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Generally, when people speak of “Greek architecture” it is usually “public” architecture that they have in mind — temples, theatres, market-places, gymnasia, commemorative structures, and given the propensity of the ancient Greeks for war, fortifications. After all, as Plato suggested, war is the natural state of mankind.


As a general rule, every city was fortified with the extent and nature of the fortifications being influenced by natural landscape features. It was only a state such as Sparta, whose reputation preceded it, or a poorer community with little worth stealing that didn’t have substantial city walls. The main defensive structure was an encircling wall whose length was interrupted at strategic intervals by round or square towers. The thickness of the wall and the height, shape and placement of towers were important considerations. Usually the walls and towers were built of limestone. Vertical slits in the tower walls allowed archers to fire their arrows down upon attackers.


In the fourth century B.C. cities began to build stone theatres. In fact one of the most characteristic buildings found in any ancient Greek city of any importance was a quality theatre. Audiences in Athens who had attended presentations by the masters of the Greek stage- Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides- had been seated on wooden benches lining the south slope of the Acropolis. Their descendants had a better environment. The typical Greek theatre was built into the slope of a hillside which provided support for the curving banks of stone seats that faced the stage. Most patrons brought their own seat cushions to these open air structures since watching plays during a festival period was somewhat of an endurance contest.

The theatre at Epidaurus is still remarkably well-preserved and plays are regularly presented there. The acoustics are astounding; even a whisper on the stage can be heard in the back row of seats- a tribute to the famous architect Polykleitos, the Younger. Its fifty-five rows of seats could accommodate up to 12,000 spectators, considerably more than could fit into an average city theatre which, typically, could handle an audience of 5000.


From early times, the open air altar played an important role in worship. The outdoor aspect was a practical consideration. Sacrificing 100 head of oxen, as happened on festive occasions such as at the Olympic Games, with its inevitable blood and smoke, was an activity best carried out in the open air. But, influenced by the East- particularly, Egypt- temples began to be seen as appropriate structures to house the image of a deity. That usage dictated a level of quality befitting a divine being. Accordingly, the Greeks looked to their predecessors and to their neighbours for ideas on suitable designs for a temple. From their Mycenaean ancestors they took the idea of an architectural footprint based on the rectangular megaron or “great hall”- a room with a frontal porch supported by columns. From the Egyptians they borrowed the concept of monumentality and a range of design elements and ornaments such as fluted columns, palmettes, spirals, rosettes, lotus plant imagery, etc.

The first Greek temples were a far cry from a classical masterpiece such as the Parthenon. During the Bronze Age it seems that no temples were built and there is uncertainty as to when they began to be built. It happened during the Dark Age but surviving examples, according to A.W. Lawrence are “few in number and of deplorable quality.” The construction materials were mud brick for the walls with high-pitched roofs made of timber. Greek builders were not satisfied for long with this model and they gradually made their way to stone construction.

During the 7th century the Greek “Orders of Architecture” began its evolution. Few people today are not familiar with the notion that there are Doric, Ionic and Corinthian styles. Many can even pick out the different styles in modern examples in their cities for these became widely admired and copied throughout the world.

All three styles are built upon a single construction system- the post and lintel- where a horizontal block of stone (the lintel) is laid across two supports (posts or columns). It was a simple system which imposed some limitations on the architects but it assured an appropriate result. An inspired architect might produce a Parthenon but a less gifted individual would at least produce a temple adequate for religious worship. Instead of seeking innovation in other systems and styles, Greek architects sought refinement and perfection in the system that they had chosen. They laid down a framework of rules which spelled out how to address composition and proportion. All of the elements and components had a specified form and function. Tey working within that formula Greek architects were able to produce a range of distinctive temples including some that made the List of Wonders of the ancient world.

The Parthenon is considered to be the greatest of the Doric temples, the ultimate achievement of architectural perfection in this style. (See the Parthenon article on this site and for further information on Greek architecture check out the following sites.)