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Architecture - Overview - Antiquity: Egypt, Greece, Rome

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Antiquity: Egypt, Greece, Rome


In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome architecture reflected the worldviews and underlying concepts of each society itself. The culture of ancient Egypt was rooted in chronometric concepts—the cycle of the year, the notion of time extending endlessly from the past toward an unfathomable future, the human spirit continuing in existence into this future. As Herodotus (c. 484–c. 420 B.C.E.) observed in his Histories, Aerial view of Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England. Some early constructions, such as that of Stonehenge, which was constructed in three phases between 2950–1500 B.C.E., were dedicated to marking time and the cycle of seasons throughout the year. © JASON HAWKES/ CORBIS Egypt is the gift of the Nile, a long linear oasis extending from the south to the north, where the river expands into its delta and empties into the Mediterranean. Across this south-north line lies the east-west path of the sun. These two orthogonal lines and the cycles of what define them—the daily passage of the sun and the yearly rising flood and lowering of the river—also define the human life cycles of ancient Egypt. Geometry and symmetry were fundamental to this life, both in remeasuring the fields after inundation and in laying out the ancient temples, the houses of the gods where endless ceremonies were carried out during the course of the year. The linear, rigorously ordered grid of the temple layout exemplified the idea of ma'at, a concept that combines the ideas of truth, justice, order, stability, security, harmony—the total of the right order of things that was established by the gods at the creation of the world.

For artisans, scribes, officials, and others who served the bureaucracies, life could be very pleasant in the valley of the Nile, at least during the politically settled periods that lasted hundreds of years. So the ancient Egyptians came to think that following death, an individual's soul passed into an afterlife where—properly provided for with a preserved physical body and stores of food and drink, and assisted by statue-substitute servants—life could be enjoyed forever. It was for this reason that so much of the Egyptians' creative effort and energies went into the building of their temples, tombs, and (for the Pharaoh god-kings) the pyramids that were their ascent stairs to join the gods. Their focus was on the life to come.


The Greeks, for whom daily life was a much more arduous and risky affair, focused not on an unverifiable spiritual life after death but on achieving knowable excellence of human achievement in this world. Their term for this was aretē, that quality of excellence that comes from studied refinement, skill, and testing, demonstrated by achievement through valor in war or athletic competition or contest, agōn. Excellence could be Columns at the Hypostyle Hall of The Temple of Amon, Al Karnak, Egypt. Constructed c. 1315–1235 B.C.E. Ancient Egyptian society gradually came to ascribe special significance to the afterlife, and thus much care and detail was given to the design of temples and tombs. © ROYALTY-FREE/CORBIS represented in poetry, music, and athletic skill—all of which were the subject of contests—as well as in sculpture and architecture. Through such contests individuals learned their abilities and limitations, what the priests of Apollo meant when they said "know thyself." In all things the ancient Greeks sought logos, a concept that encompasses reason, logic, generating idea, conception, a natural order that existed in the world, the opposite of chaos. The Greeks strove to realize this ideal of balance and symmetry (from symmetria, meaning "of like measure"). Heracleitus (c. 540–c. 480 B.C.E.) described this concept of symmetry, saying "measure and logos are firm in a changing world," and describing how cold is balanced by hot, day by night, health by disease. The risk was that such mental constructs might venture into the realm of mystic speculation, as was somewhat the case with Pythagoras of Samos (c. 580–c. 500 B.C.E.), who asserted that the universe was governed by a symmetry of numbers, demonstrated by the harmonic sounds created by vibrating strings of proportional lengths. Out of this theorizing, however, came such highly useful mathematical demonstrations as the Pythagorean theory describing how the areas of the squares drawn on the two sides of a right triangle are together equal to the area of the larger square drawn on the side of the connecting side, or hypotenuse.

This perfection of mathematical proportions and excellence in construction was embodied in the Greek temples, buildings erected in durable permanent materials such as marble, with blocks having sides ground to perfect planes that fitted together so tightly that a knife blade could not be inserted between them. In particular, the temple dedicated to Athena Parthenos (the Parthenon), built atop the Athenian acropolis in 447–438 B.C.E., in addition to having this precision of assembly, also incorporated in its design numerous interrelated proportional systems governing such dimensions as the ratio of building length to width to height, and the thickness and spacing of the outer ring of marble columns, among many other dimensions and relationships. Moreover, it incorporated a subtle inward slant to the columns, especially a diagonal inward slant to the corner columns, as well as optical corrections, such as the upward swelling curvature of the base repeated in the upward curve of all the parallel horizontal lines of the building. These nearly imperceptible optical corrections make the building appear to be straighter and lighter, more perfect, than is physically the case. What the eye actually sees, then, and what the mind expects to see, are not in exact agreement. The result is that the building constantly shimmers and shifts in the viewer's perception between these two subtly conflicting mental activities, giving it a visual stimulation that has excited comment since the time of its construction.


Greek architecture is not particularly concerned with the enclosure of interior public spaces. Most activities in the Greek city-state polis took place in outdoor spaces such as the agora (marketplace) or the open precincts around temples. The Romans, however, developed numerous kinds of public buildings to house groups of people—law courts (basilicas), markets, and baths, among others—as cities across their empire grew in size and density of population. To certain abstract constructs of Greek culture and learning, the Romans added a practical mind-set that enabled them to solve technical problems such as supplying water to their cities and carrying away waste products. They adopted arch and vault construction for a wide variety of buildings. To this they added the use of readily available volcanically modified materials to make a form of natural concrete. Using this concrete enabled Romans to vault spans of unprecedented size in their public buildings.

All these social programs and architectural developments come together in the Roman public baths, versions of which were built in cities the length and breadth of the empire, including Bath, in England, and Paris among countless other settlements. Aqueducts, carried aloft on stacked arches, brought water into the baths, where it was heated and distributed to the various bathing areas, with cold, tepid, and warm pools. In the warm bath areas the rooms themselves were heated by means of hollow passages under the floor and running up through the walls, acting as so many chimney flues for fires kept burning in side furnaces. In the early 2000s the great public baths of the city of Rome stand, mostly in fragmented unroofed portions, as testaments to the engineering skill of the Romans, but a better sense of the majesty of these vast spaces can still be glimpsed in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, originally the baths built by the emperor Diocletian in 298–306 C.E., but sufficiently intact to be converted into a huge church with monastery by Michelangelo in the mid-sixteenth century.

Romans, for the most part, were concerned with the here and now. During the republican period Romans embraced the The Parthenon (Temple of Athena Parthenos), Athens, Greece. The focus of ancient Greek architecture was symmetry and harmonious proportions. The design of the Parthenon, which was constructed 447–438 B.C.E., displays the precision and exacting detail to construction common to the period. © HECTOR WILLIAMS quality of gravitas, a sense of the importance of matters at hand, combined with ingrained discipline, patriotic responsibility, and seriousness of purpose, austerity, conservatism, and a deep respect for tradition. A good Roman citizen upheld a rigid morality, served the state, maintained unimpeachable honor, and strove for a physical and spiritual asceticism—all qualities discernable in the first Roman emperor, Augustus (r. 27 B.C.E.–14 C.E.) himself. It is all too easy to think of Romans comporting themselves as commonly depicted in novels and films, devoted to depravity and sensual excess, but this was more the case during the later empire. The goal of many earnest Romans in the first centuries after Augustus was to reestablish the moral standards of the republican past. In many ways, the best representative of the Roman personal values of probity and self-discipline can be found in the emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–180), trained in the tradition of the Greek Stoics. His Meditations, intended for his personal reflection—with their repeated admonitions to uphold personal honor because of its basic practicality—are a tribute to the persistence of republican virtues.

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