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Not Just Another Column

by April 24, 2022

What’s in a column? To the Ancient Greeks, the standing pillar was more than just a way to hold up the roof. Every section, from capital to base, was integral to the entire structure. It was a piece of art that followed very detailed specifications, an architectural order. In fact, you only need a fragment of molding to recreate a whole building.
The ancients weren’t just constructing a safe place in the rain, they were attempting to achieve perfection in architecture.
This meant nothing was left up to chance. It was never, Kyriakos – the average workman and heavy, choosing to put the pediment a “little the right”. The buildings were carefully designed using principles in harmony and symmetry and all overseen by a respected architect. The man in charge presided over every detail, from materials selected to choosing expert sculptors.
The order of the universe, believed so fervently by the Ancient Greeks, was reflected in the buildings themselves.
In fact, this is no exaggeration. The proportional ideals employed by these mathematical architects was the so-called Golden Mean, a ratio also found in natural spiral forms like Nautilus shells and fern fronds.
Here is the actual formula cherished by those men of yore:
Formula for the Golden Mean
Creating a perfectly proportional building had other desired consequences. It created an optical illusion. The end goal was, after all, how the building looked. They wanted perspective and concave results. Consequently, the major lines in the structure were rarely straight. This is most obviously seen in all the different columns’ profiles, whether they be Doric, Ionic or Corinthian.
But let us quickly review those three, very distinctive, major architectural systems, called orders.
Comparison of Ancient Greek Architectural Orders
Comparison of Ancient Greek Architectural Orders
The first and most primitive order is termed ‘Doric’. It is the serious, manly system that originated from wooden structures. It follows basic rules of harmony. Each column has to bear the weight of the beam laid across it. All the Triglyphs, or vertically channeled tablets, are arranged regularly. The columns themselves, short and stocky, stood initially without a base, and at a height of about six or seven times the diameter. The capital on the top of the pillar is basic.
The next architectural order is referred to as Ionic, due to its origination in Ionia (present day Turkey) in the mid-6th century BC. The southwestern coastline and islands of Asia Minor had been settled by the Ionic Greeks, who were distinguished from the Doric greeks by their Ionian dialect.
The Ionians’ more effeminate column design, however, proved popular amongst all the Greeks as evidenced by their construction on the mainland in the 5th century BC.
Ionic columns are most often fluted, and usually numbered at 24. This standardization was quite handy as it kept the fluting in a familiar, almost fragile, proportion to the diameter of the column… and at any scale. The system as a whole is characterised by its continuous freezes, and the scroll-like capitals, called volutes.
Corinthian Capital
Corinthian Capital
The third and final architectural order is termed Corinthian, from the ancient city of Corinth. It is the most elaborate and engraved system of architecture, distinguished by the stylized acanthus leaves and stalks found in the Corinthian capitals. These columns appeared much later and were more popular in subsequent periods than its own.
Overall, the disciplined and ordered approach to architecture was clearly effective … as it has been a major influence for the past two millennia. All three major architectural orders, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian can all still be seen in buildings, both public and private, throughout the world today.
But these systems of architecture did more than just beautified edifices globally. The western world also inherited from those brilliant mathematical architects the idea of a building as more than a space to live or worship. It can have another function: To be beautiful through harmony, balance and proportion.

A Visit To The Apollo Temple at Didyma, Hidden Gem of the Aegean

by June 30, 2021

Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In ancient times, Turkey’s Didyma was not a city of trade or agriculture but a place of worship. Located on the country’s western coast, Didim — as it is now called — is home to the magnificent and ancient Apollo Temple. 
An artist’s imagining of the Apollo Temple Didyma during its construction. Credit: unknown German Artist, 1912
While it is considered a lesser-known temple today, the Apollo Temple at Didyma was incredibly significant in its time. It was important not just for the Greeks, but the Romans and the rest of the Mediterranean world as well.
Second only to the Apollo at Delphi, this temple was wider than the Parthenon in Athens and the fourth-largest temple in the ancient Greek world. Many famous (and infamous) western emperors visited the temple at Didyma. Many even vied to become its patron due to the great social, cultural, and political influence the Didymaion oracle had over Anatolia and other Greek and Mediterranean provinces.
Caesar, Julian, and even Alexander the Great passed through the city of Miletus and headed straight to Didyma to consult with the Didymain Oracle. It was here, in 303 BCE, that Emperor Diocletian traveled to consult the oracle. He heeded its advice — which was to persecute the growing Christian population.
But it wasn’t just its famous visitors that made the Apollo Temple great. The building itself stands testament to the true genius of Greek engineering and architectural design. The structure has several features that set it apart from other Hellenistic temples. Firstly, the exterior of the building is typical of large Ionic temples of its time, with a double colonnade surrounding the interior walls and a vestibule at the front, which is enclosed by a portico and projecting sidewalls. But these are the only features the Apollo at Didyma has in common with its contemporaries. 
Here is how it differed: First, the interior of the building has the most unusual design. The great stairway that leads up to the temple is large, wide enough to receive the large festival processions that traveled in from the town of Miletus via the Sacred Way. But upon ascending the steps, the worshippers were met by a huge blank wall instead of a traditional central doorway. The sacred inner sanctuary was accessed instead by two arched doorways sloping downwards on either side, leading to an open-air courtyard. These entrances were extremely narrow, only allowing for single-file access — which suggests that entrance to the inner sanctum was somewhat exclusive. 
Image of the Inner sanctuary from atop the inner staircase. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
The open-air courtyard itself is said to have been lined with bay trees. The sacred spring (naiskos), believed to be the source of the power of the oracle, was enshrined in the center of the sanctuary, along with an impressive statue of the god Apollo. The foundations of the inner sanctuary stood in the middle of the courtyard can still be seen, along with the remains of various altars.
Processional view of the Temple on approach. The now crumbled wall would have blocked worshippers from viewing the sacred inner sanctuary. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
The sanctuary was built to rival the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, which was the largest temple until Apollo. The temple access was built to deliberately prevent a direct approach. Visitors of lesser importance were thus prevented from seeing the inner ‘secrets’ of the temple. Instead, a second inner courtyard lay atop of the wall, which was accessed by 22 steps over 15 meters wide that lead up from the inner courtyard below. It is believed that the purpose of this unusual layout was to allow some worshippers a tantalizing glimpse of the inner sanctum, the priests, and the prestigious visitors that graced its halls.
Unfortunately, there are no surviving accounts of the ritual or ceremony involved in consulting the oracle from the perspective of the enquirer. Instead, we are left with historical and procedural inference from other sources to explain the unusual design layout of the temple. 
Indeed, the history of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma itself contains mysteries. The site was razed and rebuilt many times. In fact, a humble structure of worship stood there even before the Ionic colonization of the Aegean coast. A second much larger structure was built by the people of Miletus and was destroyed in 494 BCE by the Persians. The site was left in ruin until Alexander the Great conquered the region and reconstructed it in 331 BCE. The temple flourished once more under Roman control, with Emperor Caligula allegedly trying to complete the project. In 101 AD, the Sacred Way was restored by Emperor Trajan. The Apollo reconstruction continued until the closing of pagan temples under Theodosius I. Didyma later became a bishop’s seat under the rule of Justinian I. The site was eventually abandoned and left to ruin after the Ottoman conquest of Iona in 1300, and an earthquake in 1493 finally destroyed the temple almost completely.
The ‘end’ point of The Sacred Way a 16.5km processional road that connected the Sacred gate of Miletus to the steps of the Apollon Temple at Didyma. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
Yet the Apollo stands to this day, its size is still hugely impressive, with 25-meter high walls. The temple platform area covers some 5,500 square meters and contains 122 columns over two meters in diameter and some 28 meters in height. Such feats of engineering have puzzled archaeologists for over 200 years. Temple construction could take hundreds of years to complete, so ancient Greek architects and engineers would engrave project plans within the stones of the temple itself, and polish them away once the project was complete. Since the last reconstruction was never completed, the site is awash with inscriptions, diagrams and floor plans from the original builders. Many tourists visit this site daily, unaware that ancient knowledge lies preserved underfoot and for all to see.
Etchings made by ancient builders visible at the base of the External temple Columns. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
In 1979, a team of archaeologists visited the site and were astonished at the preservation of these plans. They report finding finely etched lines on the Temple walls that trace out the intended design of various structures, some of which were never completed. These ancient ‘blue prints’ cover a huge area, and have shed light on the building methods and  mathematical precision employed at the time.
Examples of etchings, initials, insignias, and quotations found along the exterior steps running along all four walls of the temple. Including various etchings, shapes and designs found on the temple floor. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
Inscribed on the floors of the outer sanctuary are plans for the construction and decorating of the columns. Using micro-imaging techniques, horizontal lines were discovered on the unfinished walls of the inner sanctuary that show plans for building column shafts and their plinths. 
Doodles, names, and dates of the construction workers can also be found littered across the site — there are even a few quotations from the oracle.
A possible etching of the sun god Apollo. Apollo was often depicted with a shield and spear. A bird or raven appears on his left side. Raven was commonly associated with the god. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
The Temple of Apollo at Didyma is a magnificent structure and testament to the ingenuity of those who designed, built, and inscribed it. The site played an important role in the history of the Greek conquest of Anatolia and the politico-cultural reach of the Anatolian Greeks and their later Roman counterparts. 
The site is still cherished by those who live and visit the modern town of Didim. In some ways, the site remains faithful to its original purpose: bringing people together. The Temple of Apollo at Didyma is still a favored location for cultural festivals, community workshops, and a place for local artists, farmers, traders, and visitors to commune. Adjacent to the ruined temple is a modern mosque, demonstrating that despite the modernization of the immediate area, the modern Apollo Temple site remains part of an unbroken tradition of worship and community that stretches back over 2,000 years.
Haselberger, L. (1985). The Construction Plans for the Temple of Apollo at Didyma. Scientific American, 253(6), 126-133. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from
Parke, H. (1986). The Temple of Apollo at Didyma: The Building and Its Function. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 106, 121-131. doi:10.2307/629647

Roman Pantheon: A Gigantic Sundial?

by March 19, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The Romans were great builders and are still revered as great engineers. One of the greatest buildings they constructed was the Pantheon. A new theory argues that the building was designed to act as a sundial during the Spring Equinox, which falls between March 19 and 21. This view could offer insights into Roman religion and ceremonial life.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon was constructed during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Its Latin name means the temple of ‘all the gods’ and it played a very important part in the religious and public life of the city.

In the 2nd century AD, the structure was destroyed by a fire and was rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian (c 145 AD). The site, with its concrete dome (rotunda), is considered an architectural masterpiece and remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. In the interior of the Pantheon is a massive circular floor and access is through a splendid portico flanked fifty-foot granite columns.

Panoramic view of the Pantheon in Rome

Today, the Pantheon is an extremely popular tourist site as well as a functioning Catholic Church.

A Giant Sundial?

In the dome, there is a circular aperture known as an oculus, through which light enters the interior. It was once widely thought that the twenty-seven foot wide oculus was designed to provide light and to help to cool the building in the brutal Roman summers. However, it has now been proposed that the oculus was constructed to make the Pantheon a giant sundial, tracking time by the location of the sun in the sky.

The dome of the Parthenon, photographed with a fisheye lens by Victor Grigas, 2016

It has long been speculated that the Pantheon’s design was linked to the movements of the sun. Now two scholars believe they have shown a link between the building’s interior and the movements of the sun as seen through the oculus. They further argue that there are many similarities between the former temple and Roman-era sundials.

According to their study, the movement of the sunbeams appeared in the Pantheon’s interior via the oculus. This was important also for the calculation of the calendar. It is also believed that the temple played a role in the calculation of the equinoxes, which is when the night and day have equal hours and the sun sits directly above the Equator.

Researchers believe that beams of light hit above the door of the Pantheon at the Spring and Autumnal equinoxes, which were very significant dates to the Ancient Romans.

Pantheon dome

The Pantheon also played an important part in the ceremonial life of Rome. It is conjectured that the building was designed to allow light from the oculus to fall on the doorway on the 21st of April ever year, the anniversary of the founding of Rome. This was part of the celebration of the foundation of the city, one of the most important civic events in Rome.

The Pantheon was primarily a temple and it was once filled with statutes of the gods. It is believed that the light that fell from the oculus was a symbol of the solar deity, indicating his presence in the Pantheon.

Emperor, Religion, and Power

The Pantheon, as a sundial, may have played an important part in the ceremonial life of the Empire. Rituals and rites were used to proclaim and justify the absolute power of Emperors. The light falling through the oculus in the dome would have fallen on the Emperor during rituals, thus demonstrating his association with the sun gods.

In Rome, the Emperor was also the chief priest and it is possible that the light was used in some long-lost ceremony. The maintenance of the calendar was traditionally one of the main roles of the Emperor. In an era before mechanical clocks, the calendar and calculating time was often very challenging. Emperors such as Marcus Aurelius would have visited the Pantheon to track the movement of the sun as part of his management of the calendar, which symbolized his central role in the state. The Pantheon thus emphasized the sacred role of the Emperor and his role in ruling time.

The Pantheon at night


The Pantheon is one of the most stunning buildings ever constructed. However, it is also still somewhat mysterious and enigmatic, even after almost 2,000 years. The theory that it was used as a sundial could help us to better understand this structure. If the temple was designed to act like a sundial it likely had a greater role in the ceremonial, public and civic life of the city than previously thought.


Marder, T.A. and Jones, M.W. eds., 2015. The Pantheon: from antiquity to the present. Cambridge University Press.

Ancient Agora

by October 23, 2020

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The ancient Agora of Athens is one of the most influential archaeological sites and says a lot about the life of the Greeks. ‘Agora’ literally meaning ‘a place of gathering.’ It was a marketplace where every Athenian citizen participated in governance, overlooked judicial matters, traded commodities, exchanged ideas, or worked together to build the most dynamic society in the world.

In fact, the Agora of Athens is the birthplace of democracy. It is at this place that brilliant minds like Aristotle and Socrates gained popularity, taught their disciples, and eventually died.


An imaginary depiction of the Agora of ancient Athens at the time of Pericles.

For centuries, this area served as a common ground for merchants, artisans, politicians, and intellectuals. It was considered an honor to participate in such ‘common activities’ that led to the development of society. (A quick fact: the term ‘idiot’ or idiotis, was coined to mock people who avoided participating in such common activities.)

The history of ancient Agora of Athens stretches from prehistoric times to the modern age. For centuries, the marketplace was a hub of ideas and trades. The present archaeological site saw some devastating years when Persian invaders destroyed the structures completely in 490 BC, but rose again in the 5th century BC with the flourishing of Athenian culture.

Ancient Agora

Agora of Athens – the Archaeological Site 

The Agora was built on flat area with a main street that hosted a market and philosophical activities. In the Agora of Athens, the two main structures were the Temple of Hephaestus and the Stoa of Attalos.

The construction of the Temple of Hephaestus began in 450 BC and still stands intact today. It is one of the most well-preserved Greek temples of the classical period. Being constructed in Doric order, the temple houses two bronze statues of the goddess Athena and Hephaestus. This north-western area of Athens was once a center of ironworking foundries; hence, the temple honored the god of fire and metal-smithing.

The Stoa of Attalos sits on the east end of the site and was built around 150 BC. It is an outstanding exemplar of ancient Stoa architecture and today it houses the Agora museum. Stoas were huge porticos where merchants stalled their goods. They also provided shelter for people during scorching summer days.

The reconstructed Stoa of Attalos

Another magnificent structure that punctuates the archaeological site is the Byzantine era Christian Church of the Apostles. Many other temples formerly stood in the Agora dedicated to Zeus, Apollo, and Ares.

These remained a mystery until 1934, when thousands of artifacts, Amphora pots, marble statues, and reliefs were found during excavations by the American School in Athens, providing a glimpse of life in ancient Greece.

Activities in Ancient Agoras

Apart from being a political hub, the Agora also acted as a communal place for religious activities. Every Greek city had an Agora, which consisted of a massive compound with a main road in the center surrounded by structures for social activities.

The Agora was easily accessible to every citizen, and people would meet there daily. It was the heart of the city that brought the society together. In addition, the Agora road led to the main gate of the city, serving as a sacred travel route for the Panathenaic festival, held in the honor of Athena every four years.

Representation of ancient Greek agora

Athenian citizens took pride in being democratic. Their Agora acted as a space where great ideas, politics, judgments, and legal processions took place. Some of the world’s most important ideas, such as democracy and trigonometry, were probably discussed on its streets. City law courts and senate were located in the Agora, where political proceedings were held openly. Every Athenian had the right to vote for anything he believed in. Laws were posted in the Agora for the public to see.

Aristotle and Socrates frequented the Agora of Athens to discuss life and philosophy. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, and the mathematician Pythagoras were some other famous figures who instructed and shared their ideas in the Athenian Agora.

The activities that took place in the Agora went beyond mundane transactions. The ideas and philosophies born there have literally shaped the modern world. It is almost unimaginable to live in a world without democracy or mathematical formulas to calculate the sides of the triangle. The Agora was a provenance for life-altering principles for which Western civilization is forever indebted.

7 Most Iconic Greek Temples

by August 19, 2020

Written by Divya Gupta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The most sacred structures in Greek Mythology were the enigmatic sanctuaries. Temples were usually located at the center of the sanctuary which was enclosed by walls from all sides. This spiritual place featured a massive landscape with sacred trees and springs. In the center of the area stood a monumental cult statue of the deity that the temple honored. The outdoor altar had several niches where statues of other gods and goddesses were erected.

Unlike modern churches and synagogues, the temple was not a place for rituals, but it was more like a home to the gods and goddesses. Most common people were not allowed inside the temple sparing a few occasions every year. The sacred precincts were built as a place to offer homage to the gods with gifts and offerings. Gigantic columns were the principal component in every temple. Greek architecture features three major types of columns – the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, all of which can be seen in various temples even today.

Temples were located away from the city in a large area and would often benefit from the surroundings to express the character of the spiritual entity. So, a temple dedicated to the god of the sea would be constructed near the seashore.

While many of the Greek temples couldn’t stand the test of time, a lot of them can still be embraced today in Greece and the Southern parts of Italy. Here are some of the most iconic temples that glorify the rich history of Greek architecture.

  1. Parthenon, Acropolis

The Parthenon, the largest Doric temple, was dedicated to the city’s patron goddess, Athena Parthenos. The construction of the temple began during the age of Pericles, around 447BC. This monumental structure stands as a testimony of power and glory, to honor the goddess of indomitable might. Hence the rocky location of the Acropolis served as the ideal location to portray the goddess’s strength. The ancient statue of the deity was made using ivory and gold, which was later stolen by the Persians.


The Parthenon

Today, the Parthenon is considered one of the most renowned UNESCO World Heritage sites, attracting millions of tourists every year. A trip to Greece is practically incomplete if you do not pay a visit to this magnificent structure.

  1. Temple of Hephaestus

The Temple of Hephaestus, dedicated to the god of metalwork, sits on the top of Agoraios Kolonos hill, merely 500 meters away from the famous Acropolis. The region was once considered as a hub of foundries and metal workshops and thus served as a perfect location for the temple. The Temple of Hephaestus was designed by the promising architect Ictinus, who also worked on the Parthenon. It is one of the most well-preserved Greek temples that stands intact even today!

Temple of Hephaestus

The Temple of Hephaistos in Athens

  1. Paestum

Paestum was a famous Greco-Roman city in Southern Italy, very close to the shore. The sanctuary, constructed around 550BC is considered as a pioneer of Greek temples. The ruins of Paestum consist of three famous Greek temples all made in Doric orders. The temple of Hera, goddess of marriage and childbirth, is one of the oldest temples and has surprisingly still has its entablatures intact.


View of Paestum.

  1. Temple of Apollo Epicurius

The temple of Apollo Epicurious, dedicated to the god of healing and Sun, is one of the most unusual Greek temples. The daring architecture consists of all three forms of segments, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, which gives the temple a unique character. Another bizarre attribute of this temple is that it opens up northward, unlike the rest of the Greek temples that are facing east. Located in the mountains of Peloponnese, this well-preserved temple stands as an evocative testament to the brilliance of Greek Architecture!

Temple of Apollo

The Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae, east colonnade, Arcadia, Greece

  1. Segesta 

Located in the north-western part of Sicily, the temple of Segesta offers a distinctive experience to the viewers. Segesta was once inhabited by Elymians, the indigenous people of Sicily. With the widespread Greek influence, the region of Segesta adopted the new culture and blended easily. The temple follows all the strict features of Greek Doric Order but, on a closer look, one can see the unfinished structures. The temple of Segesta never actually had a roof or fluted segments. The inner chamber, also called naos, never really saw the light of day either.


The Doric temple of Segesta

  1.   Erectheum

Erectheum is probably the most popular Greek temple in the modern world. Every history lover and art enthusiast has read about the temple in a million articles, and words fall short to describe the beauty of its architecture! This antique sanctuary, located to the north of the Acropolis of Athens, features the most celebrated segment style, the Ionic Order. The iconic six female figures upheld in the yard, known as Caryatids, is one of the most magnificent examples of Greek architecture.


Temple of Erectheum

  1. Temple of Poseidon at Sounion 

Sounion is considered one of the most important sanctuaries in the Attica region. The temple was erected in honor of Poseidon, the god of the sea. Hence, the sanctuary catapulted overlooking the gorgeous views of the sea from three sides. Once upon a time, this Greek Doric temple flaunted 34 grand columns made of white marble. But today, only 15 stand tall, preserving the marvelousness of Greek architecture.

Temple of Poseidon

Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion

Thousands of years later, these enchanting Greek temples still provide a window to the past and remain some of the best-preserved testaments to history.


The History Behind the Vitruvian Man

by October 18, 2019

The story sounds like a Dan Brown thriller: Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks contain a skillfully executed, albeit curious image.  A man with two sets of arms and legs poses in the center of a circle and square.  With one set of arms forming a V and one set of legs out-splayed, the figure’s soles and fingertips define the circumference of the circle.  With the other set of arms outstretched and legs straight, the figure defines the perimeter of the square.

Known in Italian as  L’Uomo Vitruviano—the Vitruvian man—the c. 1490 image is perhaps the most recognizable of all Leonardo’s sketches.   A simple internet search reveals literally hundreds of reproductions, adaptations, and parodies.  It may come as a surprise that this sketch, unlike others, did not spring from Leonardo’s fertile imagination, but was designed to illustrate someone else’s ideas:

[I]f a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centred at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it.

Da Vinci

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci. Year c. 1490

This passage appears in Book III, chapter 1 of De Architectura, the only comprehensive work on architecture to survive from Classical Antiquity, authored by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio.  It’s an interesting concept, to be sure, but what about it would inspire Leonardo to produce one of his most evocative drawings?

There is indeed much more to this story: behind the Vitruvian man stands an enigmatic builder, a learned manuscript, a legendary name, and cultural prestige.

Vitruvius qui de architectonica

So, who was the original Vitruvian man?  Who was Marcus Vitruvius Pollio?  The facts of his existence are few and the questions are many.  To begin, even his name is a conjecture. His praenomen was most likely Marcus, but we’re not certain. The cognomen Pollio is also only probable. Faventinus, an architect writing in the 3rd century CE, is believed to be the first writer to use Vitruvius’ full name. However, an alternate theory suggests that he may have been referring to two separate individuals: a Vitruvius and a Pollio.


Presumed portrait of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (80/70 B.C. circa-25 B.C.)

As with his name, almost everything else we think we know about Vitruvius is a matter of more-or-less certain extrapolation from brief autobiographical scraps in his De Architectura.

Of his background and upbringing, Vitruvius says only that his family was able to give him a good education.  Similarly, when he makes observations about the preferred education for architects, he is clearly referring to his own.  After all, in the first chapter of Book I, Vitruvius says an architect needs a wide-ranging education, which is precisely the sort of education he claims for himself in the preface to Book VI.

We would expect an architect to have working knowledge of mathematics, materials, and physics.  But what about pre-Socratic philosophy?  Indeed, Empedocles’ elemental philosophy is essential to the city planner.  Like many Classical thinkers, Vitruvius derived from Empedocles the belief that differences between human groups reflected different elemental mixtures.  The blend of elements in the Gauls, for instance, was vastly different from the corresponding blend in the Egyptians.  Therefore a building site that would be healthy for one group would be harmful to another.  Put in practical terms, Vitruvius held that a wise city planner should know how to select particular environments that promote the general health of the citizenry.

In other parts of De Architectura, Vitruvius expresses familiarity with Eratosthenes’s calculations of the circumference of the earth and Pythagoras’ philosophy of harmony.  Needless to say, Vitruvius also owes much to Aristotle.  On a basic level, Vitruvius’s statement about the three divisions of architecture —usefulness, durability, and beauty—merely specifies Aristotle’s assertion that the goal of all human endeavors is some definable “good.”

Frontispiece of De Architectura

No mere theorist, Vitruvius states that much of his know-how was learned hands-on.  “I myself know by experience,” he remarks. In parts of the work, he gives details on construction techniques, materials, and the machines used in building.  He states that he superintended the construction of a basilica in Fano.  Occasionally, he gives details that seem to come from the workshop, such as his claim that bricks should be dried for a full five years before use, whereas cut stone need only be seasoned for two.

In several passages, Vitruvius also mentions his military service.  He says he built artillery pieces for Julius Caesar, and gives detailed instructions for such weapons as ballistas and scorpions.  He even refers familiarly to how experts evaluate whether these weapons are well made: the control ropes vibrate at a certain pitch, like a well-tuned musical instrument.

A few historians have tried to identify our Vitruvius as a contemporary, Marcus Vitruvius Mamurra, possibly because Mamurra was also a military engineer and also served under Julius Caesar.  Such an identification is highly unlikely since Mamurra is believed to have died around 43-46 BCE.  Moreover, Mamurra was known for ostentation and graft.  Our Vitruvius claims that he preferred honest poverty:

I have never been eager to make money by my art,” he writes, “but have gone on the principle that slender means and a good reputation are preferable to wealth and disrepute.

An Unlikely Authority

All this makes up the merest outline of a life.  And if we look to Roman writers of the era for corroboration, the picture does not become much clearer.  Scholars have identified only five Roman writers who mention Vitruvius or his book.  These are Pliny the elder, Frontinus, Faventinus, Servius, and Sidonius.  As we shall see, how they discuss the man and his work would change as time passed.

Pliny the elder knew De Architectura and listed Vitruvius as a source in his Natural History, but doesn’t mention him by name in the text.

Vitruvius’s name also appears a few decades later in a technical report written by the Roman official Sextus Frontinus. His De Aqueductibus Urbis Romae briefly mentions a Vitruvius who had a supervisory or advisory role in pipe repair or construction.  However, Frontinus says nothing more, not even what aqueducts Vitruvius and his pipefitters worked on.  De Architectura is not mentioned at all.

A few centuries later, however, the name “Vitruvius” appears to have become culturally significant, shorthand for architectural excellence.  We can see this in an abridgement of De Architectura produced by the 3rd-4th century CE architect M. Cetius Faventinus.  His De Diversis Fabricis Architectonicae highlights the practical aspects of Vitruvius’s book and leaves out most of the learned theory.  By doing this, Faventinus created a handbook on methods and materials for a new audience.

Illustration from De Architectura

An Illustration from De Architectura. Vitruvius illustrated his theories and rules with technical drawings and examples. Source:

Vitruvius wrote for the political and philosophical elite.  Faventinus seems to have written for supervisors, builders, and contractors.  Although this change in audience is significant, even more significant is the fact that Faventinus attributed the work to Vitruvius.

In the world today it is generally held that newer is truer.  All else aside, a technical report published in 2019 is considered more reliable than a similar report from 2009.  In Classical Rome, the opposite belief held true.  Older information was considered more trustworthy because it had stood the test of time.

In attributing the summary to Vitruvius, Faventinus was emphasizing the work’s trustworthiness: it was a handbook from the golden age of Rome. It was not just information; it was Vitruvius’s timeless advice.  Copies of Faventinus spread throughout the western empire and were copied by generations of monks for the next thousand years.

Of course it could be argued that Frontinus and Faventinus were builders writing for other builders.  Even Pliny was focused on scientific issues.  It would not be unusual for such writers to mention Vitruvius or cite his work.

But what, then, are we to make of a literary critic who also cites Vitruvius while discussing poetic diction?  In the late 4th century to early 5th century CE, our fourth writer, M. Servius Honoratus, references Vitruvius in his commentaries on Virgil’s Aeneid.  In Book VI, Aeneas and his companions arrive at the Cumean Sibyl’s grotto:

Deep in the face of that Euboean crag

A cavern vast is hollowed out amain,

With hundred openings, a hundred mouths,

Whence voices flow, the Sibyl’s answering songs.  (Line 43)

In the underworld

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld. Arnold Houbraken, early 1700s

Discussing Virgil’s poetic diction, Servius cites “Vitruvius the architect” to explain Virgil’s meaning in using such words for access points as aditus and ostia.  The commentary would be reasonable only if Servius and his contemporaries believed Vitriuvius was the authoritative answer for any architectural question, whether actual or literary.

An even more lofty status is attributed to Vitruvius at the end of the fifth century CE.

In an ironic letter to a contemporary, the late Roman official and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris rhetorically equates Vitruvius’s mastery of building to Orpheus’s mastery of music, Aesculapius’s mastery of healing, or Euclid’s mastery of geometry (Book IV, chapter 3, 5).  In a different letter, he tells his reader that Vitruvius’s book, likely Faventius’s digest, is indispensable for domestic repairs and construction.

Nature as Architect


Robert Fludd – The Mirror of the Whole of Nature and the Image of Art.

As historians have suggested, Vitruvius’ status as the leading authority on architecture persisted well into the Italian Renaissance. Whatever else was lost in the collapse of the Roman empire in the west, the concept of Rome as the apex of cultural prestige certainly survived.  Likewise, we know that Faventinus’s digest of Vitruvius survived.

Those who aspired to create monumental works like those of the Roman empire, had much to learn from Vitruvius.  Certainly the breadth of learning he demonstrated, along with his hard-won practical know-how appealed to Renaissance thinkers like Leonardo.  They considered him one of their own.

Vitruvius’s book is not just about architecture, after all, but about architects and builders as well.  What he writes about architects surely appealed to Renaissance architects and engineers—even part-timers like Leonardo.  To Vitruvius the architect had a hallowed heritage, stretching back to the framing of the universe:

The heaven revolves steadily round earth and sea on the pivots at the ends of its axis. The architect at these points was the power of Nature, and she put the pivots there, to be, as it were, centres, one of them above the earth and sea at the very top of the firmament and even beyond the stars composing the Great Bear, the other on the opposite side under the earth in the regions of the south. Round these pivots (termed in Greek πόλοι) as centres, like those of a turning lathe, she formed the circles in which the heaven passes on its everlasting way. In the midst thereof, the earth and sea naturally occupy the central point.

Nature itself, according to Vitruvius, is an architect. The architect is, in a certain sense, carrying on and trying to imitate the works of Nature. It is not difficult to imagine why the work in which this passage appears would inspire Leonardo so many centuries later.