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Greek Temples

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The most famous Greek temple, the Parthenon, on the sacred rock of the Acropolis.

One image that immediately conjures up the idea of Ancient Greece is the Greek temple, which comprises straight stone pillars with a triangular gable on top. This image is associated not only with religion but also with the whole philosophy of Ancient Greece, so modern universities and museums are often built to look like Greek temples on the outside.

How did these temples start out, what did the Greeks do in them, and what were their conventions?

The First Temples

The first temples were built of wood, and as a result nothing remains of them today. We know about them only through the writings of later Greek writers. However, one of the oldest stone temples (in Olympia) appears to have been built by replacing parts of a wooden temple with stone bit by bit, one column at a time over a long period, so it appears that the wooden temples were built along the same lines as the later stone ones.

Apparently, the prehistoric Greeks worshipped 'cult objects', which might have been a lump of wood or a stone that vaguely resembled a human form. These were considered to be gods and goddesses in their own right, not just images of gods; they were not carved by humans but left in their original natural shapes. The temples were houses for the cult objects. In later years, the cult object became considered more a representation of the god (or goddess), rather than being considered to be the god. The gods were now considered to live in inaccessible places: Poseidon lived at the bottom of the sea, while most of the others lived at the top of Mount Olympos, a giant mountain in Northern Greece. The builders of the temples started carving statues of the gods and putting these inside. These are known now as 'cult images'. The cult image was the single most important thing in the temple, representing the god, and was the reason for the temple's existence. Each temple was dedicated to one god only, although there are very rare cases where a temple might have two gods.

The public were not allowed into the temple: only the priests were allowed into the presence of the god. Public ceremonies took place outside the temple at an open-air altar, and the priests would bring offerings into the temple to be placed at the feet of the cult image.

The Simple Stone Temple

In the second half of the 7th Century BC, the Greeks started building stone temples, and from that time on we have a detailed history of temple design. The earliest stone temples were just a rectangular room with a doorway in one of the short sides. The two long walls were extended forwards slightly to make a porch in front of the doorway. There were a pair of columns (pillars) in the opening to hold up the roof. Resting on the two extended walls and on the columns was a triangular gable known as a pediment. The back wall also had a triangular gable on top, and a shallow sloped roof of wood beams and terracotta tiles completed the temple. The inner room of the temple was known as the naos1. The cult image stood or sat at the back of the naos against the back wall, facing the doorway.

Stone temples were made from cut stone without any mortar or cement of any sort. Mostly they were just stone resting on stone, each held in place by its own weight, but in some tricky spots, they used metal clamps or wooden pegs.

Temples were usually built facing east, although there are exceptions where the lie of the ground made it very difficult to comply with this requirement. Greece is, after all, a very mountainous country.

Although we generally think of Greek temples as being models of elegant design and restraint, they were much more gaudy than most people imagine. Temples made of marble were usually left as bare stone, but ones made from limestone were faced in a coating of stucco, which was then painted in bright colours, usually the Ancient Greek favourite colours of red, white and blue.

More Elaborate Temples

As the city-states of Greece became more affluent and people had more wealth, the temples grew accordingly. The first new feature was to put a line of columns across the front, including one in front of each of the extended side walls. Later temples added another small room at the back of the temple, with a doorway facing the opposite direction and with its own line of columns. It's not clear what this room was used for, but it may have been a treasury for holding the more valuable offerings. Such temples had a line of columns at each end, but none along the sides.

The next major advance was the 'peripteral temple' which had columns all the way around. This is the classical temple, and although there were a few subsequent developments, none of them changed the outward appearance from this significantly. In the 6th Century BC, such temples generally had six columns across the short ends of the temple and 15 along the sides, making the temple more than twice as long as it was wide. In the 5th Century BC, the favourite shape was shortened slightly, so that the classical temple still had six columns across the narrow end and but only thirteen columns along the long side.

Subsequent variations in the design of the temple include adding extra rows of columns: perhaps two or three rows in front of the porch, perhaps two rows along the side, and perhaps rows of columns inside the naos as well. Some temples had an underground crypt, but this was very rare.

Only one rare type of temple was a major departure from the classical ideal. The tholos is a circular temple. The naos is a circular room with one doorway. A line of columns goes all the way around the naos.

The Three Orders of Columns

The design of the columns varied over time and from one part of the Greek world to another.

In the western lands of Greece, the design was known as Doric. The columns are thick looking and plain. They stand directly on the base of the temple, and the tops of them are fairly simple.

In the eastern lands, such as Asia Minor (now the western coast of Turkey), the Ionic design was favoured. The columns are more slender and stand on a sort of pedestal. The tops of the columns feature a carved scroll on each side.

As time went on, the Ionic style spread across the whole of Greece, although it never reached the Greek-speaking south of Italy. Then a new style started in the Peloponnese and spread to the whole Greek-speaking world: the Corinthian style. Here the tops of the columns are carved in fancy shapes to resemble the leaves of an acanthus plant.

The Reliefs

There were a number of flat surfaces on a Greek temple which were carved into pictures. The pediment, the triangular gable, was normally carved into some sort of scene showing gods and goddesses interacting with normal people. There was also a flat vertical surface all around the temple, which rested on the columns and was below the roof. This was normally carved into pictures, either in a series of panels (metopes) or a single long scene (frieze).

Some Greek Temple Glossary

Greeks love long words, and there are lots of specialised words in Greek for just about every part of a Greek Temple.

  • Architrave - the unadorned lintel that ran across the tops of all the columns.
  • Capital - the bit at the top of the column.
  • Column drum - a cylindrical section of a column. Most columns are made by stacking up column drums.
  • Entablature - everything between the columns and the roof, including the architrave, the frieze and the pediments.
  • Fluting - this is a form of decoration of columns, where vertical grooves are cut in the column.
  • Frieze - a long carved scene along the flat area above the columns.
  • Hexastyle - a peripteral temple with six columns along the narrow end.
  • Metopes - carved panels around the flat area above the columns.
  • Monolithic column - a column carved out of a single piece of stone.
  • Naos - the central room where the cult statue is.
  • Opisthodomos - the back room of a temple, behind the naos and opening at the opposite end of the temple.
  • Pediment - the triangular gable at either end of the temple.
  • Peripteral - a temple with columns all the way around.
  • Pronaos - the front porch, between the doorway and the columns.
  • Tholos - a circular temple (this word is also used for a Mycenaean circular subterranean tomb).

Where to See Greek Temples

The Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens

The most famous Greek temple by far is the Parthenon. This is the huge temple that stands on the sacred rock of the Acropolis, looking down on Athens. It's in pretty good shape considering that it's 2,500 years old and that there was an explosion in it a few hundred years ago.

The temple was built by order of Pericles in 447 BC and was completed in 438 BC. It was built by Ictinus and Callicrates and replaced a previous temple on the site, which had been destroyed by the Persians when they invaded Athens during the Persian War.

The Parthenon was dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the virgin warrior goddess of Athens, after whom the city is named. It is a Doric temple made from Pentelic marble, with columns that are roughly 10m high. There are eight columns along the ends and 17 along the sides. This is more than the classical ideal, but was needed to allow the inner naos to be bigger than normal. The roof was covered in marble slabs rather than the normal terracotta tiles, but these are now gone.

The Parthenon is one of the most elegant buildings ever designed, and its design is cleverer than it looks: the columns widen as they go up and then taper slightly at the top. This, by an optical illusion, makes them look straight. The 'flat' base on which the temple stands is also curved slightly, with the corners higher than the centres of the sides, which again by an optical illusion makes it look straight.

The cult image was a giant statue of Athena, which stood more than 10m high. Built by Pheidias, it was made by the chryselephantine method, with a core of wood covered in ivory for the skin and gold for the garments. The statue was later brought to Constantinople; no trace of it now remains.

After the collapse of Greek civilisation, the Parthenon was used as a Christian church and a Muslim mosque. In later years, the temple was used as a gunpowder store by the Turks when they controlled all of Greece. In 1687, the Venetians attacked Athens, and one of their bombs struck the Parthenon, causing a massive explosion which destroyed the middle of one side, but this has been repaired recently.

The greatest damage to the temple, however, was done by an Englishman. The Earl of Elgin, British ambassador to the Turks, got permission to 'remove any pieces of stone' bearing figures or inscriptions. He took this as permission to carve up the temple, and removed all the marble carvings, including the pediments, the metopes and the frieze, which he transported back to England. Elgin claimed that he was protecting these priceless pieces of culture from destruction by the Turks who cared little about Ancient Greece. Known as the Elgin Marbles, they are now on display in the British Museum, where it has to be said they are very well looked after, but they are a constant source of contention between the Greek and British governments. The Greeks insist that they be returned and have built a special museum which sits empty waiting to house them - it is not intended that they be replaced on the temple, as the air pollution in Athens could damage them.

The Temple of Hephaistos, Ancient Agora, Athens

This small temple is the best-preserved in the whole of Greece, although not as well known as the Parthenon. Built in 449 BC, it was right in the middle of the city of Athens, on a small hill overlooking the ancient agora. The temple was dedicated to two deities, Hephaistos and Athena. Their cult images were made of bronze. The temple is built along classical lines with Doric columns.

The Temple of Apollo Epikourios, Bassae, The Peloponnese

High in the mountains east of Olympia in the Peloponnese stands the Temple of Apollo Epikourios ('Apollo the Helper'). It was built up in the mountains because the locals recovered from a plague and wanted to thank the God Apollo, who they considered responsible for sparing them. The out-of-the-way location has helped preserve it, as no one wanted to dismantle it to use the stone to build nearby cities, as happened with many other temples. This is a huge temple, and in very good shape, being rated the second best-preserved of all temples after the Temple of Hephaistos.

The temple was designed by Ictinos, one of the two architects of the Parthenon. Unusually, it is oriented north to south rather than the usual east to west, probably because the slope of the mountain demanded it. To compensate, the internal layout of the temple is also unusual, with the door to the naos on the long side so that it can continue to face East. The temple includes both Doric and Ionic columns. The first westerner to examine the temple, in the 19th Century, gave a detailed description of a single Corinthian column in the temple, which was believed to be the first Corinthian column used anywhere in Greece. Unfortunately the next time anybody visited the temple, the Corinthian column had been stolen and has never been seen since.

The temple is being worked on by the Ministry of Culture to restore and preserve it. They've put it in a giant tent, which certainly protects it from the elements, but spoils the sacred feel of it. It is not known for how long this tent will be left in place.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens, Greece.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens

Situated on the flat area known as the Olympieion to the south of the Acropolis, the Temple of Olympian Zeus was one of the biggest temples ever built. It was started in 515 BC, but work stopped only five years later in 510 BC due to a change of government, and nothing further was done until 175 BC. This second attempt also foundered and the temple was not finished until the time of Emperor Hadrian, in 130 AD. All that is left now is the base and 15 of the original 104 Corinthian columns, 13 at one end and two at the other, along with the remains of a 16th which has collapsed. These in themselves are well worth seeing as they are enormous! The temple was 41m wide and 108m long, with columns 17m high.

The Tholos, Delphi, Central Greece

The sacred site of Delphi, home of the Oracle, in the mountains above the Gulf of Corinth, had many temples. One of the most distinctive was the Tholos, or circular temple. Only three columns of this temple are still standing, but the image of these with the mountains in the background is one of the most enduring ones in Greece.

One Temple We Know About From History

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia

The Temple of Zeus in Olympia was probably the most famous temple in Greece in its day. Situated in the sacred grove of Olympia in the western Peloponnese, the temple was the central focus of the whole sanctuary of Olympia, where the Olympic games were held every four years for over a millennium. Built by Libon in 470-456 BC, the temple was not huge by the standards of the Parthenon or the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, but was much bigger than the other temples of the sacred grove. All that remains now is the base (28m x 64m), though excavation has uncovered many of the marble carvings that adorned the temple and these are on display in the museum in Olympia.

We know from contemporary accounts that this temple contained one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the statue of Zeus. The statue of the supreme god sitting on a throne was 13m high; that's as tall as a four-storey building. Like the statue of Athena in the Parthenon, it was made by Pheidias, and he used the same chryselephantine technique of wood, gold and ivory. The statue was so big that Zeus's head almost touched the roof of the temple: if the figure were to stand up, it would crash through the roof. This was intended to give the feeling that no temple was big enough to contain this greatest of the gods. There's a very good depiction of this statue in Disney's cartoon movie, Hercules. This is a fairly loose interpretation of the life of the Greek hero, but it certainly gets across the larger-than-life feeling of the Statue of Zeus.

The temple was closed down in 391 AD by order of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius, who banned all forms of 'pagan' worship, as the official religion was now Christianity; the statue was brought to the capital, Constantinople. It was destroyed in a fire in 462 AD.

The Influence of the Greek Temple

The Romans reached the peak of their civilisation a few hundred years after the Greeks, and they were very impressed with Greek culture and design. They borrowed some aspects of Greek Temples for their own temples, including the use of lots of columns and the triangular pediment. But Roman temples came in all shapes and sizes and did not follow the simple plan of the Greek Temple at all. For example, the Pantheon has a Greek front stuck onto a giant circular temple with a concrete dome. The Roman Maison Carrée in Nimes, France looks superficially like a Greek temple, but it is built on a high base with many steps, and the columns are fused to the wall at the back and sides rather than being free-standing.

After the Roman period, the importance of lots of columns was forgotten and architecture went in different directions until the Renaissance, when the reverence for classical values was resurrected in the Neoclassicist style. Once more it became fashionable to have places of worship that looked like the front of a Greek Temple, such as St Peter's Basilica in Rome or St Paul's Cathedral in London. This was then extended to any large building, such as the National Gallery in London, or the Capitol in Washington DC.

From a small building housing the spirit of a place to the grand design of the Parthenon, symbolising the wealth of the city of Athens, the ancient temples were built to inspire, and they still do so. These elegant buildings are a sign of mankind's implacable urge to glorify something greater than mere utility.

1The Romans later referred to the inner room as the 'cella'; a recognisable word even in modern times.

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