The Anatomy of the Column

Despite their differences, the columns are all part the genus architectura, species columna. Okay, I just made that up. But nonetheless, there is still quite a collection of technical terms to describe the humble column.

The columns are supported on a continuous flat pavement called a stylobate. The base of the column rests here, the lowest part being the plinth, which is nothing more that a simple block. The rest of the base is made up of round moldings.

The most prominent part of the column is the shaft. The shaft is often tapered so that it is wider at the bottom that it is at the top. It is often lined by vertical grooves, or fluted. All columns, with the exception of the Tuscan, are covered with fluting.

At the top of the column is the capital. Structurally, its purpose is to center the weight onto the column, but ascetically, its purpose is to provide a pleasing transition between the column and the entablature.

Although not part of the actual column, the entablature is still important in defining the orders. The entablature is the section that joins the capital to the roof.

When describing a column, it is customary to measure its height according to the diameter of the shaft.

Gee, They All Look the Same to Me…

On the surface, the system of orders appears limited, and seems to do nothing but restrain the creativity of the architect. That is not necessarily true. For example, music has certain rules that must be followed, such as octaves. The rules are complicated, and must be obeyed. But despite of these rules, or even because of them, great composers ranging from Bach to Coltrane to the Beatles created masterpieces that will endure for generations. The rules of music give the artist freedom to create within boundaries, and their creations are better for it. The classical orders are very much the same. Great masterpieces of architecture were created within those rules, and many of them still stand today.

It must also be remembered that the Romans were a civilization of engineers, not artists. Their society valued rules and customs, and that is reflected in their architecture. The orders were a way in which the Romans spread their culture, and paid tribute to the Greek civilization that they admired. Wherever a traveler went in the empire, they could count on a familiar sight. A Roman sight.

And so, without further delay, here are the five orders of classical architecture.


The Doric order is the oldest of all of the orders, and is believed to be derived from columns constructed from wood. It was developed on the Greek mainland in the 7th century B.C. Unlike its cousins, it has no base, and is only four to eight diameters high. It was the Greek's favorite flavor of column.


The Ionic column is the stereotypical column that many people envision when they think of Roman buildings. It's scroll shaped capital and its slender shaft make it one of the most subtly elegant orders. The Ionic order was developed at the same time as the Doric, in Asia Minor, and was introduced to the Greek mainland in the 6th century B.C. It is more tapered than the Doric, and has a more detailed entablature. The column in its entirety is nine diameters tall, and has 24 flutes.


Not fully developed until the 4th century B.C., this was the final order created by the Greeks. Among them, this order was rarely used. It was only during Roman times that it became popular. The Corinthian is famous for the most embellished and detailed capital of all of the classical orders. Its trademark is acanthus leaves. Twenty-four flutes decorate its slender shaft.


The Tuscan order is a uniquely Roman concoction. It is a fluteless modification of the Doric, and appeals to people for whom less is more. Its column is seven diameters in height.


The Romans also created the Composite order. It is composed of an Ionic shaft and a Corinthian capital.

The Romans also applied these terms to people. Doric described someone who was strong and masculine, Corinthian was girlish and sweet, while Ionic was intellectual and elegant.

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