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What is Classical Architecture?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Classical architecture is a term used to refer to buildings from the classical period of European history, spanning the rise of Greece into a major cultural power and ending with the collapse of the Roman empire. Many architects are influenced by the styles and themes this style of architecture, and they revived these themes in the architectural style known as neoclassical architecture. Many public buildings and important institutions use neoclassical architecture in their designs to allude to the greatness of the classical era.

Historians tend to divide classical architecture into three periods, with a great deal of overlap between these periods. The first is Greek architecture, spanning the period from around 700BCE to 400CE. Following this period came Hellenistic architecture, architecture characteristic of the Hellenistic period which lasted from the time of the death of Alexander the Great to the collapse of the Roman empire. Finally, Roman architecture from around the same time period drew heavily upon the styles of these two eras, but innovations were introduced, making the architecture uniquely Roman.

Some well known examples of classical architecture include the Parthenon in Athens and the Coliseum in Rome. One of its more distinctive themes is the simple, yet beautiful style with clean lines and subtle accents in the form of metal decorations or carvings. It was also often built on a grand scale, with imposing columns and large arches to demonstrate the skills of the builders.

Archaeological digs often uncover examples of classical architecture which are painstakingly preserved for future generations to enjoy. In some cases, architecture has been well preserved enough for people to see mosaics, wall paintings, and other decorative features, making the citizens of the classical age seem more accessible and human. These finds also provide important clues to the daily lives of the people who used these buildings, from formal temples to outdoor theaters.

Because classical architecture is often formal and imposing, many public buildings have adopted it to add to their general air of officiousness. Neoclassical design influences can also be seen in large country homes, colonnaded walkways at universities, and in other structures of a grand scale. Some very excellent examples of classical architecture can be seen in situ in many parts of the Mediterranean and in parts of Europe which were colonized by the Romans, such as Britain. Many people enjoy visiting these architectural sites because classical science, arts, literature, philosophy, and culture has had a huge influence on the Western world.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By PelesTears — On Nov 15, 2010

Do not quote me on this, but I think that classical architecture is defined as architecture specifically from Europe and the Caucases. The time period dates from the time of Greek unification (600BCE) to somewhere around the middle ages. Ancient architecture would be considered Non-European architecture from the dawn of civilization. This would include ancient Egyptian architecture, pre-600 BCE Greek architecture, ancient Sumerian architecture, ancient Asian architecture, and everything else pre-600 BCE. I hope this helps.

By parmnparsley — On Nov 14, 2010

What is the difference between classical architecture and ancient architecture? I have to take two semesters of ancient architecture for my architecture program and I am not sure if it will cover what this article described or architecture from previous periods. Is Ancient architecture considered architecture like that of the Ancient Egyptian, Incan, and Myan civilizations?

By anon12687 — On May 12, 2008

Thank you for your information which is useful for my essay....:)

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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