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Derivation and History of the Doric Order

“Of all the architectural forms which have apparently no definite structural significance, there is none which has persisted with so little variation as the…Greek Doric Order.  Modern copies of course prove nothing, our taste being as eclectic as that of the Romans; but that the Greeks themselves used this form continuously for a period of over four hundred years without showing the slightest variation in the arrangement of regulae, taenia, triglyphs, metopes, mutules, and cornia, or even in the number and disposition of the guttae, and practically no change in the relative proportions of these parts, is a fact unparalleled in architectural history.”

                               [Holland 1917]

So, how did the Greek Doric temple evolve into its classic form? No one can argue with Holland's assertion in the statement above that Doric temple entelechy appears almost completely articulated from its earliest onset sometime after 580 BCE to its most iconic form in the Parthenon. Indeed, the very earliest Doric temple, or a structure with doric style columns like that of Apollo at Thermon constructed around 640 BC, is not so different in its architectural form the Asklepion at Kos built more than four hundred years afterward. So, why was this conformity to a structure enough to monumentalize the earliest mudbrick and wooden examples into the monumental stone buildings with an overall style and configuration which became the centerpiece of Greek architectural art? Nevertheless, the basic proportions of the Doric temple emerge from those earliest prototypes without much deviation and indicate an obsession with conformity.

As W.B. Dinsmoor ascribes, that perhaps "...the earliest material shelter for Greek cult image or xoanon, was little more than a hut to serve the purpose." These earliest structures were likely little more than flat roofed mud brick dwellings, not unlike the megaron style excavated at Crete and Santorini. Thus, the megaron style of architecture that first appeared in the Middle Helladic period, emerged as the articulated “sacred house” of kings described by Homer. The Megaron becomes the perfect choice to sanctify the later Doric cult religion which then adopted the royal sanctuary and its subsequent temple floorplan. As a definition, therefore, the megaron can be defined as a rectangular structure, which consists of a main hall entered at one end through an open porch with in-antea columns. The structure usually had an interior hearth, often surrounded by four columns supporting the roof.



By the end of the third millennium BC, northern populations from what are now Germany and the Balkans, began to drift south as a result of marginally longer winters in the areas, which resulted in a sustained drought from global temperatures dropping and the accumulation of snow holding water in the upper Danube. Thus, with less arable land to cultivate, those northern tribes began to seek more temperate areas to the south. Those displaced peoples moved into Illyrian territory then drifted further south into Thessaly and settled along the coastal areas around the Pagasaean Gulf and Thessalian Larisa. These people are identified as the Pelasgians who gave their name to the region, Pelasgia. The historian Apollodorus [II,1,1] further states that the inhabitants of the Peloponnesus were, in fact, originally Pelasgians. The Pelasgians described by Apollodorus collectively represents the Zeus worshiping Myrmidons and who Homer describes as any prehistoric, aboriginal, primitive population, or more accurately any people that were pre-Achaean and, therefore, non-Hellenic.  


The Achaean tribes from the north soon followed those of the Pelasgians and overran the Peloponnesus, taking up residency there. They are, by all accounts, the Hellenic people (Myrmidon-Achaean) described by Homer. As J. Chadwick [Antiquity, XLI, p. 274] suggest, those who entered Greece in 2000 BC, combined with the indigenous population (Pelasgian) becoming ‘Greek’ as a result of their mixing. The pre-Greek Pelasgian people absorbed the migrating Indo-European Minyai-Achaeans populations without, themselves, being completely replaced. Thus, for a time, the Pelasgians were able to maintain their tribal name alongside the newer arrivals, the Minyai-Achaeans, the two evolving together. Interestingly, the pre-Greek word for sea was Thalassa, while the Indo-European word applied to the sea was Pelagos. It may be reasonable to deduce that the Indo-European invaders of 2000 BC were responsible for naming the indigenous population – the ‘people of the sea’: Pelasgians.

As this hypothesis suggests, the name Pelasgian was given to the indigenous inhabitants of Greece by the Indo-Europeans, and that some of these Pelasgians migrated to other lands and areas, while others remained isolated, maintaining their habits and customs down to Classical times (Herodotus identifies East-Greek speaking Minyan-Pelasgians as Aeolian, and the Asianic speaking Minoan-Pelasgians as Ionic). In those areas where fusion of the two populations occurred, a synthesized culture emerged. The Minyan invaders seem to have been able to befriend the pre-Hellenic Pelasgians, but gradually detached them from their old Mother Goddess religion when they overran the Peloponnesus. This did not happen quickly, and although acculturation seems complete by 1400 BC, opposition for the Earth Goddess religious cults suffered significant setbacks from the northern Zeus cults. To be sure, Hera’s forced marriage to Zeus seems to mark a conciliatory suppression of the Great Goddess and announces the ascension of Zeus by the stronger and more powerful Indo-European Minyai. After a time, however, many of the Pelasgians were forced from their homeland and settled among the Canaanite people, who absorbed them. This new coalitions of peoples were later known under the name Phoenician and were able to continue their lifestyle as seamen and merchant marines.

The Achaeans took up residency in the central Peloponnesus, occupying Mycenae and fortifying it. The language spoken at Pylos, as at other Mycenaean centers, seems to have been Arcadian-Cyprian, or merely the southern branch of Aeolic, or an Achaean dialect common to southern Greece. The Achaeans dominated the region until the Trojan War. The expedition against Troy marks the final stage of Achaean influence. With the defeat at Troy, the Myceneans were left vulnerable, and allowed the Dorian tribes from the north to enter Greece.

The Indo-European Dorian people coming into the Peloponnese did not go unchallenged, as related by Herodotus [IX.26] who states the Achaeans and Ionians, who then occupied the Peloponnesus, marched to the Isthmus to stand against them. The remains of a fortified wall built after 1200 BC may represents an attempt by the Achaeans to stop the southerly advance by the first of the proto-Greek speaking Dorians. This at least adds some substance to the legend. Other areas of Greece were little affected by the invading Dorians. Arcadia was left virtually untouched accounting for the continuity in their language. Also, not all town in Laconia were abandon by the Achaeans. The town of Amykla, Pharis, and Geronthrai, maintained their autonomy for nearly four centuries under the Dorian shadow. It is not unreasonable to believe the Minyans Herodotus mentions as coming to Sparta and claiming blood ties were appealing for help from the remnant Achaean population rather than the Doric population. These Achaean survivors of the Bronze Age were the “perioicoi” or “dwellers around” Sparta. The Doric dialect dominated the Achaean in historical times, but the earliest inscriptions from Laconia suggest that the Doric of the Perioicoi was not pure but retained traces of the Achaean speech. In historical times, the whole of the Peloponnesus was still named Achaea after the people who had taken it at the end of the Mycenaean age.

Regardless of the assimilation and distribution of the Indo-Europeans throughout the Peloponnesus, or the political evolution which transpired in Greece, the temple structure that emerged was a hybrid of the two cultures. Subsequently, temples arising from the Archaic period were an amalgamation of architectural styles and artifacts from both Pelasgian-Achaean-Doric cultural heritages.

Arriving into Greece with the northern migrants was a gabled roof style, one that was eventually deployed over the megaron structure [MacKenzie 1904]. It is likely that later megaron buildings of Mycenae adapted the pitched roofs as well [Dorpfeld 1942]. We might further conclude the megaron form with a gabled roof made a gradual evolution arising from communication and trade with those migrating into the region from the Danube areas, Thessaly, and Asia Minor. Consequently, by the 13th century B.C., the Mycenaean megaron was so well established in its scale and design that one can logically conclude its construction was no longer experimental. As the construction techniques evolved, the earliest builders of Doric temples were not compelled to emulate the Minoan traditions, instead introduced various architectural elements which grew from long functioning northern traditions, then fossilized into the earlier temple prototypes.

The gabled structure in its earliest form was covered with waddle and clay daub, which later transitioned to a roof of baked clay tiles.  A clearstory, either at the gable ends or along the roof margin, allowed smoke from the central hearth to escape. An example of the pitched room employed at Mycenae is illustrated from two Minoan seals. The later megaron with stone walls replaced structures made from sun-dried brick, although both originally had a wooden entablature. Along with the proliferation of the gabled roof style, and as an offshoot of the megaron, the Greek Doric temple materializes in the Archaic period becoming larger. The influx of migrant Dorians, also brought with them a new pantheon of male gods and an architectural style that firmly cemented the gable roof tradition into the sacred shrines which emerge as Doric temples. Other elements were added as a result. One subsequent change was the addition of a portico or pronaos, along with that of an opisthodomos attached to the back of the building. This evolution of form and construction become the fundamental standard from which most Doric temple designs are patterned. Thus, "...the long ridged roof with gables at both ends, sometimes with a front porch...built in imitation of the Aegean megaron (Dinsmoor 1970) marked the template from which the temple style evolved. Dinsmoor further states that the temple plan at this point may have consisted of a pronaos and cella, but the plan was enlarged to add an "...adytum behind; the walls, generally of mud-brick, were exposed to the weather on three sides [and] inadequately protected by the slightly overhanging eves." It seems that for this reason, the roof was extended around to create the colonnaded portico. The roof was then covered with mud and thatch, which none has survived.


It is easy to see the classic megaron structure in the floor plan of the temple at Thermum in Aetolia. There is a pronaos with a column such as those at Minoan Crete and Mycenaean. The central sanctuary or cella (Naos), makes up the fundamental elements built within the surrounding colonnade, which becomes commonplace in Doric architecture. The columns placed down the middle of the Apollo Thermum structure adds credence to the need for additional supporting timbers for the gable spine extending the length of the temple.


Thus, the first temples were made from the blending of styles, although the wooden prototypes had some difficulty transitioning to stone. Primarily, the problem arose with the rafters at the point where they met the stone walls. It seems the sloping rafters presented a aesthetic challenge to the temple architects, finding the ends of those beams unbecoming. An example of how the facing triglyphs might be used against the structural beams can be seen in the Choisy reconstruction. Here the artist has followed Vitruvius to the letter.  On the other hand, if we assume the earliest wooden entablature temples, and prototypes for the later stone ones had need of a clearstory, then the Guadet reconstruction suits the purpose. In the end, the architects chose to decorate the end of each roof beam to form a triglyph. These beam ends (triglyphs) were positioned above a supporting column below it.​

Choisy Reconstruction
Gaudet Reconstruction
Alternative Reconstruction

Pausanias, for example, claims the temple of Hera at Olympia had wooden columns and wooden entablature, typical of a norther building tradition. Euripides also makes a reference to the existence of a wooden entablature, but it is the Roman historian Vitruvius who specifically states the Doric entablature was originally made of wood and wrote that “…the triglyph [was] painted with a waxen composition of blue color, so that the ends of the beams…might not be unpleasant to the eye.”

In the Archaic Period, the Doric capitals spread wide from the column compared to later Classical forms. The columns were squat compared to other orders; their vertical shafts fluted with usually 20 concave grooves running the height. The Doric capital, or echinus (named after a genus of sea urchin which the capital resembles) flared from the column to meet a square abacus at the intersection with the architrave. The metopes filled the gap between triglyphs, a space that may one have been open as a clearstory for wooden prototype temples.

Archaic style column
Classical style column

Notwithstanding the minor styalistic design traits, the Doric temple gradually evolved in its fundamental structure and form throughout much of the Archaic period. The later Archaic period temples, rather than placing columns down the central isle, as with the example below with the temple of Poseidon at Ishmia, a structural reality that, nevertheless, tended to break up the internal space, deployed timbers along the side wall of the pronaos, cella, and opisthodomus to lessen the bearing of the main rafter supporting the pitched roof, as with the temple of Apollo Lykeios at Sikyon.


​The Archaic Doric temple style evolved in its refinements, although remained somewhat robust in appearance and lacked the sympatry that was to come. At Assos, for example, the temple is the only one of its kind in Asia Minor and tends to look "thrown together without much understanding" of the Doric style and design. It uses a decorated architrave ranging from animals combats to mythological scenes beneath a traditional triglyph and metope frieze, a feature usually seen only in the Ionic order temples, a departure from the architectural style of the Classical period Doric order in mainland Greece. The innovative design fluctuation at Assos, simply demonstrates that the Doric order was a style that had yet to become fully articulated at that time and in all places, but that was about to change.

The Doric style came into its own with the introduction of symatry and proportion introduced by Pythagoras.


Pythagoras (ca. 572-497 B.C.) introduced a school of architects that segnificantly influenced temple design. It was sometime after 450 B.C. that temple design adapted a uniform method of proportion. The Roman historian Vitruvius claims. according to Hambridge, "...that the Greeks used a module to determine the symmetry of their temples and gave a most elaborate instruction as to how the plans were developed. However, no Greek design has been found which agrees wth the Vitruvian statement. In fact the module would produce a grade of static symmetry which would have afforded much amusement to the Greeks." (Hambridge, 1967:XV)

It was Pythagoras that formulated a method of using irrational mumbers in laying out the footprint of Doric temples. We may conclude that the Pythagorean mystery school of architects that a particular and specific nomenclature was employed and instructions given to the master craftmen for the exact proportion of the Doric temple design.

The statistical proportions arrived at in the current investigation suggest that temple design resulted from the deployment of irrational mumber and harmonic theory which were extracted from the theoretical mathematics of Pythagoras. These temple proportions can be shown quite clerly in temple interaxial dimensions which correlate wtih with squares of primary integers and seem to have formed the theoretical basis for all Classical period Doric temple design. I see no reason not to regard this phenomenon as a result of Pythagorean mathematics, and more specifically, coming from Pythagoras himself.

Triglyph and Metope Distribution following contraction of the corner columns

As noted, centered above every column is the triglyph, except where the corners of the entablature meet, creating an inharmonious mismatch where the triglyph does not sit directly above the column. If we assume the column supported the beam above it and the triglyphs represent the ends of those beams, this arrangement may have worked for the early prototypes, but as the temples converted to stone, the final triglyph was moved to the end location to form a uniform corner. This configuration left a disturbing excess to the metope between corresponding columns. The resulting problem is called the Doric corner conflict. Because the metopes are somewhat flexible in their proportions, the modular space between columns (intercolumniation) can be adjusted by the architect. Often the last two columns were set slightly closer together (corner contraction), to give a subtle visual strengthening to the corners. These stylistic maneuvers prevented the end triglyph from being excessively large. The remnant metope adjacent to the end triglyph at the corner was a refinement that had several derivations, the ones in the western colonies going so far as to use a double contraction of the end columns which further reduced the metope exaggeration.

Column spacing2.jpg

These adjustments can be expressed as follows: "The Doric architect worked within a peculiarly rigid framework. He was not required to innovate on a large scale and would not have been admired had he done so, for it would have meant that he was not fulfilling the task he had been set but performing a different one. Rather he should overcome difficulties and introduce improvements so subtly that any innovations he made should not a first glance be apparent.  [Ayrton 1961:171] This statement seems to encapsulate what we see with the triglyph and metope distribution at the corners. We can also see how the triglyph/metope design and configuration remained consistent for the duration of the Doric temple design. Only small innovations to certain structures, such as the addition of columns to the cella, as in the case of Olympia Matroon, but otherwise the temple remained unaltered in its general shape and appearance.

As a historical note, and as stated earlier, during the tumultuous Late Helladic, or Mycenean period, the time corresponding to the migrations into Greece from the north, where the matrilineal form of succession broke down about the time of the Trojan War, no region or territory was safe from the social and cultural changes the northerners brought with them. To illustrate the point, in the Iliad, Achilles conducts a series of raids along the Anatolian territory. Achilles says to Agamemnon, ' have captured twelve towns from the sea, besides eleven that I took by land. From each I got a splendid haul of loot.' A clay tablet from the king of Alashia corroborates the expansion and need for territory no longer viable through family bonds and reads, 'behold, the enemy's ships come here; my cities were burned, and they did evil to my country...and inflicted much damage upon us.'


Home's Iliad describes the classic struggle for power between patriarchal tribes resulting in many Greek tribes banding together. One such confederacy consisted of Pelasgians, Achaeans, Phthians, and Hellens known as the 'People of the Sea.'  This amalgamation eventually abandoned their homeland in search for other territory. Some went west to settle on the Po region of Italy under the banner of Tyrrhenians while a Pelasgian League attacks Egypt. The Egyptian army, under Ramesses III, however, utterly destroys them in 1179 BCE. The period also brought about the dissolution of the Mycenean culture along with the abandonment of places like Mycenae and Tiryns. The ultimate result from the chaos brought about an architectural style that firmly cemented the gable roof traditions into the sacred shrines and subsequently the formation of the Doric temple style.

​All of the specific details of what the architect knew and how he implemented the temple design is discussed at length in the section of temple proportions.          Go to Temple Proportions

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