Ancient Greek architecture has had a huge impact on civilizations up to the present day. That’s amazing when one considers that what we think of as “ancient Greece” began more than 2,000 years ago. As far back as the 8th century B.C., Greeks were developing standards of architecture that influenced the world for centuries to come. In fact, some of the most astonishing achievements in Greek architecture, such as the Parthenon and the Acropolis, were completed between 500 B.C. and 400 B.C. – during the period when Athens was an independent city-state. Athens was the center of learning and culture in Greece before there was a single Greek nation.
The humanist philosophy of the Athenians guided much of the architecture in Athens and other great cities. In this case, “humanism” means not that the Greeks did not believe in gods – they had many different gods – but that everything should be built to a pleasing, human scale. “Man is the measure of all things,” said the Greek philosopher Protagoras, and the idea is shown in Greek architecture by its careful use of mathematical principles. By using the formula known as the “golden ratio,” Greek architects were able to design brilliantly symmetrical buildings appealing to the high standards of beauty of the time.
Greek artists, sculptors, architects, and laborers used their skills in service of a whole host of different gods. The principal goddess of Athens was Athena, goddess of wisdom. Her image was celebrated in many temples, including the circa 424 B.C. Temple of Athena Nike. Dozens of other gods received wonderful temples and other buildings. In each of these different structures, it was crucial to use architecture to express the important traits of the god being worshiped. For example, the Temple of Zeus – completed in 456 B.C. – included a massive statue bearing a scepter and other signs of this king-god’s leadership. The Temple of Athena Nike (“Athena of Victory”) was built to give Athenians strength during the long Peloponnesian War.
Although some great examples of temples have survived, these are not the only buildings to which Greeks devoted their arts. Athens in particular was one of the most celebrated homes of Greek theater in the ancient world. Most theaters were outdoors so that many people could enjoy a performance. It was also important that dramas be staged outside because many plays relied on the changing of morning to day and day into night to strengthen the story. Ancient Greek theaters consisted of architectural parts including the orchestra, which stood between the audience and actors and was used for dancing, the theatron for the viewers, the skene, a “backstage” tent for actors often decorated like a temple, and the parodos – paths for chorus members.
The Acropolis of Athens is one of the most outstanding examples of ancient Greek architecture that survives to the present day. Completed in 429 B.C. under the direction of the legendary Athenian leader Pericles, it provides evidence of some of the ancients’ greatest art and architecture. It was constructed on one of the highest outcroppings of Athens so it would serve as a centerpiece to which citizens could direct their eyes when thinking of the city’s greatness. It contains the Parthenon, the finest surviving ancient Greek temple, devoted to Athena. It also hosts the Theater of Dionysus, one of the earliest examples of an Athenian theater still available for us to view today. Evidence of many smaller temples is also present.
When we think of Greek architecture, we typically think of pure white buildings. However, it’s important to remember that when they were constructed, each of these buildings was lavishly painted. This was true not only of the outside but often of the inside. Many of the oldest surviving Greek and Roman structures once had detailed murals that showed scenes of festivals, warfare, or worshiping the gods. Another important aspect of each building was the type of columns used. Columns were an important way to strengthen buildings, maintain their symmetrical beauty, and demonstrate loyalty to a certain architectural style. Greeks gradually progressed from the plain Doric columns to more ornate, scrolling Ionic columns and the very decorative Corinthian style, each differentiated by the complexity of its capital, or top. The most important buildings were placed higher than others whenever possible, and steps leading up to an entrance were expected to be perfectly level.
Architecture inspired by ancient Greece has re-emerged several times in the modern period. When many of America’s greatest monuments were being constructed throughout Washington, D.C., ancient Greek principles including the golden ratio guided the plans used. President Thomas Jefferson, author of the U.S. Constitution, deeply admired the ancient Greek style and the values it represented. Amazing examples of Classical Revival architecture can be found in the form of the Capitol Building, Lincoln Memorial, and much more.
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