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In this essay I will discuss the structural and aesthetical differences between

Greek and Roman architecture. I will discuss how the architecture of both is a complete

reflection of the two civilisation’s ideals, a comparison between the two, and the reasons

why this relationship exists. I will concentrate on Greek and Roman temples, with

mention of other architectural structures.

In ancient Greece, universal order is the ideal. The order of nature, the order of

man, everything must submit to order. If it is not order it is chaos and this is very

undesirable to an ancient Greek, especially in architecture. Thus it comes as no surprise

that the idealism of forms and the presence and importance of nature of this civilisation is

expressed in the ruins we see of this culture. Temples are the best example of this. The

location of a temple itself was extremely vital. Temples were often placed upon hill

locations. A temple did not make a sanctuary, a temple was placed upon a place which

was already sacred. It was often the centre of the town, or else the town developed around

it, basically1. The temple was within the “area” of a sanctuary. The god’s presence was

most sacred, and was not simply housed within the structure as if to trap the holiness

inside. A common feature of Greek temples is that they are open-air, rows of column

replace walls in an ordinary building. If the temple is supposed to be more impressive,

simply a second border of columns was flanked around the first. Nothing was encased or

enclosed. This reflects the religious beliefs of the ancient Greeks. Their religion and the

stories which accompany it which we call myths all explain nature. The order of the

universe and nature are so important to the ancient Greek religion that you cannot

separate the Greek definition of a god without mentioning nature, whether it is a part of

1
Lawrence, AW. Greek Architecture, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1969. p. 83.
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nature a god has control over, a story in which nature plays a part, or an amplified trait of

human nature/character which breaths life into a god’s realness to the Greeks. Nature and

religion are so deeply woven in each other in Greek ideals that it is impossible to mention

one without giving credit to the other. The open-air feature of Greek temple is therefore

crucial to understanding the architecture of their temples.

In universal order, forms must be perfect, and they must be pleasing to the eye. In

his book Lawrence states that ‘their aim was always to perfect a type of building’2.

Pediments, columns, squares, and other shapes employed in Greek architecture employed

to illustrate perfection all reflect this ideal, which is a facet of their religious belief. An

example of this is the Parthenon, which is often noted as being ‘as near perfection as is

humanly possible’3 In Greek art, observers notice the perfect shapes and forms of the

bodies of statues and relief. The Greeks are famous for their worship of the human body,

culminated in one of their famous traditions we adopt today: the Olympic Games. The

simplicity of Greek temples compared to the ornate features of other religious and later

Western styles such as Gothic is not to be misleading. Nature, universal order, is

perfection and in perfection ‘less is more’ as the saying goes. Greek temples were not

lavished upon with egotistic creations and decorations by man. The focus was on the

godliness of the temple in its design. The temple existed to reflect an absence of ego,

which is so often superfluous, vain and disordered.

By stark contrast, the tradition of the Roman temple is to glorify the ego, often the

ego of one man: the emperor. A grander temple means a grander person who

commissioned its building. Decorations pay tribute to past emperors, serving to glorify
2
Lawrence, AW. Greek Architecture, 2nd edition. p. 83.
3
Lawrence, AW. Greek Architecture, 2nd edition. p. 83.
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and extend the character of oneself upon stone. The Greek ideal and absence of ego is

completely lost to Roman vanity and pride. The focus of temples is therefore placed upon

their appearance. One feature of Roman temples is that the columns were not all around

replacing walls, but rather only the front had free-standing columns4. The location of

Roman temples was not a religious choice like with the Greeks. It did not matter where

they placed a temple as long as there was sufficient room for it, and enough space to

show it off. Roman temples stood out not for their idealistic perfection and ‘set-apart’

nature as in Greek location and aesthetics of temples, but instead because of their

grandeur, which was both simultaneously structural as well as aesthetic. Temples were

‘rectangular in plan, raised on a podium, and with a wider spreading roof partly supported

by other columns’5. Temples were raised to show them off, to express their grandeur. The

structural form of the podium, which was enormously taller than the basic podium used

in Greek architecture, served to make the temple look more impressive, that you had to

walk up steps to it. It was meant to be imposing and proud. As compared with Greek

ideals of form and order, the Roman ideal it can be said is simply grandeur. We see by

Roman ruins left today which are icons to modern civilisation how simply enormous their

public structures were in general. The Coliseum is a colossal structure! So is the Basilica.

The examples of Roman ruins which were enormous in size and lavish in design is

unending. Large forums in Rome were squeezed to simply celebrate emperors, for

example the Forum of Trajan, with a ‘grandoise entrance [leading] into a large open

square flanked by porticoes, the central feature of which was a gilded bronze equestrian

4
Fletcher, Sir Banister. Sir Banister’s A History of Architecture, 19th edition. London:
Butterworths, 1987. p. 210.
5
Fletcher, Sir Banister. Sir Banister’s A History of Architecture. p. 210.
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state of Trajan’6. Ward-Perkins goes on to note that ‘the whole complex was lavishly

adorned with polychrome statuary symbolic of the emperor’s triumphs’7. Again and again

our evidence of Roman enormousness is found in the exalted structures of architecture

which remain today still to impress everyone who sees them. ‘The Glory that was Rome’

exists today symbolised by their architecture which so heavily expressed the wealth,

power, and strength of their civilisation.

The focus of Greek temples was to house the sacredness of the gods, for the

Roman their temples were to house themselves and accordingly their decorations reflect

this. The centre of Roman cities was the forum, a public domain, a place where as

mentioned in the example of the Forum of Trajan, decoration was employed without

much inhibition to glorify the builder, usually the emperor or in other towns the city

leader. The Romans probably derived the tradition of a public space from the Greek

gathering place, the ‘agora’8. The planning of early Greek cities was not necessarily

symmetrical. Towns simply developed, usually around the focal point of the temple.

However in later Hellenistic times, the plans of cities was ‘dominated by grid-plan cities

created for Alexander and his successors’9. Roman cities are noted for their square block

design, especially in the building of military outposts. Countless foundations of these

posts remain even unto today. In a way the shape of these fortresses reflects a feature of

Roman military power: it is rigid, disciplined, at its peak it was the most powerful

military power in the world. This is again a glorification of self: the Roman never cease

6
Ward-Perkins, John Bryan. Roman Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,
Publishers, 1977. p. 110.
7
Ward-Perkins, John Bryan. Roman Architecture. p. 110.
8
Fletcher, Sir Banister. Sir Banister’s A History of Architecture, 19th edition. p.134.
9
Fletcher, Sir Banister. Sir Banister’s A History of Architecture, 19th edition. p.134.
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to show their power by their designs, in this case the rigid stark square shape of a Roman

outpost signifying how well-trained and disciplined the Roman soldiers are, as the

superior, dominating military power.

The employment of certain Greek innovations later used and extended by the

Romans is seen in arches. With the Roman invention of concrete, Rome was enabled to

create its massive structures, and especially arches in the interior of buildings. Greeks

used arches but mainly as exterior decorations. It was the Romans who employed this

architectural structure to its full potential to create structures like the Pantheon.

Aesthetically, the Roman use of again Greek-derived architecture in the form of columns

varies once more. Columns were used as a hierarchical expression. The grandeur of the

owner of a building was shown by the impressiveness of the building’s columns. This

again is a communication of ego. The first uses of Greek columns, ‘the principal orders

of Classical Greek architecture; the Doric and Ionic, were first used for the temples’10.

The column in Roman architecture is used in almost every type of architecture possible

and in all ways an expression of power and wealth.

In concluding this, I state that there is a stark contrast between the communication

of architecture expressed in ancient Greek and Roman architecture. While Rome derives

much of its architectural structures from Greek invention, Roman innovation and Roman

ideals alter the way the structures are expressed aesthetically, turning what is worshipped

by the Greek as perfection and the idealism of nature into glorification of wealth,

strength, and military power. Architecture derived from the Greek is constantly used by

the Romans on much grander scales thanks to concrete in order to impress and intimidate.

The Greek’s architecture remains by comparison lowly and simple, aesthetics differ in
10
Fletcher, Sir Banister. Sir Banister’s A History of Architecture, 19th edition. p.101.
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that the goal is to communicate universal order, which is culminated in the expression of

the geometrically perfect and simple. The lavishness and grandness of Roman buildings

is the polar opposite of this. The relationship between the two civilisations is apparent in

the derivation of structures such as the arch, column, and pediment, but this is as far

perhaps as that relationship goes. The employment of these structures in the

communication of each civilisation’s ideals is where it goes in completely opposite

directions. The Greek focus is upon perfect, upon the absence of ego in order to better

imitate the natural order of the universe, whereas the Roman focus in its architectural

expression is constantly a means of glorifying the ego and impressing the viewer.
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Bibliography

Fletcher, Sir Banister. Sir Banister’s A History of Architecture, 19th edition. London:
Butterworths, 1987.

Lawrence, AW. Greek Architecture, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University


Press, 1969.

Ward-Perkins, John Bryan. Roman Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,
Publishers, 1977.