Throughout history, there have been various significant architectural movements. Classic Greece, the last and most enduring movement, stands out. Despite being admired and replicated for centuries, the origins of ancient Greek architecture may surprise those unfamiliar with the region’s history. To fully appreciate its form, function, and beauty, it is important to comprehend the history and mechanics of Classic Greek architecture. According to metmuseum.org, ancient Greek architects aimed for precision and excellence in workmanship, which are characteristic of Greek art. Their formulas, developed as early as the sixth century B.C., have influenced architectural styles for the past two millennia. In contrast, thinkquest.org explains that the first inhabitants of the Greek peninsula were Neolithic and constructed primitive structures using mud bricks and stones. These early homes were primarily circular, oval, apsidal, or rectangular in shape, with one room being the norm. Despite their simplicity, these homes laid the groundwork for Grecian-style architecture and served as a foundation for architectural styles worldwide. The shapes of these early homes can be seen throughout various orders of Greek architecture, including Ionic and Corinthian.
“The next wave of settlers were the Minoan architects. Their towns were predominantly residential, lacking in temples and public spaces. In contrast to previous civilizations, their homes were private and divided into separate rooms, utilizing pillars for support” (thinkquest.org). These newcomers brought various aspects to the development of Greek architecture, particularly the concept of open houses and rooms. This culture is largely recognized as the pioneers of the ancient Greek architectural style. “The Minoans were the first advanced society in Greece and Europe as a whole. Flourishing from approximately 2200 to 1450 B.C. on the island of Crete, located about one hundred miles southeast of mainland Greece” (Nardo, 12). The Minoans are attributed as the initiators of the architectural heritage for which ancient Greece is renowned.
According to Nardo, one of the most well-known examples of Minoan architecture is the palace at Knossos. This palace was located near the northern coast of the island and was five stories high, comprised of numerous interconnected rooms. The buildings in Knossos were not only sophisticated but also featured modern plumbing amenities such as flush toilets and clay pipes for hot and cold water. The palace housed a significant population of up to thirty to fifty thousand people, along with the surrounding city. Furthermore, there were numerous other Minoan cities and towns in Crete and the Aegean Sea islands, which are situated along the eastern borders of Greece (Nardo, 12).
The Minoans had limited records and no history, leading to the eventual obscurity of their culture during the classical Greek era. However, some vague recollections of their existence persisted through oral tradition for centuries (Nardo, 13). The transmission of this fragmentary knowledge served as the basis for the development of the classical Greek style, which later fused with Egyptian influences.
Religion was a central aspect of Greek Life, with the largest and most magnificent structures being the temples. These temples also had political significance as they were built to celebrate civic power, express gratitude for military victories, and honor patron deities. The primary purpose of these temples was to serve as sanctuaries for the statues of the gods and goddesses they were dedicated to. Initially, only trained priests and priestesses were allowed access to these temples. However, when Alexander the Great arrived, ordinary citizens were granted entry as well. This resulted in changes in architectural design and functionality over time. As a result, the temples became more intricate not only as places of worship but also as remarkable artistic creations.
Greek architecture is renowned for its exquisite arches, which were initially created for functional purposes rather than ornamental ones. These arches had the dual role of providing support to either the ceiling or the floor. Interestingly, these architectural frames have withstood the test of time and now represent a distinctive characteristic of ancient Greek architecture.
According to Time (60), when the Greeks arrived in Egypt and witnessed the impressive structures of the royal cities in the Nile Valley, they quickly understood the concept of monumental architecture and colossal sculpture. What fascinated them the most was not the architectural design itself, but rather the use of materials and the grand scale. The Greeks eagerly imitated these elements, particularly the imposing dimensions achieved through stone construction. It is worth noting that before encountering Egyptian culture, the Greeks had already established a well-defined architectural plan for their temples, which consisted of a rectangular shape with columns on the front, sides, and back. Often, these columns were arranged in double rows within the main room where a cult image was placed.
The Greeks did not alter their architectural style due to exposure to Egyptian architecture, but they did modify their construction methods. By approximately 600 B.C., the Greeks began exclusively using stone for building purposes. This change primarily stemmed from their ample resources of limestone and marble, as well as an abundance of slave labor for extracting them. Consequently, the previous prevalent use of wood in construction became obsolete during this transition period. It was during this time that the three significant orders of Greek architecture were established.
According to ancientgreece.com, the Greeks developed three architectural systems known as orders, each having their own unique proportions and details. These orders, namely the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, are referred to as orders because they exhibit ordered and coordinated parts. It is believed that these orders may have had symbolic meanings in their initial forms. The main difference among the three orders lies in their column styles. However, as metmuseum.org explains, the architectural order not only governs the column but also determines the relationships between all architectural components. Thus, every part of a Greek building contributes to its overall structure, functionality, and aesthetic appeal.
The Doric order, which originated on the Western shores of Greece, was commonly used by the Spartans (thinkquest.org). This architectural style is known for its sturdy construction and plain capital. It was prevalent in mainland Greece, as well as the colonies in southern Italy and Sicily (ancientgreece.com).
The Doric column, characterized by its dish-shaped top and lack of a base, can be seen prominently in the Parthenon. This monumental temple, dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the Virgin Goddess of wisdom, was constructed on the Acropolis in Athens during the 5th century B.C. Made entirely of pentelic marble, the Parthenon was surrounded by freestanding columns. It serves as a significant example of the Doric order, representing the pinnacle of ancient Greek civilization. While primarily following the Doric style, there are also elements of the Ionic order present, particularly on the walls of the cella (ancientgreece.com).
“The Ionic order, which originated in Ionia on the eastern edge of the Aegean Sea, showcases a thinner and more elegant style. Its capital is adorned with a scroll-like design called a volute. This architectural style was prevalent in eastern Greece and the surrounding islands” (ancientgreece.com). According to metmuseum.org, the Ionic order features columns supported by bases and have more vertical flutes compared to the Doric order. The Ionic capitals are characterized by two volutes resting on a band adorned with palm-leaf ornaments. The abacus is narrow, and the entablature typically consists of three simple horizontal bands, distinguishing it from the Doric order. One notable example of the Ionic order is the Temple of Athena Nike, constructed around 420 B.C.”
The Corinthian order is unique among the Greek orders and was primarily used in Roman temples. It features a capital adorned with intricate acanthus leaves. Unlike the other Greek orders, the development of the Corinthian style took longer and reached its peak in the mid-4th century B.C. While it was highly valued for its elegance in Roman temples, it was not as popular during that period in the Greek world. The Temple of Zeus in Athens is famous for showcasing the elaborate design of the Corinthian style.
The architects and builders heavily relied on slave labor for their work. Slavery was considered essential in constructing large temples and other buildings. According to estimates, out of the 270,000 individuals residing in Athens, approximately 80,000 were slaves (Nardo, 57). Although the majority found slavery objectionable even during that era, they recognized the need for a sufficient workforce to construct temples and buildings. Similar to the slave labor employed in Egypt for building pyramids, the temples on the Acropolis were also reconstructed using slaves. Unlike the later practices in the western world, Greek slaves were not traded but rather acquired through conquest when one city-state overpowered another.
Pericles proposed the reconstruction of the Acropolis temples, destroyed by the Persians in 449 B.C., to restore pride and beauty to Athens. The Acropolis, known as the “high city,” is a hilltop fortress in Athens, Greece, housing famous structures like the Parthenon, Propylaea, and Erechtheum. These remarkable buildings were built during Pericles’ rule in Athens’ “Golden Age” in the 5th century B.C., including the magnificent new Parthenon dedicated to Athena. This site has been inhabited since ancient times, specifically the Neolithic period, serving different purposes such as religious worship, residential area, and defense against invaders (source: ancientgreece.com).
The history and mechanics of ancient Greek architecture are essential for a true appreciation of this admired, imitated, and duplicated style. The ancient Greeks were famous for their exquisite temples and ability to create stunning buildings with various designs. They established the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders, which served functional purposes while adding beauty to structures. As stated by author Nardo (61), “All the world’s culture culminated in Greece, and Greece in Athens, all Athens in its Acropolis, all the Acropolis in the Parthenon”.
- “Architecture in Ancient Greece.” Ancient Greece. 11 October 2004. .
- Greek Architecture. 11 October 2004. .
- Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Architecture in Ancient Greece.” 12 October 2004. .
- Nardo, Don. Ancient Greece. California: Lucent Books, 1994.
- Time Life Books, eds. Greece: Temples, Tombs, & Treasures. Virginia: Time Life, 1994.