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Ancient Colonnade: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the definition, composition, and history of the ancient colonnade and test your understanding about classical architecture and the ancient world.

A Little from Colonnade...

There is something very inspiring about colonnades. They just look important. We see them on libraries, government buildings, universities, and other places of high significance.

Colonnade
Colonnade

An ancient colonnade refers to an architectural feature from ancient Greece or Rome of a long row of columns. The combined innovations, designs, and engineering feats of these two cultures is called classical architecture, and forms the basis of Euro-American architectural styles.

Features of a Colonnade

A colonnade is a series of columns joined by the same entablature. A column is a vertical support to carry the weight of the ceiling. A column is divided into three sections from bottom to top: the base, the shaft, and the capital. The entablature is the structure that lays horizontally on top of the capitals of the columns. The entablature also consists of three parts. The architrave is the layer of stones directly above the capitals, the frieze is the often decorated strip above that, and the cornice is the protruding strip on top that supports the triangular roof piece called the pediment. Together, the columns and entablature form a post and lintel, a system of structural support that disperses weight horizontally and compresses it through the columns. Ancient builders used this to create open spaces that allowed more people and natural light to pass through, as opposed to a solid wall.

Roman temple with colonnade
Roman Temple

Colonnades are defined by their position in a structure. When the colonnade is in front of the main entrance, it is called a portico. A common feature of many classical buildings was multiple rows of colonnades to create a deep portico. When the colonnade encloses an open courtyard, it is called a peristyle.

History and Examples of Colonnades

The colonnade has existed since the origins of classical architecture in ancient Greece, and was probably one of the first designs that allowed ancient builders to switch from wood to stone construction. By using this post and lintel system, the architects were able to use heavier and stronger materials to create larger temples. There are three orders of classical Greek architecture, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, each defined by the style of column and entablature. The most famous example of the Greek colonnade is in the Parthenon, a massive temple built in 447 BC by the Athenian Empire that had an exterior colonnade of 46, 34-foot tall, columns.

The Doric style Parthenon with portico colonnade
Parthenon

In ancient Rome, Greek-style columns and colonnades were used to support and decorate temples, palaces, government buildings, and public courtyards. The Romans loved columns, and added their own architectural innovations to make columns stronger supports. The first innovation was concrete. The Greeks used stone, mostly marble, to build temples. The Romans were the first to use concrete as a building material, which is not only cheaper than stone but can be poured into any shape or space. Roman colonnades were occasionally made of concrete, and sometimes included arched colonnades, defined by using arches between columns in the entablature. Arches displaced weight more evenly and made stronger structures, meaning Romans could build even larger structures.

Remains of Roman arched colonnade
Arched colonnade

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