Ancient Greece and Rome 1200 BCE-476 CE: Architecture and Design

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Surviving Sources

Loss of Evidence

The architecture of ancient Greece and Rome never completely disappeared. Many examples of buildings or the remains of them have always been visible or have been easily rediscovered, particularly in the Greek mainland and in Italy. However, the remains of classical antiquity can be found throughout the lands of the Mediterranean, the Aegean, North Africa, and the Middle East. Such remains were not always respected and preserved. It is all too obvious that ancient buildings were reused for different purposes than for those for which they were originally intended, often necessitating structural or decorative changes. As an example, in Syracuse, in Sicily, it is possible to see the original columns of a temple imbedded in the wall of the later church that utilized the original site. Marble and sandstone could very easily be reused, and limestone was often burned for the lime it contained. Decorative columns were taken away and pressed into service in later churches and mosques. Metal fittings and other decorative elements were regularly stripped from buildings to be melted down. Many dedication inscriptions in metal lettering have disappeared as a result of this practice.

Rediscovery in the Renaissance

In the late fourteenth century artists and architects, principally in the cities of Italy including Rome and Florence, began to take a new interest in the art and architecture that surrounded them. It was an important part of the general reawakening or “rebirth” of interest in classical antiquity at the time that included all aspects of ancient learning. Scholars, artists, and architects began to investigate the ancient remains, study and copy the preserved decorations, and analyze the proportions of the monuments. The result of this newly developed field of study was an attempt to imitate the art and architecture of antiquity, regarded as a perfected art worthy to serve as models for their time. The writing of Vitruvius was taken very seriously as the guide to proper application of the rules of ancient architecture, disregarding the fact that his work was limited by his own time and experience to a short time in ancient Roman history. However, the revived interest in classical architecture was mainly limited to Roman rather than Greek examples because of the nature of the remains available. This was not a simple copying of Roman buildings but an attempt to understand the elements, systems of proportion, and decorative devices, in order to use them in ways suitable to their own time. Architects such as Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and Michelozzo Michelozzi (c. 1396-1472) were among the leaders and innovators in the newly developed style, but it was with artist-architects like Bramante, Michelangelo, and Palladio that it reached its highest expressions.

The Classical Revival

The Renaissance architecture of Italy had considerable influence on the later developments in France and England, but a revived interest in ancient architecture was also kindled by the discovery and excavation of ancient remains such as the buried city of Pompeii in the mid-eighteenth century. The ancient monuments of Athens were also studied and published, as were the structures of Palmyra, a city in the Syrian desert. The Panthéon in Paris, designed by Jacques Germain Soufflot (1709-1780), modeled on the ancient Roman building in Rome, is a good example of this revived interest. Many products of this reuse of ancient principals and ideas exist throughout Europe. One outstanding example is the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, designed by Karl Gotfried Langhans (1733-1808) and built at the end of the eighteenth century. It was clearly modeled after a structure in Athens, although some details have been changed. For the classical revival in America, one of the outstanding names is that of Thomas Jefferson. He believed that Roman architecture was best suited for the important buildings of the new American republic, and he applied his direct knowledge of ancient remains and his theories to a number of projects including the Virginia State Capitol. Greek forms were also employed by other architects in the young country, as in the design of the Bank of the United States in Philadelphia. The architect, William Strickland (1787-1854), used the Parthenon in Athens for his model and inspiration. The ideals of classical architecture have persisted, almost to the present day. Many important buildings have been designed with the models of ancient Greece and Rome in mind. This is such an integral part of the development of American architecture that it almost goes unnoticed today because the forms are so familiar to us.

Existing Buildings

The architectural remains of the Greek and Roman world survive in varied stages of preservation in a number of places around the Mediterranean basin. Some Roman examples, such as the Maison Carrée at Nîmes in France, dedicated early in the first century, or the Pantheon in Rome, a construction largely of the second century, still stand much as they were built in antiquity. These attest to the methods used in their construction but also to the respect shown them when they were later utilized as Christian churches. By contrast, major monuments such as the Parthenon on the Acropolis at Athens were not so well treated and are evidence to that neglect. The Parthenon had been used as a church, a mosque, and then for the storage of gunpowder. It was partly destroyed when an explosion of an ammunition cache blasted out much of one side of the structure in 1687. Except for that accident, it might be one of the best-preserved Greek temples in the modern world. Not many examples of Greek and Roman architecture have survived even this well, although there are many lesser-known remains outside of Greece and Italy that add to modern knowledge.

Surviving Greek Architecture

The ancient buildings of Greece are justly famous and include some examples, such as the Parthenon, with the complex of buildings on the Athenian Acropolis, and the temple called the Theseum, also in Athens, that give modern scholars some idea of the appearance of the ancient buildings. Throughout the country are the remains of structures in various stages of preservation. With some monuments, such at the great temple at Olympia, the appearance of the building has only been determined by excavation of the site, extensive study, and reconstruction on paper. With others, where only a few columns might remain upright, the plan of the structure can still be determined from the remains of stone foundations. The most significant examples of Greek architecture away from the Greek mainland are to be found in southern Italy, Sicily, and the western coast of Turkey (East Greece). To study the evolution of early Greek architecture the temples at Paestum, south of Naples, and at various sites on the island of Sicily, including Selinute and Agrigento, provide essential supplementary evidence. By chance of preservation, these more nearly complete or re-constructible examples exist in what were the colonies of the Greek city-states. When the Greeks colonized southern Italy and Sicily they brought their architects and artists and imported their own traditions of art and design. For most constructions they simply used local materials. By contrast, the great temple of Diana at Ephesus, in what is now western Turkey, survived as only the foundation platform; still providing enough evidence for some idea of the appearance of what must have been one of the great buildings of antiquity.

Surviving Etruscan and Roman Architecture

The preserved architecture of the Etruscans is limited to tombs, of which thousands have been found. Etruscan tombs were generally underground structures containing several chambers or rooms. Some of the architectural detail incorporated in the decoration suggests that the tombs were meant to imitate temple and house architecture but few examples of domestic and religious structures have actually been preserved. There are town walls composed of roughly hewn stone which can be dated to the time of the Etruscans but the actual style of buildings can only be reconstructed from the evidence obtained from excavations. In contrast, the evidence for the evolution of Roman architecture during the Republic and the empire is extensive and a variety of structures are preserved in whole or in part. In addition to famous structures such as the Pantheon and Maison Carrée, there are many monuments in the city of Rome and in the Italian peninsula that give a vivid picture of the variety of Roman building. These include temples and tombs, palaces and theaters, and an assortment of public structures including aqueducts, bridges, bath complexes, markets, administrative buildings and the like. Probably the most familiar examples are the amphitheaters and ceremonial arches, exemplified by the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine in Rome. However, the cities of Ostia, the seaport of Rome, and the two cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, also provide considerable evidence of town planning, layout, and development. Other evidence exists outside of Italy as well. As the Roman Empire grew, the colonies sustained building projects that have left many partly or completely preserved examples. To mention only a few areas, in the colonies of North Africa, whole ancient cities have been preserved, only to be recovered by excavation. In such places the remains of civic centers, religious and political monuments, and domestic complexes have been found. Throughout Europe, notably in France and Spain, amphitheaters, bridges, and aqueducts attest to the skill of Roman architects and engineers.

Literary and Other Evidence

For Greek architecture and construction methods there is considerable inscriptional evidence preserved. In this material architects are named; contracts for quarrying, transportation of material, and actual construction are itemized and the wages of various class of workmen are detailed. Modern scholars are also fortunate that professional Roman architect Vitruvius Pollio, writing in the time of the emperor Augustus, left an extensive and detailed discussion of the techniques of ancient architecture that has been preserved. He was a practicing architect and military engineer with a knowledge that was both theoretical and practical. In his work De Architectura (On Architecture) he discussed numerous subjects, ranging from the types and characteristics of building material employed during the early empire, to the placement of buildings in respect to the natural environment. His viewpoint was one that looked back at classical Greek architecture as a model to imitate but he also left valuable information about the nature of Etruscan buildings. What he wrote about methods of construction and materials, as well as the rules of proportion employed in architectural design, is very valuable to an understanding of ancient architecture. Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus) also wrote about the use of metals and stone in architecture in his encyclopedic Natural History. In addition, many ancient authors or travelers described the buildings they saw. Probably the most important of these was the Greek traveler, Pausanias. He left invaluable descriptions of what impressed him when he visited the important cities of Greece in the second centuryC.E. In addition to inscriptions and literary descriptions, there are countless examples of the representation of buildings or parts of them on coins, in wall painting, pottery decoration, and even terra cotta models. These often depict structures or monuments that no longer exist and convey supplementary information that can be used to fill out our knowledge of ancient architecture.

Minoan and Mycenaean Architecture

Cultural Background

Before the flowering of the classic Greek architectural style in the mainland there were two important periods of development in building that had come before. The Minoan (c. 2600-1100 B.C.E.) and Mycenaean (c. 2800-1100B.C.E.) civilizations flourished in the island of Crete and in mainland Greece for close to 2,000 years. Many of their accomplishments in art and architecture were unknown to the Greeks of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. but some memory of their accomplishments was preserved in mythology and epic poetry such as the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, and some archeological traces of their structures survived. The Minoans are known to modern scholars by the modern name given to them derived from the mythical king Minos who was said in mythology to have a great palace at Knossos in Crete. They were an island people and seafarers who traded widely in the eastern Mediterranean and came into contact with the cultures of Egypt and the Near East. Undoubtedly they knew something of the monumental buildings erected by the peoples of Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley and may have been influenced by them. Fortresses and temples, however, were not an important part of their building concerns. The island location of the culture provided some defense against invaders and marauders so the art of fortification and fortress building was not especially developed. The idea of building shrines or temples to the gods had also not developed to any great extent. Hence the most important examples of Minoan architecture were the result of a highly developed style of complex palace design. What is known of the remains of the palace architecture of the Minoans, as evidenced by palaces such as the one at Knossos, have been revealed by excavation and reconstruction.

Minoan Architecture: Knossos

In Crete the bare remains of the ground plans of simple houses from the late prehistoric period have been uncovered, but it was not until the excavation of the palace of Minos at Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans that the complexity and something of the development of Minoan architecture was known. The palace—most likely built between 1600 and 1500 B.C.E.—is essentially a governmental administrative center and a royal residence combined. Arranged around a large central courtyard were dozens of rooms, chambers, small courts, halls, and storerooms. The maze-like arrangement of these elements may have even been the inspiration for the myth of the fabled labyrinth. The building was unusual in that it was several stories high with the upper floors supported by columns. The shape of these architectural elements has been debated but there is considerable evidence to show that the columns were tapered in a manner that was the reverse of the normal shape in later Greek architecture; they were larger at the top and gradually smaller at the bottom. Staircases and light wells provided access and air circulation for this complex building. The walls of the palace were decorated with fresco painting (painting done on the wet plaster) as well as modeled plaster reliefs. Both the complexity of the structure, built over a long period with many changes and additions, and the colorful decoration attest to a highly developed civilization with considerable wealth and material resources at its command.

Other Minoan Architecture

Although the Minoan civilization is best known today from the partly reconstructed ruins of the palace at Knossos, many other remains of this culture exist on the island of Crete. The principal evidence is to be found at Phaestus, Mallia, and Hagia Triada. The final stage of the palace structure at Phaestus in the south of the island is characterized by a more regular plan. Although not symmetrical in its layout it appears to adhere to an almost rectangular grid. One of the important features of the palace is an open court, or peristyle, with columns around it. This seems to anticipate one of the main features of the typical Greek house of a thousand years later but it is probably only an example of a design solution for interior space that might have developed anywhere. The palace at Mallia, on the north coast east of Knossos, is distinguished by a large court with many small rooms leading from it in a confusing arrangement that appears not to have been carefully planned in advance. There is some thought that the maze of rooms supported an upper story where the arrangement of space may have been more formal. Due to the terrain, the small palace (or villa) at Haiga Triada on the south coast was laid out without a central courtyard in an “L”-shaped plan. This suggests that architects of the Minoan period were adaptable to the local situation in their design for large administration buildings and domestic quarters.

Mycenaean Architecture

The Mycenean peoples—named after Mycenea, the most prominent city on mainland Greece at this time—ushered in a new attitude toward architecture and building. The Mycenaeans were a dominating culture and soon expanded from the mainland of Greece into the Greek isles, overcoming the Minoans of Crete by 1400 B.C.E. and, being a mainland culture, began building compact citadels and fortresses protected by massive walls instead of large sprawling palace complexes. The citadels at Mycenae and at Tiryns have many common features, including an orderly and compact ground plan, encircling fortress walls, and rooms that were used for administrative purposes as well as residential. The interior walls were of stone with upper parts in sun-dried brick. Interior supporting columns were of wood, floors of plaster or gypsum, and ornamentation in plaster as well as some carved stone. The “megaron” form, basically a long hall used for assembly, is an important element in Mycenaean architecture. It is this general form that is thought by some to be the basis that later Greek temple design took as a starting point. The other major architectural achievement of the Mycenaeans was the Tholos tomb. Originally these were thought to be treasuries or storehouses for valuables, but they are now generally believed to be the tombs of Mycenaean rulers. The tholos tomb was a circular, underground, stone structure with an interior rising to a point. The stone construction was accomplished with the corbelled system where each higher row of stones overlaps or projects farther into space. When a corbelled dome or arch is trimmed or cut to a curve, it is virtually impossible to determine that it is not based on a true arch. The “Treasury of Atreus” at Mycenea (1300-1250 B.C.E.) is a prime example of the tholos type of tomb. It was approached by a straight passage of about 35 meters cut into the hillside. The main entrance doorway was decorated with half columns in green stone with other facing elements in red stone. These were carved with decorations of spirals, chevrons, rosettes, and other geometric designs. The massive size of some of the stones, particularly one of the lintels, which has been estimated at over 100 tons, indicates a level of experience and an organizational ability that made it possible to shape, move, and handle extraordinary construction elements. This ability to work in large stone, also seen in the construction of the citadels, is thought by some scholars to be related to the work of the contemporary Hittites in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). At Pylos in the southwest the remains of a palace has been found. It is a complex, somewhat resembling Minoan architecture, with courts, rooms, stairways and storage areas. There was an original megaron but it is not central to the plan. Two phases of construction can be seen with an expansion that became the more important part of the building. In the latter phase there is a larger and more formal megaron with a central hearth and four columns that once supported a four-sided balcony. This large audience hall was decorated with fresco paintings and mosaic floor in a lavish manner that indicates the wealth and power of the rulers of Pylos.

The Dark Ages

The centers of Mycenaean strength were destroyed from around the beginning of the eleventh century B.C.E. as the Dorians began to invade Greece. Like any invading culture, the Dorians brought their own cultural styles, and the Mycenaean and Minoan influences began to be suppressed. Many historians have termed this the “dark ages” of Greek history, for the Dorians did little to advance any of the cultural aspects of the society, and architecture, which would take on mainly Doric traditions by the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., remained mainly in the Mycenaean style during this time. By the time that the Greek culture began to construct its famous temples and structures of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., many of the architectural designs of the Mycenaeans and Minoans had been lost, but many were the basic elements for what is considered by many scholars to be classical Greek architecture.

Greek Architecture

Greek Building Techniques

Almost all major Greek architecture employed the simple “post and lintel” system. In this method of building, two or more uprights—columns, piers, or walls—support horizontal members of a length limited by the strength of stone able to support its own weight. The “post” is the upright structural part and the “lintel” is the bridging element meant to span openings or support the roofing of the building. The Greeks became proficient in this style of construction as they developed methods of quarrying stone and the transportation and the handling of large stone masses. Ingenious devices were invented for the lifting and hoisting of building materials. From inscriptional evidence we know that the pulley, a device now taken for granted, was used with wooden lifting structures. These primitive cranes had two, three, or four legs, depending on the situation and the weight demands. Systems were developed for lifting stone that employed rope rigging to lift while levers and crowbars were used for placement. These devices seem self-evident today, but in their time they represented technological advances over the ancient technique of moving stone to a height on sleds and ramps. Timbers were used to support and form the structure of the roofing that was usually covered with tile. In domestic architecture, dwellings, shops, and other utilitarian buildings, construction was much simpler. It usually consisted of walls of fired or unfired brick laid on rough stone foundations. The tools employed for most architectural work were simple, yet they represent the state of technology of the period. Architects and engineers used cords for measuring, with squares, plumb bobs, and levels to maintain the accuracy of the construction. Masons employed hammers, axes, files, and chisels to work the stone. Iron tools were adequate to shape marble and limestone.

Earliest Temples

The history of Greek architecture is essentially the history of the development of the Greek temple. In the Bronze Age and the periods of Minoan and Mycenaean strength in Crete and mainland Greece, the temple was not the principal place of worship of the gods. A dwelling place or cult center for the deity was not defined by an elaborate structure so the importance that was to be placed on temple building signaled a new and different attitude to worship. One important consideration must still be remembered. The temple in Greek culture was not a building to accommodate groups of worshipers. It was the house of the god or goddess with a statue of the deity and perhaps some additional rooms that functioned as treasuries, but the rites and sacrifices made to the god were carried out on an altar in front of the temple. The earliest examples of temples of the Greek age can only be deduced from archaeological evidence. There are pottery models of single-room structures with peaked roofs dating to the eighth century B.C.E. that give some indication of early temple design. The idea of surrounding a temple structure with one or more rows of columns seems to have been a purely Greek invention. In other ancient cultures, particularly in Egypt, columns were mainly used on the interior of temples, sometimes in great profusion. In Greek architecture the exposed column was one of the most characteristic elements. Probably the earliest rectangular temple with a colonnade surrounding it for which there is evidence is the temple to the goddess Hera on the island of Samos. It has been dated to the late eighth century B.C.E. At this stage the columns were of wood set on bases of stone. The temple was rebuilt in the seventh century B.C.E., made slightly larger, and modifications were made that brought it closer to the eventual proportion and design of temples of the classic age.

Early Doric Style

About 580 B.C.E. a Doricstyle temple was built to the goddess Artemis on the island of Corfu, just off the northwest coast of mainland Greece. Although it has been completely dismantled, enough of the limestone blocks have been found to furnish evidence to suggest its size—about 77 feet wide and about twice that in length. Enough of the pediment—the triangular space at the end under the double-pitched roof—was recovered to show that it had been decorated with carving in relief, representing a gorgon and a battle between gods and giants. This is the one of the earliest examples of pedimental sculpture that can be determined. Around the same time a temple was built to the goddess Hera at Olympia. Only the super-structure has been preserved but it was possible to deduce that it had sixteen columns on the side and six at the ends, the corner columns counted twice. The columns had no separate base but rested on the top step of the platform. Columns of the type called Doric were fluted—carved with a series of shallow vertical channels—and tapered toward the top. The capital, or top of the column, consisted of a curved pad-like part with a square block above. The plan of the temple at Olympia includes a pronaos, cella, and the first known example of the opisthodomus. The cella was the central hall or sanctuary of the temple, and the pronaos was the small anteroom in front of it. The opisthodomus is a small porch at the back of the cella. There were two rows of columns inside to support the roof and evidence that there had been engaged columns as well, attached to the sidewalls. This temple originally had columns in wood that were only gradually replaced in stone. As a result they are of several different periods and styles from the sixth century B.C.E. to Roman times. In the second century C.E. Pausanias noted one wooden column still standing which had not been replaced. The walls of this temple were of sun-dried brick laid on a stone foundation. The architrave or base for the roof structure that bridged the columns was apparently of wood, and the roof itself was covered in terra cotta tiles. A large limestone base was found inside the cella, probably for the cult statue of the goddess or a double statue of Hera and Zeus. This early temple is important not only for its layout and proportions but also for the evidence it gives of temples originally built with wooden elements being replaced by more durable stone construction. In the Doric order the frieze—the horizontal band above the architrave—was decorated with a pattern of alternating triglyphs and metopes. The triglyph is a single block with its face carved to resemble three vertical bars; the metope is a rectangular slab that may be plain but may also be decorated with painting or relief sculpture. It is thought by some that the design of the triglyph was a memory of the beam-ends in wooden architecture, but this explanation is not accepted by all architectural historians. The temple of Apollo at Corinth, dated to about 540 B.C.E., is the only example of a sixth-century mainland temple with some columns still standing. Each column is a monolith—carved from a single block—standing about 21 feet high, made of a porous limestone originally finished with a coat of stucco. There were six columns on the end and fifteen on each side, making the length two and a half times the width. The platform under the colonnades rose in a slight convex curve. This is the earliest example known where this adjustment was made to correct the optical illusion that makes the base line appear to be curved. The interior of this temple was divided into two chambers back to back, each entered from its own porch. Other preserved examples of sixth-century Doric architecture can be found in the Greek colonies of Sicily and southern Italy. To fully appreciate the early development of the Doric style it is necessary to examine some of these. Three well-preserved temples at Paestum, south of Naples, include one to Hera from the mid-sixth century. It has long been known as the “Basilica” and is still referred to by that name in some publications. All of the peripteral colonnade is still standing and the architrave is still in place, but the walls are completely gone. There were nine columns at each end and eighteen on a side. This is somewhat unusual with an uneven number on the façade dividing it in half. The cella contained a central row of columns that were the same size as the colonnade. A feature of this early stage in the development of the Doric order is that the columns in this temple were radically tapered from bottom to top so they gave a springy or elastic appearance to the structure.

Early Ionic Architecture

The Doric and Ionic architectural orders have a number of differences but the main one is the placement, shape, and proportion of the columns. The Doric column sits directly on the platform of the temple; the Ionic has a base, usually composed of several elements that may even contain carved decoration. As compared to the simpler Doric capital the Ionic capital has a pair volutes—spiral-or scroll-shaped ornaments—that may suggest construction in other materials than stone and also reflect the influence of cultures from western Asia or Egypt. The Ionic column is generally thinner in proportion to its height than the Doric, and Ionic temples generally only have two steps where the Doric has three. Two temples built about the same time in the mid-sixth century are examples of the early Ionic-style and are also among the first large-scale temple buildings in Greek architecture. One of these was a second temple dedicated to Hera on the island of Samos and the other to Artemis at Ephesus in east Greece—now the west coast of Turkey. The temple at Ephesus was partially paid for by King Croesus of Lydia, whose wealth became proverbial—”rich as Croesus.” At Ephesus the temple to Artemis had a double colonnade with 21 columns on a side measuring almost 360 feet. This massive building was built of marble with a wooden roof covered with terra cotta tiles. Some of the lower column drums were decorated with relief carving. The temple to Hera at Samos also had a double colonnade and faced east, as was the normal orientation of Greek temples. The temple to Artemis, by contrast, faced west. This may have been influenced by an earlier shrine on the site at Ephesus. A later temple on the Samos site, begun around 530 B.C.E., was the largest Greek temple of which modern scholars have knowledge. It measured 179 by 365 feet and had columns that were 63 feet high. The columns themselves were of limestone, but their capitals and bases were of marble, probably to conserve the valuable marble.

Fifth Century Temples

In the fifth century B.C.E., the refinement of the relationship of architectural elements and proportions were effectively resolved resulting in the “classic” look of Greek temple architecture. The ideal relationship of the numbers of columns—ends to side—was resolved at six to thirteen. Marble came into prominence as the major building stone, replacing limestone where it was available. An important example of the developing refinement from sixth into fifth-centuryB.C.E. architecture is the one dedicated to the goddess Aphaia on the island of Aegina, southwest of Athens. A good deal of it has survived, including some of the pedimental sculpture, enabling reliable restoration to be realized. Its position on a hilltop is a reminder that the site of a Greek temple was often chosen for its commanding height and view of the sea or surrounding landscape. The temple had six by twelve columns, not yet the ideal relationship of six to thirteen to come. The interior of the cella in this temple had two rows of smaller columns that supported a second, smaller, row above. This two-story interior colonnade was not unique and can be found in some other temples. Its purpose was to help support the roof construction. Since it was not thought proper for interior columns to be taller than those on the exterior the solution was to have two superimposed levels of smaller columns to reach the height between floor and roof. This arrangement can also be seen in the temple of Hera (once thought to be dedicated to Poseidon) at Paestum in southern Italy. This temple, probably the best example of a Greek-style temple preserved, was also built between the beginning and the middle of the fifth century. The exterior decoration of the temple at Aegina included marble roof tiles on the edge of the roof, water spouts in the shape of lions’ heads, antefixes shaped like palmettes, and a considerable amount of colored detail. Although there is some debate about the amount of decorative color used in Greek architecture, many examples of painted surfaces have been found preserved, giving considerable support to the idea that these structures were not the stark light color of marble or limestone, as they exist today.

The Acropolis

The buildings on the Acropolis—literally “high city”—at Athens had a long history extending back into Mycenaean times. The oldest temple of the goddess Athena on the site can be traced back at least to the seventh century B.C.E. Originally a fortified stronghold, the limestone plateau high above the city remained the center of worship for the patron goddess with her main altar after its military importance had diminished. At the beginning of the fifth century B.C.E. the Athenians began a building project to replace the old temple and construct a new propylon—entrance gate—to the sanctuary. This plan was interrupted by the Persian invasion and the destruction and sack of the Acropolis in 480 B.C.E. It was not until after the mid-century that the plans for a new temple for the city goddess were carried out. Modern scholars know this new temple as the Parthenon, so named because it was dedicated to a special aspect of the goddess as Athena Parthenos—Athena the maiden or Athena the virgin. Her cult center eventually contained several important buildings in addition to the main temple. These are the Propylaea or entryway to the Acropolis, the temple of Athena Nike or Victory, and the Erechtheum, a building intended to organize several cults in one structure.

The Parthenon

Under the leadership of Pericles the old building plan of the 480s was revived at the mid-century. The architects of the new temple to Athena were Ictinus and Callicrates. The cult image for the temple was the work of Phidias, who probably also created the decorative program for the whole building and is traditionally thought to have been the overall director of the works. The temple was begun in 447 and dedicated in 438 but the sculptural decoration was not completely finished until 432. The building was used in later times as a Byzantine church, a Catholic church, and a Muslim mosque. In 1678 an explosion of gunpowder stored in the cella destroyed much of the center of the temple that had been in a good state of preservation up to that time. In the period 1801-1803 the English collector, Lord Elgin, received permission from the Turkish officials to remove some of the sculpture—the so-called Elgin Marbles now in the British Museum (and the source of controversy with the present Greek government). These included some of the pedimental figures and most of the relief frieze that are considered among the most important examples of fifth-century B.C.E. Greek art. The building itself was constructed of Pentelic marble on a limestone foundation that partly covered that of the earlier temple. Some of the column drums from the ruined temple were found in good condition and used in the new one, dictating the size of the columns—34 and one-fourth feet high—but not the overall proportion. The Parthenon has eight columns on the ends and seventeen on the sides because it is somewhat wider in proportion than had been the rule. It is possible that this extra width was planned to accommodate the interior view of the extraordinary colossal gold and ivory statue of Athena in the cella. The plan included the peripteral colonnade, front and rear porches with six columns, and a chamber behind the cella that may have served as the treasury. The cella had a two-story colonnade on the sides and back, presumably for viewing the Athena statue. By the mid-fifth century Greek architects had achieved a level of design with a refinement and a harmony of proportion that has seldom been equaled. This was done over time by trial and error, taking advantage of technological advances in building and by considerable experimentation with the visual effects of size, shape, and relationships. Visual refinements were made to correct optical illusions. Thus the main horizontal elements in the facade of the building—the platform stylobate and the superstructure entablature—were gently curved downward from the center. The columns and walls lean slightly inward. The columns taper toward the top in a slight curve entasis and even the depth of the column fluting is less deep at the top. The Doric column of the fifth century B.C.E. has been greatly refined from its predecessor of a hundred years before, and its curved profile is much more subtle. Many scholars have seen this as an incorporation of Ionic aspects into the Doric style. Much has been said about the ideal mathematical proportions that were developed by Greek architects in order to define the visual relationships of building parts. In the Parthenon a number of examples of this principal at work can be seen. The ration of width to length of the temple is 9:4; the space between the columns to their diameter has the same relationship, 9:4, and this can be seen in other aspects of the building as well. The use of simple repeated ratios and geometric relationships imposed a visual order and harmony and resulted in an architectural masterpiece.

The Propylaea

The Propylaea was the grand ceremonial gateway and entrance to the precinct of the Acropolis. It replaced an earlier structure as the Parthenon had replaced an earlier temple. It was the work of the architect Mnesicles, and it was begun in 437 B.C.E., after the construction of the Parthenon was finished and work on it was halted in 432 B.C.E. The Propylaea was entirely of marble and took five years to build but was never completely finished according to plan. In addition to the grand gateway with a wide central passage it had porches with six columns on the outer side and inside and was to have two large rooms flanking the doorway. One of these rooms was described by Pausanias as a “picture galley” but it has also been suggested that this was a formal dining room. The building was built entirely of costly marble and on such a large scale that some of the ceiling beams had to span a distance of eighteen feet. As a consequence of this size, these have been estimated as weighing over eleven tons. This ability to handle large weight at a height indicates a well-developed system of construction techniques.

The Temple of Nike and the Erechtheum

High to the right of the Propylaea a small temple was begun about five years after work on the ceremonial gateway was suspended. This compact structure was dedicated to Athena Nike—goddess of victory. It was designed in the Ionic style with four slender columns at each end. The cella was entered between two piers or square pillars which were connected to the side walls by bronze lattice screens. A carved frieze representing the Greeks battling the Persians decorated all four sides of the entablature, an element more typical in the Ionic than in the Doric style. The pediment above had carved figures, as can be determined by attachments, and a sculpted parapet on three sides was added later. Another important building on the Acropolis in the Ionic style is the Erechtheum. It takes its name from Erechtheus, a legendary king of Athens, whose palace may have been thought to have once stood on that location. Begun in 421 and finished in 405, it is probably the most unusual structure in the precinct because of its irregular plan. This was perhaps the result of a need to bring together several shrines or cult places. There were three inner chambers and three porches or porticoes of different sizes and on different levels. On the south side the porch had six caryatids—architectural supports in the shape of human figures—supporting the entablature instead of columns. These famous female statues have been removed to the protection of a museum and replaced with copies. One of the important lessons to be learned from the Erechtheum is the fact that Greek architects were able to adapt to the needs of an unusual situation.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus

To the southeast of the Acropolis in Athens a large temple dedicated to Olympian Zeus was begun around 520 B.C.E., but it was left unfinished and only the platform was used in its completion at a much later time. Under Anti-ochus IV, king of Syria, work was resumed on the temple in the second century B.C.E. but it was not finally finished until 131 C.E. in the time of the Roman emperor Hadrian. It is thought that it was originally planned in the Doric style but when it was completed it was with elements of the Corinthian order including elaborate floral Corinthian capitals. The original plan included a double row of columns in the peripteral colonnade with a third row at each end. This was probably influenced by other early temples on a large scale like that of Hera at Ephesus. The Temple of Olympian Zeus was one of the largest in Athens, measuring 135 by 353.5 feet with columns that were 57 feet high. Its completion hundreds of years after it was started was probably a result of the emperor Hadrian’s admiration for Greek culture.

The Greek Theater

Although the temple form is the most important architectural type in Greek history, there are a number of other kinds of structures to consider. In addition to the temple there were many other types of public buildings, monuments, altars, and tombs that should be mentioned. The theater was perhaps the second most typical expression of Greek architectural design. All festivals, athletic contests, and dramatic presentations were held out of doors. Originally even the Assembly of the citizens of Athens was held in the open air on the sloping rocky outcrop known as the Pnyx. This allowed the participants to see and hear the speakers who were at a lower level. It follows that the performances held in honor of the god Dionysus would be held in a hollow where the audience could be seated on the sloping hillside. In the history of the Greek drama most theaters were constructed where they could take advantage of the natural hillside. The beginnings of the drama were in choral dances so the most important area of the theater was the circular orchestra which literally means “dancing place.” The body of the auditorium or theatron consisted of a semicircular arrangement of gently sloping stone rows of seats. As the idea of the dramatic theater developed and the number of actors was increased, it became necessary to provide a stage with a backing of some sort. This was called the skene and it provided a sounding board to help project the voices of the actors as well as to provide some rudimentary scenery. The idea of the theater as a special building seems to have developed at the end of the sixth century and the beginning of the fifth century B.C.E., but one of the earliest still in evidence is the theater of Dionysus on the southern slope of the Acropolis. It was later changed or modified when it went through a number of rebuildings during the fourth century and the Roman Imperial period. One of the best-preserved examples of a theater is at Epidaurus on the east coast of southern Greece. According to Pausanias, the architect of this theater was Polykleitos the Younger. It was constructed around 350 when the essential elements of theater design had been formalized. The auditorium, which has a shape slightly more than a semicircle, is cut into the hillside. The stone seats are divided into wedge-shaped blocks or sections with a horizontal passageway separating the lower from the upper part, which is steeper and has higher seats. The design of the seats even provides some leg space beneath to allow the spectators to make room for people passing in front of them. The lowest seats were for special attendees and had backs and arm rests. In some theaters these seats for dignitaries were almost throne-like with elaborately carved decoration. There was presumably an altar in the center of the orchestra, as evidenced by a stone base found in place. The stage building must have been a tall one, again to judge from the remaining foundations. This theater could accommodate an estimated twelve to fifteen thousand people, seated in relative comfort and with apparent ease of entrance and exit. The design of Greek theaters changed somewhat to accommodate other types of dramatic presentations when they were developed but the basic parts remained the same and were standard throughout the Greek world.

Buildings with a Special Purpose

One of the most important buildings in the daily life of the Greeks was the stoa, a one or two-storied structure with a long colonnade that could include shops and serve also as an informal meeting place. The stoa of Attalus in the Agora (open marketplace) at Athens has been reconstructed from the archaeological evidence and serves as a good example of the type. Such colonnaded buildings provided protection from the elements for the public in their daily activities and as a result they were to be found in religious complexes as well as marketplaces. Other public buildings were specifically designed as meeting places for the civic councils, assembly halls for a particular cult, and even informal spaces for social clubs. Functional buildings included fountain houses where people would go to fill their water jars. These are often illustrated in Greek vase painting. One special type of building was the clock tower. The only surviving example is the so-called “Tower of the Winds” preserved in Athens. Built in the first century B.C.E., it is an octagonal (eight-sided) building with carved reliefs depicting personifications of the winds at the top of each side. In addition to space for a water clock and reservoir there were sundials mounted on the sides and a wind vane was mounted on the top.

Houses and City Planning

The typical Greek house answered the need for an enclosed space offering privacy and protection. The normal plan of the living space centered on an open court with a peristyle or verandas. A number of examples have been excavated, and they generally follow the same arrangement that consisted of an entrance hall with a small room to one side, a central courtyard with rooms of various sizes fronting on it. These houses were generally of one story and laid out in a square plan, with mud brick walls on a stone or rubble foundation. The floors in special areas, such as the dining room, could be decorated with mosaics. The dining room was also often provided with platforms for the reclining diners. Bathrooms were sometimes paved and provided with terra-cotta tubs, but other sanitary facilities have seldom been found in excavation. The doors of houses were of wood and from representations in vase painting modern scholars know that they were decorated with metal studs. The regular arrangement of dwellings in an orderly city plan became popular in the early fifth century B.C.E. Greek cities were laid out with provision for public meeting and trading places (the agora or public square), and cult centers and sanctuaries where the temples and shrines were located. The cities were typically surrounded by a protective wall, with towers, moats, and defensible gates. Such fortifications were the result of the need to guard against attack and to assure a sense of security.

Etruscan Architecture


The study of Etruscan architecture is principally the study of tomb design because the greatest body of evidence preserved consists of subterranean tombs. The examination of architectural types such as temples and other public structures cannot be based on standing buildings, as is possible with the Greek or Roman material. It is necessary to rely on archaeological finds, which consist mainly of foundations and the remains of building parts. However, the descriptions of ancient authors, particularly Vitruvius, supplement modern knowledge. His De Architectura (On Architecture) is a particularly useful reference because, among other topics, he describes his understanding of the basic rules for the design and construction of Etruscan temples and their sites. It always has to be remembered that Vitruvius wrote in the late first century B.C.E. and had a desire to explain and employ classical styles in the work of his own time. He was a practicing architect and had a practical knowledge of materials, working techniques, and other areas of knowledge—such as site planning—that were part of the necessary education of the architect. His motives and the time in which he wrote, at the beginning of the reign of August Caesar, influenced his attitudes. Since he was one of the few ancient authors whose writing on architecture was preserved, he was very much respected in the Renaissance. Architects of that time turned to his work for the clearest explanation of ancient styles and techniques available to them.

Materials and Techniques

In the earliest beginnings, Etruscan architecture employed the crude wattle and daub technique, a method of construction employing bundled sticks with an overlay of mud. It is clear, from the evidence of tomb decoration that imitates living structures, that timber work was employed by the early sixth century B.C.E. in the construction of houses. From other evidence it can be seen that the Etruscans employed tufa blocks and ashlar masonry in foundations, buildings, and walls. “Tufa” is a porous volcanic rock common in Italy, and “ashlar” describes large, squared stones. Mud brick and half-timber construction on stone foundations was also practiced, a technique that used wood for framing and unbaked brick to fill the spaces between the frames. Mud brick and wood were the main materials of temple wall construction throughout most of Etruscan history. The lack of plentiful physical evidence available for an understanding of temple architecture can be attributed in part to the perishable nature of the material employed.

The Etruscan Temple

Our principal knowledge of Etruscan temple architecture comes from Vitruvius who described in great detail their layout and construction as he understood them. In addition to the scant archaeological evidence and the literary sources for temple planning and construction, there are also imitations of temples found in tombs and on tomb facades and miniature copies used as votive gifts. The Etruscan-style temple, also called the Italo-Etruscan temple, had a form of its own that resisted the growing influence of Greek architecture. The Etruscan temple was more open in plan than the Greek, in part influenced by the need for observation of natural phenomena such as the flight of birds in divination. The material of the Etruscan temple never changed in the way that Greek construction did where wooden elements were later superseded by stone. The materials in Etruria remained wood on a stone foundation with considerable use of terracotta for decorative elements and roof tiling. One of the standard ground plans seems to have been a simple structure with a cella divided into three parts which has been interpreted as a provision for the worship of a triad of gods (Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva). There are also examples of ground plans preserved that have one or two rooms, depending on the number of deities worshipped in a particular locality. The main body of the temple opened on a porch supported by columns. The temple usually was raised on a podium or platform approached by a flight of stairs. The raised platform and stairs remained a characteristic of later Roman temple architecture in contrast to the Greek preference for closer visual relationship with the ground plane.

Etruscan Tombs

The earliest Etruscan burials were essentially of two types: pit burial containing an urn with the ashes of the deceased, or a trench burial for the remains. Around 700 B.C.E. more developed tombs began to appear. These were also of two general types. One of these was a chamber-tomb type somewhat similar in design to the tholos tombs of the Mycenaeans, with a domed or “bee-hive” shape constructed of corbelled masonry. The shape varied and could be round or square. Side rooms provided space for the remains of other family members or personal belongings. This type of tomb could accommodate the sarcophagi of the deceased as well as some tomb furniture and personal possessions. The mound, or tumulus, that covered this type became a characteristic element of the landscape and made the location of the tomb clearly visible. Around the year 400 B.C.E. cremations of the dead became a more regular practice and the architecture of tombs gradually underwent a change. Instead of the constructed stone chamber covered with a mound, the tomb was cut into the rock or tufa hillside. Imitations of wooden architectural elements were carved on the façade and in the interior of the tombs. Instead of space for sarcophagi, shelves for cinerary urns were provided to accommodate the cremated remains of several family members. The wall decoration of tombs of both types included relief carving and painting. The subject matter of Etruscan tomb painting included the funerary banquet as well as scenes from Greek mythology.

City Planning and Domestic Architecture

Etruscan towns and cities were situated to take advantage of water supply and defensive positions, as were most early communities in the ancient world. Access to the sea was important but most settlements were far enough inland to offer some protection against sea raiders. City walls for defense did not seem an important part of town planning if the choice of the site offered enough security. An ancient tradition credits the Etruscans with the invention of the type of city plan where streets intersect at right angles forming a north-south east-west grid. Although this system of city planning became very popular with the Romans, there is not yet enough evidence to prove that it was an Etruscan innovation in the Italian mainland. Etruscan houses of the early seventh century B.C.E. tended to be oval in plan and were placed to take advantage of the terrain, not according to a grid plan. These houses were of the wattle and daub type of construction with a thatched roof. Rectangular houses begin to appear around the middle of the seventh century. These were built on a stone foundation with wooden framing and unbaked mud brick. Gradually house plans developed from a broad layout with an entrance vestibule and a few rooms to one with a long entrance corridor leading to a courtyard surrounded by several rooms. This type of house with an interior courtyard was carried on in later Roman dwellings with an atrium, a larger and more formal central court.

Roman Architecture


Roman architecture is essentially a hybrid composed of elements inherited from the Etruscans combined with the outside influences of the Greeks. As an example, the native Etruscan building traditions can be recognized in the early substructures of the Capitoline Temple in Rome. With archaeological evidence of this kind supplemented by ancient descriptions this temple can be identified as the type described by Vitruvius as typically Etruscan, consisting basically of a wide structure with a deep porch supported by columns. By contrast, the Temple of Apollo at Pompeii, probably built in the late second century B.C.E., is a typical example of a temple that exhibits Greek influence in its plan. Etruscan and early Roman art and architecture were very much influenced by the advances made by the Greeks, particularly by the structures built in the Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily. However, the contributions made by Rome to the development of architectural design were eventually of a different character. The development of new materials and techniques made possible revolutionary advances in the creation of monumental structures and especially in the treatment of interior architectural spaces. Greek building, whether in wood or stone, relied heavily on the post and lintel system—uprights supporting a cross bar—resulting in a style that created a strong horizontal sense of stability and solidity. The exterior of a Greek temple generally presented a carefully planned and orderly arrangement of its parts as seen from all views but the interior space was a less important consideration. With the development of concrete as a building material from the second century B.C.E. Roman architects and engineers were free to experiment with building on a colossal scale, enclosing large interior spaces and creating an architectural style that was basically new and extremely inventive.

Roman Building Techniques

Building in stone as practiced by the Greeks required skilled stonecutters and masons, the help of engineers and riggers to carry out the actual construction, and little more. Some carpentry was necessary for the wood beams to carry the roof, and tile setters were needed to finish its covering. By contrast, the newly developed techniques of the Romans required a larger range of specialists for the greatly expanded building program. Since concrete is initially a liquid, its use requires the cooperation of skilled carpenters to build scaffolds and forms, in addition to masons for some of the stone elements such as foundations and door frames, brick and tile layers for parts of the construction and the roof, plumbers for drainage systems, plasterers and painters for finished work, and artists/decorators for wall paintings and mosaic floors. In ancient Rome the need for this variety of skills resulted in the development of specialized working groups or guilds that could provide the necessary training and the continuity of experience. The initial use of concrete by the Romans may have grown out of a type of packed mud construction, but it more probably developed from the use of clay to bond courses of brick or stone. Once the discovery was made that rubble fragments of stone could be bonded together by pouring a liquid mortar over them, the natural next step was to build forms of wood that would retain the mortar until it hardened. Basically, Roman mortar was comprised of lime, and the best lime mortar used volcanic ash as an aggregate. Casting structural elements from concrete rather than carving them out of stone gave Roman architects the freedom to create more complex shapes, achieve greater heights, and span wider spaces. Although the arch, vault, and dome were known in other ancient cultures, it was not until the Romans developed the use of cast concrete that their full potential was realized and exploited.

Early Roman Architecture

The Romans retained many ideas about building from their Etruscan predecessors, but they also absorbed some of the ideas of the Greeks that were passed on to them by the Etruscans. Houses for the cults of the gods were obviously important in both cultures. The designs of those cult places or temples in Greece and Etruria varied, but the first Roman temples were modeled more on Etruscan prototypes. Unlike the Greek temples that had a noble solidity about them, the Etruscan and early Roman temples suggested an openness as well as a sense of mystery. The early temple to Jupiter in Rome, the Capitolium, of the late sixth century B.C.E. was certainly built in the Etruscan style but on a grand scale, to judge from the foundations and some of the blocks that still survive. In following the Etruscan pattern it rested on a high platform or podium, had a broad porch supported by pillars, and a cella divided into three cult chambers. It was approached only from the front up a broad stairway that suggested the change from ordinary life to the precinct of a god or gods. Later Roman temples would retain these characteristics—the design emphasis on the front porch and the raised podium, reached by an imposing flight of stairs.

Roman Town Planning

Where it was possible, Roman towns and cities were laid out on a system of streets intersecting at right angles, a type of layout also used for Roman military camps. It is thought that this system may have been inherited from Etruscan town planning, but some Greek cities had also used a grid and it is difficult to prove the exact derivation of the Roman plan. In the Roman system the main north-south street was called the cardo and the main east-west street the decumanus. These two streets were always wider than others and acted as the axes of the plan. Near their crossing in the center of a town were located the forum, the major temples, the main ceremonial and administrative buildings, and other structures central to the life of the community such as the major bathing establishments. In urban town planning some elements were standard and necessary to Roman life. The most obvious necessity was a type of dwelling which in Roman usage could range from a humble structure to a great palace. The provision of clean water for consumption and bathing was probably the next most important consideration—hence the emphasis on developing methods of transporting water over great distances such as the Roman aqueduct. The need for structures devoted to religion and the worship of the gods engendered a large variety of temple designs. The commemoration of military victories or the glorification of emperors and commanders was satisfied by the erection of monuments, columns, and arches, and the entertainment of the people was provided for by a well-developed system of theaters and arenas. The final necessary architectural form was the tomb structures for the burial of the dead.

The Roman House

In the nearly 200 years of the Roman Republic—from 200 to 27 B.C.E.—a number of standard architectural forms developed. One of these, most typically associated with Roman architectural style, was the house form. Like its Greek predecessors, the Roman house looked in on itself. The exterior fronting on a street was not decorated and had only the main entrance door and possibly a few windows, although they were not a prominent feature of the design. The ground plan was often symmetrical and balanced. Beyond the entrance vestibule was the atrium: the central court with an opening in the roof, usually with a pool in the center where rainwater would collect. Around the atrium were the living rooms and bedrooms. Passing through the atrium one entered the tablinum, a formal room for entertaining visitors. Next to the tablinum was the triclinium—the dining room. In a more elaborate house there might be a further peristyle or open court and even an interior garden with more rooms leading off from it. This basic plan could be made more complex depending on the wealth, rank, and position of the owner. Country villas of the Republican Period, such as the Villa of the Papyri at Pompeii of the first century B.C.E. were already extremely elaborate and costly. The basic house plan with atrium and peristyle became the basis to which were added subsidiary wings and separate buildings, gardens, and pools, depending on the size of the household and the number of family members, servants, and slaves. By contrast to the standard plans, in commercial centers such as Ostia, the port of Rome, there are still preserved examples of apartment houses. These buildings were four or five stories high and arranged in blocks. The ground floor was regularly occupied by shops, and the individual apartments were often provided with a private staircase. The city of Ostia provides an excellent example of city planning intended to accommodate a large population in a limited space while still furnishing the necessary services for a comfortable existence.

Palaces and Villas

During the time of the Roman Empire the power and wealth of the emperor was often expressed by the construction of an elaborate palace. After the great fire of 64 C.E. which destroyed a considerable section of central Rome, the emperor Nero had a sumptuous palace—the Domus Aurea or “Golden House”—built for himself modeled on the lines of a sprawling country villa complete with gardens and an artificial lake. Although much of it was later destroyed, there is enough preserved (supplemented by the descriptions left by Roman historians) to give some idea of its design and decoration. One of the surviving parts consists of a large octagonal room with a domed ceiling and smaller rooms radiating from it. The design of the room is radical enough for a villa or a palace but when these remains are taken together with ancient descriptions that describe walls covered with gold and ivory it is possible to imagine the rich impression such a palace would have presented and why it was called the “Golden House.” The villa constructed by the emperor Hadrian at Tivoli around 135 C.E. was more a collection of buildings and accessory parts than a country house with a unified plan. It contained two principal living areas, bathing establishments, at least three theaters, and a stadium, reflecting pools, gardens, and other structures, some of which cannot be easily explained. Because Hadrian was a great traveler he named parts of his “villa” after places he had visited such as the “Canopus” after a city in Egypt. Many of the architectural advances that had been made by the Romans in the use of concrete and vaulting were incorporated in parts of Hadrian’s villa. A strong contrast to Hadrian’s villa, and even to the Golden House of Nero, is the palace plan of the emperor Diocletian at Spalato (Split in the former Yugoslavia), built in the early fourth century C.E. This palace complex was surrounded by a wall with towers and gates. Inside it was laid out like a military camp with two main streets. In addition to residential quarters and rooms for formal audiences, the palace contained a temple (probably dedicated to Jupiter) and a tomb prepared in advance for Diocletian. Piazza Armerina in a valley in central Sicily is the site of another palatial villa that may be contemporary with the palace at Spalato, but the owner has not been conclusively identified. In many ways its plan resembles that of Hadrian’s villa because it is a loosely organized assemblage of colonnaded courts, audience halls, and residential areas. Two aspects of the villa make it unusually interesting. It is situated in a remote area in the center of the island, suggesting a retreat or vacation place. The well-preserved floors are covered with decorative mosaics of exceptional appeal. There are hunting scenes with the capture of exotic animals, probably for the arena, scenes of the chariot race in the circus, and even images of lightly clad female athletes at their exercise. A distinguished person, who is probably the owner of the villa, is represented with his attendants. The quality of these mosaic “paintings” has led some to argue that the villa at Pizza Armerina was also an imperial residence.


As the power of Rome increased and urban centers grew in size, one of the most important general considerations for the public good was the importance of a supply of fresh water. Roman engineers became especially adept at constructing the stone conduits, often many miles in length, which brought water from springs high in hilly terrain into the cities. Since they were exceptionally well built, remains of these remarkable structures can still be found, not only in the vicinity of Rome itself, but also in locations that were once a part of the widespread empire, as at Segovia in Spain or in Tunisia in North Africa. One Tunisian aqueduct ran from Zaghouan, the site of an important spring in the south of the country, for 45 miles to reach ancient Carthage on the seacoast. It was constructed so well that many sections of it still stand. The more familiar and probably more typical example of aqueduct construction is the one represented by a section called the Pont du Gard that bridges the Gardon river at Nîmes in France. Constructed between 20 and 16 B.C.E., the complete aqueduct ran for 31 miles with a downward grade calculated at 1 in 3000. The part that bridged the river is one of the most visible examples of Roman aqueduct building—standing almost 300 yards long and 160 feet high. The structure is in three levels with arches of smaller size in the top course to carry the water conduit. One of the chief ancient sources on the construction and maintenance of Roman aqueducts is a work by Sextus Julius Frontinus, an administrator and tactician, who wrote a treatise on the water supply of Rome in the first century C.E.


The typical Roman temple, mainly derived from an Etruscan prototype, is well exemplified by the so-called temple of Fortuna Virilis on the Tiber in Rome. Built in the latter half of the second century B.C.E., it has a façade of four Ionic columns in Greek style plus two on each side of the porch, known as the prodomus. The columns on the sides of the cella—the main hall or sanctuary—are not free standing but are “engaged”—they appear to project from the wall and are actually parts of it. This use of engaged columns is a characteristic that can be seen in many Roman temples. A good comparison is the Maison Carrée at Nîmes, one of the best preserved examples of temple architecture from the time of the emperor Augustus in the late first century B.C.E. It is larger than the temple of Fortuna Virilis, with six columns at the front and back and eleven on a side, eight of which are engaged. The capitals are of a more elaborate Corinthian style—fluted columns with flowered capitals—but otherwise a comparison of these two temples shows that it is really only the size of the building that is different. The basic elements of raised podium, steps, and deep porch are the same. By contrast, near the temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome is a round temple that is much more Greek in spirit. The podium is stepped all round and not just in front. The twenty Corinthian columns make a circular colonnade surrounding a circular cella. This building is difficult to date but it demonstrates the fact that temples in Greek style could coexist with those in a more Italian tradition and that temples with a special purpose could assume special shapes. A further example of the variety possible in Roman temple plans is the Pantheon in Rome, one of the best-preserved buildings from classical antiquity. The translation of the name signifies that this structure was meant as a temple to all the gods. Its preservation is due to the fact that it was converted into a Christian church by the seventh century C.E. The Pantheon is unusual because it has rectangular porch with a round interior, a traditional temple façade with an innovative inner space. Much of the structure can be dated to the time of the emperor Hadrian in the early second century C.E. but there has been considerable discussion as to the dating of the whole temple. The sixteen Corinthian columns that support the porch are granite shafts 38 feet high, an engineering accomplishment in its own right. The proportion of the “rotunda” is mathematically harmonious because the height of the interior is the same as the diameter of the interior. The construction of the main part of the building relies on an elaborate system of relieving arches within the walls to help distribute the weight vertically. In addition, the concrete of each ascending level of the walls was purposely made with progressively lighter materials. The architects and engineers of the Pantheon worked together to produce what is not only one of the best preserved, but also one of the most beautiful buildings from Roman times.

Basilicas and Baths

Two types of construction that best exemplify the Roman architectural achievements of inventive use of concrete as a material and the enclosure of large spaces are the basilica and the bathing establishment. Both of these types were places of public assembly. A basilica can be defined simply as a large hall used for civic and administrative purposes capable of accommodating large crowds. The Roman bath was also often a large and complex structure built on a grand scale. The Basilica of Maxentius in Rome, built in the fourth century C.E. is a good example of the size and complexity a civic building could attain. In size it was larger than a football field—213 by 328 feet—with a large central space covered by enormous vaults. On either side of this were three large bays. This reflects the plan of the later basilica form used in Christian churches made up of a high central aisle with two lower side aisles. The building was finished by the emperor Constantine so the structure is sometimes referred to with his name rather than that of Maxentius. One side of this basilica still stands as a vivid example of the size and scale of late Roman architecture. Compared to the basilica the Roman bathing establishment could be far more complex. Early in the third century C.E. the emperor Caracalla completed an enormous public bath that had been begun by his father, Septimius Severus. The Baths of Caracalla were meant as a form of imperial propaganda, built for the public good at great expense, reflecting the emperor’s desire to appear as a concerned ruler. Whatever Caracalla’s motives, the ruins of his baths survive as another example of construction on a grand scale, with the main building alone measuring over 800 feet wide. There were three essential parts of any Roman public bath: the frigidarium, the tepidarium, and the caldarium, a series of rooms that got progressively hotter. The standard method of heating baths employed a system of hypocausts, conduits for steam or hot water beneath the floor. In the Baths of Caracalla, as in many large bathing establishments, in addition to the changing rooms and rooms for washing there were also areas for exercise and games, swimming pools, gardens, libraries, and other social areas. The visit to the baths was an important part of a Roman’s social life and it was well provided for here. The scale of Caracalla’s baths can only be compared in modern times to grand structures such as large train stations and public libraries.

Theaters and Arenas

The Roman theater was significantly different in its construction from the type developed by the Greeks. Although Greek and Roman theaters appear to be very similar, all they really had in common was that they both had areas for the dancers or actors and provided seating for the spectators. The auditorium of the Greek theater was more than a half circle in plan where the Roman type was almost always a semicircle. The orchestra in the Greek theater was the focus of much of the action but the stage with an elaborate permanent backdrop of complex design—the scaena—was the place where the Roman drama was acted. The theater at Aspendus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), built in the second century C.E. is a prime example of the developed and elaborate nature of the Roman type. The auditorium has a diameter of over 300 feet and the elevated stage is over twenty feet deep. It is estimated that this building could accommodate over 7,000 people. Such construction on a large scale attests to the importance of the theater in Roman life. In many respects the amphitheater for gladiatorial and other games was just as important. One of the most visible and imposing monuments in Rome is the Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the Colosseum, but it is only the best known example of a type that was built in many parts of the empire. The Colosseum was begun by Vespasian and finished by his sons Titus and Domitian between 70 and 80 C.E. It occupied the site of Nero’s Golden House and gave back to the people a part of the city he had occupied for himself. The Colosseum was a masterpiece of construction supported on an interlocking structure of passages, stairways, and ramps, all necessary and carefully planned for the movement of forty-five to fifty thousand spectators. Below the arena level was a subterranean maze of corridors, storerooms, and cages to accommodate prisoners and wild animals. The exterior decoration reflected the debt to Greek practice by using columns of the Doric order on the ground floor, Ionic on the second, Corinthian on the third, and engaged Corinthian pilasters for the fourth tier. There was also a system of awnings to provide some shade from the bright Roman sun. Amphitheaters similar to the Colosseum were built throughout the empire—at Pompeii and Verona in Italy, Nîmes and Arles in France, and El Djem in southern Tunisia, to name just a few. The arena in El Djem, which held only about 30,000 spectators, is one of the best-preserved examples partly because it is now in a sparsely populated part of the country. Preserved Roman theaters and amphitheaters stand today as vivid reminders of the popular entertainments enjoyed by the Roman people and provided for them by the emperors. As examples of a highly developed engineering and architectural tradition they nevertheless call to mind the dramatic and comic literature of the Roman stage as well as the often bloody spectacles of the arena.


The Romans were especially fond of commemorating their achievements in war by the celebration of a “triumph”—a victory procession voted by the Senate—and the erection of a monumental triumphal arch. A typical example is the Arch of Titus at the east end of the Roman Forum. It celebrates his victory in the Jewish war of 70 C.E. and the two large relief carvings on the interior illustrate the victory procession. On one Titus is shown in his chariot accompanied by the goddess Roma and a winged victory. On the other the victorious soldiers carry the booty from the Temple at Jerusalem, including a giant menorah, the seven-branched candlestick. An example of a monumental arch commemorating an event that was not a military triumph is the arch erected by Trajan at Benevento south of Rome. On this arch, dated 14-17 C.E. Trajan is shown distributing food to the poor of the city. The arch is also decorated with images of victories and the seasons, and also with some later additions that include the young Hadrian, stressing his relationship to Trajan. Not all arches commemorate a special event. Some mark the entrance to a city, to a forum, a market, or even the end of a bridge, and some serve only as civic decoration. A type of monument comparable to the “triumphal” arch is the commemorative column. The Column of Trajan in the forum he constructed memorializes his two wars against the Dacians in a band of relief carving that slowly spirals to the top of its 125 feet. Constructed of drums carved from marble that weigh an estimated forty tons, the shaft contains a spiral staircase of 185 steps as well as a tomb chamber for the ashes of the emperor. It is a documentary in stone with a mixture of stock scenes of the emperor addressing his troops and carefully detailed views of the Roman army at war where even the insignia of the various units have been faithfully reproduced. Its aim was to emphasize the nobility of the emperor and the character of the Roman army. The Column of Trajan is one of the most successful examples of narrative in Roman art even though the higher parts are almost impossible to appreciate. Commemorative arches and columns such as this one and the later Column of Marcus Aurelius reveal a great deal about the Roman desire to commemorate important events and military campaigns. They acted as decoration and focus to the cityscape and served as visible reminders of the might of the Roman Empire.

Burial of the Dead

Like the Etruscans before them, the Romans practiced both cremation and inhumation. The purpose of the tomb was twofold: to protect the remains and commemorate the dead. Tombs could take a variety of forms as different as a simple square box, a cylindrical structure resembling a tumulus, a tower, and even a pyramid depending on the social position of the deceased and the local custom. In one case the tomb of a baker was designed to look like an oven; in another, the tomb of Cestius on the Appian way, the shape is pyramidal for reasons that have not been explained. The tomb of the emperor Augustus was a cylindrical monument, 280 feet in diameter, built in the Campus Martius just outside of Rome. It was constructed of several layers with a circular colonnade at the second stage. The emperor’s intention was to make his tomb a monument to the Julian family, and he had the ashes of other members of the family collected to be entombed with him. A little more than a hundred years later Hadrian also had his tomb designed as a large cylindrical building, perhaps in imitation of Augustus. The tomb of Augustus had been filled with the remains of Nerva, the last to be deposited in it. Trajan’s ashes, in a break with tradition, were entombed in his column, so Hadrian was actually building a mausoleum for the continued use of the imperial family and it was used as such until the burial of Caracalla. Hadrian’s tomb is now known as the Castel Sant’ Angelo and by the sixth century it was used as a fortress. Its decorative elements were lost long ago and in one account sculpture was hurled from its heights as missals. This was the fate shared by many of the monuments of Rome. Buildings were robbed of their stone to be reused in new construction. The Pantheon was converted into a Christian church and towers were added to it which have since been removed. The Arch of Titus was incorporated into the wall of a medieval fortress, and the Roman Forum became an area where animals were sent to graze.

The Late Antique

The Arch of Constantine

With the accession of Constantine in the early fourth century C.E. architecture entered a stage of transition from traditional Roman forms to those used in Christian Byzantine buildings, a period given the convenient designation of “Late Antique.” The Arch of Constantine, from this time, is one of the most visible monuments in Rome. It is situated near the Colosseum, and in some aspects it is a prime example of a continued respect for tradition. Its general design, with three arched entrances, is very like the Arch of Septimius Severus at the west end of the forum, built about a hundred years earlier. The main difference between the two monuments is that the sculptural decoration of Constantine’s arch is in several different styles. Some of the reliefs represent him and are in the style of his time, others have been reused from the time of Hadrian and others. It is almost as if a convenient model was used and available decorations were pressed into service without regard for their stylistic relationships. Side by side, the realistic representations of the time of Hadrian and the more stylized figures of the period in which the arch was built can be seen.

The Basilica Form

The term “basilica” simply designates a hall used for assemblies and meetings. In Roman use this usually meant a civic building with administrative purposes. The Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum was an example of the type carried to its most elaborate design with side bays and vaulted ceilings. The more typical form was of a much simpler design. As an example, at Trier on the Moselle River in northern Gaul the emperor Constantine completed a vast palace complex begun by his father. This included residences, a large bath establishment, a circus, warehouses, and other structures. One of the most significant buildings for the history of architecture, included in it is the audience hall or basilica, much of it still preserved. It was a simple plan—a large rectangular hall 95 by 190 feet with a semicircular apse—a curved recess usually at the end of a building as it is here. Before entry to the main hall was a transverse crossing, fore-hall, or narthex, and a portico or vestibule. To add some width without resorting to vaulting over aisles on both sides of the nave, as the central hall was known, the ceilings of the side aisles were lower. This gave an opportunity to include windows in the side walls of the nave, helping to light the interior. As the Christian church developed from the secular Roman form for civic use, the architectural parts served to focus the attention of the worshipper on the ceremony. This was accomplished with the single direction of the tunnel-like space ending in the apse aided by the rhythmic repetition of the columns on either side. Examples of this form can be found in the plan for the old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome or in fifth century C.E. churches such as Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Sabina, also in Rome. The great space-enclosing forms exemplified in structures like the Roman baths were not completely forgotten. The Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, built under Justinian in the mid-sixth century, preserves the basic basilica plan, but on a scale and with the use of an elaborate system of domes that it is almost unrecognizable as such. What Hagia Sophia shows us is the continuation of Roman values in an architectural tradition that produced monumental results, but it was in the service of the Christian faith and not the Roman state.

Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture

The Early Christian Basilica

When the emperor Constantine recognized Christianity as the official state religion early in the fourth century, Christians were able to practice their faith openly. Whereas before they had met in secret in the catacombs and in other non-public places, they were now free to act as an organized and recognized cult. The first Christian meeting places were private houses and it was only when the religious ritual became more formalized that a special building was needed. It was probably to divorce themselves from the old religions that the forms of the “pagan” Greek and Roman temples were not utilized for Christian worship. The long rectangular form of the civil basilica was easily adapted for this use, although some changes had to be made. The basilica was basically a meeting house where large groups could be accommodated to conduct business and carry on other civil functions, although some changes had to be made to the form for its new religious purpose. The normal civic basilica had its entrance on one side, and this was altered to accommodate the interior orientation and direction necessary in the church. One of the best examples of an early Christian basilica was the original Church of St. Peter in Rome. It was erected by order of the emperor Constantine on the site of the Circus of Nero where the apostle Peter was martyred. Its construction was begun in 324 C.E. but it was destroyed at the end of the fifteenth century to make room for a later church. There is considerable evidence in drawings and plans to indicate its design. Its general layout included an atrium, a large open courtyard that the participants passed through to enter the body of the church. Although the main meeting hall followed the general plan of the civil basilica, the addition of the atrium recalled the form of the private houses originally used for worship. In the Church of St. Peter a large central aisle known as the nave was flanked on each side by two parallel side aisles. Only the largest churches had five aisles; it was more typical to have a large central nave with only two side aisles. The focus of the religious ritual was at the altar at the far end from the entrance, exactly like the arrangement in most Christian churches even today. While the exterior and interior walls and columns were of stone, the roof over the nave and side aisles was of wood. This was a pattern followed in most early Christian churches of the basilica type, disregarding the use of stone or brick vaulting in favor of economical and easily constructed wooden roofing. The form that had been designed as a meeting place to accommodate large crowds for the conduct of business and government affairs used throughout the Roman world had evolved into the standard for a place of Christian worship. The pattern established by the first Church of St. Peter was followed in many early churches. A typical example is the Church of Santa Sabina in Rome, begun in 425. Its arrangement follows the basilica pattern with the addition of a half dome over the apse, the semicircular niche at the end of the nave. In it, as in many early churches, the columns supporting the side walls of the nave were taken from earlier buildings. In some cases the reuse of such building elements was done without any concern for their style or order. Mosaics were used extensively for decoration on the façade, in the interior on the side walls and in the apse. These enlivened the interior with color and reflected light but they also served as informative and devotional illustrations of scripture.

The Development of the Byzantine Church

The city known in antiquity as Byzantium was re-founded by Constantine as the “New Rome” in 333 C.E. At the breakup of the Roman Empire by the successors of Constantine in 335 it became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire with the new name of Constantinople. The development of church architectural style in the east, while serving the same purposes as in the west, took on somewhat different form. There are a number of reasons suggested to explain the difference, including the scarcity of wood for the roofing, resulting in a return to the arches and vaulting developed by Roman architects. Although this may be part of the explanation, it is more likely that the church architecture in the east—Byzantium—was the result of a combination of local traditions of construction and the influence of Eastern (Persian) architecture. While Roman architects had been comfortable with the design of round buildings such as the Parthenon that could be roofed with a dome, Byzantine architects were faced the problem of a circular dome resting on a square or rectangular building. This problem could be solved in two ways: by the use of squinches or by pendentives. The squinch uses an octagonal arrangement formed by bridging the corners with a lintel or an arch. The pendentive uses a second dome form from which sections have been removed leaving a circular base supported by four triangular sections resting on four piers. Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which essentially follows the layout of a basilica, is an example of the use of domes supported by pendentives. One variation of a plan popular in the east was a central arrangement in a circular or octagonal building, as can be seen in the Church of San Vitale in northwest Italy, constructed between 526 and 547. The central arrangement or circular form never became popular in the west except for baptisteries and other special purposes. The separate architectural traditions of east and west continued into modern times and are still evident in the differences between modern churches of the Greek Orthodox rite and those of the more Western tradition.