Trabeated Construction


The Classical Temple Form





Classical refers to the culture of ancient Greece and Rome.



Greek architecture, as well as other earlier architecture, was largely trabeated, built by stacking horizontal members, called lintels, on vertical uprights, called posts.  This system is called post-and-lintel construction. Roof structures involved several successive courses that run lengthwise and crosswise in alternation.


For public architecture such as temples, the Greeks followed Bronze-Age precedent in giving posts a special decorative form commonly called a column.






The most important legacy of Greek architecture is the early temple form, which included a system of standardized parts and motifs.  It was based on principles of simplicity, clarity, symmetry, geometric regularity, and harmonious proportion.


The Greek temple form has had enormous influence on recent western architecture:  the pedimented-porch entrance can be seen everywhere, from domestic architecture to public buildings.


General Description.

Greek temples were typically rectangular buildings with pitched roofs of shallow incline.  An enclosed section, the cella, was surrounded by a line of columns that supported the overhang of the roof, forming a continuous porch.


Typically, the roof was covered by tiles that were shaped so that seams between wide pieces were lapped over one another in such a way that rain drained away.



Greek temples housed cult statues of the deities to which they were dedicated.  Interior space was limited, and at religious festivals, the building's exterior rather than its interior was the focus of activity.






Columns are cylindrical upright supports that have decorative tops called capitals and often rest on bases.  The use of this form of support dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who modeled their capitals after the lotus bud and papyrus blossom.


The main section of a column is called the shaft. The shafts of Greek columns were generally composed of layers called drums.


The column's decorative cap, which makes a visual transition to the beam above, is called a capital.


Many types of columns rest on bases.


A line of columns forms a colonnade, and a colonnade all the way around the cella forms a peristyle. A peripteral temple has a single line of columns around its perimeter, and a dipteral temple has two lines.


The columns stand on a platform base called a stylobate.  A series of steps all the way around allow access to the porch from any direction.


Occasionally carved figures, generally female, were used as columns.  Female supporting figures are called caryatids, and males, which are uncommon, are variously known as atlantids, atlantes (pl. of atlas), and telamons.



The area above the columns, the entablature, is made up of three horizontal members:  the architrave, the frieze, and the cornice.  Many parts were enhanced by color.


Architrave.  The architrave, the layer immediately above the columns, consists of beams that span the gaps from column to column to distribute the weight of the roof.  The spacing of the columns is limited by the tensile strength (resistance to breaking under tension) of these members, which act as lintels.


Frieze.  The frieze, the part between the architrave and cornice, is often decorated by carved ornamentation.


Cornice.  The cornice at the top acts as a lip to bridge the gap between the front plane of the frieze and the projection of the roof.



The triangular shape below the roof at the short ends is called a pediment.  (In general construction, the equivalent part of the end wall below a pitched roof is called a gable).


The pediment is framed by cornices, and the upper, slanted one is called a "raking cornice."


The pediment was generally decorated by free-standing sculpture that was painted in bright colors.  The effect can be imagined from viewing the pediment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has trim and statuary made of glazed terracotta.


In the Renaissance, pediments were used decoratively in many forms like window trim, church façades, and villa entrances.


Today, pediments supported by columns have become identified with governmental buildings, and because of their association with continuity and tradition, pediments on columns are used for commercial buildings as well.



The enclosed section of the temple is the cella. Statues of the deity to whom a temple is dedicated stand at the end opposite to the entrance.


Inside the cella, two-story colonnades on each side contribute to supporting the roof.


Illumination was achieved by openings in the roof, either in the center or in the areas just beyond the cella walls, which allowed light to enter through openings in the colonnaded partition.


Construction and Conventionalization

It has been theorized by architectural historians that when ancient Greek temples were first built of stone instead of wood, certain details that were no longer functional were retained because they were identified with the temple as a form.  For instance, the two vertical channels of the triglyphs are thought to imitate the joints between the three wooden planks that formed the cross beams.





Similarities to Greek Temples

Roman temples were similar to Greek temples in having a vocabulary of pediments, entablatures, and columns.


Transitional Etruscan Temples

The Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilization that traded with the Greeks and were greatly influenced by their culture, built several types of temples that incorporated the major parts of Greek temples.  These temples differed from Greek precedents in not having a peristyle with steps surrounding the building.  Instead, they had only an entrance porch, accessible by a single flight of steps.  They were constructed primarily of mud brick, wood, and tufa, a rock-like material.


Differences with Greek Temples

Roman axial temples followed a form of Etruscan temple that had a columned porch on the front, a high foundation forming a podium, and steps only at the front.  The Romans gave this Etruscan form the appearance of columns on all four sides by using engaged columns on the sides and rear.  The naming of this form of temple pseudo-peripteral reflects the substitution of columns that decorate the walls for columns that form porches.


The use of only a portico, an entrance porch, instead of a peristyle, was very influential on subsequent architecture.


See more about Roman Temples.


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