The Origin and evolution of Ancient Greek Architecture

The Ancient Greek architecture, as we know it, by the Greek-speaking people whose culture flourished on the Greek mainland, has been studied for ages now as a preliminary part of architectural history. The greek architecture ancient history has known to start from around 600BC.


Geography and Materials:

Map of Ancient Greeece

The geography of Greece has been affecting greek architecture & art since ancient times. The nature of the mainland and islands is very rocky, with deeply indented coastline, and rugged mountain ranges, with few substantial forests.

  • The most abundantly available building material has been stone. Moreover, limestone was readily available and easily workable and has been used in majority of ancient Greek buildings.
  • There has also been an abundance of high-quality white marble, both on the mainland and islands, especially Paros and Naxos. Therefore, both architectural and sculptural details were easily in marble, making it an integral part of ancient Greek architecture. 
  • Deposits of high-quality potter’s clay were found throughout Greece and its Islands, with a majority near Athens. Therefore, it was used not only for pottery vessels but also for roof tiles (Terracotta) and architectural decoration.


Greek civilization was divided by the historians into two eras, the Hellenic period and the Hellenistic period.

  • The Hellenic period started from around 900 BC and lasted until the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. During this period, substantial works of architecture began to appear around 600 BC.
  • The Hellenistic period started from 323 BC and lasted till 30 AD. During this period, the Greek culture spread to other lands as a result of Alexander’s conquests.

The greek architecture characteristics spread furthermore with the rise of the Roman Empire, which adopted much of the Greek culture.

Before the Hellenic era, there were two major cultures that dominated the region:

  • The Minoan (c. 2800–1100 BC): Minoan is known for its elaborate and richly decorated palaces. It was also famous for its pottery painted with floral and marine motifs.
  • The Mycenaean (c. 1500–1100 BC)- The Mycenaean culture was quite different in character. Its people built citadels, forts, and tombs instead of palaces. Also, they decorated their pottery with bands of marching soldiers rather than aqua life.
Acropolis of Athens

Art and Culture:

The art during the Hellenic period lead to a major impact on the Greek architecture & art.

  • The art scene of Greek culture started evolving from pottery, which gave a sense of proportions, symmetry, and balance. The decorations were majorly geometric and ordered neatly into zones, on defined areas of each vessel.
  • These qualities were further reflected in ancient greek architecture.
  • The use of the human figures as the major decorative motif grew. This depicted the relevance of human scale and figures in art and architecture.
  • Along with pottery, there was a major human depiction in sculptures as well. The tiny stylized bronzes of the Geometric period gave way to life-sized highly formalized monolithic representation in the Archaic period.
  • There was a development towards idealized, yet lifelike depictions of gods in human form. This development had a direct effect on the sculptural decoration of temples. Some of the most prominent examples are the lost chryselephantine statues of Zeus at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and Athena at the Parthenon, Athens, both over 40 ft high, were once housed in them.
  • The natural elements were personified as gods of the human form, and highly human behavior.

Types of buildings:

Domestic Buildings:

  • The houses were called “Oikos”.  The earliest houses were simple structures of 2 rooms, with an open porch, called “pronaos”. Above the pronaos was a low pitched gable or pediment. This form is known to have contributed to the greek architecture style of the temples.
  • Sun-dried clay bricks, or wooden framework filled with straw, or seaweed covered with clay or plaster, were used abundantly in construction on a base of stone. This protected the more vulnerable elements from dampness.
  • The roofs were mostly of thatch, with eaves that overhung the permeable walls. However, many larger houses were built of stone and plastered. Tiles were used as the roofing material and Mosaic floors in luxury homes, which demonstrated the Classical style.
  • Houses were centered on a wide passage or “pasta”. The passage ran the length of the house and opened at one side onto a small courtyard.
  • Larger houses had a fully developed peristyle courtyard at the centre, with rooms around it. Some houses had an upper floor which could have been for the women of the family.
  • City houses were built adjacent to each other and were grouped into small blocks by narrow streets. These houses were inward-facing, with major openings looking onto the central courtyard, rather than the street.

 Public Buildings:

The Ancient Greek Amphitheatre of Epidaurus
  • The best know form of ancient greek architecture buildings were the rectangular temples. Temples served as the location of a cult image, a storage place, and a strong room for devotees’ offerings.
  • Most of the Greek temples have known to have been oriented astronomically.
  • The religious precinct holding the temple was known as the “Acropolis“.
  • Small circular temples were called “Tholos”.
  • During the late 5th and 4th centuries BC, town planning came into the scenario too. Towns such as Paestum and Priene were laid out with a regular grid of paved streets. An “Agora” was the central market place, surrounded by a colonnade called “stoa”.
  •  Water for household use was collected in a public fountain.
  • Every Greek town had an open-air theatre. The theatre was usually set outside the town in the hills. It had rows of tiered seating set in a semicircle around the central performance area called the “orchestra”. Additionally, behind the orchestra was a low building called the skênê, which served as a store-room, a dressing-room, and backdrop to the action taking place in the orchestra.
  • Large ancient Greek towns also had a “Palaestra” or a gymnasium. It acted as a social centre for male citizens which included spectator areas, baths, toilets, and club rooms. 

The Greek Architecture Orders:

Greek architecture orders are divided into 3 types. Namely, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, as first described by the Roman architectural writer, Vitruvius. The names reflect their regional origins within the Greek world. The three orders were easily recognizable by their capitals generally. However, they also governed the form, proportions, details, entablature, pediment, and the stylobate. Different orders were used in almost all the range of buildings and monuments.

Differentiating the three Greek Orders

Doric Order:

  • In the Doric order, the echinus of this column’s capital is like a circular cushion, rising from the top of the column. It ends at the square abacus over which rests the lintels.
  • The echinus is flat and splayed in initial examples; deeper and with a greater curve in later; and smaller and straight-sided in Hellenistic examples.
  • Doric columns are cut with grooves, known as “fluting”, which run the length of the column.
  • Doric columns generally have no bases, except for a few examples in the Hellenistic period.

Ionic Order:

  • The Ionic order is recognized by its voluted capital with curved echinus, similar to that of the Doric order. However, it has a stylized ornamentation.
  • It is surmounted by a horizontal band that scrolls under to either side.
  • In plan, the capital is rectangular.
  • It is designed to be viewed from the front. However, the capitals at the corners of buildings have an additional scroll so as to appear regular on two adjoining faces. This order was abundantly used in the greek architecture style.

Corinthian Order:

  • This order grew directly out of the Ionic in the mid 5th century BC.
  • It was initially much similar in style and proportion; however, was distinguished by its heavily ornate capitals later.
  • The capital was very much deeper than both the Doric and the Ionic capital.
  • They were greek architecture elements like a large krater, a bell-shaped mixing bowl, and being ornamented with a double row of acanthus leaves above which rose the voluted tendrils, supporting the corners of the abacus.
  • The plan of the column was no longer a perfectly square.

Greek Architecture of Temples:

The ruins of Temple of Apollo, Didyma

Shape and Size:

  • Ancient Greek temples were rectangular and were almost two times as long as they were wide. However, there were some exceptions like the Temple of Olympian Zeus with a length of nearly 2.5 times its width.
  • The circular temples were known as tholos. The smallest temples are less than 25 metres (approx. 75 ft) in diameter.
  • The great majority of temples are between 30–60 metres (approx. 100–200 ft) in length.
  • A small group of Doric temples, including the Parthenon, are between 60–80 metres (approx. 200–260 ft) in length.
  • The largest temples, were between 90–120 metres (approx. 300–390 ft) in length.
Ruins of Temple of Zeus, Olympia

Temple Structure Characteristics:

  • The temples rise from a stepped base or “stylobate”, which elevates the structure above the ground on which it stands.
  • Early greek architecture temples, such as the Temple of Zeus at Olympus, have two steps. However, most temples have three, with the exceptional example of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma having six.
  • The core of the building is called the “Naos” within which is a “cella” which is a windowless room. Cella was generally housing the statue of the god.
  • The cella has a porch called “pronaos” before it, and a second chamber called “antenaos”, serving as a treasury for trophies and gifts.
  • The chambers were lit by a single large doorway or by skylights.
  • On the stylobate, often surrounding the naos, stand rows of columns. Each temple is differentiated on the basis of two terms. First describing the number of greek architecture columns across the entrance front, and the other defining their distribution.

Importance of Golden Ratio in Greek Architecture:

Ancient Greek Architects used an ideal proportion of mathematics in the design of the greek architecture columns. This proportional is known for the beauty it reflects in the growth patterns of many spiral forms observed in nature such as rams’ horns, nautilus shells, fern fronds, and vine tendrils. This complex geometrical progression was called the Golden mean or the golden ratio. Moreover, the above mentioned natural features were a source of decorative motifs that were part of the greek architecture elements.