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The Influence of Ancient Greek Architecture

Updated on June 9, 2016
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Brainy Bunny has a master's degree in Greek and Latin Philology, with particular interest in historical linguistics and ancient religions.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon in Athens is the quintessential representation of Ancient Greek architecture.
The Parthenon in Athens is the quintessential representation of Ancient Greek architecture. | Source

Ancient Greece is often considered the cradle of the western world. Its art, literature, political thought, and even its very language have influenced western society for thousands of years, and continue to influence us today.

One very obvious area of influence is architecture: Just look at the downtown of nearly any major city in the U.S., or many of the great cities of Europe. Ancient Greek influence is lurking within the facades of buildings as varied as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Prado Museum in Madrid, and Downing College, Cambridge University, in Cambridge, England.

Read on to learn about the basic elements of ancient Greek architecture, as well as how those elements influenced Roman architecture in ancient times and Neoclassical architecture, Federal style, Georgian Revival, and Beaux-Arts style architecture over the past several hundred years.

Ancient Greek architectural elements
Ancient Greek architectural elements | Source

Ancient Greek Architecture

When we think of ancient Greek architecture, we are generally referring to temple architecture (or other public buildings, rather than residential). Ancient Greek temples featured proportional design, columns, friezes, and pediments, usually decorated with sculpture in relief. These elements give ancient Greek architecture its distinctive character.

Scholars of ancient Greek architecture generally refer to three Orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The differences among these are primarily in the shapes of the columns and decoration of the frieze. The Doric Order features columns with no base and a simple capital, and a frieze characterized by alternating triglyphs and metopes. The Ionic Order includes columns with bases, scrolled capitals, and a solid frieze (either sculpted or left plain). The Corinthian Order features slender columns topped with elaborate capitals shaped like stylized acanthus leaves, ornately-sculpted friezes, and decorative moldings.

Ancient Greek Architectural Terms
Definition
entablature
comprises the architrave, frieze, and cornice
architrave
the beam that rests across the columns
frieze
the band above the architrave; in the Doric order broken up into triglyphs and metopes, as in the illustration
cornice
the projecting area below the pediment, usually consisting of several bands of molding
triglyph
carved panel on a Doric frieze suggesting the ends of beams
metope
panel on a Doric frieze sculpted in relief
pediment
the triangular section above the frieze; usually filled with relief sculpture
relief
a method of sculpting where figures are partially or completely attached to the stone behind them
Note the double colonnade with exterior Doric and interior Ionic columns in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos.
Note the double colonnade with exterior Doric and interior Ionic columns in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos. | Source

Another Ancient Greek architectural style that heavily influenced later architecture is the colonnade. A colonnade is a row of columns supporting an entablature (and usually a roof). It can be attached to a building (as in a portico) or free-standing.

In Ancient Greece, stoae (long covered colonnades) were open for use as public gathering spaces. They were much longer than they were deep, and were open on three sides, with the back walled in. A good example is the Stoa of Attalos in the Athenian agora (marketplace), which was reconstructed in the 1950s.

The ruins of the basilica at Pompeii give us a sense of the Greek influence on Roman architecture.
The ruins of the basilica at Pompeii give us a sense of the Greek influence on Roman architecture. | Source

Greek Influence on Roman Architecture

The Romans were tremendous builders, engineers, and architects in their own right, but in the course of conquering the western world, they were heavily influenced aesthetically by the Greeks. The prodigious use of the Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian Orders is the most obvious example.

One common type of building found in the forum of any Roman city was the basilica, a hall used for transacting business and legal matters. It developed from the Greek stoa, but was usually fully enclosed rather than enclosed on one side. The hall contained colonnades on the inside, which helped to organize and divide the interior space.

The House of Commons entrance of the former Irish Houses of Parliament. Note the Ionic columns, dentil molding, and pediment with high relief sculpture.
The House of Commons entrance of the former Irish Houses of Parliament. Note the Ionic columns, dentil molding, and pediment with high relief sculpture. | Source

Neoclassical Architecture

Neoclassical architecture comprises a group of related architectural styles popular from the late 18th century through the mid-19th century. Though some of the elements of neoclassicism are clearly Roman, such as domes, Greek influence is heavy in certain styles, such as Greek Revival and Federal Style.

Neoclassicism was extremely popular in America, but you can find beautiful examples of neoclassical architecture all over Europe, as well. One famous example is the former Irish Houses of Parliament building, built in the 18th century.

Federal Style

In the early years of the U.S., the founders of the country decided to model important buildings on the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome. This style (prevalent between about 1780 and 1830) is called Federal style. The influence of Ancient Greek architecture is apparent in the use of columns and colonnades. Thomas Jefferson was an architect during the Federal period, and he designed not only his own home, Monticello, but the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in this style.

This neoclassical colonnade at the University of Virginia is part of the original campus designed in Federal style by Thomas Jefferson himself.
This neoclassical colonnade at the University of Virginia is part of the original campus designed in Federal style by Thomas Jefferson himself. | Source
The Second Bank of the United States was built in the Greek Revival style.
The Second Bank of the United States was built in the Greek Revival style. | Source

Greek Revival

Greek Revival architecture became so widespread in the U.S. in the middle of the 19th century that it became known as the national style, and it was used extensively in houses and smaller public buildings of that time. This style generally featured the Doric Order in larger buildings, and simpler Doric columns topped with a small pediment (without a frieze) in houses.

The first major public building built in this style was the Second Bank of the United States, built in Philadelphia between 1819 and 1824. The architect used the Doric Order as a model, but without sculptural decoration. This plainer look became fairly common.

Beaux-Arts Architecture in America

Finally we get to the most recent architectural style to be heavily influenced by the ancient Greeks: Beaux-Arts architecture, particularly in the U.S. (Elsewhere, Beaux-Arts style includes more Baroque and Rococo elements.) This style is lush with decorative elements, but you can still see the Greek influence in the use of the classical architectural orders and the use of marble as a building material.

Some examples of Greek-influenced Beaux-Arts style are the New York Stock Exchange, the former Penn Station, and Low Library at Columbia University, all in New York City.

The New York Public Library, built in Beaux-Arts style between 1902 and 1911, includes ancient Greek influence in such elements as stylized Corinthian columns, high-relief sculpture in the frieze, and the extensive use of marble.
The New York Public Library, built in Beaux-Arts style between 1902 and 1911, includes ancient Greek influence in such elements as stylized Corinthian columns, high-relief sculpture in the frieze, and the extensive use of marble. | Source

Bibliography

Biers, William R. The Archaeology of Greece. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Curl, James S. Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Wentworth, Bruce. "Greek Revival." Ask the Architect.org. http://www.askthearchitect.org/architectural-styles/greek-revival-houses-architecture (accessed May 10, 2012).

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    • profile image

      Billy Bob Joe 3 months ago

      It was very helpful, and it was well written, like other peoples said. So, Thanks.

    • Brainy Bunny profile image
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      Brainy Bunny 4 months ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      Maurice, there is a lot of symbolism behind the government's choice of architecture. I hadn't heard the story of the California state seal before, but that is a great example. On the whole, the founding fathers wanted to emphasize the connection with the classical Greek ideals of democracy and personal responsibility for the good of the people.

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      Maurice Rubio 4 months ago

      Great article. Do you know the reason as to how US Gov't buildings came about to use Greek style architecture. Is there any sort of significance between government and Ancient Greek Art that the US Gov't adopted that style? For example, I am a peace officer in California. On my badge is the California state seal, and within the seal is an image of the Greek Goddess Minerva. Minerva is used because she was born as an adult and thus California was never a territory before it became a state. Thank you!!!!

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      josh billings 4 months ago

      hey thats pretty good

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      rana 5 months ago

      thanks for the info i needed it

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      Brainy Bunny 7 months ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      Glad to be of service, Yasmina!

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      Yasmina112005 7 months ago

      I got an ++A on my assignment. Yipeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.love uuuuuuu BRAINY BUNNY .amazing article.all the best.p.s cant wait to tell my sis bout this she is gonna go cuckoo

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      Xander Wilson 8 months ago

      AMAMZING BRAINY BUNNY HELPED SO MUCH AND LET ME LEARN MORE ABOUT GREEK ARCHITECTURE!!

    • Brainy Bunny profile image
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      Brainy Bunny 10 months ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      Thanks, Half Moon. I don't have any other articles about architecture specifically, but I do have some about other Ancient Greek topics.

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      HALF_MOON 10 months ago

      Awesome really interesting and very helpful and has nice pictures. Can you do more?

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      Brainy bunny 10 months ago

      Who do you think you are

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      babybottlepopkid69 11 months ago

      very helpful. i myself am part greek but never lived there or knew much about it. Thanks for the info!

    • CYong74 profile image

      Cedric Yong 15 months ago from Singapore

      This is a very useful hub, especially for tourists to Europe. Those terms are so often splashed all over descriptions in museums and ruins. Thanks for elaborating on them.

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      Ayush 18 months ago

      This really helped with my research paper.

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      Arianna Phillips 23 months ago

      It is so funny how our architecture is based off of some of ancient Greek architecture. It's really intriguing!!!

    • Brainy Bunny profile image
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      Brainy Bunny 2 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      Aesta1, I've never been to Sicily. I'd love to go there and see the Greek influence on their architecture!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      It is interesting to see how much influence the Greek civilization has on other cultures. We enjoyed exploring this in Sicily.

    • Elliott Shifman profile image

      Elliott Shifman 2 years ago from Chicago, Illinois

      Very interesting topic, I'd love to read more about it. #elliottshifman

    • Brainy Bunny profile image
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      Brainy Bunny 4 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      I'm glad to be of help. Good luck with your class, OnlineGamer!

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      TheOnlineGamer 4 years ago

      very interesting, this helps a lot for my class!!! thanks

    • Brainy Bunny profile image
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      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      Thank you, unvrso. I find the spread of ideas across the globe fascinating, and Greek architecture is a great example of that.

    • unvrso profile image

      Jose Juan Gutierrez 5 years ago from Mexico City

      Interesting hub about Greek architecture. It´s true, there is Greek architecture influence all over the world. In the city where I live, there are some buildings and monuments with the characteristic columns of Greek architecture.

      Voted interesting!

    • Brainy Bunny profile image
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      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      Thank you, Raggededge. My degrees are in Classics, so I couldn't help but pick up a few tidbits about architecture along the way.

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      Bev 5 years ago from Wales

      You do know your stuff, Brainy Bunny! Beautiful photos and succinctly worded article.

    • Brainy Bunny profile image
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      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      Thank you all for reading and commenting! There is so much to love about Ancient Greek architecture. One of the things I like best is that although all the architectural styles influenced by the Greeks are beautiful in their own ways, truly none has topped the simple perfection of the ancient temples.

      Charmike4: Yes, the Greeks were such good builders that they were able to compensate for visual distortion in a monumental building on top of a huge hill. Amazing, huh?

      JKenny: I hadn't paid much attention to the nuances of difference in the architectural styles influenced by the Greeks before writing this hub; I just knew I liked them all. Now I know why, too!

      SanneL, ModernLady, GoodLady, wewillmake: I am so glad that you found my discussion helpful and thorough. Thanks again for reading.

    • wewillmake profile image

      wewillmake 5 years ago from kerala-INDIA

      Greek architecture is so amazing that nobody can believe that they are built centuries before... Nice photos and incredible hub..

    • charmike4 profile image

      Michael Kromwyk 5 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

      I saw an interesting documentary on the Partheon this morning. The architecture was made to appear square, but it was slightly curved to allow for optical illusions. This has then gone on to inspire many fantastic buildings as highlighted in this article. Well done Brainy Bunny. Cheers Michael

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Nice photos and a learned Hub. Loved learning about the influences of Greek architecture on more recent buildings.

    • SanneL profile image

      SanneL 5 years ago from Sweden

      Thank you for this well-researched hub about Greek architecture. You described it very clear and it was very helpful to learn the difference between the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian Orders. Thank you! Voted up, interesting and useful.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      A very well written article, its amazing to think just how much effort has gone in to try to revive Ancient Greek architecture. It's something that I was aware of, but never really paid any attention to. Thanks for writing this. Voted up and shared.

    • Modern Lady profile image

      Modern Lady 5 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Well-written and quite thorough. It'd be a great resource for anyone in an architecture history class.

    • Brainy Bunny profile image
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      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      Thanks, Clevercat. I'm glad my degree was good for something!

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      Rachel Vega 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Beautifully written and chock full of good information, this hub is a great overview for anyone who enjoys architecture to needs to specifically learn about the Greek style. Voted up, beautiful, and interesting.