The Erechtheum is one of the principal temples occupying the Acropolis in Athens. Begun in 421 B.C., it was completed, after a lapse in construction, in 405 B.C. The marble building, constructed in a style of architecture called Ionic, features elaborate moldings and carvings as well as a frieze* containing carved figures and sculptures. The design of the Erechtheum is very complicated compared to most Greek temples. Its most outstanding characteristics are two porches that project irregularly from the north and south sides of the building. Since the northern porch stands on lower ground than the rest of the temple, the tall columns that support its roof give the porch an imposing appearance. The smaller southern porch is well known for its columns shaped like draped female figures, or caryatids.
The complicated structure of the Erechtheum is probably the result of the number of ancient cults it served and the sacred relics it once housed. The tomb of the legendary king Cecrops and the revered statue of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, were located there, as was the mark of the trident* of Poseidon, the god of the ocean, and the olive tree of Athena. According to legend, these last two items were planted on the Acropolis by Athena and Poseidon as tokens in the course of a chariot race between the two gods for the control of Athens. The temple also contained altars to Poseidon and to Hephaestus, the god of fire. Other shrines were located near the west end of the Erechtheum.
The ancient Greeks and Romans admired the Erechtheum and incorporated several of its features in the design of later buildings. The Romans used caryatids in the Forum Augustum in Rome and the villa of the emperor Hadrian. The circular temple of Rome and Augustus, built only a few yards away on the Acropolis, also reproduced many of the details of the Erechtheum. (See also Architecture, Greek; Architecture, Roman; Columns; Construction Materials and Techniques; Religion, Greek; Sculpture, Greek; Sculpture, Roman.)
* frieze in sculpture, a decorated band around a structure
* trident three-pronged spear; similar to a pitchfork