2.1.6- Classical Architecture
By Farha Hanif & Ashley Jacobs

Because of limited written records and accounts, it is often hard to understand what life was like in ancient civilizations. Luckily, many civilizations were able to leave their imprint on this earth in the form of architecture. The Indian, Greek, Roman, and the Mesoamerican architecture provide a crucial insight into the cultural values of these societies. Through these structures, scholars have been able to understand the religious beliefs, government systems, and appreciation for the arts and athletics of these civilizations.


Greek architecture is most known for its symmetry and balance. Most of the structures built in ancient Greece were made of stone, although originally constructed of wood and the steps and walls were constructed by masonry. Majority of Greek structures were built using a post and lintel technique in which vertical beams would balance horizontal beams which would support a ridged roof. The architecture of this ancient civilization is generally divided into three orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corthinian. The differences in each order can most specifically be seen in the temples. Greek architecture is best represented in temples, the city planning, agoras, open-air theaters, bouleterions, and gymnasiums.

Prominent Architecture


stylobate (stepped base) of a temple
stylobate (stepped base) of a temple
Temples are the most well known display of Greek architecture. Most of these temples were twice as long as they were wide and were not immensely large with a few exceptions such as the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and the Olympian at Athens ranging from 300ft long to 150ft wide. Majority of temples had a rectangular shape and had stylobates (a stepped base). They were also surrounded by columns. These columns were wider at the bottom and narrower at the top and were made out of stone cylinders (drums).

Each column has a capital at the top made up of the abacus and the echinus. The abacus is the square base where the lintels rest and the echinus is the lower part of the capital that branches out of the column. The most distinguishing factors between the three orders can be seen in the capitals of the columns. Columns supported the top of a temple’s structure of the entablature and the pediment. The entablature was the horizontal base that held up the roof and encircled the entire temple. It is made of three main parts: the architrave, the frieze, and the cornice. The architrave is a horizontal structure made of lintels directly above the columns and the frieze is directly above the architrave. The frieze is the main decorative piece of the temple and is beneath the cornice. The pediment is the triangular structure at the front and back of the building and is held up by the entablature.
Ruins of the Parthenon, dedicated to the Goddess Athena
Ruins of the Parthenon, dedicated to the Goddess Athena

architectural parts of temple
architectural parts of temple

Every temple had a masonry built center called the Naos. The Naos contained a windowless room known as the cella in which resided the statue of the deity. Each temple is given a name with two words based on the number of columns in the front and how the columns are spaced apart.
Plans of Greek Temples Top: 1. distyle in antis, 2. amphidistyle in antis, 3. tholos, 4. prostyle tetrastyle, 5. amphiprostyle tetrastyle, Bottom: 6. dipteral octastyle, 7. peripteral hexastyle, 8. pseudoperipteral hexastyle, 9. pseudodipteral octastyle
Plans of Greek Temples Top: 1. distyle in antis, 2. amphidistyle in antis, 3. tholos, 4. prostyle tetrastyle, 5. amphiprostyle tetrastyle, Bottom: 6. dipteral octastyle, 7. peripteral hexastyle, 8. pseudoperipteral hexastyle, 9. pseudodipteral octastyle

City Planning

Cities in ancient Greece were planned according to a grid system. All towns were laid out with paved streets and an agora (market place) in the center. The agora was surrounded by a stoa or colonnade which is a covered walkway surrounded by columns. Each town also had a public fountain with water for households.

The Agora at Athens surrounded by the Stoa of Attalos
The Agora at Athens surrounded by the Stoa of Attalos

Open-Air Theater/ Bouleterions
A bouleuterion at Priene
A bouleuterion at Priene

A typical open-air theater (Theater at Dionysus) at Athens
A typical open-air theater (Theater at Dionysus) at Athens

Most Greek cities had an open-air theater. These theaters could be used for both drama and public meetings. The theater was generally located on a hillside outside of the city and had numerous rows of seats in placed in a semicircle around the stage. Also, the bouleterions were structures used for town council meetings and also court houses. These were hypostyle buildings meaning they were built with columns supporting a roof.


Larger Greek cities also had gymnasiums which were the main social clubs for men. The gymnasiums offered sports, bathing areas, toilets, and spectator areas. Some, such as Olympus, Delphi, and Epidarus had stadiums for running or “foot racing” that were up to 600ft long.

The stadium for racing at Epidauros
The stadium for racing at Epidauros


Throughout ancient Greek civilization, there has been three different architectural orders. Each order can most easily be distinguished from one another because of the type of capital. The capital is the topmost section of the column that lends support for the weight on the column. However, orders also differed on the basis of proportions, relationships between columns, entablature, and pediments. The three orders are:
  • Doric order
    Doric, Ionic, and Corithian capitals

    • Mainland Greece and spread to Italy (600 B.C.E.)
    • Capital: echinus is circular and rising from column to square abacus

  • Ionic order

    • Greek cities of Ionia in Asia Minor and Aegean islands (5th century B.C.E.)
    • Volute (scrolled) capital, spirally coiled volutes bet. echinus and abacus (scrolls)
  • Corthinian order

    • Hellenistic period, popularized by Romans
    • Highly decorative
    • Influenced most by ionic and did not originate from wooden structure
    • Capital shaped like large crater
    • Concave, like a bell shaped mixing bowl with acanthus leaves

Cultural Developments


Greek religion and beliefs are most visible through their architecture. All of Greek constructions display perfect symmetry. From this, it can be understood that the Greeks believed in balance and order. Also, the symmetry reflects the cultural and spiritual values of the Greeks to continuously search for perfection. The temples were located in an area that towered over the rest of the town known as the acropolis. These acropolises may have been in such an elevated location in order to allow the people to worship in closer to the heavens and allow for virtue, as many early Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, thought. Also, through the gods the Greeks worshiped, it can be understood that they believed in many natural elements. Each god seemed to represent or rule a certain part of nature. The Greeks also used size to showcase their belief system. The Temple of Zeus Olympus is one of the biggest temples built in Greece. Zeus is thought to be the king of all gods, and the value and respect the Greeks had for him is reflected in the construction of his temple because of its massive size.
Ruins of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia
Ruins of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia

Art & Athletics

The architecture in ancient Greece also reflects the value Greeks had for art. In almost every town, there was an open-air theater. These theaters could seat thousands of people and were used for dramatic performances. Seeing the numbers of theaters in every Greek town and the size of the theaters, it is easily understood that the Greeks had great respect for, and interest in the performing arts. The Greeks also seem to have valued athletics. Especially in the larger cities, there were gymnasiums that could provide males with sports facilities, baths, toilets, and spectator seats. They also had stadiums where spectators could watch running races. These facilities can lead to the inference that both watching athletic events and participating in the events was a common practice in Greek life.


The Government is also reflected in the architecture of the Greece. In Greece, open-air theaters served as public meeting places. Also, bouleterions were the typical building for a town council meeting. In other words, the representatives of the town’s people would assemble in the bouleterions and discuss their affairs. These buildings could also serve as court houses. The existence of these structures exemplifies the role of government in the lives of the Greeks. For example, the bouleterions are known to have seated thousands of people which shows the potential size of the government, and the fact that they functioned as a court house infers that the Greeks had a structured legal system.

Greek structures created optical illusions by building the columns wider at the base and slightly slanted
Greek structures created optical illusions by building the columns wider at the base and slightly slanted


The Greek architecture is an excellent representation of the intellect of this society. In order to build such complex and almost perfectly symmetrical buildings, the Greeks needed to innovate and use new techniques. They advanced in mathematics and used complex geometry and what is called “the golden mean” to calculate perspectives and create optical illusions. These illusions make edges of things seem concave and columns viewed against the sky different than when viewed adjacent to the column. The Greek architects created structures in which the major lines were never straight such as the columns becoming narrower as they rise to the top. A great deal of understanding and complexity is necessary to construct these buildings and the Greeks showcase this intellect through the architecture.


Indian architecture is mostly characterized by rock-cut structures and caves. Majority of the historical buildings left behind by the ancient Indians are made cut directly from a large rock or excavated from a cave. They are generally large and very elaborate in detail.

Prominent Architecture

Buddhist Stupa

The Buddhist stupa was a dome shaped monument created to hold sacred relics. They were originally created as simply a mound of mud burying the remnants of the Buddha. Soon, these remnants were cremated and divided among eight other stupas and the construction of stupas continued to spread. When Asoka converted to Buddhism, he supposedly divided the ashes of the Buddha yet again to the thousands of stupas he had built. Each stupa had four basic elements: Harmika, Medhi, Toran, and Vedica. The Harmika simply required that the stupa structure be built on an oval shaped stupa (mound). The medhi is the raised circular path around the stupa. A toran is the gateway to the stupa, and the vedica is the railing that serves to protect the structure. These guard rails were made of crossbows and posts. Stupas also consisted of toranas which are arched gateways. They had multiple tiers, an arched roof, and various supporting posts. Toranas are also found on some Hindu and Jain structures.

Great Stupa at Madhya Pradesh, India
Great Stupa at Madhya Pradesh, India

Cave Temples
The Ajanta Caves; 29 rock-cut cave temples
The Ajanta Caves; 29 rock-cut cave temples

These temples were created upon the arrival of Buddhist missionaries because caves served the purpose of asceticism in the religion. Buddhist monks continuously occupied these caves, and because Buddhism encouraged trading, these monasteries became stopovers for trade routes. Soon, this exposure to trade led to intricate and detailed decorating on the interior of the caves. These cave temples began to resemble three dimensional buildings and needed more formal designing. Cave temples were mainly used for Chaityas and Viharas. A chaitya is a place of worship while a Vihara is a monastery for monks. These temples are most preserved because they are hidden and are made of a more durable material. There are over 1200 cave temples still intact today. In the temples, there are the garbhagrihas which are unlit rooms containing the statue of the god. This had an inner circle chamber that created the pradakshina around the stupa and an outer hall for the worshippers. The Ajanta Caves is one of the most well known preserved groups of cave temples.

Rock-Cut Structures

Many of the architectural constructions in ancient India have been cut directly out of rock. Most of these structures were used for Buddhist and Jain monuments and were used for Chaityas and Viharas. In India, there were over 1500 rock cut structures which generally are constructed by cutting into the solid rock and then excavating the structure. These buildings greatly resembled the designs and details of a wooden or masonry built building. The Ellora Caves contain 12 Buddhist, 17 Hindu, and 5 Jain temples. The Ellora Cave 16, the Kailash Temple, is an example of a rock-cut temple.
Ellora Cave 16; Kailash Temple
Ellora Cave 16; Kailash Temple

Stepwell at Fatehpur
Stepwell at Fatehpur

Rock-Cut Step Wells

These wells allowed for the people to access the water by walking down a few steps and some may be covered on the top. They were most commonly discovered in the western part of India and the earliest step well seems to have been constructed around 200-400 C.E. The step wells could be used for water storage and irrigation systems as well as a tool for leisure.

Cultural Developments

Hinduism (Om)
Hinduism (Om)

Ancient India embodied three main religions which can be clearly seen through its architecture. The rock-cut and cave temples as well as the stupas are all representations of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. The stupas are mostly related to Buddhism because they first originated from the sacred relics of the Buddha. The cave temples served as Chaiyas and Viharas for the Buddhists and were also used by Jainists and Hindus. Through these cave temples, it can be understood that Buddhism encouraged asceticism. Also, because dwellings emerged in nearby caves and hillsides, it is inferred that many followers of Buddhism and Jainism left the cities and lived near the temples to lead an aesthetic life. This Indian architecture shows that religion was a major part of life. It not only influenced the spiritual beliefs of the people, but it also affected their dwellings and homes. Also, most of the major architectural feats from this time are in the form of temples or stupas. Because the construction of these structures would have required extreme effort and work, this again illustrates how religion was important and held utmost value in people’s lives.
Worship Hall (Chaitya) at Ajanta Caves
Worship Hall (Chaitya) at Ajanta Caves


The architecture of India also shows the amount of importance leisure and intellect were given society. The rock-cut step wells were used to provide storage of water and were also used to maintain an irrigation system. In addition, because of the hot weather, these wells were used to cool off. They provided an excellent heat relief, especially if they were covered.


The Romans based their architecture off of the Greek style. As with the Greeks, Roman columns were divided into three sects; Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Doric is a basic, plain type of architecture with very little decorations. The Doric style was used to hold up heavy buildings. The Ionic style was more elaborate than the Doric, but not nearly as much as the Corinthian style. The Corinthian column was finely detailed with many intricate niceties.

Doric Style

Ionic Style

Corinthian Style

Unlike the Greeks, the Romans pioneered in construction, arches and domes.


The Romans began building with stone, but after 273 BCE developed a concrete from a mixture of lime mortar, sand with stone rubble, pozzolana (sandy volcanic ash), water, and stones. This concrete mix was stronger than earlier concrete and less costly to create than solid stone buildings. When building a structure, the Romans constructed it with discontinuities in the cement. In an earthquake prone Rome, this was extremely important because it allowed the structure to be shift during violent tremors. It is because of this building style along with the cheap, strong material that allowed Romans to build many buildings, such as the Pantheon, Colosseum, and Basilica of Constantine, which are still standing today.

Arch and Dome

The most famous attributes to roman architecture are the arch and dome. These aspects of architecture were prevalent in many structures including Aqueducts and the Pantheon. The arch was created by having a “keystone” that supported the bricks. However, no single spot in the arch holds all the weight.

The Center Stone in the Roman arch is the "keystone"
The arch permitted the creation of the dome, with allowed vaulted ceilings to be made. Vaulted ceilings provided a large covered area in public buildings. The survival of Roman public buildings is a testimony to the quality of the design and construction of the Roman architecture.

Cultural Developments

Art and Social

Roman architecture had great influences from the Greeks. This influence shows that instead of destroying the culture, the Romans took some of the Greek culture into their own. Roman buildings were also precise and symmetrical, which shows the Romans valued precision and balance. This precision and balance can be seen with their well-disciplined army. The art in the architecture was finely detailed with symmetrical designs. This was to amplify the aesthetic beauty of the structure. These fine details add to the earlier roman value of precision and balance. Also mosaics were a very popular art form that used cement and colorful chips to decorate floors and walls of structures. These mosaics often depicted leaders and sports.
Mosaic depicting Gladiators

Socially, public buildings were centers for gatherings and entertainment. Public baths, basilicas, and the Forum were areas that the people of came together and interacted with each other. Places like the Colosseum and amphitheaters provided entertainment for the Roman people.
To build such magnificent structures, the Romans had to have very precise measuring and math skills. The video below describes the making of the Pantheon, a building that expresses the mathematical intellect of the Romans


Corbelled Arch or “false”

Unlike Roman architecture, Mesoamerica never invented the keystone. The corbelled arch relies on the overlapping of bricks. This type of arch (although not a true arch) can be built without support, however it does not support a great amount of weight.
Corbelled Arch


Mesoamerica lacked metal tools that would aid in the building of structures. Even though they lacked metal tools, the remaining materials seem to have been readily available. They most often used limestone, which remained pliable enough to be worked with stone tools while being quarried and only hardened once removed from its bed. Their mortar consisted of crushed, burnt, and mixed limestone that mimicked the properties of cement. That mixture was also used for stucco finishing. Later improvements decreased the use of stucco because their stones could be fit perfectly. Granite was mainly used, but jade, marble, and gold have been found in some structures for decoration. High slanted roofs were made from thatch or wood, and sometimes from granite.
High slanted roof shown

Religion and Architecture

An important part of Mesoamerican culture was to have physical replications of their spiritual beliefs. This is done through by constructing the city to manifest the division between the underworld and the human world. The north was the underworld, and many structures and buildings related to the underworld, such as tombs, are often found in the city's northern half. Life was represented by the southern part and contained structures related to the continuity and daily function of the city state, such as monuments depicting the noble lineages, or residential quarters, markets etc. Between the two divisions was the plaza, containing stelae resembling the passage from life to death, and a ball court which served as a crossing point between the two worlds. The architecture was also aligned to specific celestial events.
Teotihuacan. The Northern part is a ceremonial center for events like human sacrifice. The southern part is residential quarters.

Case Study: The Roman Aqueducts

Starting in 313 B.C., the Romans built aqueducts to bring water into Rome. The length of the aqueducts in the city of Rome is estimated between 490 to 500 miles. However, only 29 miles are above ground, most Roman aqueducts ran beneath the surface. This helped keep the water clean, free of disease and safe from enemies.Roman aqueducts occasional used inverted siphons to cross low points. An inverted siphon consisted of a closed pipe laid along the valley floor. The water at one end of the pipe was at a higher elevation than the water at the other end, so a pressure difference forced the water through the pipe to the lower end, enabling the flow to continue.The video below gives an introduction to the aqueducts and illustrates how the water was kept flowing through the inverted siphon. (Skip to 2:37 for the demonstration)

Diagram of the Aqueduct
Aqueducts brought a higher level of hygiene and comfort in the urban life, but it also may have poisoned some of Rome's citizens. Pipes used to carry the water were often made of lead, so many people in Rome may have acquired lead poisoning.The aqueduct also made it possible to build Roman baths houses and ornamental fountains. The beautiful sculptures seen in the fountains are just one way that the aqueducts influeced art. Aqueducts became an expression of power and wealth. Rome flaunted the fact they had all of this water when most other civilizations did not have that luxury. All Roman people benefited because the water was less polluted and not far away from their living quarters. Because the people had a clean supply of water, they were generally cleaner and healthier. This allowed the romans to focus on other areas, such as the military, art, and intellect.
Trevi Fountain


The cultural developments of a society are most easily seen through the architectural structures. They can generally represent the values of any civilization. The major continuity seen in these classical empires is the importance of religion. In majority cases, the most detailed and well constructed structure is the temple or place of worship. It is many times larger than most buildings and always reflects the common architectural practices of the society. This larger size and attention to detail shows that religion was taken very seriously among the people. Also, religion may have influenced their lifestyles. From their homes to their government systems, religion seems to have been at the root of all ideas. This is a similar continuity compared to the first wave civilizations. Even then, as religions began to form, they shaped people’s lives. Besides religion, architecture is able to provide a glimpse of a society, from leisure time and government styles all the way to athletics.


"Art." University Press Inc., 2008. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. <http://www.ancientgreece.com/s/Art/>.

"Ancient Greek Architecture." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc., 10 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.

"Bouleuterion." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc., 29 Aug. 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.

"Capital (architecture)." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc., 29 Oct. 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.

"Indian Architecture." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc., 27 Oct. 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.

"Indian Rock-Cut Architecture." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc., 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 11 Nov.
2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_rock-cut_architecture>.

"Stoa." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc., 27 Aug. 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.

"Stupa." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc., 30 Oct. 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.
"Stylobate." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundations Inc., 19 Dec. 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.

"Ancient Roman Architecture." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_architecture#Materials>.

"Mesoamerican Architecture." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesoamerican_architecture#Styles>.

"Roman Aqueduct." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_aqueduct>.

"Roman Architecture." UNRV History - Roman Empire. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. <http://www.unrv.com/culture/architecture.php>.

"Roman Columns." Roman Colosseum. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. <http://www.roman-colosseum.info/roman-architecture/roman-columns.htm>.

"Roman Concrete." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_concrete>.

"Roman Concrete." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_concrete>.