Temple of Hephaestus: Architecture & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

There are many temples in Greece, so what makes the Temple of Hephaestus so special? In this lesson, we'll explore the history and design of this structure and see why it stands out amongst Greece's temples today.

The Temple of Hephaestus

We know a lot about the first formal order of traditional Greek architecture because the Romans wrote about it. We've also got some ruins that we can explore, but these aren't always in the best of condition. It's hard to find really good examples of Greek temples built in the Doric order, so when we find one it's really exciting.

The Temple of Hephaestus (he-FEH-stus) is one such temple. Located near the Agora in Athens, this ancient structure has been incredibly well preserved. It gives us a chance to appreciate some of the first forms of architecture in the Western tradition, which is pretty cool. So, let's check it out.

The Temple of Hephaestus
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What's in a Name?

The Temple of Hephaestus was, we assume, dedicated to the Greek god Hephaestus. No surprises there. But who was Hephaestus? He was the son of Zeus and Hera, and a god of blacksmiths, metallurgy, and craftsmen. He was also the blacksmith of the gods, which was a pretty big job.

However, he may not have been the only deity worshipped here. Archeologists also suspect that this was a temple to Athena Ergani, the patron saint of Athens in the specific role as protector of potters and cottage industries. So, overall this seems to have been a temple dedicated to artisans and craftspeople of all kinds. For a long time, people around Athens believed this to be a temple of Theseus, the mythological hero, but a preponderance of metallurgy workshops and other crafts nearby support the theory that this was a place to worship Hephaestus and Athena Ergani.

Description of the Temple

So, what's the Temple of Hephaestus look like? It's a Doric order temple, which means it has a few architectural trademarks. For one, the columns are fluted, or grooved. Above the columns is a thick, horizontal element called the frieze. Doric friezes are decorated with alternating patterns of triglyphs and metopes. Triglyphs are panels with three vertical lines, which historians theorize were meant to symbolize the wooden beams that would have previously been used to hold up the roofs before the switch to stone architecture.

The metopes are blank panels in between the triglyphs. Very often, Doric metopes were carved with reliefs of scenes from Greek mythology, and the Temple of Hephaestus is no exception. The friezes of this temple depict scenes of the twelve labors of Hercules, the battle and fall of Troy, and an unidentified battle scene. It's possible that the metopes that were not carved were, at one point in time, painted. We do know that some art has been lost from this site; records indicate that bronze statues of Hephaestus and Athena Ergani once stood inside as well.

Triglyphs and carved metopes of the Temple of Hephaestus
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The pediment of the temple also seems to have been decorated with larger sculptures (which was a common practice in the Greek world). In this case, archeologists believe that the sculptures depict the hero Theseus and the people known as the Lapiths battling against the centaurs. We call this scene the Centauromachy. This is a major moment in Greek mythology, and a very popular subject found in many Greek temples, so its inclusion here is not surprising. However, it could explain why people thought this temple was dedicated to Theseus.

Centauromachy scenes on the inside of a frieze
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History of the Temple

Now that we know the Temple of Hephaestus a little better, let's get to know its history. Based on the artifacts found nearby and various elements of the temple, archeologists estimate that it was completed somewhere between 460 and 420 BCE. Athens was at the peak of its power and influence at this time, having defeated a Persian invasion and unified the other Greek city-states under its hegemony. With their newfound wealth and influence, the Athenians poured their resources into architecture, theater, science, and philosophy.

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