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date: 30 January 2023



  • Richard Allan Tomlinson


  • Greek Material Culture
  • Greek Myth and Religion
  • Roman Material Culture
  • Roman Myth and Religion

The Greek temple was the house of the god, whose image it contained, usually placed so that at the annual festival it could watch through the open door the burning of the sacrifice at the altar which stood outside (see statues, cult of). It was not a congregational building, the worshippers instead gathering round the altar in the open air, where they would be given the meat of the victims to consume (see sacrifice, greek). Orientation was generally towards the east, and often towards that point on the skyline where (allowing for the vagaries of ancient Greek calendars) the sun rose on the day of the festival. The temple also served as a repository for the property of the god, especially the more valuable possessions of gold and silver plate (see votive offerings).

The core of the temple is the cella, a rectangular room whose side walls are prolonged beyond one end to form a porch, either with columns between them (in antis) or in a row across the front (prostyle). More prestigious temples surround this with an external colonnade (and are described as peripteral). They generally duplicate the porch with a corresponding prolongation of the walls at the rear of the cella, without, however, making another doorway into the cella (the opisthodomus, or false porch). Some temples, such as the Parthenon, have a double cella with a western as well as an eastern room, in which case the porch has a door in it.

The origins of this are uncertain. No provable temples exist (excluding the very different shrine buildings of the late bronze age) before the 8th cent. bce.

By the end of the 7th cent. the rectangular form is normal. Cut stone replaces the earlier mudbrick structures, and important temples are peripteral ‘hundred footers’ (hekatompeda); the 6th cent. sees a handful of exceptionally large 85 metres (300-ft.) examples, such as Artemis at Ephesus and the Samian Heraion. From the 6th cent. stone-built temples are normal; marble begins to be utilized where readily available. Doric temples (see orders, architectural) generally stand on a base (crēpis) with three steps, though the enlarged dimensions of the building make these excessively high for human use; they have to be doubled at the east-end approach, or replaced there by a ramp; Ionic temples often have more steps. Roofs are generally now of terracotta tiles; gutters occur infrequently in Doric temples, regularly in Ionic. Marble tiles (introduced first in Ionic) are used in the Parthenon. The roof is supported on beams and rafters. Wider buildings require internal supports within the cella; these may also be added as decoration, even when the span is too small to require their support. Some of the very large Ionic temples do not seem to have had internal supports in their cellas, which must therefore have been unroofed or ‘hypaethral’, though the surrounding colonnades were roofed up to the cella wall.

There are recognizable regional variations, even within the broad distinctions of Doric and Ionic. Approach ramps at the east end are regular in Peloponnesian temples, which often restrict carved decoration in the Doric metopes to those of the inner entablatures over the porch. Sicilian Doric temples may have four rather than three steps, and frequently have narrower cellas, without any internal supports.

Only exceptional buildings, such as the Parthenon, have full pedimental sculpture, let alone carved figures on every metope of the external entablature, while the frieze which replaces the metope frieze over the prostyle porches, and is continued along both sides of the cella, is a unique additional embellishment.

Roman temples derive from Etruscan prototypes, themselves possibly influenced by the simple Greek temples of the 8th and 7th cents. bce. They stand on high podia, with stepped approaches only at the front (temples of the Roman period in the Greek part of the empire often continue the tradition of the lower Greek stepped crēpis). Roofs are steeper (reflecting perhaps the wetter climate of Etruria); more lavish carved decoration may derive from western Greek taste. The Corinthian order, used for some Hellenistic temples, became the preferred form. Marble is common in the Augustan period in Rome itself, white, with fluted columns; later polished smooth shafts of variegated marbles, granites, etc. are preferred. Regional variations continue to be important. The western provinces generally follow the example of Rome. See painting; sanctuaries, greek; sculpture; statues (cult of); temenos.


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  • W. B. Dinsmoor, Architecture of Ancient Greece3 (1950).
  • A. Boethius, Etruscan and Roman Republican Architecture (1984).
  • J. B. Ward-Perkins, Roman Imperial Architecture2 (1981).
  • J. J. Coulton, in M. R. Popham, P. G. Calligas and L. H. Sackett (eds.), Lefkandi II 2 (1993).
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  • A. Mazarakis, Ainian: From Rulers’ Dwellings to Temples (Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology 121, 1997).
  • A. J. S. Spawforth, The Complete Greek Temples (2006).