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Greek Temple Design
compiled by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

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This page offers a bare-bones introduction to Greek temple design, to be supplemented by the course lectures.

The first stone temples begin to appear in Greece in the eighth century B.C., although it is not until the late seventh century that they begin to appear in great numbers.

The main feature of a Greek temple is the central chamber, called the *cella or the naos.

The basic function of the Greek temple was to house the cult statue and other sacred items. In contrast to many modern religious structures, the interior of the building played a relatively limited role in ritual activity: most important rites were held outside of the building, at an altar located in front of the temple doors, with the priest standing in front of the temple facing the altar while making offerings to the god. (This practice accounts for the orientation of the typical Greek temple. Since priests normally faced the direction of the rising sun when making offerings, most temples face east: the examples below include one exception — the Athenian temple to Apollo on Delos, where the local topography seems to account for the unusual orientation.)

The simplest design, therefore, consists of a large room with a small antechamber, the so-called distyle temple.

Example of a Distyle Temple
on the Perseus WWW site

The full name for this design is distyle in antis.

A variation on this basic design is the prostyle temple, where a colonnaded porch has been placed in front of the cella.

Example of a Prostyle Temple
on the Perseus WWW site

(The full designation for this temple would be prostyle tetrastyle, since there are four columns in front.)

If you include a similar colonnaded porch in the back of the temple, the result is an amphiprostyle temple (= "prostyle on both ends").

Example of an Amphiprostyle Temple
on the Perseus WWW site

Finally, if you extend the colonnade all the away around the building, the result is a *peristyle or peripteral temple, the form most commonly used in large-scale temple architecture.

Example of a Peristyle Temple
on the Perseus WWW site

In the classical period (i.e., the fifth and fourth centuries), the dimensions of such temples (in terms of the number of columns at the ends and on the flanks) is commonly 6x12 or 6x13. Earlier temples tend to be longer: e.g., 6x15.

All Greek temples tend to rest upon a low base of 3-4 steps. (Contrast the Romans, who, due to the influence of the Etruscans, tend to elevate their temples on pedestals.)

The cella is general elaborated by a forechamber (the pronaos), which acts as a sort of entrance hall for the cella, and a rear chamber (the opisthodomos), which is usually a separate chamber with no direct access to the cella. The design of the cella and pronaos perhaps vaguely recalls the megaron of the typical Mycenaean palace. (See the discussion in the course notes page on The Iliad and the Greek Bronze Age.)

There are three basic types or orders of Greek temple (see the illustrations in the course Resource Booklet):

The other principal areas for decoration on a Greek temple are the two *pediments, which consist of the triangular spaces formed at each end of the building by the pitched roof (above the entablature). These spaces are frequently filled with virtually free-standing sculptural groups depicting scenes associated with the life and accomplishments of the god. The pediments often among the most impressively decorated areas on a temple, although the range of possible themes, and the manner in which they are presented, can be severely restricted by the nature of the space.

Image of a Pediment
on the Perseus WWW site

The three corners of the pediment were often adorned with small images in terracotta or stone, known as acroteria. Similarly, the two long sides of the roof were often decorated with images known as antefixes, that masked the end-tiles used to prevent the terracotta roof tiles from sliding off the top of the building (drawing: Wikimedia Commons).

Further reading:

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These pages were designed by John Porter.
Last Modified: Thursday, 07-May-2015 09:33:23 CST
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