Building Orders and Capitals

Building order: a style of (Graeco-Roman) building design.

Reconstructed capital from Xanten

Although there used to be complex rules to determine the proportions of columns and entire buildings, the ancient building orders are easy to recognize by just looking at the capitals. According to the Roman architect Vitruvius, the Greeks and Romans generally recognized three styles of building (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian),note which received their classical shape in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Of course, they were all painted, although the colors must have faded swiftly, and few people will have seen the ancient monuments in their full polychrome splendor.

Here are the three basic types:

The Aeolic type had some popularity in the Archaic Age but was forgotten in Greece, although it remained in use on Cyprus and in the Near East.

However, there were more types, sometimes created by nations and cities that wanted to stress their non-Greek identity and cultural independence. Examples are:

An "out of order" capital from Corinth with wings

I must be noted that the three classical building orders - Doric, Ionic, Corinthian - were always common, but that Greek and Roman sculptors were no slaves of these designs. The Aeolian-Ionic capital from Oropos above shows that in about 600 BCE, the difference between Ionian and Aeolian styles was not as well-defined as it was later supposed to be. The capital from Libyan Balagrae, decorated with silphium, is a local variant of the Ionic capital.

The Romans frequently combined Ionic volutes with Corinthian acanthus leaves, an imperial style that has since the Renaissance been called a "composite order". This name has been losely applied to  many other variants, usually derivates from the classical Corinthian order. A remarkable innovation is the "Theodosian capital", which has an extremely deep relief. In the end, sculptors were completely free, which resulted in the splendid, unique capitals of, for example, the Medieval cloisters and churches.

Finally, for comparison, some capitals that were not inspired by the classical Graeco-Roman building orders.

This page was created in 2009; last modified on 19 August 2015.