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THE BASICS OF ROMAN TEMPLE ARCHITECTURE


Three images together of Pantheon, Maison Carree, and Pantheon
The Pantheon - Maison Carree - Temple of Bacchus

On this page, Roman temple architecture is explained simply, in plain language, with many diagrams, photos and clear descriptions so that anyone can quickly learn the general terms used to describe and categorize the various kinds of both Roman and Greek temples, which share a very similar architecture. Roman architects were inspired greatly by beautiful Greek architecture, which they adopted and also expanded upon in many unique ways.

INTRODUCTION

Just as houses today are categorized by terms like "bungalow, split-level, detached, or townhouse," based on the number of floors and their attached/detached status, Roman temples are also categorized by certain distinctive architectural characteristics.

Some Roman temples are fancier, more elegant and slender than others. For example, some temples have only four columns in front, while others have six or more. Still, other temples also have columns on all sides, while others do not. And sometimes, those columns along the sides or rear of the temple are not all free-standing. Instead, many of those columns are actually part of the wall. Also, all Roman temples had a distinctive "look" based on the five styles of Classical architecture known as "orders," such as the Corinthian or Ionic Order. We use all those details about the columns and styles to categorize and understand a Roman temple.


Roman system of architecture measurments superimposed over the Pantheon
The Pantheon front looks good because everything is proportioned in the best way - the columns are spaced two column-widths apart, are 10 column-widths high, and the horiztonal section above the columns is 2.5 columns widths high, and the angle of the roof is just right. Notice how the columns are noticeably narrower at the top, and the space between the two middle columns is wider. Imagine how bad the Pantheon would look if the columns were spaced too far apart or too close, or if the angle of the roof was too steep or too shallow, or the horizontal section above the columns was too huge or too small. Over many centuries, Greek and Roman architects developed an excellent system of architectural proportions, all centered on the bottom width of a column's shaft.

Every temple the Romans built followed a system of rules. For example, the total height of a column is based on the Classical Order of Architecture chosen. And everything is measured and spaced out based on the width of a column shaft measured at the bottom, as shown in the image above. Another example is how the angle of the roof should not be more than 22 degrees (also shown above) - this applies to every "order of architecture." Those are just a few examples of the rules and system of building a Roman temple.

Those rules were set down by Vitruvius (Marcus Vitruvius Pollio), architect and civil engineer to Roman Emperor Augustus, over 2,000 years ago. The system is actually quite simple and logical, and once you understand it, you will look at a Roman temple with a new perspective and greater understanding.



HOW ROMAN TEMPLES ARE CATEGORIZED


At their most basic level, Roman temples are categorized by:

1 - Their Architectural Order (style);  
2 - The Number of columns in front;  
3 - The column arrangement pattern.


which are explained below with images and diagrams.


1. THEIR ROMAN ARCHITECTURAL ORDER

Roman temples are classified primarily by their order, which can be described as a "style," but it is more an architectural system of precise design, layout, detailing and proportions specific to each order.

Three of the orders - Corinthian, Ionic, and Doric - were created by the ancient Greeks.  The number of orders grew to five under the Romans with the addition of the Tuscan and Composite.

Almost all fifteen temples shown on this website's Temples Page are of the Corinthian Order - only a few are of the Ionic Order. None of the surviving Roman temples shown are of the Doric, Tuscan or Composite Orders.

In this section, I will give a brief explanation of the Corinthian and Ionic orders that the Romans preferred. I will also briefly explain the Tuscan order because it was frequently used by the Romans when building structures such as basilicas or columned walkways.

The Roman Orders Page of this website explains all five orders of architecture that the Romans used.



THE THREE ORDERS OF ARCHITECTURE MOST USED BY THE ANCIENT ROMANS

image of Corinthian Capital CORINTHIAN ORDER

Roman temples built according to the Corinthian order are the most ornate and also have the tallest columns. Furthermore, the top of the column is crowned with an elaborate and leafy "Capital."

And everything else above the column is also more detailed and elegant than the other orders. The Corinthian order was much favoured by the Romans, who used it extensively on the inside and outside of their structures because they liked splendour and luxury.



image of Ionic Capital IONIC ORDER

Roman temples of the Ionic order are a bit plainer than the Corinthian temples and have columns that are a bit shorter. The unique capital on top of the column is very different from its Corinthian counterpart. Also, it has a circular swirl on either side called a Volute.

These Volutes do indeed resemble ancient scrolls, and they represent knowledge and wisdom. The entablature above the column and capital is still elegant but not as tall or fancy as the Corinthian version.



image of Tuscan Capital TUSCAN ORDER

Roman temples of the Tuscan Order are more basic than the other two orders shown above. In fact, the plain Tuscan order, with virtually no decorative detailing, is the opposite of the elegant Corinthian order.

Despite its plain and simple structure, the Tuscan Order is still definitely Classical and it is cheaper and faster to build. It also really does add a noble ambiance to any building or colonnade. For example, the bottom level of the Colosseum in Rome has Tuscan columns between its 80 arches.





2. NUMBER OF COLUMNS IN FRONT

Temples are also categorized by the number of columns at the front of the temple, which is either four, six, eight, ten, or 12 columns.

The ancient Greek words for those numbers are:

Tetra (4) - Hexa (6) - Octa (8) - Deca (10) - Dodeca (12)

Which are combined with the word STYLE - and thus:


A temple with FOUR front columns is a TETRASTYLE temple.

A temple with SIX front columns is a HEXASTYLE temple.   

A temple with EIGHT front columns is an OCTASTYLE temple.

A temple with TEN front columns is a DECASTYLE temple.  

A temple with TWELVE front columns is a DODECASTYLE temple.  




TETRASTYLE, HEXASTYLE, OCTASTYLE :

Below are images of a Tetrastyle, Hexastyle, and Octastyle Roman temple:


photo of a tetrastyle Roman temple located in Pula, Romania which is known as the temple of Roma and Augustus
Temple of Roma & Augustus, Romania
The smallest and narrowest kind of Roman temple
   photo of a hexastyle temple in Nimes, France which is known as the Maison Carree temple
Maison Carree in Nimes, France
Medium-sized Roman temple that was very common.


my own created image of an octastyle temple in the Forum of Augustus in Rome which is known as the Temple of Mars Ultor
Temple of Mars Ultor, Rome
Many temples used this size also, but not as common as Hexastyle



DECASTYLE :

By far, most Roman temples were only 4, 6, or 8 columns wide. But they did build a few 10-column wide Decastyle temples, which were quite rare and very special.


image of a decasytle temple in baalbek, lebanon, known as the 'temple of jupiter heliopolis' with 10 columns in front
Temple of Jupiter Heliopolis in Baalbek, Lebanon
Corinthian Order, Decastyle, Peripteral

A Decastyle example is the huge Roman temple of Jupiter Heliopolis in Baalbek, Lebanon. All that remains of this temple today are 6 columns, as seen in this image. This was the largest and tallest temple the Romans built. It had 54 30-metre high (100 ft) columns, and the top of the roof stood 44 metres (145 ft) high. As a result, people standing next to a column in the picture below appear very small. Another example of a Decastyle was the Temple of Venus and Roma in Rome, which faced the Colosseum.




DODECASTYLE :

The Romans actually built an extremely rare Dodecastyle 12-column wide temple. This was certainly one of the largest temples the Romans ever built.

image of a 12-column wide dodecastyle temple in Rome on the Quiranal Hill which is not destroyed.  The temple is 
corinthian and the portico resembles the portico of the Pantheon
Temple of Serapis - Quiranal Hill, Rome
Corinthian Order, Dodecastyle, Peripteral

Located on the Quiranal Hill in Rome, it was most likely built by Emperor Hadrian and is known as Hadrian's Serapeum, or the Temple of Serapis.

It has also been called the Temple of the Sun, but latest research indicates that is incorrect. This temple was higher than the other two massive Roman temples in Rome - the Temple of Venus and Roma (decastyle), and the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (hexastyle).

To get an idea of how huge this temple is, look at this sketch (click to view). Part of this temple stood until about 1630 AD, when it was demolished. To see a diagram showing the whole floorplan architecture of this temple, please click this link.




3. COLUMN ARRANGEMENT PATTERN

The next important category is how the temple columns are arranged because not all Roman temples are the same. Most temples are rectangular, but some temples are circular. For this discussion, I will focus on rectangular temples only. Furthermore, while most rectangular Roman temples have columns on at least three sides - front, left, right - some temples only have columns in the front. And there are Roman temples with columns on all four sides, but that is rarer.




 PERIPERTERAL VERSUS PSEUDOPERIPTERAL

When you look at a temple, notice whether or not all the columns are freestanding and not making physical contact with any wall.

If every column you see is freestanding and not touching any wall, then it is said that the temple is Peripteral, as shown in Figure 1 in the diagram below.

However, if even just a few of the columns are not freestanding and are making contact with a wall, then the temple is said to be Pseudoperipteral, as shown in Figure 2 in the diagram below.


diagram comparing peripteral to pseudoperipteral column arrangement in roman temples
Peripteral compared to Pseudoperipteral Column Arrangement

A perfect example of a Pseudoperipteral temple is the Maison Carrée - pronounced "May-Zoh Cah-Ray" - temple in Nimes, France, shown in the image below. The photo shows clearly how though this temple has free-standing columns in front, most of the columns along the side are partially embedded in the wall or "engaged" with the wall.


side view of the Roman Temple Maison Carree in Nimes, France
Maison Carrée - Pseudoperipteral temple
Corinthian Order, Hexastyle, Pseudoperipteral

And notice how the Maison Carrée columns all have very elegant and leafy Capitals at the top - this is thus a Hexastyle, Pseudoperipteral temple of the Corinthian Order. In other words, this is a temple six columns wide at the front, and not all the columns are freestanding because most are engaged with a wall - also, the order and style of the temple is Corinthian because of the ornamental capitals, the tall, slender columns and the very detailed marble entablature above the columns that supports the roof (called a pediment).




 PERISTYLE OF COLUMNS EXPLAINED

The rear wall of the Maison Carrée also has six columns that are engaged with the wall, as shown in the image below. The point of this observation is that, though this temple has columns on all four sides, it does not have a true "peristyle" of columns because many of them are "engaged" with the walls.



The photo below shows a Roman temple with a true Peristyle of free-standing columns along all four sides. Notice how there is space between each column and the walls. This is a perfect example of a Peripteral temple where none of the columns are partially embedded in the walls that form the Cella room that housed the statue of a Roman god. This is a very nice Roman temple in the Ionic style. Compare this temple's column layout to Figure 1 diagram shown earlier.


photo of a temple with a peristyle of columns in garni, armenia
Temple with Peristyle of columns in Garni, Armenia
Ionic Order, Hexastyle, Peripteral


There are temples constructed with two peristyles - meaning two rows of freestanding columns on all four sides of the temple. This kind of double column construction is called "dipteral." Another famous temple with a peristyle is a temple in Garni, Romania, shown below, as well as the famous Parthenon temple in Athens, Greece.




PROSTYLE OF COLUMNS EXPLAINED

Another column arrangement commonly used was Prostyle, meaning there are columns in the front of the temple only (the Portico section), and these columns are nearly always freestanding.

Notice, in the floor plan diagram below, how this temple is neither a Peripteral nor a Pseudoperipteral temple. Rather, it has columns in the front only - there are no other columns along the sides or back, freestanding or engaged. This kind of temple column layout is a perfect example of a Prostyle column arrangement.


diagram showing prostyle arrangement of columns in a Roman temple

Prostyle Column Arrangement




ROMAN TEMPLES VERSUS GREEK TEMPLES

Roman and Greek temples differ in three major ways:

1.   The Romans used all five Classical Orders of Architecture, the Greeks used just three. The chart below lists the orders the Greeks and Romans used, ranked by most used:

ROMAN
CORINTHIAN
IONIC
TUSCAN
COMPOSITE*
DORIC

* The Romans did not recognize a "Composite" order- for them, it was just a variation of the Corinthian order. It was recognized as an official Order of Classical Architecture in 1485 AD by Leon Battista Alberti.
   GREEK
DORIC
IONIC
CORINTHIAN


2.   Romans and Greeks used very different foundations for their temples:

The Romans built their temples on top of a high Podium with a staircase in front and two abutements projecting out from either side of the stairs.

The Greeks built their temples on a low stylobate, also known as a Crepidoma, which is a foundation composed of three steps running along all 4 sides.




diagram comparing  Roman temple podium foundation to Greek temple stylobate foundation
Roman Podium versus Greek Stylobate temple base


3.   Romans and Greeks used different formulas for calculating how many columns a temple should have along its sides in relation to the number of columns in front. See the diagram below this section.

The Roman equation:  Multiply the number of front columns by two and subtract one column. Thus, a Roman temple with six columns in front would have just eleven along the temple side, as shown in the photo of the Maison Carree further up this page. Count the columns in front and then along the sides, and you will see for yourself: 6 columns in front and 11 along the sides - this is the Roman system of columniation.


The Greek equation:  Multiply the number of front columns by two and add one extra column. For example, a Greek temple with six columns in front would have thirteen columns along the side.



diagram comparing Roman temple ratio of front and side columns to Greek temple ratio of front and side columns
Roman versus Greek temple ratio of front and side columns

The Romans seemed less concerned about a temple's length than its height. By making their Roman temples two columns shorter along its length than a Greek temple, the savings in resources could be used to construct a higher foundation to create a more dramatic look for their temples. Obviously, the Romans believed that placing a temple on a high foundation with a big staircase in front was important.

An interesting fact is that the space between the two middle columns in front was always wider to allow people to pass more easily into the temple interior. The notion was that two Roman matrons (ladies) should be able to walk into a temple hand in hand without being impeded by the columns. Look at the image below of the Temple of Jupiter Heliopolis in Baalbek, Lebanon. You can see how the space between the 5th and 6th column is wider. Mind you, that temple was already so gigantic they really did not have to provide extra space between the middle columns in front.


image showing how the space between middle columns of a Roman temple was wider
The space between the front middle columns of a Roman temple was wider

Roman and Greek temples also differed in more subtle ways, such as in the entablature detailing, the height of columns specific to the Ionic, Doric and Corinthian Orders, and the styling of their Capitals and the roof, for example.




ROMAN TEMPLE ANATOMY CHART

In the diagram below, you can see all the major parts of a Roman temple labelled. This diagram is basic because there are actually many more parts and labels. To use an anology, your arm is divided into an upper arm, a lower arm , and a hand ... but if you look more closely, you can see that the hand is also subdivided into fingers, thumb, palm, fingernails, etc. This diagram covers the biggest and most important parts that make up a Roman temple. Learn these terms and you will find them very helpful in furthering your understanding of Roman temple architecture.


Anatomy of a Roman Temple Diagram with labels for podium, entablature, pediment, architrave, frieze, cornice, column, 
   capital, shaft, plinth, portico, cella
Roman Temple Anatomy Diagram

The terms used in the diagram above are explained in a very basic form below:

  •   
A Column is composed of a Plinth & Torus at the bottom, a Shaft in the middle, and a Capital at the top.
  •   
The Entablature that spans across the tops of the columns on all four sides is composed of an Architrave (three horizontal bands) on the bottom, a Frieze in the middle, and a Cornice at the top.

  •   
The whole temple structure is divided between the Portico (porch) in the front and the Cella room, composing the rear part of the temple behind the Portico. The Cella housed the statue(s) of the Gods.

  •   
The Pediment is the temple's roof and the Tympanum is the triangular and recessed space that is framed by the Entablature on the bottom and by both angled sides of the roof. Thus a temple has two Tympanums, found at the front and the rear, which typically housed statues or reliefs.

  •   
Finally, the Podium, at the very bottom of the temple, is the elevated base or foundation. The podium you see in the diagram is a very distinctive aspect of Roman temple architecture in comparison to Greek temples, which had a very low foundation (stylobate).

And that concludes the "lessons" in Roman temple terminology. Thank you for reading, and if you want to look at some of my other pages on Roman civilization, just click on one of the image icons below. Have any questions or comments? email me - I really enjoy reading and responding to the emails people send me, and I always respect your privacy. Also, if what you read here today was helpful to you, please consider mentioning my site on Facebook, X, Quora, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. Those kind of links are really important for educational websites like mine because they help to make my website show up in search engine results.


   
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