble quarries* existed in Italy from early times, the Etruscans did not use much of it. When Rome became the center of power on the Italian peninsula, the quarrying of marble became an important industry. The finest white marble came from Carrara in Italy. The emperors, especially Augustus, made extensive use of white marble in the monuments and buildings of Rome. Augustus imported several different types of marble from Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and northern Africa. Colored marble became fashionable for interior decorations in palaces and villas.
The cutting and transporting of marble were very expensive. For this reason, most buildings were only faced with thin blocks of marble. Sometimes architects used columns of marble or marble embellishments to decorate structures of a less costly type of stone. Despite its cost, marble became extremely popular as a building material throughout the Roman empire. Some people had environmental concerns about the widespread use of marble. The writer Pliny commented that “Mountains were made by nature to serve as a framework for holding together the inner parts of the earth. . . . We quarry them for mere whim.” (See also Architecture, Greek; Architecture, Roman; Construction Materials and Techniques; Quarries; Sculpture, Greek; Sculpture, Roman.)
* quarry open pit from which stone is removed