What You Need to Build a Greek Temple

Edmund Stewart

If, like me, you have ever wondered what goes into building a Greek temple, then fear not: I here present a list of everything you will need. Admittedly, when compared with the wonders made possible by Roman concrete or a mediaeval gothic arch, the hundreds of temples scattered across the Greek world may perhaps look a bit small. Yet they are certainly elegant, sometimes with a slender beauty typical of the Ionic order, or else the sturdy grandeur of the Doric. And, when examined closely, the process of building one may quickly become worryingly complex.

The primary features of Doric (left) and Ionic (right) architectural styles: lithograph from Karl Baedeker’s Handbook for Travellers in Greece (2nd ed, Leipzig, 1894). The image can be viewed in greater detail here.

One of the tasks I ask my students to do each year is to list all the materials and workers needed to build a temple. Usually, we never manage to stop before filling a good-sized whiteboard. So here goes.

The first thing you are going to need is an architect (that sounds obvious, hopefully). “Architect” is in fact a Greek word (ἀρχιτέκτων, architectōn). In essence, his job is to manage the other craftsmen or carpenters (the Greek word for “command” is ἀρχή and the word for carpenter, i.e. builder, is τέκτων). The architect will also draw up plans of the building, determine the specifications of materials needed and generally advise committees of lay citizens appointed to oversee the project.

A map of religious sanctuaries in the Ancient Greek world, which can be viewed in greater detail here.

At Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the architect would be appointed by the citizen assembly (δῆμος, dēmos). Remember, this is a big project, which requires state funds. To be elected, these individuals needed to be skilled in the building-trade and would have to demonstrate their qualifications (i.e. say who had taught them and provide examples and testimony of previous work). All architects at Athens were Athenian citizens, although whether this was due to a legal prohibition on foreign architects or a matter of prejudice or choice is uncertain. Cities lacking a large skilled labour force permanently resident on their territory (such as Epidaurus) had to rely on foreigners.

Once the architect is selected, funds will be needed for his salary (at Athens this was two drachmas per day in the 4th century BC, the standard daily wage for a skilled craftsman). The architect and the secretary (to keep accounts) will be the only salaried individuals paid throughout the whole life of the project. All the others can be paid by the day or by the piece, whichever is more convenient. But there are a lot of jobs, and odd jobs, to be done. Most of those employed will be free contractors or slaves working alongside their masters (we know of 18 slaves, about a fifth of the total, who worked on the Erechtheum on the Athenian Acropolis). Slaves are paid the same as free men, but a proportion of their wages will inevitably be taken by their master. Many of the craftsmen you employ will inevitably be non-citizens brought to your site with the promise of work.

The Erechtheion, dedicated to Athena, which was built on the northern side of the Acropolis in the late 5th century BC.

Let us consider the materials first. The most obvious is stone (all that is generally left to see today). But which stone do you want? Local stone would be cheaper, but perhaps not of the best quality (at Eleusis, for instance, both local ‘black’ stone and finer marble from Pentelikon appear in the accounts). Rough stone for foundations or fill can probably be acquired locally, but even then someone still needs to break up the rocks and lay them on the site. For the finest stone, specialists working in the quarries would need to shape blocks to the precise written specifications provided by the architect.

Then you will need to arrange transportation of the stone by means of ship or draught animals. So you will need the services of ship-owners (ναύκληροι, nauklēroi), merchants (ἔμποροι, emporoi) and drovers (ζευγοτρόφοι, zeugotrophoi). Transport costs, as well as the costs of materials, need to be taken into account. By the way, you will also obviously need tackle, blocks and ropes to shift these stones to the site and into position on the walls (which ropemakers, στυππειοπλόκοι, stuppeioplokoi, will supply).

A tentative reconstruction of the polychromatic painting on a sculpted Trojan warrior from the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaea on the island of Aegina (original c.500 BC; Glyptothek, Museum, Germany).

The job of fitting the blocks into place is usually performed by a different set of individuals at the site. The columns will need to be fluted and polished (work for a team of roughly six men per column). You will also need metal clamps to fix the stones together. And while we are on metal, tools will need to be sharpened regularly on site and several people will probably need to be paid to do that. 

Fine carving and sculpture will require another set of highly-skilled practitioners. At the Erechtheum on the Acropolis, sculptors are paid 60 drachmas per figure on a relatively small and simple frieze. Sculptures may be required on the exterior of the building, on both pediments, in the frieze (as in the case of the famous example on the Parthenon), and on ‘metopes’ (that is sculptural reliefs separated by triglyphs – the three vertical channels on a Doric frieze).

Marble sculptures forming the left side of the East Pediment of the Parthenon (work of Phidias, 430s BC, Athens; now in British Museum, London).

The carving of a sculpture is just one part of the process. Statues need to be polished and then painted (traces of paint are rare but can still be seen today in a few cases). Cult statues may be adorned with precious metals, such as ivory, gold, glass and enamel (for eyes), not to mention garments (such as the ceremonial peplos woven by the women of Athens for the cult statue of Athena and placed on her statue at the Panathenaea festival). The job of painting might be given over to painter-decorators (ἐνκαυσταί, enkaustai). Painters of figures (ζωγράφοι, zōgraphoi) might also be employed to produce sumptuous murals (as in the case of the ‘Painted Stoa’ in the Athenian agora, the work of the star artist Polygnotus of Thasos, fl. Mid-5th cent. BC). Even less colourful interior surfaces still needed to be sanded down, plastered and whitewashed.    

But stone is just the beginning. Large quantities of wood are also required, as well as a new set of artisans (there is no overlap between stonemasons and carpenters: you either work in one medium or the other). As with stone, the work of finding wood and turning it into your door, roof or couch is divided into several stages. Timber is cut in the countryside and then sold to dealers of wood, who provide the construction workers with beams and slats cut to specified lengths (you are not going to have time to go find the trees yourself!). These beams are then worked on site by a different band of specialist carpenters. Wood is needed for doors, windows, the ceiling (including ceiling rosettes) and the beams of the roof.

Architectural plans of the most common Greek temples.

Doors are themselves relatively complex. Wood is needed for the doors, base and lattice work. Metal hinges, nails and glue are also required. It goes without saying that you will need to buy nails in significant quantities (to give one example, a certain Philon, a non-citizen metic living in 4th-century Athens, provided 250 nails for lattice doors at the sanctuary of Pluto at Eleusis alone). Glue can be purchased from glue-boilers (κολλεψοί, kollepsoi: yes, in at least one case in Athens this is given as someone’s job). And as these are no ordinary doors, particularly the ones on the exterior of the building, they should be decorated with gold leaf and ivory, as well as handles and decorations in the shape of lions or gorgons (as at the Parthenon).

When we get to the ceiling and roof, yet more wood is required. Long beams are needed to span the length of the temple roof. A sawyer (pristēs, πρίστης) will cut these beams to the right size, but other carpenters will be needed to fix them in place. The sawyer Rhadios is employed for this task in 409/8 BC on the Erechtheum on several occasions but does no other work. (And while we are on wood, scaffolding is of course essential, so someone will need to be paid to put this up and take it away after the job is done.) Once the timber is in place, the tiles will need to be laid. There are a number of styles and ways to lay tiles: the Corinthian style is especially notable. According to one estimate, it could have taken around seven men nearly two years to produce enough tiles for the 7th-century BC temple of Poseidon at Isthmia.

Section of the East Frieze of the Parthenon showing the Panethenaic festival procession; the event on the right may be the handing over of Athena’s peplos to the Archon Basileus (work of Phidias, 430s BC, Athens; now in British Museum, London).

And at the end of the day, your workers will still need somewhere to work and eat while they are employed on site (incidentally you may also need to provide food as well as pay, depending on the contracts agreed with the artisans, which vary). A temporary workshop will probably need to be built and this requires earthen bricks and wood, as for most domestic houses. (Hot tip for life in Ancient Greece: take care to listen out at night for the sound of thieves digging through the wall, the Greek word for burglar being literally “wall-digger”: τοιχωρύχος, toikhōrhukhos).

That should just about do it for starters, but no doubt there will be other things that crop up along the way. So best of luck!

Edmund Stewart is Assistant Professor in Ancient Greek History at the University of Nottingham. His earlier essays for Antigone can be found here, here, here, and here.

Further Reading

This article is informed by an ongoing research project on Skilled Labour and Professions in Classical Athens. Some of this work is already published in the volume edited by E. Stewart, E. Harris, and D. Lewis, Skilled Labour and Professionalism in Ancient Greece and Rome (Cambridge UP, 2020). See in particular the essays by Harris, Lewis, Hochscheid and Linder. Other possible suggestions for reading include A. Burford, Craftsmen in Greek and Roman Society (Thames & Hudson, London, 1972), or more recently C. Feyel, Les Artisans dans les sanctuaires grecs aux époques classique et hellénistique à travers la documentation financière en Grèce (École française d’Athènes, Athens, 2006).