Greek Architecture – A Look at Ancient Greek Structures
Ancient Greek architecture is one of the most influential styles of architecture that has ever been developed. Greek architectural characteristics can now be found in structures that are not even Greek buildings. The Ancient Greeks also influenced the Romans and the Renaissance. The influence of this form cannot be overstated, and this article will have a look at Ancient Greek architecture, many of its characteristics and innovations, and, of course, we’ll have a look at some famous Greek buildings. So, keep reading to find out more!
- 1 A Look at Ancient Greek Architecture
- 2 The Greatest Ancient Greek Structures
- 3 Frequently Asked Questions
- 3.1 What Is the Most Famous Greek Architecture Characteristic?
- 3.2 What Are the Most Famous Structure Types Developed by the Greeks?
- 3.3 Who Did Ancient Greek Architecture Influence?
- 3.4 Does Ancient Greek Architecture Have an Influence Today?
- 3.5 Which of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World Was Greek?
A Look at Ancient Greek Architecture
Ancient Greek architecture has a long and illustrious history that has gone on to influence many cultures throughout the world, but especially in the west. Ancient Greek architecture is generally split into two major periods: the Hellenic and the Hellenistic. The Hellenic period began in 900 BCE and extended through until the death of Alexander the Great. It was after Alexander’s death that the Hellenistic period began and extended until 31 BCE when Augustus rose to power in Rome. This was when the Ancient Romans essentially took over as the dominant civilization, but even they did not leave the Ancient Greek roots behind.
The Ancient temple of Poseidon, Sounio, Attica (444–440 BC); DimitrisP67, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Romans were directly inspired by the Ancient Greeks, and, of course, the Ancient Greeks were inspired by those who came before them during the Minoan and Mycenaean periods. However, they will not be the focus here. The Ancient Greek characteristics that would go on to inspire the Ancient Romans may have shifted with the beginnings of the Byzantine era, but the classical Greek architecture was re-discovered during the Renaissance and would soon lead to the Neoclassical movement. All of this is to say that Ancient Greek architecture had a profound influence on the architecture of the world for years to come.
There are instances of Greek influence as far as the columns on the White House in the United States to the similarly designed columns that adorn the Japanese Diet Buildings. Ancient Greek temples and other Ancient Greek structures have seen their influence spread around the world, but what makes Ancient Greek Architecture unique in the first place?
What Makes Ancient Greek Architecture Unique?
Ancient Greek buildings were designed with a post-and-lintel structure that would go on to dominate architecture until the Romans introduced the widespread use of arches in the early decades of the Common Era. This form of architecture requires the use of columns, and the various columns that were used by the Ancient Greeks will be discussed in the below section, but it is worth noting that these columns were integral to Ancient Greek architecture.
The architectural wonders that the Ancient Greeks were able to develop led to four of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World being built by the Greeks, and one of the other Seven Wonders was heavily inspired by the Greeks. Their designs and innovations laid the foundation for much of the architecture that would later come.
Some of the most interesting things that the Ancient Greeks did was how they improved on various aspects of the column. The Ancient Greeks made use of optical tricks to make columns appear straighter and more perfect when you were standing below them. This was accomplished by thickening parts of the column, and the human eye is essentially tricked into seeing it how we think it should appear. Although, there are debates about whether this was the intended goal of this design. This kind of effort was especially put into Ancient Greek temples, but there were various other kinds of Ancient Greek structures. However, the vast majority of the effort was generally put into the temple structures that they designed.
The Parthenon in Athens (432 BC); Steve Swayne, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
This dedication to temples above all others is because the Ancient Greeks did not often feel that secular structures deserved the same kind of care and attention that temples did. In fact, it was the Romans who decided to start putting a lot more effort into secular buildings and thereby expand the kind of influence that Ancient Greek architecture had originated. Many of these temples also had intricate architectural structures that needed to be closely adhered to, such as the peripteral arrangement in which a single line of columns surrounded the exterior of the building or the prostyle arrangement in which columns were only found in the front. As you can see, columns tended to be the main concern when building these Ancient Greek temples.
These temples were also often adorned with architectural sculptures. These sculptures told stories that were often painted in rich colors and in bronze, and they told the tales of Ancient Greek myth. Although, at the time, these stories would not have been considered to be myths as they were integral to the religion. You can almost see it as similar to the stained-glass tradition of Christian churches. It was the use of intricate art that depicts scenes from their religious tradition.
Before we move on to look at some of the types of structures constructed by the Ancient Greeks, it would be useful to look at the central architectural technique that made Ancient Greek architecture so unique. Let’s have a look at the different types of columns that the Ancient Greeks developed.
The Five Architectural Orders of Ancient Greece
There are five primary orders of classical architecture in Greece. These “orders” are types of columns, but the orders are specific styles of columns that include some kind of a base and entablature, which are the things that columns support. Furthermore “capitals” are the tops of columns, and they are integral to understanding each of the orders. The orders are as follows:
- The Doric order is stone columns that use a fluted structure that is thinner at the top, and they have no real base. They generally have a simple capital too. They are much thicker than many of the other orders.
- The Ionic order generally has a slimmer overall design and they end in a volute capital, which is the iconic scroll-like structure found at the top of many columns. These columns also have a base.
Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion (444–440 BC); Berthold Werner, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
- The Corinthian order is a thinner column that is quite similar to the Ionic order, but it has a far more ornate capital that generally has detailed, leaf-based ornamentation. This order likely became the most famous of the orders.
- The Tuscan order is technically a Roman addition, but it was based on the Doric order. The idea behind this order was to have an unfluted column that ended in a far simpler entablature.
- The Composite order is another Roman addition that was a combination of the Ionic and Corinthian orders. This order had the volutes of the Ionic but included the leaf design of the Corinthian. There are many variations of this form.
These orders would be used to hold up an entablature, and this upper portion was further subdivided into three sections from the lowest point to the highest point, and they are, respectively, the architrave, the frieze, and the cornice. These were often ornate but were not always necessarily made to be ornate. It depended on the order that was used. In the beginning, the Ancient Greeks would only use one order per building, but things started to change, and buildings became comprised of multiple orders. It was not uncommon to see the Doric order on the lowest levels and other, sleeker orders on higher levels as the Doric order was perceived as more capable of holding weight.
These orders were practically always in use for Ancient Greek architecture, but the building materials that were used did change over time. So, which building materials did they start with and which did they later use?
The Building Materials Used in Ancient Greek Buildings
The earliest Ancient Greek buildings were constructed out of relatively simple materials such as mud and wood, but as the architectural abilities of the culture improved, so did the materials that were used. The newer materials proved to be far more resilient to time and the elements.
This made the Ancient Greek structures far more permanent than much of the architecture that had come before.
Mud and wood continued to be used but in very different ways. Mud bricks and wood were still used for some of the upper elements, but the load-bearing parts of these structures were significantly improved upon and altered. Greek columns were later commonly made from local stone, generally limestone, but marble was also used quite extensively. Marble was especially prevalent in the many Ancient Greek temples, like the Parthenon, and it was also used in Ancient Greek palaces.
Courtyard of the Zappeion, Athens, Greece (1888); Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
These materials were carefully monitored by the Greek architects who were placed in charge of the entire process. These architects had to choose the stone that was used in these Greek buildings, they had to oversee the extraction of the stone from the earth, and they had to supervise the many artisans who were placed in charge of cutting it into the rough-hewn rocks that were sent to the construction sites for final carving and placement.
Once all of the materials were together, they were generally combined without the use of mortar. Instead, the Ancient Greeks tended to use careful and incredibly precise carving, and there was also the use of metal clamps that were drilled into the rock so that it would remain secure for as long as possible. The completed projects were also often painted in striking, lavish colors. These building materials and techniques were used in all manner of Ancient Greek structures, and there were many types.
There were Greek palaces, temples, stoa, gymnasiums, and various others. Several of those varieties will be discussed in the following section. So, keep reading to learn more about them.
The Kind of Structures the Ancient Greeks Built
We already know that the Ancient Greeks loved their temples. Ancient Greek temples received far more attention than any of the other architectural forms, but they were not the only thing that the Ancient Greeks built. There were loads of other structures that formed part of the complex architectural styles of Ancient Greek structures. The construction of Ancient Greek buildings meant a lot more than just a building now existing. While the Greeks were immensely reliant on the use of the column, there were other architectural innovations that they were creating that did not always use columns. Although, many of them still did.
Ancient Corinth, Temple E (550 BCE); Ploync, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Some of the most famous Ancient Greek structures would go on to form an integral part of their culture. The amphitheaters that they built were one example of this. The festivals dedicated to the god of wine and theater Dionysus were performed in the grand amphitheaters that were constructed. These public performance venues allowed for the development of some of the most famous literature in the entire Western Canon.
They also constructed the earliest stadiums, and we even take the word “stadium” from them. A “stade” or “stadion” was the name for a 180 m foot race. The earliest stadiums allowed for some of the first competitive games that would go on to birth events as grand as the Olympics. The Olympics themselves, as the name would suggest, have their origins in the original Ancient Greek Olympics. Then there was the development of the gymnasiums, which is obviously where we get the modern word “gym” and that’s exactly what these structures were. The gymnasiums allowed for the training that would be necessary for the first stadiums. These structures were also used for storage.
There are also lesser-known structures, such as the stoa. These Greek buildings were covered walkways that were designed for public use and became integral as marketplaces. The shops would form between the columns that held these structures up.
And, lastly, the Ancient Greeks developed better drainage systems and heavy foundations that helped buildings withstand natural forces, such as severe weather and earthquakes. In fact, many of these Ancient Greek structures have only fallen because of human intervention. Many of these structures have been stripped clean over the years and that’s why many of the most famous Greek buildings are little more than ruins today. Regardless of that, let’s have a look at some of those ancient, glorious structures.
The Greatest Ancient Greek Structures
Let’s have a look at some of the most famous Ancient Greek structures and see why they became such immensely famous buildings. Fair warning though, some of them were classified as members of the elite group of structures known as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. So, keep reading to learn more.
Ancient Greek temple in Segesta (420 BCE); Derbrauni, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Temple of Artemis (550 – 356 BCE) at Ephesus
|Date Constructed||Pre-7th Century – 356 BCE|
|Location||Ephesus, Greece (Modern Day Selçuk, Turkey)|
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was once a grand temple known throughout the ancient world. It became such a famous instance of Ancient Greek architecture that it was soon classified as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. These Wonders were, of course, determined by the Ancient Greeks and so putting their own monuments on the list of greatest structures in existence may need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it was still a magnificent Ancient Greek structure.
The final version of this temple was, as the name suggests, dedicated to the goddess of the hunt, Artemis. However, there were also a variety of images in the temple, and there was a display of the goddess of darkness, Nyx. So, it may not have been solely dedicated to Artemis and no one else. Regardless of which god received the dedication, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was a magnificent Ancient Greek temple that was 137 m (or 450 ft) in length, 69 m (or 225 ft) wide, and 18 m (or 60 ft) tall. Or at least this was the version that would go on to become one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The idea that there was a separate “version” of this temple that became the Wonder is an important aspect of this structure’s history. While the final version may have been a massive structure with over 127 columns and a length of 137 m, this was actually only the third version of this Ancient Greek temple.
The oldest versions of this temple date back far further than any of that. The oldest versions of it are from a pre-7th Century period that was ultimately destroyed in the 7th Century because of a flood. That first phase of the temple is not particularly well-known, and it was reconstructed starting in about 550 BCE. This version would become a grand temple that was also ultimately destroyed, but this time by an arsonist.
Temple of Artemis (550 – 356 BCE) at Ephesus; Ferit BAYCUMAN, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
As they say, the third time’s the charm, so the next attempt emerged and was built by the Ephesians themselves. It was even funded by them despite an offer from Alexander the Great. This was the version of the temple that became known far and wide. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the form that would ultimately become exceedingly famous for its majesty.
This third version of this Ancient Greek temple lasted a very long time, and it was even mentioned in sources like the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
This grand monument lasted for a very long time, but by 401 CE, it had been destroyed or ruined in some other way. That’s why there’s hardly anything left of this structure today. The site of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was lost for many centuries after its destruction, but it was rediscovered in the 19th Century, and an expedition began in 1869 to determine what was left. There are really only pieces remaining. There’s one column surrounded by a foundation and some fragments. Ancient monuments of this description do not last forever.
Temple of Zeus (489 – 463 BCE) at Olympia
|Architect||Libon of Elis (5th Century BCE)|
|Date Constructed||489 – 463 BCE|
The Temple of Zeus at Olympia is a structure that may not have been as famous as the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, but it was famous for another reason. While the Temple of Artemis was famous for the structure itself, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia was famous for what was housed within its walls. The Ancient Greek temple was obviously dedicated to the god of the skies, Zeus, and as such there was a grand monument within its confines: the famous Statue of Zeus at Olympia. This statue was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was a 12.4 m (or 41 ft) tall statue that was comprised of gold and ivory and embedded with various precious gems. It was recognized as soon as it was built as one of the most important pieces of Ancient Greek art, and the temple it was built within was famous too.
The Temple of Zeus at Olympia was a religious site that was built in the peripteral form, and so it had a structure that was surrounded by a portico with columns.
It was a large structure that stood at a length of 70.1 m (or 230 ft), 29 m (or 95 ft) wide, and 20.7 m (or 68 ft) tall. It was built out of local limestone that was later covered in stucco to give it the appearance of marble. However, the roof was designed with Pentelic marble that was cut into such thin tiles that they were translucent. The exterior of this temple was also resplendent in gargoyles and waterspouts, and there were over 100 of them throughout the structure. In addition, there were loads of sculptures, friezes, and decorations that stood around and beside the Wonder of the Ancient World that was housed under its roof.
Temple of Zeus (489 – 463 BCE) at Olympia; Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Like many similarly ancient sites in Greece, this one was lost. It may have been one of the most famous Greek buildings but that did not stop it from vanishing. It did persist as an influential structure, as it was considered to be a perfect specimen of the Doric order of architecture, and it even influenced other Greek buildings like the Second Temple of Hera at Paestum. The site itself was only rediscovered in 1829 and excavations were done to determine as much as possible about the famous Greek building. Sadly, there were little more than fragments remaining of this ancient Greek temple. The next structure has lasted a lot longer than many of the others though.
Parthenon (447 – 432 BCE) at Athens
|Architect||Ictinus and Callicrates (5th Century BCE)|
|Date Constructed||447 – 432 BCE|
The Parthenon is one of the greatest Ancient Greek structures and it is also actually considered by many to be the greatest example of Ancient Greek architecture in general. It is built on the Athenian acropolis, and it was dedicated to Athena during the reign of the Delian League while this political body was at the height of its power. The structure itself is actually one that has caused some scholarly debate over what exactly it was used for. There tends to be the view that it is a temple, as it clearly resembles many temples in Ancient Greece, but it is not necessarily a temple just because it was dedicated to the god Athena. Athena was simply a massively important figure in the city that was named after her.
However, regardless of the exact purposes of the Parthenon, it was built to exact specifications that attracted artisans from around the country.
The Parthenon has a peripteral octastyle structure that is generally Doric in design, although some architectural features appear to be Ionic in design. This clashing of two different styles is often presumed to have been a later decision and not part of the original plans. The Parthenon eventually stood with a large total number of columns. There were 46 outer columns and 23 inner columns. It had a double row of colonnades and there was an inner structure known as a cella. This Ancient Greek building also made use of entasis, the design that involves the bulging of columns to produce an illusion of column straightness. Although, there are debates about whether or not that was the actual purpose of entasis in the first place. Regardless of that, the Parthenon made use of that design.
Parthenon (447 – 432 BCE) at Athens; Phanatic, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The building was also constructed atop an older temple that was demolished during the Persian invasion of 480 BCE. That was only the beginning of the Parthenon’s existence though. It was built as the Parthenon it is today, but then used as a church in the 6th century but changed into a mosque in the mid-15th century after the Ottoman conquest, and it was later subject to an attack during the Morean War when a bomb exploded and left severe damage in its wake.
The poor fate of the Parthenon did not end there because in 1800 – 1803, a British man named Bruce Thomas, 7th Earl of Elgin, pulled pieces off the walls and handed them over to the British museum.
These “Elgin marbles” have since become subject to a heated debate over the loot-oriented history of the British Museum and there have been many demands for their return. Regardless of whether or not they are returned, the Parthenon has clearly become a major figure of Greek architecture and a stunning example of Greek architecture characteristics in a near-perfect form.
Ancient Theatre (Late 4th Century) at Epidaurus
|Architect||Polykleitos the Younger (4th Century BCE)|
|Date Constructed||Late 4th Century|
The Ancient Theatre at Epidaurus is a theater that, unlike many other Ancient Greek structures, is practically still standing in its original condition. This theater was developed as a place in which the 13-14,000 spectators could enjoy dramas, games, music, worship, and even healing ceremonies. Basically, it was a theater in keeping with the dedication to the arts that the Ancient Greeks brought to the world.
The structure itself was comprised of two main parts. There was a lower theater and an upper theater, and because of the specifications of how it was designed, the Ancient Theatre at Epidaurus is considered to be the Ancient Greek theater with the best possible acoustics and overall aesthetics.
In addition, many of these theaters were intensely modified after the Romans came to power in the country, but the Ancient Theatre at Epidaurus was, for some reason, an exception to that. It was left practically unaltered, and by the time it was eventually excavated in 1881, it was restored to an almost perfect original version. Although the stage building didn’t survive through the centuries.
Ancient Theatre (Late 4th Century) at Epidaurus; Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
In the modern day, this structure is still in use as a theater. It is often used to host performances of Ancient Greek plays, the kind of plays that may have once been performed in this very theater. Those plays did actually stop during World War Two, as is rather obvious, but they did resume, and there is actually an event known as the Epidaurus Festival that occurs every year during the summer that makes use of this grand and ancient theater.
Palace of Aigai (359 – 336 BCE) at Thessaloniki
|Architect||Pythius of Priene (4th Century BCE)|
|Date Constructed||359 – 336 BCE|
The Palace of Aigai does not really exist anymore. The building is practically little more than rubble and foundations by this point, but it was considered to be the biggest structure in all of Ancient Greece because it was the most important of all Greek palaces. It was three times the size of the Parthenon and covered in high-quality stucco, complete with good drainage, water supply systems, mosaic designs, and a double-story structure.
This Greek palace was the residence of Philip II of Macedon.
He was the father of Alexander the Great, and he used this structure as both the royal residence and administrative center of Aigai. Aigai was the seat of power in the country until Archelaus moved the throne to Pella, although it was customary for Greek kings to be buried here.
Palace of Aigai (359 – 336 BCE) at Thessaloniki; Mark Landon (photographed in 1990; digitized in 2021), CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The palace did not become an immensely important location after the kings left, and in 168 BCE, the Romans invaded, occupied the Macedonian Kingdom, and destroyed both the palace and city in this location. So, it vanished from the world until the excavations began in 1861. These excavations discovered the tombs underneath and the foundations of the structure itself. That’s all that’s left of the structure in the modern day. The Palace of Aigai is yet another Ancient Greek structure that did not survive the centuries, although there have been reconstruction attempts. There is now a temple, and a collection of redone columns, friezes, and mosaics on the property, but the original is still in little more than tatters.
Thus concludes our look at Ancient Greek architecture. The column has persisted as the most famous of the Greek architecture characteristics that would spread around the world, but this ancient culture has influenced a lot more than only the use of columns in modern architecture. We’ve had a look at some of the most famous Greek buildings and the particulars of Greek architecture itself. So, did we miss any particularly fantastic examples of Ancient Greek architecture?
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is the Most Famous Greek Architecture Characteristic?
The most famous characteristic of Ancient Greek architecture is, easily, the column. While columns were not used in every type of structure that the Greeks created, they were used in the most famous Greek buildings. Columns were such a major aspect of Greek architecture that the different orders of architecture are derived from the type of column that they represented. This is why the column is the most famous Greek architecture characteristic.
What Are the Most Famous Structure Types Developed by the Greeks?
The Ancient Greeks innovated in many ways, and some of the biggest developments were in types of buildings. The Ancient Greeks developed the earliest amphitheaters, gymnasiums, stadiums, and stoa. While much Greek architectural focus was placed on the temples, these did exist before the Ancient Greeks.
Who Did Ancient Greek Architecture Influence?
The Ancient Greeks were an incredibly influential culture. Not only did the Ancient Greeks spread political, philosophical, and artistic influence around the world, but they also influenced architecture. The Romans were especially influenced by the Ancient Greeks, and modeled much of their early society on Greece. Through the influence of the Romans, the influence of Ancient Greece always follows. The Neoclassical Movement during the Renaissance is one such example.
Does Ancient Greek Architecture Have an Influence Today?
Ancient Greek architecture has an influence today. The use of columns is especially prevalent throughout international architecture. Columns can even be seen on some of the most famous buildings in the world, such as the White House. The Romans would spread their influence further than the Greeks did, but the Romans were heavily influenced by the Greeks in the first place. So, the influence of Ancient Rome could be said to be the influence of Ancient Greece too.
Which of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World Was Greek?
The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were predominantly Greek in nature, but also, to be fair, they were chosen by the Greeks themselves. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, and the Colossus of Rhodes were all in Greece, while the Lighthouse of Alexandria was in Egypt, but they were all of Greek design. In addition, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in modern-day Turkey, while not in Greece or made by Greeks, was predominantly designed by Greeks and influenced by Greek architecture and art. The other two Wonders of the Ancient World were Babylonian and Egyptian in origin.
Justin van Huyssteen is a writer, academic, and educator from Cape Town, South Africa. He holds two degrees in Theory of Literature and is currently completing a third. His primary focus in this field is the analysis of artistic objects through a number of theoretical lenses. His predominant theoretical areas of interest include narratology and critical theory in general, with a particular focus on animal studies. Other than academia, he is a novelist, game reviewer, and freelance writer.
Justin’s preferred architectural movements include the more modern and postmodern types of architecture, such as Bauhaus, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Brutalist, and Futurist varieties like sustainable architecture. He is also particularly interested in the many vernacular styles of architecture that have often gone unnoticed in favor of the more famous universalized styles. He likes the more inventive and unusual forms that tend to go against the descendants of Classical architecture.