How to Build a Classical Era Greek Temple

Trip Start Jun 14, 2008
Trip End Jul 01, 2008

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Flag of Greece  , Attica,
Sunday, June 29, 2008

It is important to remember, when erecting your classical era Greek temple, that they are very standardized with architectural traditions that are strictly followed.  Not adhering to these traditions may be displeasing to the God you plan to honour in erecting the temple, which might cause divine disfavour to fall upon you or your city-state.  That would be bad.

First of all you must decide which deity your temple will be dedicated to.  If your site is already sacred to a certain God or Goddess, you should build it for him or her, e.g. the Parthenon in Athens was raised to Athena, the biggest temple in Delphi is to Apollo, etc.

You must next decide how large and upscale it will be.  At the time, this was determined by how much political will there was to build it, which was determined by a) how much the decision-makers felt they stood to gain by building it (either through divine favour, propagandistic benefits or both) and b) how much money they could raise.  In a democratic city-state, funding is most likely going to be a collective undertaking.  However if you're a wealthy king like Alexander, you can pay for temple building all by yourself.  Note, however, it can be really really pricey.  A truly awesome temple such as the Artemision of Ephesos (which was torched by a guy looking to become famous for the one act, on the same day Alexander was said to have been born -- insert your own coincidence jokes here), can cost the equivalent of hundreds of millions of 2008 dollars.  Try not to divert too much money from the defense budget.

Next you have to decide what plan it will follow.  Here is a helpful illustration of the options when it comes to temple plans.  The overall size of the temple determines the size of all its components, even the single stone blocks, so exactly that the head of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, John Camp, can tell you what size a temple was just by looking at a single block.  It's no accident that Kahlil Gibran wrote "the art of the Greeks is proportion."  Yes, this is fussy, but hey -- we don't make the rules, we just research them.

Now you have to make up your mind whether it's a Doric, Ionic or Corinthian-order temple you want to build.  Easiest way to tell the difference is by the tops of the columns -- see photos.  This partly depends on location and partly on era; the Corinthian style became fully-developed sometime around the mid-4th century BCE (just for comparison: Alexander was born 356) so if you're in an era before that, forget it.

Choose an appropriate location.  The top of a hill that isn't too too hard to climb is a good choice, as is the centre of your town if it's flat, or close to any place that is somehow sacred.  Make sure the front door faces east, because that's one of the rules.  (Yes, the Christians with their insistence that churches must be entered from the west will come along and knock front doors into the back walls of every temple they decide to convert instead of smashing, but that's not your problem.)

Your main building material is stone, preferably Pentelic marble, which is marble quarried from Mt. Pentelikos near Athens, a favourite in that time for its beauty and quality.  But you'll need wood for roof-beams and other interior stuff.  At one time Greek temples were usually made entirely of wood, but the preference shifted to stone for its permanence and beauty.

If you can scare up the drachmai, you want low reliefs on all the metopes and full sculpture on the pediments.  The theme should be something from Greek mythology such as an amazonomachy (battle between Greeks and amazons), gigantomachy (battle between the Gods and the Giants), centauromachy (battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs) or the Labours of Herakles.You might also want to commission a scene that somehow relates to the site or city, such as the Panathenaia that's pictured on the Parthenon.  (If you don't know what these things mean, google them, for the love of the Gods.)  The important thing is that they be full of life, action and drama.  That's another one of the rules: Greek temples are not allowed to be boring.

Don't forget to include the slight upward curvature of the foundations, curved tapering of the columns, and slight inward slant of the columns, all adjustments necessary to counter the optical illusion of sagging in the middle that you get with just straight lines.

Also don't forget the paint job.  It used to be thought that new Greek temples were the pristine white of pentelic marble, all over.  That's only because paint wears off stone when exposed to the elements.  You want bright and beautiful contrast between brilliant reds and blues as well as the more subtle mixed colours on the carvings.

Your temple should have an altar in front of it for citizens and visitors to make the appropriate sacrifices.  The bigger the temple, the bigger the altar -- proportion, remember.  It also should have a statue of the temple's deity inside: the bigger, fancier and more awesomely beautiful, the better.  Lots of gold is good.  If you can afford it, hire Pheidias to do it.

Congratulations -- now your work is complete.  With a full complement of priests/priestesses, administrators, slaves, etc. to run and maintain it, your brand new temple should provide you and your fellow devotees years, decades or even centuries of service and divine favour, as long as you can keep it from being sacked, burned, trashed by an earthquake, demolished by Christians, etc.


Next in our series: how to build a classical era Makedonian tomb.
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melissagquest on

Additional Pointers
Don't forget to advertise that others will share your divine favor if they donate statues of marble or bronze, bronze and iron weapons, gold in any form, athletic tripods, wreaths or vases earned at the Panhellenic games, even clothing, jewelry, abandoned toys or cut hair. These will all be stored in appropriate locations in or near the temple and will contribute to your, I mean the Gods' glory.

And while you're at it, construct lavish dining halls nearby so that you can celebrate the sacrifices in appropriate splendor as well as the concommitant kitchens, hearths and fountains.




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