Brief comparison between Classical Greek and Roman Architecture
For centuries, people have been fascinated by two of the greatest civilizations – Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. The astonishing achievements of our ancestors in a wide range of areas, from politics to economy and from art to science, have been admired and well learned by generations. And in this glorious legacy of the ancient civilizations, Classical Architecture stands out as a testament to eternal beauty and human greatness in the pursuit of perfection. While both the Greeks and Romans shared a basic belief in creating classical beauty, their implementations were completely distinct from each other. By using the Athenian Parthenon and the Roman Pantheon to reflect the similarities and differences between the Greek and Roman architectural styles, I will present how Roman architecture inherited Greek values and was elaborated to reach a new level.
First, I want to introduce the concept of classicism. Time after time people have attributed classicism to the principles and aesthetic values derived from ancient Greek and Roman arts. Classicism means perfection; it means creating a universal standard for beauty. And it does so by using proportion and symmetry to create harmony, balance and order, whether it is in painting, sculpture or architecture. Both Classical Greek and Roman Architecture share this aesthetic idealism; still, there are distinct differences between the two architectural styles.
With Classical Greek Architecture, the biggest innovation was the creation and perfection of three major Classical orders (architectural styles): Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. These orders were used to build significant monuments of Ancient Greece, specifically Greek temples. Each temple was constructed on the form of a rectangle, with posts and lintels, governed by strict proportions and exact symmetry to create a sense of harmony, balance, and consistency. The Parthenon temple, which was dedicated to Goddess Athena, was the finest Greek temple and embodied the ideal of Greek classicism. Using Doric temple design, the Parthenon conveys a powerful strength, which is very suited for the goddess of war. However, the temple does not give out a dominating feeling; rather, by using white marbles and the Classical ratio of (2x + 1) : x, the Parthenon appears to be elegant and very well-balanced. Believed to be the ideal ratio, this ratio of (2x + 1) : x governed the entire structure. For example, the temple’s facades have eight columns, and the temple’s sides have seventeen columns, because 17 : 8 = (2 x 8 + 1) : 8. Likewise, the space between two adjacent columns in proportion to the column’s diameter is 9 : 4, and so forth. The ratio resulted in well-spaced columns, more slender shafts, lower entablatures, and less flaring cornices, all of which created the harmony and balance for the temple. The flutes on the columns make the temple taller and less massive, and the combination of four Ionic columns in a Doric temple heightens the Parthenon’s harmony. Also, if the temple is cut into halves by an imaginary line going through the center of the two facades, the temple will appear to be perfectly symmetrical. (Davies et al. 94-97)
Classical Roman Architecture, inheriting the Greeks’ faith in using mathematical relationship to create universal beauty, was by no means a mere copy of Greek architecture. To accommodate the number of people in large public buildings, the Romans came up with big innovations in architectural styles and constructive materials. While the interior space in Greek architecture was limited by posts and lintels, Roman architecture used the arch and vault system to create wider, more extended space. The basic form the Greeks used is rectangle, but the Romans combined both rectangle and circle to create a more ideal form. Roman architecture also achieved a higher organic unity with the new material – concrete. The Romans could create a homogeneous mass, rather than just bringing together individual parts like the Greeks. All these innovations as well as classical elements are well reflected in the Roman Pantheon temple. The Pantheon comprises two parts: a rectangular, colonnaded forecourt, and the main temple – a plain cylindrical drum surmounted by a hemispherical dome. The symmetrical forecourt, with eight Corinthian columns at the facade, indicates that the Romans inherited Classical Greek tradition. However, after the forecourt is not a cellar like Greek temples, but a huge spherical space. This was truly revolutionary: without concrete and the arch and vault system, a structure like this could not have been made. Proportions were carefully calculated to create balance and harmony. For example, the total interior height and the dome’s diameter are equal; the height of the dome and the drum are equal. With a design based on circle, a shape with no beginning, no ending and perfectly symmetrical, the temple can be conceived as the ultimate perfection. Also, with the oculus at the top of the dome, light became an important factor. Through diffused effect, light illuminated hidden recesses on the coffers, making the temple heightened and the dome much lighter than they actually are. Interior decorations in the Pantheon also help enhance the temple’s harmony. This is a distinguished difference between Roman and Greek architecture, because even though Greek temples were grand in scale and had splendid outlook, they were never meant for ordinary citizens to step inside. (Davies et al. 136 – 139)
Nowadays we can catch a glimpse of Greek and Roman Classicism everywhere. Many government buildings, churches, banks, university campuses, and so on, adopt principals and designs of Classical Architecture. The biggest contributions of Greek art are the three orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Many important modern buildings were built on these orders to communicate a sense of majesty, yet harmony and balance. Columns of the three orders are also used extensively everywhere for decorations. With Classical Roman Architecture, the development of the arch and vault system and the use of concrete are the most important contributions. These innovations allow people to build structures on a grand scale in a short time and with cheap materials. Also, for the first time in history people could create a huge, uninterrupted interior space, thanks to the hemispherical dome. Being well known for its grandeur and practicality, Classical Roman Architecture has had a greater influence than any other ancient tradition on Western buildings throughout the ages.
Davies, Penelope J.E., et al. Jason’s Basic History of Western Art. 8th ed. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2009.