Antique Illustration of the construction of the Parthenon in Athens, c. 440 BCE
One of the most important architectural forms to emerge from ancient Greece is the temple or naos
(Ναός) meaning “dwelling of a god.” The earliest temples were simple post-and-lintel designs built from fragile materials such as wood and bricks (like the original temple on the Acropolis that was burned by the Persians in the sack of Athens in 480 BCE). Greek temples evolved into magnificent structures built from elaborately carved stone.
Vintage engraving of the ancient interior of the Parthenon and the statue of Athena
The Parthenon in Athens (completed in 432 BCE) is the exemplar of the naos
—a combination of Doric and Ionic architectural principles. The temple’s limestone foundations support columns and pediments made of marble quarried from nearby Mount Pentelicus.
The Parthenon, Athens, Greece
The Parthenon cost 469 Attic talents (over 25,000 pounds of silver) and was supervised by the architect Phidias (the designers were Ictinus and Callicrates). Inside the Parthenon stood an awe-inspiring 40-foot-tall gold and ivory statue of the goddess Athena.
Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus, Greece
The design of Greek theatres is also one of the lasting architectural legacies of this culture. The word theatre comes from the ancient Greek word theatron
(θέατρον) meaning “seeing place.” The first theatre-goers in ancient Greece might have sat on a hillside, watching actors below performing on a stage made of trampled earth or a circular threshing floor. These primitive spaces evolved into sophisticated open-air stone auditoriums built into the sides of hills, like the Theatre of Epidaurus (late 4th century BCE) which held up to 14,000 people and, to this day, has nearly perfect acoustic qualities. Greek playwrights of the 5th century, like the genius Euripides, wrote scenes that required the world’s first special effects—cranes that flew actors portraying gods onto the stage to bring about dramatic conclusions to the tales. These machines were later dubbed deus ex machina
or “god in the machine” by the Romans.
Vintage engraving of the ancient Agora of Athens, c. 4th century BCE
(Αγορά) means “gathering place” and came to symbolize the democratic nature of independent Greek city-states. This centralized and public space was a nexus of activity—an open space where merchants, philosophers, public speakers and artisans all came together in the beating heart of a citadel.
The British Museum, London, UK
Ancient Greek architecture has had a profound influence on building designs around the world, including Greek revival structures like the British Museum (built nearly 2,300 years after the Parthenon). The architect Sir Robert Smirke traveled to Athens when he was a young man. He was mesmerized by the ruins he saw there including the Parthenon; and he wrote a letter to his father praising the temple’s “grandeur and majesty.”