The ancient Greeks developed a monumental and highly distinctive architectural style. This style reached its peak in the 400s B.C., and came to be known as classical* architecture. Architects

of this period combined design ideas used on the Greek mainland with elements from the Aegean islands and Asia Minor. They created graceful and impressive building designs still visible in the remains of their temples and monuments. Their work, and that of Greek builders, influenced the architecture of other cultures, especially Rome.

* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.


Greek architecture developed specific styles known as orders. The word “order” refers to the standard parts of a structure and their arrangement in buildings. The three orders developed in Greece were called Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. All three orders used rows of columns along the building’s exterior that rested on a platform and supported the roof. The design, arrangement, and decoration of the columns and other details distinguished one order from another.

Doric Order. The basic order and the first to develop was the Doric order, which appeared in the early 500s B.C. At first, the Greeks constructed their buildings of wood. However, as the Doric order evolved they began to use stone, which they fitted together without mortar*.

The Doric order had three main divisions: a stepped platform, columns, and an entablature*. The shaft of the Doric column had grooves known as flutes. At the top of the shaft was the capital*, which supported the entablature. The entablature was the most complex part of the Doric order. It included the architrave (a row of stone blocks resting on the columns), the frieze (a horizontal band, often ornamented with sculpture or carvings), and the cornice (an ornamental, horizontal molding at the top of a wall or building). Two surviving examples of the Doric order are the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens and the Temple of Poseidon in Paestum, Italy.

* mortar mixture of lime, cement, sand, and water that is placed between stones to hold them together

* entablature in classical architecture, the horizontal part that rests on the columns

* capital top part of a column or pillar

Ionic Order. The Ionic order originated in the islands of the Aegean and in Asia Minor and was lighter and more ornate than the Doric order. The Ionic column rested on a carved base and had a more slender and graceful shaft than the Doric column. The Ionic capital included a large double scroll, called a volute.

The earliest Ionic columns may have been used simply to support statues. Around 570 B.C., a large Ionic temple dedicated to the goddess Hera was built on the island of Samos. Its scale was colossal—over 50,000 square feet. The people of Ephesus, presumably in rivalry, built an even larger temple to Artemis. Several years later, the people of Samos rebuilt their temple to Hera larger still. In the late 400s B.C., architects used the Ionic order in the temple of Athena Nike and in the Erechtheum, both located on the Acropolis of Athens.

Corinthian Order. The Corinthian order developed in the late 400s B.C. It evolved from the Ionic order but differed from both the Doric and Ionic orders in the style of its capital. The Corinthian capital looked like an upside-down bell decorated with carvings of the curly leaves of the acanthus plant. The plant seemed to sprout from the top of the column shaft. Initially, Greek architects used the Corinthian capital only for interiors, but its use soon spread to the exteriors of large buildings. The Romans liked the Corinthian order so much that they used it in their most important monuments.


Many Greek cities grew gradually, without a plan for the placement of streets and buildings. Beginning in the late 500s B.C., city plans came into use, particularly in new settlements that were built as colonies. Some city plans consisted of a grid of streets, with an orderly arrangement of building sites. The agora, or marketplace, was a central feature of the city. Regardless of the shape of the city, the most important structure was the temple, built to honor and worship a significant god. While earlier peoples of the Aegean, such as the Minoans and Mycenaeans, created huge structures of stone, the Greeks surpassed them by constructing elaborate buildings.

Temples. The temples of the ancient Greeks were their most outstanding architectural accomplishment. A temple was a freestanding building with a large, main room called a cella and a porch called a pronaos. Inside the cella was the statue of the favorite god of the city or region. Columns rose from a stepped platform to support stone beams and a low-pitched roof. The roof gables formed triangle-shaped pediments*. Builders used large, carefully shaped blocks of stone for the main structure. They built the ceiling of wooden beams and covered the roof with terra-cotta* tiles supported by wooden rafters.


The most famous building of the Hellenistic period was not a temple but a tomb. It was the tomb of Mausolus, who served in the 350s B.C. as a governor of the Persians. Mausolus's widow, Artemisia, built the tomb at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor.

The building rose in three stages to a height of about 134 feet. A wide base supported Ionic columns. Above the columns rose a pyramid crowned by a chariot containing statues of Mausolus and Artemisia. Decorations showed chariot races and mythological battle scenes.

The tomb of Mausolus inspired other funeral monuments.

In fact, the English word mausoleum means "an outsized tomb."

The Greeks decorated their temples with carvings and colorful paint. Moldings in various shapes displayed continuous decorative patterns. Builders usually painted elements such as the frieze, cornice, moldings, and ceilings in blue or red, and also used black, green, and gold paint.

Civic Buildings. Greek architects also produced buildings for the central marketplace. The stoa, a long, freestanding porch or covered walkway, was a typical structure of the agora. A stoa could be straight or L-shaped. It could have a single or double aisle, and it could be with or without rooms. Doric or Ionic columns decorated the stoa.

Some Greek cities had a prytaneum, a building for entertaining state guests. This building might contain city offices and a hearth where a fire burned at all times. In some places, there was also a treasury building in which the city’s dedications to a particular god or goddess were held. Treasuries had inner rooms and a porch of columns, and they were usually smaller and more square than temples. Other urban buildings included theaters and concert halls. Theaters consisted of a stage area; a circular orchestra for dancing, singing, and reciting; and a semicircular seating area for the audience. Some cities had a stadium for races. Spectators stood on embankments and looked down into the racing area.

Private Homes. The Greeks lavished attention on their public buildings but spent little on private homes. Early houses were simple, one-room buildings of wood or stone, with a porch on one side. However, when private homes became more elaborate in the late 400s and 300s B.C., architects began to build dwellings with several rooms facing south onto a court and a special room for dining.

The Athens of Pericles. The Acropolis was a fortified hill above the city of Athens. In 480 B.C., the Persians attacked the city and destroyed the temples and statues on the Acropolis. By 448 B.C., the Athenians had begun to rebuild the Acropolis under the leadership of Pericles. This was the most ambitious building project in the history of Greek architecture. The rebuilt Acropolis marked the high point of Greek artistic endeavor.

The greatest building on the Acropolis was the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. The architects Ictinus and Callicrates built the Parthenon in the Doric style, with some Ionic features, between 447 and 438 B.C. Certain refinements contributed to the greatness of the Parthenon. The stepped platform and the entablature are slightly bowed or arched so that the center is a bit higher than the ends. The columns tilt inward very slightly, and every capital was slightly modified. The complex curves and variant dimensions were unlike the true horizontals and right angles of most temples. They created a vibrant and continually interesting picture in the viewer’s eye and gave the Parthenon a sense of life.

* pediment triangular space formed by a low-pitched roof

* terra-cotta hard-baked clay, either glazed or unglazed

Soon after the building of the Parthenon, Pericles commissioned a huge gateway, the Propylaea, at the western end of the Acropolis. The architect Mnesicles began building the Propylaea in 437 B.C. using Doric and Ionic elements. Next to the Propylaea was the Temple of Athena Nike, designed by Callicrates in the 440s and built later, probably between 427 and 424 B.C. This temple belonged to the Ionic order. Opposite the Parthenon was another temple, the Erechtheum, named after Erechtheus, a legendary king of Athens. The Erectheum was completed in 405 B.C. It is one of the best examples of elaborate Ionic architecture in Athens.

Hellenistic Architecture. During Greece’s Hellenistic* era, Greek culture spread to the east, and many new cities were settled. The growth of cities created a tremendous demand for public buildings, such as council chambers, markets, theaters, sports arenas, and elaborate private homes. As a result, the design of city buildings became more varied.

Individual citizens paid for many buildings during this period. The most important patrons, however, were kings, who built imposing monuments to project an image of their power. The wealthy kings of Pergamum in Asia Minor, for example, built a royal capital with numerous public buildings in the Doric style. When the emperors of Rome undertook ambitious building projects, they looked to Hellenistic-style buildings for architectural inspiration. (See also Architecture, Roman; Cities, Greek; Columns, Types of; Construction Materials and Techniques.)

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