Greek Architecture - Buildings in the Classical Greek City

What Types of Buildings Made Up the Classical Greek City?

The Stoa of Attalos or Attalus
Tourists at The Stoa of Attalos or Attalus located in the east side of archaeological site of the Ancient Agora in Athens just oposite the Adrianou street in Monastiraki. The Stoa of Attalos was built around 150 BC, by Attalos II, King of Pergamos as a donation to Athens. getty,stoa,greek architecture

Classic Greek architecture refers to a set of recognizable building types used by the ancient Greeks to define and decorate their cities and lives. By all accounts, the Greek civilization was chauvinistic and highly stratified—the powerful were almost entirely made up of elite property-owning males—and those characteristics are reflected in soaring architecture, shared and unshared places, and elite luxury spending.

The one classic Greek structure that immediately leaps to the modern mind is the ​Greek temple, the spectacularly beautiful structure standing whitely and alone on a hill, and temples came in architectural shapes that changed over time (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian styles). But temples weren't the only inspiring buildings in Greek cities.

of 07

The Agora

Curetes Street in Ephesus, Turkey, Leading to the Agora
Curetes Street in Ephesus, Turkey, Leading to the Agora. CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Probably the second best-known type of structure after the Greek temple is the agora, the marketplace. An agora is, basically, a plaza, a type of big flat open space in town where people meet, sell goods and services, discuss business and gossip and lecture one another. Plazas are among the oldest type of architecture known on our planet, and no Greek city would be without one.

In the Greek world, agoras were square or orthogonal in shape; they were often in planned locations, near the heart of the city and surrounded by shrines or other civic architecture. They were generally large enough to contain the periodic markets that took place there. When buildings crowded up against the agora or the population grew too large, the plaza was moved to suit the growth. The main roads of Greek cities led to the agora; the borders were marked by steps, curbs, or stoas.

At Corinth, archaeologist Jamieson Donati identified the Greek agora under Roman-era ruins by recognizing state-owned goods, weights, and seals, drinking and pouring vessels, counting tables and lamps, all marked with the Greek stamp used by Corinth, evidence of the state-level regulation of weights and measures for the merchandise being sold.

of 07


The Stoa of Attalos or Attalus
Tourists at The Stoa of Attalos or Attalus located in the east side of archaeological site of the Ancient Agora in Athens just oposite the Adrianou street in Monastiraki. The Stoa of Attalos was built around 150 BC, by Attalos II, King of Pergamos as a donation to Athens. getty,stoa,greek architecture

A stoa is an extremely simple structure, a free-standing covered walkway consisting of a long wall with a row of columns in front of it. A typical stoa might be 330 feet (100 meters) long, with columns spaced at about 13 ft (4 m), and the roofed area about 26 ft (8 m) deep. People entered through the columns into the roofed area at any point; when stoas were used to mark the borders of an agora, the rear wall had openings to shops where merchants sold their wares.

Stoas were also built at temples, sanctuaries, or theaters, where they sheltered processions and public funerals. Some agoras had stoas on all four sides; other agora patterns were created by stoas in horseshoe-shaped, L-shaped or pi-shaped configurations. At the end of some stoas would be large rooms. By the end of the 2nd century BCE, the free-standing stoa was replaced by continuous porticoes: the roofs of the adjacent buildings were extended to create the walkway to shelter shoppers and others.

of 07

Treasury (Thesauros)

View of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi
View of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi. Getty / Bettmann Collection

Treasuries or treasury-houses (thesauros in Greek) were small, temple-like structures built to protect the wealth of elite offerings to gods. Treasuries were civic buildings, paid for by the state rather than clans or individuals—although some individual tyrants are known to have built their own. Not banks or museums, treasury houses were strong-houses that stored the spoils of war or votive offerings laid in by individual aristocrats in honor of gods or ancient heroes.

The earliest thesauroi were constructed in the late 7th century BCE; the last one was built in the 4th c BCE. Most treasuries were located on the public road but far outside of the city that paid for them, and they were all built to be hard to get into. Thesauroi foundations were tall and without steps; most had very thick walls, and some had metal gratings to protect the offerings from thieves.

Some of the treasuries were quite lavish in structural detail, like the surviving treasury at Siphnian. They had an inner chamber (cella or naos) and a front porch or vestibule (pronaos). They were often decorated with panel sculptures of battles, and the artifacts in them were gold and silver and other exotics, which reflected both the donor's privilege and the city's power and pride. Classicist Richard Neer argues that treasuries nationalized elite goods, and were an expression of upper-class ostentation merging with civic pride, evidence that there were, after all, people with more money than the commoners. Examples have been found at Delphi, where the Athenian treasury is believed to have been filled with the war booty from the Battle of Marathon (409 BCE), and at Olympia and Delos.

of 07


Theater of Termessos
Theater of Termessos. Micheline Pelletier/Sygma via Getty Image

Some of the largest buildings in Greek architecture were theatres (or theaters). The plays and rituals acted in theatres have a much older history than the formal structures. The prototypical Greek theatre was polygonal to semi-circular in shape, with the carved seats arching around a stage and proscenium, although the earliest were rectangular in plan. The earliest theatre identified to date is at Thorikos, built between 525–470 BCE, which had a flattened place where the acting took place, and rows of seats between 2.3–8 ft (.7–2.5 m) high. The earliest seats were likely wooden.

Three main parts of any good Greek theatre included the skene, the theatron, and the orchestra.

The orchestra element of a Greek theatre was a rounded or circular flat space between the seating (the theatron) and the acting space (surrounded by the skene). The earliest orchestras were rectangular and were probably not called orchestras but rather khoros, from the Greek verb "to dance." The spaces can be defined, such as the one at Epidaurus (300 BCE), which has a white marble curb forming a complete circle.

The theatron was the seating area for large groups of people—the Romans used the word cavea for the same concept. In some theaters, there were box seats for the wealthy, called the prohedria or proedria.

The skene surrounded the acting floor, and it was often the representation of the front facade of a palace or temple. Some skene were several stories high and included entrance doorways and a series of highly placed niches where the statues of the gods would overlook the stage. At the back of the actors' platform, an actor portraying a god or goddess sat on a throne and presided over the proceedings.

of 07

The Palaestra / Gymnasium

Ancient Greece: In the Gymnasium. Platonists, epicurians, cynics and wrestlers - Coloured engraving by Heinrich Leutemann (1824-1905)
Ancient Greece: In the Gymnasium. Platonists, epicurians, cynics and wrestlers - Coloured engraving by Heinrich Leutemann (1824-1905). Getty / Stefano Bianchetti

The Greek gymnasium was another civic building, constructed, owned and controlled by the municipal authorities and managed by a public official known as the gymnasiarch. In its earliest form, the gymnasia were places where naked young and old men alike would practice daily sports and exercises and perhaps take a bath at the associated fountain house. But they also were places where men shared small talk and gossip, serious discussions and education. Some gymnasia had lecture halls where itinerant philosophers would come to orate, and a small library for the students.

Gymnasia were used for exhibitions, judicial hearings, and public ceremonies, as well as military drills and exercises in times of war. They were also the site of a state-sponsored massacre or two, such as 317 BCE when Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, assembled his troops at the Timoleonteum gymnasium in order to launch a two-day slaughter of aristocrats and senators.

of 07

Fountain Houses

North Lustral Basin at Heraklion, Greece
North Lustral Basin at Heraklion, Greece. Nelo Hotsuma

Access to clean water for the classic period Greeks like for most of us was a necessity, but it also was a point of intersection between natural resources and human needs, the "splash and spectacle" as archaeologist Betsey Robinson calls it in her discussion of Roman Corinth. The Roman love of fancy spouts, jets and burbling streams are in stark contrast to the older Greek idea of sunken lustral basins and calm catchments: in many of the Roman colonies of Greek cities, the older Greek fountains were gussied up by the Romans.

All Greek communities were established near natural sources of water, and the earliest fountain houses were not houses, but big open basins with steps where water was allowed to pool. Even the early ones often required a collection of pipes drilled into the aquifer to keep the water flowing. By the sixth century BCE, the fountains were covered, large isolated buildings fronted by a columnar display and sheltered under a pitched roof. They were generally squarish or elongated, with a tilted floor to allow proper inflow and drainage.

By the late Classical/Early Hellenistic period, fountain houses were divided into two rooms with the water basin in the back and a sheltered vestibule in the front.

of 07

Domestic Houses

Odyssey by Homer : Penelope and her servants - engraving from 'Usi e Costumi di Tutti i Popoli dell'Universo
Odyssey by Homer : Penelope and her servants - engraving from 'Usi e Costumi di Tutti i Popoli dell'Universo. Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

According to the Roman writer and architect Vitrivius, Greek domestic structures had an interior colonnaded peristyle reached by select guests through a long passageway. Off the passageway was a suite of symmetrically placed sleeping chambers and other places for dining. The peristyle (or andros) was exclusively for citizen men, said Vitruvius, and the women were confined to women's quarters (gunaikonitis or gynaceum). However, as classicist Eleanor Leach has said "the builders and owners of ... Athenian townhouses had never read Vitruvius."

Upper-class houses have received the most study, in part because they are the most visible. Such houses were generally built in rows along the public streets, but there were rarely any street-facing windows and those were small and placed high on the wall. The houses were seldom more than one or two stories high. Most houses had an interior courtyard to let in the light and ventilation, a hearth to keep it warm in winter, and a well to keep water close at hand. Rooms included kitchens, storerooms, bedrooms, and workrooms.

Although the Greek literature clearly says that the houses were owned by the men and the women stayed indoors and worked at home, the archaeological evidence and some of the literature hints that that wasn't a practical possibility all the time. Women had roles as important religious figures in communal rites which were enacted in public spaces; there were commonly women vendors in the market places; and women worked as wet-nurses and midwives, as well as the less-common poet or scholar. Women too poor to have enslaved people had to fetch their own water; and during the Peloponnesian War, women were forced to work in the fields.


Andron, the Greek word for men's spaces, are present in some (but not all) classic Greek upper-class housing: they are identified archaeologically by a raised platform that held the dining couches and an off-center door to accommodate them, or a finer treatment of the flooring. The women's quarters (gunaikonitis) were reported to have been located on the second floor, or at least in the private parts at the back of the house. But, if the Greek and Roman historians are right, these spaces would be identified by women's tools such as artifacts from textile production or jewelry boxes and mirrors, and in very few cases are those artifacts only found in a specific space of a house. Archaeologist Marilyn Goldberg suggests that women weren't in fact confined in seclusion in women's quarters, but rather that women's spaces included the entire household.

In particular, says Leach, the interior courtyard was shared space, where women, men, family, and strangers could enter freely at different times. It was where chores were allotted and where shared feasts took place. Classical Greek misogynist gender ideology may not have been espoused by all men and women—archaeologist Marilyn Goldberg concludes that the use probably changed through time.

Selected Sources

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "Greek Architecture - Buildings in the Classical Greek City." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, February 16). Greek Architecture - Buildings in the Classical Greek City. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Greek Architecture - Buildings in the Classical Greek City." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).