While later architects may have sucked the life out of the ancient forms, reducing them to systems, abstractions, mathematics, correct grammar, or twisting and contorting them into almost unrecognizable spatial performances, the original idea was direct and earthy: blood flowing down altars from sacrificed bulls to be drunk for their life-giving benefits: victims being turned into gods by the nature of the ceremony so death could facilitate life.   For the famous five orders of Classical Architecture were the product of the small constantly warring cities of ancient Greece, with a precarious existence close to the natural world, always looking for security by sacrificing to multiple competing and capricious gods.

Temple sites originated as simple outdoor altars located amongst trees – in a grove – where people would come to offer sacrifices of whatever was previous to them, often foods such as eggs, vegetables and fruit but most importantly animals killed on site to a certain careful ritual, where bodies were dismembered , some parts consumed (for communion or joining with the god who had inhabited it) and some cremated, with major bones and skin preserved for the body to be reconstituted or made immortal (by becoming an image or memorial).   Parallels to this ritual killing could be found in hunting and warfare, where concern remained about the souls or the on-going spirit of victims and elaborate rituals were employed to appease their souls (and prevent retribution from the gods), including in the case of battles, the erection of a trophy of the helmet and weapons of a slain enemy at point where the battle turned.

The elegant constructed stone temples and the architectural orders that we still use (from time to time) were something developed after these altars, never overwhelming or subsuming them (except in our modern day imagination, when often only large groups of well organised stone remain).   Temples provided not only shelter, but added prestige to the city-state involved, and as wealth and competition between the states increased, became  more elaborate, elegant and often much larger.   Temples could hold the image of the god for which the site was formed, with the god able to stare out through the forest of columns towards the all-important altar beyond.   Of course, being the substantial stone form that it was, often at the centre of the city, it could hold the treasure of the city and the durable gifts of its citizens.

So we have the notion of the altar and its surroundings of the altar being a place where numerous gifts were deposited and displayed, large and small, some rapidly disintegrating and others more durable, some with special sacred significance and some not so much, and some part of the great rituals and perhaps some left by individuals at other times to appease the god about a personal matter.

The elements of the Greek temples point to this notion of sacrifice: [1]

Columns:   trees and human bodies:

  • trees as a natural continuation of the grove that defines the space with particular gods associated with certain trees; and
  • human body being the highest creation was the model for all forms including the proportions of columns and their variety (female v’s male) and possibly captured enemies

Column Base: the bound feet of dead hunted animals and captured enemies

  • Including Torus (doughnut shape) as being a rope; Cavetto (concave moulding) as a heavy rope; or the Scotia (deep concave moulding often between torus) connected to the goddess of darkness;

Flutes on columns: the bunched spears of war, or perhaps folds in human clothing

Column Capitals:  tree/plant tops or human heads:

  • plants: most obviously the foliage of the acanthus of the Corinthian capital, but also rather innocent looking Doric capital that appears as an simple dish had the connotation in early painted details of spiky, bristly plant or animal forms; and
  • head:  in the Doric order, the rings at the base appear as a human throat; Ionic volutes of course suggest horns or coiled hair; and even Corinthian capitals can be seen to have horns coming out of the dominant foliage (or was that hair?).

Entablature (the beams above the columns):  The table on which offerings would be placed including the bones of the dead,

  • So in the Doric order, the triglyphs often presumed to be the ends of beams, also hint at a thighbone chopped into three; or the Bucrania (cattle skulls) often used in the space between triglyphs, and the garlands as decorations drapped around the neck of bulls to be sacrified.
  • Often-used egg and dart moulding suggest eggs provided for sacrifice and the perhaps the twigs to catch the birds.
  • Astragal beading can hint at knucklebones and vertebrae.
  • Dentils obviously point to teeth.

Reading this list, you would be forgiven for thinking that there is a carefully contrived ambiguity to the analogies most notably the fine line between plant and head imagery in the all-important column capitals. Elements cannot be described simply as one or the other, nor is the whole collection of elements able to be assembled into a singular cohesive analogy; there is always something spilling out from the picture as it is developed.    There is a deliberate deep embedment of competing ideas so that the distinctive forms and details of the orders have their own life independent of their origins.  Perhaps this is the genius of the orders.  The buildings were at the centre of lives where a great variety of elements were wound together over a long period and so have layers of meaning that are almost impossible to isolate or dissect.   There is a highly developed abstraction of elements, considerably removed from the original details and particulars.


Perhaps it is the unusual and sudden convergence of temple design in second half of the sixth century BC that hints at these forms being something beyond the ordinary.[2] Suddenly there was common agreement across Greek world, the culmination of a long period of sometimes divergent development.  This is despite the antagonisms of the city states and the dispersed nature of the Greek world.  Convergence took place within what later became thought of as an ‘order’, but the distinctiveness of each ‘order’ such as Ionic and Doric persisted.  Convergence suggests something inherently more beautiful or superior about one particular shape and this became widely recognized, and the collective decision was made about the correct canonical forms.  In the case of the Doric order, the precise nature and size of the curve of the capital (off at 90 degrees from shaft and flat with sudden outer upturn, or perhaps s-shape flowing smoothly from the shaft gradually turning vertical at the end), how it extends from the shaft (nature and number of ringlets or grooves, with or without the fluting of the shaft continued & how such flutes would end) and of course, its relationship, including proportions, to other parts of the order (perhaps a wide substantial capital, thin neck below and column flaring out widely as it descends, such as at Temple of Hera, Paestum, or not) are all matters for dispute and agreement you might think.


This view of development sees no smooth evolution with multiple factors chipping away at the stone forms until a highly evolved product emerges, but chaos and perhaps wild experimentation across the wide Greek world before the choice is made. The forms reached something close to perfection, needing no further development, in the minds of the creators.  Of course, the fifth century when all this came together was the famous period where with other developments in philosophy, sculpture, literature and so on reached new heights and have long been celebrated, remembered, recreated, re-examined, and contested.  Perhaps there was something in the air at the time, so that something highly refined could emerge after distillation over many centuries, and influence thought and construction over a couple of Millennia and over all continents of the world.


So are the Classical Orders that have been used for centuries in the modern world, and which are held out by some as the only viable alternative to the pervasive Modernism in the early twenty-first century, simply based on the fears of a small group of warring tribes in the mainly in north-east corner of the Mediterranean and so have no special significance, no more reason to be employed on the buildings of our cities than the decorative schemes of any other ancient or modern peoples, or do they have a broader resonance, having achieved such a state of refinement , such a breadth and length of use, and such a level of abstraction or distance from their origins that they can take on many and multiple meanings as needed, that they are relevant?



[1] The retained Greek names for the various parts hint at these original meanings, See George Hersey, The Lost Meaning or Classical Architecture, MIT Press, 1988

[2] Mark Wilson Jones, Origins of Classical Architecture, Yale University Press, 2014.