Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Distinction Between the Architectural Styles and Methodologies of the Greek Mainland and the Greek Western Colonies in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries BC

There is a distinction between the architectural styles and methodologies of the Greek mainland and that of the Greek western colonies in the fifth and sixth centuries BC, particularly in the sacred structures and sculptures.  There are different reasons presented in the historical and archaeological community as to why these distinctions in the architectural style between the mainland and the western colonies exist.   This essay will assess and look into the possible reasons for these distinctions from the perspective of what the distinctions actually are in the sacred buildings and sculptures, and at the possible implications of geo-political influence on causing these changes to occur.  The majority of the focus will be on the two cities of Selinus and Acragas, but examples from other contemporary western colonial settlements will be used as necessary.

The colonies of the western Greek world were founded by more than just the mainland Greeks.  This was alluded to by Dominguez when discussing Acragas and stating that it was of mixed foundation, or people from different countries.[1]  This could help in explaining why Mertens stated that the first colonists in the seventh and sixth centuries BC had no established tradition of building and craftsmanship.[2]  Further, in talking about the concepts of form, he states that only the general concepts from the colonists’ homelands could be transplanted to the new country, thereby indicating that there were multiple origination sites for a singular new city in the west.  It would stand to reason that the growing population of the Mediterranean world in the seventh to the fifth centuries BC would begin to look for more room and new places to settle, so this line of thinking is sound and plausible.  Thus, the presence of multi-cultural people settling one area or city would create differences and concessions to how things were developed, made, and designed to that of a homogenous single country such as mainland Greece.

In the late sixth century BC, the Euboic-Attic monetary system was adopted in Sicily, in the Dorian area and areas that surrounded it such as Selinus, Acragas, and Syracuse.  De Miro believes that this indicates that relationships were being intensified.[3]  Indeed, having a unified monetary system in place in a greater area would indicate that there was a sense of cooperation and reliance upon each other, but the deviation from that which was used in mainland Greece could also indicate a break in that way of thinking, and thus could be considered as another symptom of how the west was developing differently.  In the vein of monetary reasoning being behind some of the reasons for the delineation between architectural styles of the mainland and the west, it is worth noting that the colonists were looking for wide expanses of good agricultural land.[4]  This would help them to be self-sufficient and eventually prosper.  However, Di Vita believes that it is hazardous to suppose that the first partition of all the territory acquired by the colonists was of an agricultural nature, with the exception of a few areas of common use such as the agora, the temene of the gods, and the necropolis.[5]  This viewpoint would explain and be confirmed by the fact that the earliest cult sites known in Selinus and Acragas are outside the colony’s centre.  They were placed in such a way that they would not interfere with both the property that was owned by individuals as well as that of the community as a whole.[6]   Which leads to an interesting point; how much did the lay of the land and pre-existing indigenous structures shape the layout of the cities and the architecture that was used?

Selinus was founded on the southern coast and as such was the westernmost Greek city in Sicily.[7]  The colonial poleis of Sicily and Magna Graecia were very proud of where they had placed themselves as well as the elaborate planned urban arrangement that was a completely new thing in the ancient world.[8]  After Selinus was planned and completed, there was some type of large-scale destruction, which Di Vita speculates was an earthquake, which occurred and required the city to be redesigned and modified.  This was carried out around 560 and 460BC.  The majority of the work that was done was carried out in the sacred areas on the acropolis and the eastern hills.  This provides an excellent example of how the natural landscape was altered in order to accommodate what they western Greeks wanted to do.  The hill at this time was terraced by way of a 10 metre tall retaining wall that was backfilled with 25000 – 30000 cubic metres of sand and forming two levels.[9]  Clearly then, the natural land didn’t stop the western Greeks from build what and how they wanted! 

The new geographical and geological conditions naturally influenced the building techniques and methods since the materials available were different to that of the mainland.[10]  For example, Sicily is poorer when it comes to robust stone used in building and there is no marble anywhere.  This would naturally encourage a different technique of building and shaping the sacred structures.  One such different technique was found with the discovery of architectural terracottas used in the roof decoration that date from early 600BC to late 500BC.[11]  Terracotta wasn’t just used as a decorative bit of working on the roofs, however.  In Magna Graecia terracotta gained a place of particular importance in representative monumental buildings.[12]  In the sixth century BC terracotta became the most important decorative part of the system. 

Other distinctions in the build methods are explained by the first generation of colonists using some of the simple construction methods of the indigenous population.  The more prestigious buildings were still build mostly according to the mainland Greek typology, i.e. as elongated megara, but the technique of using posts and pise that the colonists employed was not known on the mainland.[13]  It would also appear at times that there was some assimilation of the pre-existing indigenous rites into the cultists that were based more on the natural elements or phenomena.[14] 

Continuing on in examining the way that location shaped the architecture and building of the western Greeks, the religious practices come into play.  The deity for whom a particular sanctuary was dedicated to and the location within the confines of the colony’s territory determined the function of the sacred building, according to Greco.[15]  This could be why in Cumae the temple of Apollo was placed on the southeast corner of the terrace, even though it required the levelling of an indigenous village that was already there.[16]  The location placement of a sacred site appears to have been just as important in the layout of a building as that of the architectural design.  However, it does not seem that the architecture of the buildings were always chosen with the most religious of ideals in mind, but that of glorifying the builder in question.


Cerchiai, L., Jannelli, L., & Longo, F.  (2004).  ‘The Gulf of Naples’ in The Greek Cities of Magna Graecia and Sicily.  Pp. 36 – 61. 

Dominguez, A.  (2006).  Greek Colonisation: An Account of Greek Colonies and Other Settlements Overseas, Vol. 2.  Edited by Tsetskhladze, G., Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands, Pp. 253 – 357. 

De Miro, E.  (1996).  ‘Greek Sculpture in Sicily in the Classical Period’ in Carratelli, G. P. ed., The Western Greeks.  Pp. 413 – 420.

Di Vita, A.  (1990).  ‘Town planning in the Greek colonies of Sicily from the time of their foundations to the Punic wars.’  in Greek Colonists and Native Populations: Proceedings of the First Australian Congress of Classical Archaeology Held in Honour of Emeritus Professor A. D. Trendall, Sydney, 9-14 July 1985, Descoeudres, Jean-Paul.  Pp. 343 – 363.

Greco, E.  (2002).  ‘Sanctuaries of Magna Graecia and Sicily.’ In Bennett, M. et al., Magna Graecia.  Greek Art from South Italy and Sicily.  Pp. 98 – 119.

Mertens, D.  (1990).  ‘Some principal features of West Greek colonial architecture.’ in Greek Colonists and Native Populations: Proceedings of the First Australian Congress of Classical Archaeology Held in Honour of Emeritus Professor A. D. Trendall, Sydney, 9-14 July 1985, Descoeudres, Jean-Paul.  Pp. 373 – 383. 

[1] Dominguez  Greek Colonization  p. 280
[2] Mertens  Principle Features West Greek, p. 374
[3] De Miro Greek Sculpture  p. 413
[4] Mertens, Principles West Greek, p. 374
[5] Di Vita  Town Planning  p. 349
[6] Ibid, pp. 349 – 350
[7] Dominguez  Greek Colonisation,  p. 299
[8] Di Vita  Town Planning, p. 352
[9] Ibid, p. 355-356
[10] Mertens Principle West Greek, p. 374
[11] Cerchiai  Greek Cities, p. 39
[12] Mertens Principle West Greek, p. 375
[13] Ibid
[14] Greco Sanctuaries, p. 99
[15] Greco Sanctuaries, p. 98
[16] Cerchiai Greek Cities, p. 46

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