Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other

Building Orders


Capital from Xanten. Photo Jona Lendering.
Reconstructed capital from Xanten
Building order: a style of building design.

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 (On Architecture, Book 4), the Greeks and Romans generally recognized three styles of building (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian), which received their classical shape in th fifth and fourth centuries. But there were more types, sometimes created by nations who wanted to stress their non-Greek identity and cultural independence.
Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
A classical Doric capital from the temple of Zeus in Cyrene. Photo Jona Lendering. A classical Ionian capital from Apamea (Syria). Photo Marco Prins. A classical Corinthian capital from Epidaurus (Greece). Photo Marco Prins. Aeolian capital from Corinth. Photo Marco Prins.
A classical Doric capital from the temple of Zeus in Cyrene. This is the simplest type: essentially, a square plate (abacus) on top of a round plate. A classical Ionic capital, made in the first century CE, from Apamea (Syria). This one is more complex: scroll-like ornaments on the sides ("volutes") have been added. A classical Corinthian capital from Epidaurus (Greece). This well-preserved object, with the beautiful acanthus leaves,  was carefully buried, and may have been the archetype of all later Corinthian capitals. This type of capital is more three-dimensional. Aeolic capital (Museum of Corinth)
Aeolian-Ionian capital from Oropus. National Archaeological Museum, Athens (Greece). Photo Marco Prins. A "Pergamene" capital from the Roman Baths in Ankara. Photo Marco Prins. A Capital in the Shape of Silphium. Photo Jona Lendering. A Nabataean capital from the Nabataean Gate in Bosra (Syria). Photo Marco Prins.
Aeolic-Ionic capital from Oropus. It is was made in c.600 BCE and shows that the difference between Ionian and Aeolian styles was not as well-defined as it would be (National Archaeological Museum, Athens). A local style: a "Pergamene" capital from the Roman Baths in Ankara (put upside down). It may have been inspired by the Egyptian palm columns. First quarter of the third century. A local style: a second-century capital in the shape of silphium, from the Asclepium of Balagrae (Cyrenaica). A local style: a Nabataean capital from Bosra (Syria), late first century CE.
A Corinthian capital from Palmyra. Photo Marco Prins. A mid-fifth century Theodosian capital from the church of the Acheiropoietos in Thessalonica, now in the Byzantine Museum,Thessaloniki (Greece). Photo Marco Prins. Capital in the Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus. Photo Marco Prins.
A sixth-century Byzantine capital from the Monastery of Saint Simeon (Syria). Photo Marco Prins.
A second-century Corinthian capital from Palmyra that is more complex than the classical Corinthian capital. A mid-fifth century Theodosian capital from the church of the Acheiropoietos in Thessalonica (Byzantine Museum)
A sixth-century Theodosian capital in the Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople. A sixth-century Byzantine capital from the Monastery of Saint Simeon (Syria)
Composite capital from Corinth. Photo Marco Prins.
An "out of order" capital from Corinth with wings

Of course, they were all painted, although the colors must have faded swiftly, and few will have seen the ancient monuments in their full polychrome splendor.

Finally, it must be noted that the building orders were common, but that Greek and Roman sculptors were no slaves to the classical designs. 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.
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2009
Revision: 21 September 2009
Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other