Architectural Design of the Classical Column

You ever wanna know a weirdly excessive amount about marble columns? Well, have we got an article for you...

Table of Contents


Click Here for the Related IntroNotes Article: The Sacred Band of Thebes: Greek Gays with Knives

Summary of the five main orders of classical column design, displaying simplified stylistic elements and general column structure.


So normally I try to link GeekNotes to the main article. But I didn't want to do that today. I wanted to talk about classical architecture. Specifically columns. There will inevitably come a day when I wanna look into arches and domes, because they're great and all, but... columns. Magnifique. *chef finger kiss*

Columns once existed as purely functional shafts of weight support. Then one day, an architect or builder realised, things can be structural AND aesthetically pleasing. To them, I am eternally grateful.

So today when we talk about classical column design we're going to talk about:

  • Column Anatomy
  • Shaft Adornment
  • Architectural Order
  • and Engagement

Furthermore, discussion will focus on Greek and Roman columns. Whilst the Persian and pre-Ptolemaic Egypt world had fascinating column-design journeys, I'm here to talk about the Graeco-Roman story today. Note that these three worlds of column-design and architecture did also share ideas and influence each other (briefly mentioned below).

Column Anatomy

Don't worry dear arithmophobes, minimal math-talk. As much as the engineering/physics of columns is fascinating, we're just talking about design today. From the ground up:

  • Base
    • this often consisted of (ground-up):
      • Pedestal
      • Dado
      • Cornice/Cap
  • Shaft
    • this was made either from one long, or many sections of stone.
    • Entasis**: is the interesting principle of building a non-straight, slightly convex shaft. This was done to counter-balance the optical illusion of concavity seen in straight shafts.
  • Capital
    • This is the business end of the column and where the Greco-Roman world placed design-emphasis. (See Architectural Order below)

ENTASIS**: We see here, the classical search for visual perfection cared more about perceived balance (/perceived-straightness) more than objective physical balance. One could argue this aligning well with the past cultural views of harmony, balance, and platonic realism.

Shaft Adornment

Whilst the capital of the column was its mitochondria (powerhouse of the column, if you will), that didn't mean an architect couldn't spice up the column shaft with:

  • Fluting
  • Solomonic Helices
  • Caryatides

Column Fluting

This is the series of shallow vertical grooves carved along the shaft. This imparted a sense of linear regularity, masked horizontal stone joints, and highlighted the visual round-ness of the column (as opposed to the illusion of flat-ness seen in the absence of fluting).

Solomonic Columns

Strongly influenced by eastern design, one Greek architect asked themself "why not have a helix twisting around the shaft... because... twisty".


This is the architectural practice of looking at a column shaft and saying "wouldn't it be great if this wasn't a shaft and instead was a stone lady". The name Caryatides is from the Greek karyatides ("maidens of the town of Karyai"). This name referenced the Peloponnese town of Karyai which had a Temple of Artemis with Caryatid columns.

This idea of the sculptural column shaft, carved to look like a woman, has since spread through Western architecture. I only mention this because in the suburb I live in, these Caryatides are everywhere. (Note that Melbourne is the city with the largest Greek-speaking population outside of Greece). Around here we see the architectural legacy of the classical Caryatid manifest as Caryatid balusters. Balusters are the poles which together form a balustrade, the fencing/poles of a balcony/fence railing.

"Table of Architecture" (1728), summarising architectural orders by James and John Knapton (PD)

Architectural Order

Classical archictectural orders can be considered sets of recognisable design themes. When designing a building an architect would decide an order to work in, must as a composer would pick a key, or an author would pick a genre.

The Roman's would also operate in a system called the Superimposed Order. This is the alternation of architectural orders between storeys of a building. (e.g. the Colosseum)

Greek Orders

  • Doric (e.g. the Parthenon, Athens)
  • Ionic (e.g. the Temple of Athena, Athens)
  • Corinthian (e.g. the Monument of Lysicrates, Athens)

(Note how many different orders would co-exist in a city)

The Doric order is the simplest Greek order. It is categorised by short, thick columns, with no base, the bottom of a column directly touching the floor. The column was shafted with 16 flutes. The capital was a convex, round stone.

The Ionic order is, in my opinion, the most archetypically Greek looking order. It involves large column bases, slender shafts with 24 flutes and distinct entasis, and elegant scroll/volute capitals.

The Corinthian order is the most ornate and delicate Greek order, which deeply influenced much later (renaissance) stylings. Bases. Longer shafts with 24 flutes, and distinct capitals. The Corinthian capital features two rows of acanthus leaves and four angled scrolls.

Two discussion points of note:

Doric vs Ionic: The Dan Brown novel Angels & Demons, features a joke I think about frequently. Art history/classics buff Robert Langdon sees a column in a physics department building. The column (build in the Doric order) that has been graffitied to say "this column is ionic". Being the self-satisfied, art-snob Langdon is, he begins to geek-splain the error to someone, having completely missed the joke (ionic as in pertaining to the ions (e.g. calcium carbonate) in marble). 10/10 joke.

Corinthian: The disputed origin and evolution of the Corinthian capital suggests the inter-cultural dialogue of the classical world. The Egyptian Papyriform/Bell and Greek Corinthian stylings share distinct similarities and motifs. It seems the organic and elegant curves of plant-life complimenting the firm linearity of the column is a strong classical-world theme.

Roman Orders

  • Tuscan (e.g. the Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne, Rome)
  • Composite (e.g. the Arch of Titus, Rome)

Whilst the Romans frequently employed Greek orders, the also developed two of their own.

The Tuscan order may be considered a simplified Doric styling. Though some of the ratios and measures varied, the main salient difference was the Tuscan's lack of shaft fluting.

The Composite order arose from a mixing of Greek Corinthian and Ionic orders, increasing the Corinthian's emphases on volutes.

Additional order styles include: the aforementioned Roman Superimposed order, and Renaissance Colossal order (which could span multiple floors) 

Want to know about the types of columns that came later? Here's an article about post-classical european architectural sensibilities 


The last concept to discuss, engagement.

Engagement is quality of a column not being free-standing, but rather being partly-embedded in a wall. These are far less common in classical Greek architecture but were abundant in Rome.

Engaged columns may be compared to pilasters. These may be described as square (rather than round), engaged columns. They have similar anatomies to a column (plinth, shaft, capital) but are typically decorative and NOT load bearing. This is to say they provide negligible structural support to the wall or roof.

We may also compare these to buttresses. These are structures which serve to support a wall, important in large historical architecture. A buttress (see also counterfort, a buttress for dam or retaining wall) is typically a squared structure abutting a wall or wall-corner. Buttresses may also be wedged in appearance, tapering up form a thick base.

And for those wondering, yes. Yes I did mention buttresses so that I had an opportunity to discuss my favourite architectural term in existence: flying buttress.

If a buttress is analogous to an engaged column, then we might compare a flying buttress to a free-standing/unengaged column. This is to say that it does not stand adjacent to the wall. Instead, a flying buttress stands as an independent pier (a column-ish structure separate from the wall), connected via a flyer (typically an arch).


Whilst the contemporary and modern periods are defined by a presence of nonce-architecture (individual once-off appearance traits and design elements), the classical world had a strong sense of theme. This 'correct way to do things' idea was core to the classical world. Whilst it reduced stylistic diversity, it has resulted in a rich history of theme, style, and order development. So, next time you see a fancy building with a classical-inspired column, you can look at it and say: "that looks old-timey for a reason, and that reason is classical order".

Banner image edited from photograph of Doric columns. Taken by Tomascastelazo at the Teatro Juarez in Guanajuato, Mexico

In order to comply with the use and licensing terms of this image, the following text must must be included with the image when published in any medium, failure to do so constitutes a violation of the licensing terms and copyright infringement: © Tomas Castelazo, / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0



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