A Brief Comparison of Greek and Roman Architecture

The Ancient Greek World was one of the most dynamic, innovative and progressive periods of art in western civilization. The Greeks were a people who strove for naturalism and perfection in their art. In their buildings, exterior structure and aesthetics were of primary concern. The Greeks considered beauty a distinctive feature of the gods and their pursuit of beauty was almost a religious exercise. The job of the ancient Greek Architect was to make a beautiful temple for the god. The development of Greek temple design also brought about the three column orders; doric, ionic and corinthian, which were used extensively in Greek buildings and have highly influenced other cultures.

The Romans were the first builders in Europe, and probably the first in the world to recognize the advantages of the arch, vault and dome. The structures they left behind are a reminder of the genius of Roman engineering. They invented concrete and loved building arches and monuments to themselves. They also loved to be entertained. The Romans enjoyed everything from chariot races to gladiator contests to musical plays to the ballet. Three of the most important buildings designed for mass entertainment were the theatre, the ampitheatre and the circus.

The Hepaisteion, Athens

A Greek temple’s primary function was to shelter the god it was built for. That is why the temples were decorated on the outside, no one went inside. No part of a Greek temple was symbolic or meant anything other than what it was, a temple for a god, with a sheltered colonnade for worshippers. Greek architects did not strive for individuality, the ancient Greek builder could erect a standard temple with a brief verbal description.

Early Roman temples differed from Greek both on the inside and in their relationship to their surroundings. Often up to three gods were housed together, while their rooms were narrow, the temple as a whole tended to be loftier and grander than Greek temples.

The Hepaisteion is a typical peripteral style temple. It is massive in appearance with simple doric capitals and thick heavy columns made of built up drums of stone all around. Its forms of mass and and volume are simple rectangles, cylinders and cones with a triangular roof. The temple stands in isolation resting on a low foundation, approachable from all sides by three steps. The site of the temple was almost as important as the temple itself. Unlike Greeks, Roman temples had a focus of attention and most had a frontal access only.

The Hepaisteion is basically a room called a cella with a porch in the front and rear, that is enclosed inside a colonnade that supports the roof, which in turn protects the cella from rain and sun. Many early Roman pagan temples are similar to the Hepaisteion, but with the difference that pushes the cella to one end of the room and decoration inside the temple.

Stone was the main building material used in Greek temple construction. Timbering was used in the roof and ceiling. Terracotta roof tiles were also used. Everything that was marble was cut in large blocks and held together by clamps and dowels. Paint was used to highlight molding to strengthen the contrasting elements of the frieze.

The Theatre of Marcellus, Rome

The Greeks may have invented drama, but theatre design was revolutionized by the Romans. They changed the Greek theatre, a structure that was usually built into a hillside, with its circular orchestra and detached scene building into a freestanding structure that united auditorium and stage. The back of the stage was as high as the auditorium so that the audience could not see outside as they could in a Greek theatre. Many Roman theatres, like Roman ampitheatres had a velarium or awning that was rigged to shade the audience from the sun. Roman theatres were regularly built on concrete vaulting that supported the auditorium and allowed easy access to seating, as crowd control was a big worry to the Roman builder.

The Theatre of Marcellus in Rome was first commissioned by Julius Caesar and was completed during the reign of his grandnephew and adopted son Augustus. The facade was travertine and had forty one bays with a half column on both sides of each bay. This style was widely copied after the theatre was built. Similarities can be seen in the Colosseum, which was built much later. Llike many Roman structures, the Theatre of Marcellus was built of concrete and baked bricks that were 3.5 to 4.5 centimeters thick. The bricks were very pourous to absorb the mortar and to give a better bond. The structure in the shape of a half circle which was a standard design for Roman theatres. The back of the stage area or the scaena frons was decorated with a continuous row of columns three tiers high that ran the width of the stage. The scaena frons was another Roman innovation that was first used the 4th century BC but didn’t reach its ideal until the 2nd century AD.

In Roman theatres, the orchestra was part of the auditorium. It would often be set up with moveable chairs for the V.I.P.s. The Greeks used the orchestra as a stage area.


There are many differences between Greek and Roman architecture. The Greeks built many structures on top of hills, the Romans changed the hills into architectural structures. Early Greeks used the post and lintel system, whereas Romans extensively used the arch, vault and dome. Concrete was a major building material for the Romans, the Greeks were always trying to find better building materials and used huge stones held together with clamps and dowels.

In theatre design, both Greeks and Romans preferred to use hillsides, but because of large cities the Romans were forced to build their theatres on flat ground. This practice brought on the revolutionary design of a freestanding theatre structure.

The Greeks took their religion seriously and built their temples for the gods. The Romans took the view, brought it inside the temple interior and declared that what went on inside was very important so the temple must look good on the inside too.