Buildings—or their ruins—are among the most solid remains of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, and many of these structures are temples. Intended as dwellings for their gods and goddesses, the temples of the Greeks and Romans were constructed throughout the Mediterranean region. Large or small, richly decorated or modestly plain, temples were centers of civic pride and community activity. The graceful columns and elegant proportions of ancient temples, such as the Parthenon and the Erechtheum on the Acropolis*, have inspired countless generations of architects.
Temples were more than sites of religious activity, however. They also served as meeting places and as storehouses for valuables, such as the offerings made to gods and goddesses. Priests or priestesses supervised each temple. At larger temples, they were assisted by treasurers who managed the temple’s funds, caretakers who cleaned and guarded the temple, and officials to help perform the various rituals and sacrifices.
Greek Temples. The oldest surviving Greek temples date from the 700s B.C. Built of timber and mud brick, these structures consisted of a large rectangular chamber called the cella, which housed a statue of the deity* to whom the temple was dedicated. The side walls of the cella extended outward on one or perhaps both ends to form a porch or entryway. The basic structure of the temple resembled that of the houses that people built for themselves, consisting of a main room and a porch. Temples were usually much larger than a typical Greek house, and some were as long as 100 feet. Wooden posts surrounded some of the early temples. Later builders replaced these with the rows of stone columns that have become a familiar feature of the ruins of ancient temples.
* Acropolis the acropolis of Athens
* deity god or goddess
Although the cella was the heart of the temple, people did not worship there. Instead, rituals* and sacrifices* took place at an altar outside the temple, often on the east side of the building. The interiors of most temples, which were seldom seen by large groups of people, were often quite plain, while the outsides were elaborately decorated.
Greek temple builders introduced two important changes in the 600s B.C. They began using large, shaped blocks of stone, especially marble. They also developed the practice of decorating the outside of temples with carvings and statues. Temples took on a form that changed little for hundreds of years, varying mostly in size and decorative details. Generally, the temple and the area around it stood on a stone platform with broad steps leading to it. Columns on the porch or porches outside the cella supported the roof. Other columns stood in rows around the temple. Above the supporting columns, the roof featured triangular stone panels called pediments. The pediments of some temples were decorated with large, elaborate carvings of gods and goddesses and scenes from history or mythology.
Roman Temples. The oldest surviving marble temple in Rome dates from the late 100s B.C. Older temples either fell into ruins, were destroyed, or were incorporated into new structures. Historians have learned something about the appearance of early Roman temples from ruins and from descriptions of these structures in Roman literature.
The builders of these temples adopted the architectural style from the Etruscans, an ancient Italian people conquered by the Romans. Roman temples stood on high platforms—generally higher than those of the Greek temples—reached by a staircase in the front. The Romans later added columns that were modeled on those of the Greeks. In the late 400s or early 300s B.C., the Romans built a temple to the three important deities of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. This temple had three narrow chambers set side by side, with rows of columns in front and along the sides.
Unlike the Greeks, the Romans were masters at covering large spaces, including round areas, with high domes and vaults*. They built several circular temples with domed roofs. The Pantheon in Rome, which was built during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, around A.D. 120, is an example of a circular temple. It also shows two important features of Roman temple building during the imperial* period—the lavish decoration of the interior with fine multicolored marbles and artwork and the use of construction materials other than marble. Except for the marble columns at its entrance, most of the Pantheon is made of brick. Although the Romans were masters of building in concrete, they did not generally build temples of this material.
The Romans built temples throughout their vast empire, from Britain to North Africa and the Near East. Temples in the western provinces* generally resembled the temples of Rome. In the east, however, the Romans built many larger and more imposing temples. They were dedicated to the divinities, but their real function was to impress the local people with the power and might of Rome. (See also Architecture, Greek; Architecture, Roman; Construction Materials and Techniques; Religion, Greek.)
* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
* vault arched ceiling or roof
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
Many of the Greek and Roman temples that have survived to the present are now almost completely white. But when they were new, they bore vivid colors. Greek temple builders left the columns and walls of temples unpainted, but used paint to highlight the details of the decorative carvings on the tops of columns and on the roofs and ceilings. Blue, red, black, green, and gold paints glowed in the Mediterranean sunlight. Over time, however, the paints faded and chipped, and the colors washed away.