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p323 Columna

Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp323‑328 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

COLUMNA (κιών, dim. κιονίς, κιόνιον, κιονίσκος· στύλος, dim. στυλίς, στυλίσκος) a pillar or column.

The use of the trunks of trees placed upright for supporting buildings unquestionably led to the adoption of similar supports wrought in stone. Among the agricultural Greeks of Asia Minor, whose modes of life appear to have suffered little change for more than two thousand years, Sir C. Fellows observed an exact conformity of style and arrangement between the wooden huts now occupied by the peasantry, of one of which he has given a sketch (Journal, p234; see woodcut), and the splendid tombs and temples, which were hewn out of the rock, and constructed at the expense of the most wealthy of the ancient inhabitants. We have also direct testimonies to prove that the ancients made use of wooden columns in their edifices. Pausanias (VI.24 § 7) describes a very ancient monument in the market-place at Elis, consisting of a roof supported by pillars of oak. A temple of Juno at Metapontum was supported by pillars made from the trunks of vines (Plin. H.N. XXIV.1). In the Egyptian architecture, many of the greatest stone columns are manifest imitations of the trunk of the palm (Herod. II.169).

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As the tree required to be based upon a flat square stone, and to have a stone or tile of similar form fixed on its summit to preserve it from decay, so the column was made with a square base, and was covered with an abacus [Abacus]. Hence the principal parts of which every column consists are three, the base, the shaft, and the capital.

In the Doric, which is the oldest style of Greek architecture, we must consider all the columns in the same row as having one common base (podium) whereas in the Ionic and Corinthian each column has a separate base, called σπεῖρα [Spira]. The capitals of these two latter orders show, on comparison with the Doric, a greater degree of complexity and a much richer style of ornament; and the character of lightness and elegance is further obtained in them by their more slender shaft, its height being much greater in proportion to its thickness. Of all these circumstances some idea may be formed by the inspection of the three accompanying specimens of pillars selected from p324each of the principal orders of ancient architecture. The first is from a column of the Parthenon at Athens, the capital of which is shown on a larger scale at p1. The second is from the temple of Bacchus at Teos, the capital of which is introduced at p144. The third is from the remains of the temple of Jupiter at Labranda.

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In all the orders the shaft (scapus) tapers from the bottom towards the top, thus imitating the natural form of trunk of a tree, and at the same time conforming to a general law in regard to the attainment of strength and solidity in all upright bodies. The shaft was, however, made with a slight swelling in the middle, which was called the entasis. It was, moreover, almost universally, and from the earliest times, channelled or fluted, i.e. the outside was striped with incisions parallel to the axis (Vitruv. IV.4). These incisions, called striae, were always worked with extreme regularity. The section of them by a plane parallel to the base was, in the Ionic and Corinthian orders, a semicircle; in the Doric, it was an arc much less than a semicircle. Their number was 20 in the columns of the Parthenon, above represented; in other instances, 24, 28, or 32.

The capital was commonly wrought out of one block of stone, the shaft consisting of several cylindrical pieces fitted to one another. When the column was erected, its component parts were firmly joined together, not by mortar or cement, but by iron cramps fixed in the direction of the axis. The annexed woodcut is copied from an engraving in Swinburne's Tour in the Two Sicilies (vol. II p301), and represents a Doric column, which has been thrown prostrate in such a manner as to show the capital lying separate, and the five drums of the shaft, each four feet long, with the holes for the iron cramps by which they were united together.

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Columns of an astonishing size were nevertheless erected, in which the shaft was one piece of stone. For this purpose it was hewn in the quarry into the requisite form (Virg. Aen. I.428), and was then rolled over the ground, or moved by the aid of various mechanical contrivances, and by immense labour, to the spot where it was to be set up. The mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian, a circular building of such dimensions that it serves as the fortress of modern Rome, was surrounded by forty-eight lofty and most beautiful Corinthian pillars, the shaft of each pillar being single piece of marble. About the time of Constantine, some of these were taken to support the interior of a church dedicated to St. Paul, which a few years ago was destroyed by fire.a The interest attached to the working and erection of these noble columns, the undivided shafts of which consisted of the most valuable and splendid materials, led munificent individuals to employ their wealth in presenting them to public structures. Thus Croesus contributed the greater part of the pillars to the temple at Ephesus (Herod. I.92). In the ruins at Labranda, now called Jackly, in Caria, tablets in front of the columns record the names of the donors, as is shown in the specimen of them above exhibited.

Columns were used in the interior of buildings, to sustain the beams which supported the ceiling. As both the beams and the entire ceiling were often of stone or marble, which could not be obtained in pieces of so great a length as wood, the columns were in such circumstances frequent in proportion, not being more than about ten or twelve feet apart. The opisthodomos of the Parthenon of Athens, as appears from traces in the remaining ruins, had four columns to support the ceiling. A common arrangement, especially in buildings of an oblong form, was to have two rows of columns parallel to the two sides, the distance from each side to the next row of columns being less than the distance between the rows themselves. This construction was adopted not only in temples, but in palaces (οἴκοι). The great hall of the palace of Ulysses in Ithaca, that of the king of the Phaeacians, and that of the palace of Hercules at Thebes (Eurip. Herc. Fur. 975‑1013), are supposed to have been thus constructed, the seats of honour both for the master and mistress, and for the more distinguished of their guests, being at the foot of certain pillars (Od. VI.307, VIII.66, 473, XXIII.90). In these regal halls of the Homeric era, we are also led to imagine the pillars decorated with arms. When Telemachus enters his father's hall, he places his spear against a column, and "within the polished spear holder," by which we must understand one of the striae or channels of the shaft (Od. I.127‑129, XVII.29; Virg. Aen. XII.92). Around the base of the columns, near the entrance, all the warriors of the family were accustomed to incline their spears; and from the upper part of the same they suspended their bows and quivers on nails or hooks (Hom. Hymn. in Ap. 8). The minstrel's lyre hung upon its peg from another column nearer the top of the room (Od. VIII.67; Pind. Ol. I.17). The columns of the hall were also made subservient to less agreeable uses. Criminals were tied to them in order to be scourged, or otherwise tormented (Soph. Ajax, 108; Lobeck ad loc.; Diog. Laërt. VIII.21; Hesiod, Theog. 521). According to the description in the Odyssey, the beams of the hall of Ulysses were of silver-fir; in such a case, the apartment might be very spacious without being overcrowded with columns (Od. XIX.38, XXII.176, 193).

Rows of columns were often employed within a building, to enclose a space open to the sky. Beams supporting ceilings passed from above the columns to the adjoining walls, so as to form covered passages or ambulatories (στοαί). Such a circuit of columns was called a peristyle (περίστυλον), and the Roman atrium was built upon this plan. The largest and most splendid temples enclosed an open space like an atrium, which was accomplished by placing one peristyle upon another. In such cases, the lower rows of columns being Doric, the upper were sometimes Ionic or Corinthian, the lighter being properly based upon the heavier (Paus. VIII.45 § 4). A temple so constructed p325was called hypaethral (ὕπαιθρος) [Templum].

But it was on the exterior of public buildings, and especially of temples, that columns were displayed in the most beautiful combinations, either surrounding the building entirely, or arranged in porticoes on one or more of its fronts. (For the various arrangements of columns see Templum.) Their original and proper use was, of course, to support the roof of the building; and, amidst all the elaborations of architectural design, this object was still kept in view. The natural arrangement in such a case is obvious. A continuous beam (or series of beams) would be laid on the tops of a row of columns. On this beam would rest the ends of the cross-beams; which would be tied together by another continuous piece, parallel to the first; and above this, if the columns were at one end of the building, would rise the pitch of the roof. Now in the actual parts of an architectural order, we see the exact counterpart of these arrangements. On the summit of the row of columns rests the architrave, i.e. chief beam (ἐπιστύλιον, epistylium) above this is the frieze (ζωοφόρος, ζωφόρος, zophorus), in which the most ancient order, namely the Doric, shows, in its triglyphs, what were originally the ends of the cross-beams: in the other orders these ends are generally concealed, and the frieze forms a flat surface, which is frequently ornamented by figures in relief, whence its Greek name. Above the frieze projects the cornice (κορωνίς, coronis, or corona), forming a handsome finish to the entablature (for so these three members taken together are called), and also, on the sides of the building, serving to unite the ends of the rafters of the roof. The triangular gable-end of the roof, above the entablature, is called the pediment [Fastigium]. The detailed description of the various portions of the column and entablature, in each of the orders, will be best understood by reference to the following wood-cuts, which are taken from Mauch's Griechischen und Römischen Bau-Ordnungen.

I. The Doric Order is characterized by the absence of a base, the thickness and rapid diminution of the shaft, and the simplicity of the capital, which consists of a deep abacus, supported by a very flat oval moulding, called echinus, beneath which are from three to five steps or channels (ἱμάντες, annuli). Instead of the hypotrachelium (a sort of neck which unites the shaft to the capital in the other orders) there is merely a small portion of the shaft cut off by one or more narrow channels. In the entablature, the architrave is in one surface, and quite plain: the frieze is ornamented by triglyphs (so called from the three flat bands into which they are divided by the intervening channels), one of which is found over each column, and one over each intercolumniation, except that the triglyph over a corner column is placed, not over the centre of the column, but at the extremity of the architrave, — a decisive proof, as Vitruvius remarks, that the triglyphs do not represent windows. The metopes between the triglyphs were ornamented with sculptures in high relief. The cornice is flat, and projects far, and on its under side are cut several sets of drops, called mutules (mutuli), one over each triglyph and each metope, the surfaces of which follow the slope of the roof, and which are said by Vitruvius to represent the ends of the rafters of the roof. In the most ancient examples of the order the columns are very short in proportion to their greatest thickness. In the temple at Corinth, which is supposed to be the oldest of all, the height of the columns is only 7⅔ modules (i.e. semi-diameters), and in the great temple at Paestum only 8 modules; but greater lightness was afterwards given to the order, so that, in the Parthenon, which is the best example, the height of the columns is 12 modules. The following profile is from the temple of Apollo Epicurius at Phigaleia, built by the same architect as the Parthenon. For a comparison of the other chief examples, see the work of Mauch.

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The Roman architects made considerable variations in the order, the details of which are shown in the engraving on the following page, from an example at Albano near Rome. In the later examples of the Roman Doric, a base is given to the column.

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II. The Ionic Order is as much distinguished by simple gracefulness as the Doric by majestic strength. The column is much more slender than the Doric, having, in the earliest known example, namely, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, a height of 16 modules, which was afterwards increased to 18. The shaft rests upon a base, which was either the elaborate Ionic or the Attic [Spira; Atticurges]. The capital either springs directly from the shaft, or there is a hypotrachelium, separated from the shaft by an astragal moulding p326and sometimes, as in the Erechtheium, adorned with leaf-work (ἀνθέμιον). The capital itself consists of, first, an astragal moulding, above which is an echinus, sculptured into eggs and serpents' tongues, and above this (sometimes with a torus intervening) the canalis, from which spring the spiral volutes, which are the chief characteristics of the order. There is generally an ornamented abacus between the capital and the entablature. The architrave is in three faces, the one slightly projecting beyond the other; there is a small cornice between the architrave and the frieze, and all three members of the entablature are more or less ornamented with mouldings. The finest specimens of the order in its most simple form are those in the temple of the Ilissus, and the temple of Athena Polias at Priene; the latter is usually considered the best example of all. The portico of the temple of Athena Polias, adjoining to the Erechtheium, at Athens, displays a greater profusion of ornament, but is equally pure in its outlines. It is shown in the followingº engraving.

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The use of the Ionic Order presented one important difficulty. In the side view of the capital, the volutes did not show their beautiful spiral curl, but only a roll, bound together by astragals; so, where the order had to be carried round a corner, it was necessary that the capital of the corner column should present two faces. This was accomplished by giving the outer volute an inclination of 45° to the surfaces, and sculpturing the spiral on each of its sides, as shown in the following engraving; in which the upper figure shows an elevation, viewed from the inner side, and the lower figure a plan, of a corner capital of the Ionic Order.

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The Romans, with the usual infelicity of imitators, frequently made all the capitals with corner volutes. Their volutes also are usually stiff and meagre, and the order, as a whole, remarkably inferior to the Grecian examples. For a collection of specimens of the order, see the plates of Mauch.

III. The Corinthian Order is still more slender than the Ionic, and is especially characterized by its beautiful capital, which is said to have been suggested to the mind of the celebrated sculptor Callimachus by the sight of a basket, covered by a tile, and overgrown by the leaves of an acanthus, on which it had accidentally been placed. The lowest member of the capital, answering to the hypotrachelium, is a sort of calyx (calathus), from p327which spring generally two rows of acanthus leaves, surmounted at each corner by a small volute, the spaces between the volutes being occupied by flowers, masks, or arabesques, or by another pair of volutes intertwining with each other. In the earlier examples, however, there is frequently only one row of acanthus leaves; and in the so‑called Tower of the Winds the volutes are wanting, and the capital consists only of an astragal, a single row of acanthus leaves, and a row of tongue-shaped leaves. In all the examples, except the last-mentioned, the abacus, instead of being square, as in the other orders, is hollowed at the edges, and the middle of each edge is ornamented with a flower. The ornaments of the capital were sometimes cast in bronze. The order seems to have been invented about the time of the Peloponnesian War; but it did not come into general use till some time afterwards. The earliest known example of its use throughout a building is in the choragic monument of Lysicrates, which was built in B.C. 335 (see Dict. of Biog. art. Lysicrates), and from which the following engraving is taken.

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To these three orders the Roman architects added two others, which have, however, no claim to be considered as distinct orders. The Tuscan is only known to us by the description of Vitruvius, as no ancient example of it has been preserved. It was evidently nothing more than a modification of the Roman Doric, stripped of its ornaments. The Roman or Composite Order is only a sort of mongrel of the Corinthian and Ionic; the general character being Corinthian, except that the upper part of the capital is formed of an Ionic capital with angular volutes; and both capital and entablature are overloaded with ornaments. The engraving is from the triumphal arch of Titus, which is considered the best example.

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For further details respecting the orders and their supposed history, see the 3d and 4th books of Vitruvius, the work of Mauch, and Stieglitz's Archäologie der Baukunst.

It only remains to mention some other uses of columns, besides their ordinary employment for supporting buildings either within or without.

Columns in long rows were used to convey water in aqueducts (Crates, ap. Athen. VI.94); and single pillars were fixed in harbours for mooring ships (Od. XXII.486). Some of these are found yet standing.

Single columns were also erected to commemorate persons or events. Among these, some of the most remarkable were the columnae rostratae, called by that name because three ship-beaks proceeded from each side of them, and designed to record successful engagements at sea (Virg. Georg. III.29; Servius, ad loc.). The most important and celebrated of those which yet remain, is one erected in honour of the consul C. Duillius, on occasion of his victory over the Carthaginian fleet, B.C. 261 (see the annexed woodcut). It was originally placed in the forum (Plin. H.N. XXXIV.11), and is now preserved in the museum of the p328capitol. The inscription upon it, in great part effaced, is written in obsolete Latin, similar to that of the Twelve Tables (Quinctil. I.7). When statues were raised to ennoble victors at the Olympic and other games, or to commemorate persons who had obtained any high distinction, the tribute of public homage was rendered still more notorious and decisive by fixing their statues upon pillars. They thus appeared, as Pliny observes (H.N. XXXIV.12), to be raised above other mortals.

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But columns were much more commonly used to commemorate the dead. For this purpose they varied in size, from the plain marble pillar bearing a simple Greek inscription (Leon. Tarent. in Br. Anal. I.259) to those lofty and elaborate columns which are now among the most wonderful and instructive monuments of ancient Rome. The column on the right hand in the last woodcut exhibits that which the senate erected to the honour of the Emperor Trajan, and crowned with his colossal statue in bronze. In the pedestal is a door which leads to a spiral staircase for ascending to the summit. Light is admitted to this staircase through numerous apertures. A spiral bas-relief is folded round the pillar, which represents the emperor's victories over the Dacians, and is one of the most valuable authorities for archaeological inquiries. Including the statue, the height of this monument, in which the ashes of the emperor were deposited, was not less than 130 feet. A similar column, erected to the memory of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, remains at Rome, and is commonly known by the appellation of the Antonine column. This sort of column was called cochlis or columna cochlis [Cochlis]. After the death of Julius Caesar, the people erected to his memory a column of solid marble, 20 feet high, in the forum, with the inscription parenti patriae (Suet. Jul. 85). Columns still exist at Rome, at Constantinople, and in Egypt, which were erected to other emperors.


Thayer's Note:

a S. Paolo fuori le Mura (St. Paul without the Walls), a few miles SE of Rome. The church has since been rebuilt, using as much of the old fabric as possible. A description, a history, and a plan of the church, with other illustrations, are given in Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, pp150‑158.

Page updated: 11 Feb 14