Whether you’re working out at the gym, watching a sports game in a stadium or attending the theatre, all roads lead to Ancient Greece and classical architecture. Then why not learn a little more about this concept that seems to be all around us?
Classical Architecture 101 for Travellers is a series arming curious wanderlusters with insights into the built environment both very old and new(-ish). This intro into some ancient structures will reveal the strong ties between ancient times, and your 21st-century life. I’ve also included bucket list-worthy examples of each structure that you can visit on your travels.
From palaces to temples
As Ancient Greece moved towards democracy, there was no longer a need for palatial residences fit for kings. Attention turned towards making sure the gods had abodes that would minimise their moody outbursts, thought to be responsible for natural disasters and unfortunate events. As mentioned in Part 1, Greek temples were generally rectangular in shape and surrounded (or at least fronted) by columns. Each temple was dedicated to a specific god or goddess and was represented inside the temple by a cult image – generally a statue.
The Parthenon is a classic temple example in the Doric order. It was dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom, courage, handicrafts and battle strategy. She is, of course, also the namesake of the Ancient Greek city of Athens.
Theatres and amphitheatres, what’s the difference?
The Ancient Greeks designed their buildings to conform to the natural environment, rather than attempting to manipulate it. A perfect example of this are theatres, for which the Ancient Greeks employed natural hillsides to create semi-circular tiered seating that looked down onto the stage. This was also a clever way to make use of acoustics to ensure performers could be heard from every seat. The stage backdrop was most simply the natural landscape beyond. The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus is considered the best-preserved ancient Greek theatre, with some of the finest acoustics.
The Romans evolved the Greek design by building theatres on their own, man-made foundations rather than natural slopes. Roman theatres were open-roofed but enclosed on all sides, with the semi-circular seating meeting an elaborate stage-front of multiple stories in height. Seating was accessed through vaulted corridors and stairs, which helped maintain the social segregation of Roman society. The Ancient Theatre of Orange, France is a well-preserved Roman theatre built in the early 1st century AD and still used for opera performances today.
While Roman theatres built on Greek theatre design, the Romans also introduced their own structure to the classical catalogue – amphitheatres. Gladiatorial events, wild beast shows, athletics and chariot races, do not require the same acoustics as theatrical performances and probably drew a bigger crowd. So the Romans produced an elliptical theatre with seating on all sides surrounding a flat performance space. The Colosseum is the largest amphitheatre ever built and the most famous example.
Gymnasia and Stadiums
We know that the Ancient Greeks gave birth to what we know as the modern Olympics. In ancient times, public games were included in festivities, as they were thought to be a way to honour the gods. Athletes trained in gymnasia, which evolved to become an entire complex of facilities. A gymnasium usually consisted of an enclosed building, with columns around the perimeter and open, central space for wrestling. They included washrooms, fountains, shrines and places to give lectures or study. Running tracks and other sporting facilities were often built nearby.
At some sporting sites, stadiums were built for running and watching foot-races. These were long, narrow, horseshoe-shaped, clay running tracks, surrounded on three sides by stepped seating. Like theatres, they often made use of natural hillsides to create tiered seating without the need for earthworks. The Stadium of Delphi is one of the best-preserved ancient stadiums in Greece today.
Stoa, meaning covered walkway or portico, was a concept used in the design of many public buildings of Ancient Greece. The long open structures consisted of a roof supported by one or more rows of columns that ran parallel to a protective rear wall. They could be one story or two, and sometimes contained shops or offices. A common use of stoas was to frame marketplaces on one or all sides. They were also built at temples, sanctuaries and theatres as meeting places and shelter to processions and public funerals.
The Romans liked to commemorate military victories and other significant events, with the construction of monumental archways. These triumphal arches, as they are referred, were usually built across major roads throughout the empire. An arch could be singular or framed by two smaller arches, to create an even grander spectacle. They were highly decorated with rich detail, sculpture and inscriptions. The Arch of Constantine in Rome is a well-preserved example.
Now we have a grasp on the key building types and classical orders, it’s time to move on to my favourite part – decoration and symbolism. Join me for Classical Architecture 101 for Travellers Part 3.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,