Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.05

A. Spawforth, The Complete Greek Temples.   London:  Thames & Hudson, 2006.  Pp. 240.  ISBN 0-500-05142-9.  $40.00.  

Reviewed by Robin Osborne, University of Cambridge (
Word count: 1168 words

On one interpretation of 'complete' this could be expected to be a very short book indeed. On another, it is hard to see that any book could be long enough. But, as the list of other books in the series reveals (The Complete Roman Army, The Complete World of Greek Mythology), the title is imposed by the publisher, who presumably hopes to attract stamp collectors. What this book really is is an illustrated historical introduction to the Greek Temple.

After a brief introduction the first chapter is a short history of the temple, from its origin to its rediscovery. Issues of the origins of the temple and the politics of temple building (marking territory, peer polity interaction) are briefly discussed, but the most notable feature here is that the history does not stop at the end of the classical period but carries on not only into the Hellenistic but also into the Roman world. S. demonstrates by tabulation that although for the Greek world generally the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. did indeed see the largest amount of temple building, in Asia Minor more colonnaded temples were built in the 2nd century A.D. than in any previous single century. The second chapter is concerned with how temples got built, mapping out the process in a simple flow diagram. This is the closest S. gets to detailed architectural description, with simplified diagrams of the orders and a brief discussion of proportions, sculpture and colour.

The third chapter is entitled 'The living temple' (its opening picture bizarrely of the interior of the unfinished temple at Segesta -- a temple that never did come alive). There is a long discussion of cult statues, complete with Indian parallels, and a close investigation of use of the interior of temples in rituals (the best such discussion known to me), as well as discussion of temples as treasuries and places to display writing. The fourth chapter follows on with a discussion of the gods worshipped in temples, priests, festivals and the relation of the temple to other buildings in the sanctuary. Here again the interest in the later Greek temple is marked. S. produces a table of the deities most worshipped in colonnaded temples, with Apollo topping the bill, followed by Athena, Zeus, Hera, Artemis, Roman emperors and then Asklepios.

The rest of the book is a gazetteer of 'Greek colonnaded temples known from their archaeological remains', arranged in 'seven journeys', the first in Italy and Sicily, three in the Greek mainland, one in the Aegean islands, one in Asia Minor and the last in Syria and North Africa. The book ends with general notes on visiting the temples and then both general and chapter-specific reading, an up-to-date listing of books and articles in four languages.

What that description of the book ignores is its chief glory: the illustrations. Even by Thames & Hudson's standards this is magnificently illustrated, with 400 illustrations, 121 or 130 of them (different claims are made in different places) in colour. Although there are naturally quite a lot of temple plans, and although most of the graphics are derived from more or less familiar sources, the photographs of remains include extremely attractive and revealing photographs of both well known and less well known buildings. Large numbers of these photographs were taken by S. himself, including a wonderful shot of the temple of Artemis at Sardis, or by Roger Wilson. The illustrations alone make this a compulsive page-turner.

It is the page-turning qualities of this book that commend it for student use. The chapter headings and subheadings ('Adorning the temple', 'Encounters with the Gods' 'The context of the temple') are rarely precise enough to enable a student to pick out rapidly a relevant passage of text, but read from cover to cover this book provides a full introduction not merely to current understanding of the temple as a building and of its use, but also to the basics of Greek religion as reflected in temple cult. S. prefaces many sections of his text with well-chosen quotations from a wide range of Greek authors, particularly authors writing in the Roman period, but we are only ever told the author, or that this is an 'Inscribed decree of the Athenians', never given a precise reference. As preliminary orientation this is excellent; as the basis for precisely focused enquiry this is frustrating.

In one respect the book is inadequate and misleading. This is, I suspect, directly related to the publishers' insistence on marketing this as 'complete'. Although S. never, I think, directly states his criteria for including or excluding temples, it becomes apparent from the heading of the first list (p.16 'The Best Preserved Colonnaded Greek Temples'), and from the first words of the first chapter (p.18 'The colonnaded Greek temple was invented around 600 B.C.') that S. wishes to invest the word 'colonnaded' with some force. Just as S. has no interest in detailed architectural description, so S. does not like conventional architectural terminology (he uses the misleading 'pilaster' for 'anta'), and his 'colonnaded' appears to mean 'peripteral'. Mostly his inclusions and exclusions can be accounted for in this way, but he fails to be entirely consistent. The amphiprostyle temple of Athena Nike is identified in one illustration as 'the little non-colonnaded temple', and is duly excluded from the temples on the Athenian Acropolis that receive full description. But included in the full descriptions (along with the rotunda that was the temple of Roma and Augustus) is the Erechtheion -- which is hardly more of a 'colonnaded temple' than is the temple of Athena Nike. Such inconsistency is a minor and venial fault, but the exclusion of non-colonnaded temples is bizarre and reprehensible. It results in whole classes of temples (e.g. island Doric) being absent, and in important sanctuaries with fine remains receiving no mention. So, for example, on Thasos S. mentions only the Herakleion at Limenas, totally ignoring the Artemision, the Thesmophorion, and the Acropolis, and making no mention of the sanctuary at Aliki in the south of the island. Or again, on Rhodes, the temples of Apollo and of Zeus Polieus and Athena Polias in Rhodes itself get mentioned, but no other temple in the whole island, not even the temple of Athena Lindia (and there is never a mention of Lindian Chronicle either). Exactly what effect these exclusions have on S.'s more general picture it is impossible to gauge, since, in a book without footnotes, he never gives the detailed data that lie behind his tables of dedications or other general claims.

An archaeologist writing a book under this title would undoubtedly have chosen to put the emphasis in different places. An architectural historian would have put the emphasis differently again. S.'s own particular emphasis on the continuing history of Greek (colonnaded) temple building after the death of Alexander gives this book a useful twist, and if its enticing colour photographs draw stamp-collecting students to want to work more on those under-studied buildings S. will have redeemed the publisher's folly.

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