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Temple Architecture

A Roman engineer and architect in the service of Augustus, Vitruvius was the author of De Architectura, the oldest and most influential book on the subject and the authority for Bramante, Michelangelo, and Palladio. In Book III of his treatise, which was written c.35-25 BC, he speaks of the "temples of the immortal gods, describing and explaining them in the proper manner."

Their design, says Vitruvius, depends upon symmetry and proportion, each component in exact relation to the whole. Temples are classified according to the arrangement of their colonnades: whether prostyle, having columns only on the principal façade (Temple of Vespasian); peripteral (peristyle), having columns on all four façades (Temple of Castor and Pollux); or peripteral sine postico (Temple of Mars Ultor), a term used by Vitruvius for a temple peripteral on three sides only, with a plain back wall.

Colonnades were classified, as well, in terms of the distance between columns, as measured by the width of their base. Intercolumniation could be pycnostyle (columns placed one-and-a-half base diameters apart); systyle (two diameters apart), eustyle (two-and-a-quarter diameters apart); diastyle (three diameters apart), or araeostyle (more than three diameters apart). Vitruvius considered eustyle to be the most aesthetically pleasing, hence the prefix, meaning "good." Any narrower, he complains, and Roman matrons cannot pass arm-in-arm between the columns or walk conveniently around the temple. Too, the great bronze doors are obscured and statues thrown into shadow. Wider apart and there is the danger that the architraves may break (and, indeed, the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which is araeostyle, had such widely spaced columns that the architraves were of wood). The height and thickness of the columns are to be proportional to the width of the temple façade; in eustyle, for example, the height of the column ideally should be nine-and-a-half times its diameter.

Still, in spite of Vitruvius' aesthetic ideal, the norm seems to have been for closely-spaced columns to increase the appearance of height. The Temple of Divine Julius, for example, is pycnostyle, the narrow distance between the columns emphasizing the verticality of the temple. Height was accentuated, as well, by building the temple on a high podium, especially one with a sheer rise in front, such as the Temple of Saturn, or by thrusting the podium forward beyond the porch to enclose the approach stairs, as with the Temples of Divine Julius and Castor and Pollux.

In Book IV, Vitruvius describes the orders of columnar architecture. The most common order used in Rome was the Corinthian, which had a capital resembling acanthus leaves. Doric and Ionic orders were used much less often, although the restored Temple of Saturn has Ionic capitals (originally they had been Corinthian). To these classical Greek orders, the Romans added two variants: Tuscan, derived from the Doric but in which the unfluted column rested on a circular base (torus) instead of directly on the stylobate; and Composite, in which the scrolls (volutes) of the Ionic order surmount the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian.

The elements of the column include the plinth or pedestal, the column and its capital, and the entablature, which is the horizontal structure carried by the column and is, itself, comprised of the architrave, which rests on the capital; the frieze, which often was incised or elaborately decorated; and, above it, the cornice, which supported the pediment of the roof. Often, the cornice, too, was richly carved. Beneath the raking cornices of the pediment was the tympanum, filled with sculpture.

The number of columns on the principal façade also is descriptive. A temple could be tetrastyle (having four columns on the front), hexastyle (six, Temples of Saturn, Vespasian, Concord, Divine Julius), octastyle (eight, Temple of Castor and Pollux), or decastyle (ten, Temple of Venus and Rome).

This, then, is the arcane language of the architect that Vitruvius would have used to describe the Temple of Venus and Roma: decastyle, Corinthian, dipteral (a double row of columns) at the ends, pseudodipteral (columns projecting from the wall but forming an integral part of it) along the sides, with a pronaos or porch at each end tetrastyle in antis (columns between the antae or ends of the side walls).

See also Temple of Venus and Roma.

Glossary of Additional Architectural Terms

References: A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1992) by L. Richardson, Jr.; Roman Imperial Architecture (1981) by J. B. Ward-Perkins; Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture (1960) translated by Morris Morgan (Dover Books); Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture (2001) edited by Ingrid D. Rowland and Thomas Noble Howe; Rome: An Oxford Archaological Guide (1998) by Amanda Claridge; The Odyssey of Homer (1968) translated by Richmond Lattimore; The Four Books of Architecture (1965) by Andrea Palladio (Dover Books); The Colosseum (1990) by Roberto Luciani; History of Art (1995) by H. W. Janson; Greece: Temples, Tombs, & Treasures (1994) by the Editors of Time-Life Books; Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1968) by Ernest Nash.

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