BMCR 2008.06.26

Greek Sanctuaries. An Introduction

, Greek sanctuaries : an introduction. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2007. xi, 172 pages : illustrations, map, plans ; 23 cm. ISBN 1853996890. £12.99 (pb).

The title of this book is somewhat misleading. It does not include the term “architecture” at all, but the book’s goal is to present the basics of Greek architecture and its terminology primarily though the architecture of temples and treasuries. The book is intended primarily as a textbook for introductory students, although any person looking to get an overview on their own could use it with somewhat less success. The text includes a history of temple and treasury architecture and introduces a few famous examples in detail. The amount of background provided about ritual, social context, and other sanctuary buildings is limited, but one could supplement with John Pedley’s Sanctuaries and the Sacred in the Ancient Greek World if necessary.1 The text is enhanced by seventy-eight black and white images, a glossary linked to terms set in bold within the text, a short index, and a list of twenty books as suggestions for further reading.

The book is divided into fifteen chapters of varying length. Emerson begins with a few introductory chapters on temple history and architectural terminology, before delving into “case studies” of sanctuaries and individual buildings of different periods (Delphi, Olympia, the Athenian Acropolis, the Hephaisteion, and Bassae). She explains in the preface (p. vii) that the sanctuaries and their buildings were chosen based on their modern popularity, how often they appear on formal British examinations, and how well they could serve as a gateway to a continuing study of architecture and sanctuaries.

There are two short introductory chapters. The first (“Introduction”) sets up some general themes, such as consistency in Greek temple architecture and the importance of a sanctuary’s landscape. The second (“What was a sanctuary?”) introduces the basic form, components, and uses of sacred space.

Chapter 3 (“From mud hut to marble temple: Doric and Ionic”) briefly covers the history of Greek religious architecture, beginning with a short reference to the monumental stone architecture of the Mycenaeans, until the earliest stone temples. The Doric and Ionic orders and their vocabularies are introduced, and the possible wooden origin of their stone elements is discussed.

Chapter 4 (“Architectural Sculpture”) focuses on the parts of a temple that featured sculptured decoration and how that decoration could be read. The pediment of the Temple of Artemis at Corfu is the main example.

Chapter 5 (“Delphi”) begins the sanctuary and building case studies. The major buildings are presented as the viewer in the Classical period would have seen them while following the Sacred Way though the site and then continuing to the Athena Pronaia sanctuary. The Siphnian Treasury, the Treasury of the Athenians, and the Tholos receive special attention, while the athletic, theatric, and dedicatory structures are featured briefly, as well.

The next sanctuary is Olympia (Chapter 6). Because so much is known about organization and personnel at this site, the author uses this opportunity to provide general information about the management of sacred space. The site description follows a different direction than that for Delphi since the path of the generic ancient visitor is less evident to us now. The focus is on the temples first (with most attention to the Zeus temple), followed by lesser monuments such as the Hippodameion and the Philippeion. This variety in the ordering of sanctuary descriptions continues throughout the book. The way in which individual buildings are described also varies, but often that variety feels more like inconsistency.

The next seven chapters (7-13) focus on Athens, particularly the Acropolis. Chapter 7 presents the “historical background,” followed by individual chapters on the major buildings of the Periklean Program in chronological order (Parthenon, Propylaia, Athena Nike temple, and Erechtheion). The next chapter takes the reader down the hill to the Hephaisteion, whose discussion focuses on associations with the immediate surroundings (the industrial district) as well as the Acropolis buildings. This section ends with what may be the most interesting chapter in the book, “Views and their meanings: the Acropolis and its surroundings.” It discusses in detail what views of the city were available from each slope of the Acropolis and vice versa. This brings in more information about the slopes of the Acropolis and the city center and ties the architecture nicely into history and mythology, as well as topography.

Two final chapters round out the presentation. Chapter 14 presents one final case study, the sanctuary of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae. The focus is on its oddity and its connections to Athenian architecture. The final, extremely short chapter (“Looking at art in sanctuaries”) opens with a question: “How did the ancient viewer look at art and architecture?” The author answers her question through a close look at the scene in Euripides’ Ion in which the chorus approaches the temple at Delphi.

This book does not offer much that is new in terms of content, and one could level the kind of criticisms typical for most standard treatments: it is Athenocentric, ignores Greece outside the mainland (Italy does not even appear on the map), and presents Pausanias too uncritically (referring to him as naive and “no art critic” [p. 60] is not helpful). However, that does not mean the author simply sticks to old party lines about the buildings — alternate views and new ideas are presented consistently, even though the focus and audience of the book prevent detailed discussion of all sides of an argument. A good example is how the various interpretations of the Parthenon Frieze are summarized in a mere paragraph with surprising clarity (p. 90). It is also noteworthy that the author very rarely employs antiquated views or vocabulary (an unfortunate use of ‘primitive’ does appear on p. 24, however).

The strengths of this book lie in the presentation of its standard material. There is a refreshing focus on experiential aspects of architecture. The author notes where things were placed in a sanctuary, in what order they would have been viewed, and what could have been seen. Observations of details like mouldings, how a building’s columns line up with its porches, and aesthetic sensibilities are emphasized. Connections between buildings are highlighted with regular cross-referencing. The architectural and art historical information is combined with frequent and appropriate quotes in English translation of a variety of ancient sources, from historians to playwrights.

The tone of the book fits with the relatively young age of the intended audience. The text is peppered with occasional exclamation points and the author sometimes pauses to wax poetic about sanctuary visitors being moved by the spirits of a place. Several features of this book will be especially helpful to the student reader: frequent illustrations, a glossary, (see above) setting glossary terms in bold the first time they appear in the text, division of each chapter into smaller sections under clear headings, occasional use of bulleted outlines, and a conclusion ending each chapter. It is not always clear what lay behind the glossary choices, however. For such a canonical book, why do students never learn “canon”? Why instead do they learn “numinous”? Another small problem is the lack of focus on architects. For example, Ictinus is not introduced as the architect of the Parthenon until he becomes important for the discussion of the temple at Bassae several chapters later.

The images, all black and white, are generally of excellent quality and quite helpful. For an unusual building like the Erechtheion, at least sixteen figures can be found that include it: site plans, architectural drawings, and close-up photographs. Some details in figures may not be apparent to those reading the book on their own (e.g., the lifting bosses in Fig. 51), but this would not be a problem in a classroom setting. A very few problems stand out, though, and are worth a warning to those who will use this as a textbook: Fig. 73 claims to include the triglyphs built into the north Acropolis wall, but only the column drums are visible. The labels on the Doric elevation (Fig. 2) are not always clear (at least in my copy); for example, the arrow from “cornice” breaks off and appears to begin again below. There is no Ionic elevation to match the Doric. I realize that many of the items would be the same, but it is useful for students to see them side by side. Finally, although Corinthian columns are discussed several times, there is never an adequate image of one (the one in Fig. 76, the reconstruction of the interior of the Bassae temple, is too small).

The text and the figure captions have few typographical errors. However, this makes the many mistakes in the glossary and index even more unfortunate. Most of the glossary problems are associated with the terms set in bold in the text — occasionally words are set in bold multiple times rather than just the first time, and several are not set the first time but are set later. It is even worse that at least four words are in the glossary but never set in bold, and at least eight are set but not in the glossary. Anathyrosis appears in the glossary, but I could not find it at all in the text, set in bold or not. Several typos appear in the index and a few entries miss important references in the text, but more frustrating is the imprecision of “leaf and dart” linked to all leaf mouldings, or “Mycenae” linked to not just Mycenae but all things Mycenaean.

There are also issues with transliteration and spelling. In contrast to the Hellenized “Athene,” other words are spelled with “c” instead of “k,” and there are inconsistencies between the index and the text. For example, “Alpheus” appears in the index, but it is “Alphaios” in the text, and the correct “Zeus Herkeios” is used in the text, but it is indexed as “Herkaios.”

For someone looking to teach or read about the basics of Greek architecture as represented by some of the most famous and aesthetically pleasing religious buildings, this book will be a useful tool. The minor typographical errors do not stamp out its many positive qualities such as accessibility, clarity, and visual interest.


1. John Pedley, Sanctuaries and the Sacred in the Ancient Greek World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. BMCR 2006.10.20.