Ancient & Classical Art · Architecture · Art Guides

A Guide to Classical Greek Architecture

 

Classical Greek architecture Parthenon Athens
South-east view of the Parthenon. Acropolis, Athens, Greece. Photo by Jebulon (CC0 1.0).
The Style Is Best Known For
  • The buildings on the Acropolis in Athens, most notably the Parthenon.
  • The Great Altar at Pergamon, modern Turkey (now in the Pergamon Museum of Berlin)
  • Temple of Hera at Paestum, modern Italy
What, When, and Where?

Classical Greek architecture can be found in Greece, the surrounding islands, and places in Turkey, Sicily, and southern Italy. You can also find fragments in museum collections throughout the world. All surviving classical Greek architecture exists in a ruined condition. Few, if any, complete structures still stand. Surviving Greek buildings are typically temples or civic structures such as theatres or stoas (public gathering places). Classical Greek homes don’t really survive in any number.

Ancient Greek history is divided into several periods. The architecture we’re talking about today was built during the archaic period (about 600-480 BCE), classical* period (480-400 BCE), and the Hellenistic period (began around 323 BCE and trailed off around 31 BCE).

*The term “classical” is often used to cover ancient Greece and Rome in their entirety when contrasted to the modern world.  I’ll use the word in that general sense here.

Key Features
  • Buildings are usually made of white marble. They were originally painted, but the paint wore away a long time ago.
  • Buildings are generally rectangular in shape. Theatres are the exception and tend to be semicircular.
  • Row of columns (called peristyles) on one to four sides of the building.
  • Decorated entablatures (horizontal elements supported by column) with many possible components. Triangular sections connecting flat walls to pitched roofs are called pediments. Long, rectangular ones are called friezes, and small, square-ish ones are called metopes.
  • Windows are small and interiors dark.
  • Decoration is primarily relief sculptures (raised figures coming out of a block of marble – not fully three-dimensional).
  • Buildings have flat or gently-pitched roofs. There are no arches, vaults, or domes in classical Greek architecture.
  • The three classical architectural orders (see below).
Relief sculpture from the Parthenon
A piece of the relief sculpture from the frieze on the Parthenon. It is now in the British Museum, where the sculptures are collectively called the Elgin Marbles. Photo by Carole Raddato via the British Museum (CC BY-SA 2.0).
The Orders

Classical Greek architecture was based on a system of three architectural orders – Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Each consists of a type of columns and configurations of elements in the entablature (horizontal section above the columns). It’s best to understand them through diagrams, so click here for some great ones at Smarthistory.

Classical Greek architecture Ionic capital
A scrolling Ionic capital located on the Erechtheum in Athens. Photo by Юкатан (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Background

Ancient Greek culture developed in Greece, the Aegean islands, and Greek colonies in Asia Minor (now Turkey) and Magna Graecia (Sicily and southern Italy). The Greek world consisted of numerous city states called poli or polis in the singular. All were independent from each other but shared common language, religion, and general culture. The poli were sometimes allies and other times enemies. Despite wars, coups, and turmoil, this system existed until Alexander the Great conquered Greece in the 300s BCE. Alexander loved all things Greek, so he and his army spread Greek ideas through his massive empire. This sparked what’s called the Hellenistic period, in which Greek art and culture dominated around the world. Hellenistic architecture blended classical forms with various outside influences.

Underlying Ideas
  • The ancient Greeks believed in the existence of many gods. Some, like Zeus and Aphrodite, are familiar to readers today.
  • Religion was involved in every aspect of life in the Greek polis.
  • The Greeks built temples to different gods in order to make sacrifices to them, gain their favor, and conduct important festivals.
  • The classical Greek world valued learning and intellect. Great Greek thinkers made contributions to fields like philosophy and math. We still study people like Plato and Aristotle today.
  • Athens was the cultural capital of the Greek world, and it eventually became the most powerful polis. It was the birthplace of democracy.
  • The idea of citizenship was important in many poli, but just Athens.
Classical Greek architecture Temple of Hephaestus
The Temple of Hephaestus in Athens is the best preserved of all classical Greek temples. Photo by sailko (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Why You Should Care

If you don’t live near the Mediterranean, you probably don’t have many opportunities to see ancient Greek architecture. However, you quite likely see many buildings fitting the same description every day. That’s because classical Greek architecture has directly influenced almost every subsequent European and American architectural style. Classical Roman, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical, Georgian, Federal, and Beaux-Arts are just some of the many architectural movements that have borrowed extensively from the ancient Greeks and from other Greek-inspired styles. There’s been many reasons for doing so. The thinkers of the Renaissance, for example, saw classical forms as an ideal way to represent the world’s return to classical reason and order. Early-19th century Americans, on the other hand, paid homage to the Greeks through their Federal style government buildings because they associated Greek architecture with Athenian democracy. Basically, if you’re interested in architecture at all, it’s a good idea to understand the ancient Greeks.

Resources

Becker, Jeffrey A. “Greek architectural orders” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed December 5, 2017.

Becker, Jeffrey A. “Introduction to Greek architecture” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed December 5, 2017.

The British Museum. “Ancient Greece, an introduction” in Smarthistory, February 28, 2017, accessed December 5, 2017.

Cartwright, Mark. “Greek Architecture“. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified January 06, 2013.

Cartwright, Mark. “A Visual Glossary of Classical Architecture.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified March 10, 2013. Accessed December 11, 2017.

Cragoe, Carol Davidson. How to Read Architecture: A crash course in architectural styles. New York: Rizzoli, 2008.

Hemingway, Colette, and Seán Hemingway. “Art of the Hellenistic Age and the Hellenistic Tradition.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (April 2007).

Watkins, David. A History of Western Architecture. Fifth edition. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2011. P. 23-57.

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