The Greek grid towns

The idea of city foundation was part of the Greek mythology and preserved in the story of Cadmus (Kadmos). In the quest for his sister Europa, he was ordered (by the oracle in Delphi) to follow a cow with a half moon on her flank and to build a town on the spot where the cow laid down. The animal led him to Boeotia, where he founded the city of Thebes (Cadmea).

Cadmus wanted to sacrifice the cow to the goddess Athena (Minerva) and send some of his companions to the nearby Spring of Ismenos to fetch water. However, they were slain by the gold-crested dragon of Ares, who guarded the spring. Cadmus, in turn, confronted and destroyed the hydra and followed the instructions by Athena to sow the dragon’s teeth in the ground. Fierce armed men sprang up called Sparti (‘sown’), but they started fighting among themselves until only five remained. They assisted Cadmus to build the Cadmeia or acropolis of Thebes.

The new city had streets at right angles and Cadmus planned the future seven gates. A kylix (a shallow, two-handled drinking vessel) in the Musée du Louvre in Paris (Ca1860), dated from ca 550 –540 BC, shows Cadmus and the dragon fighting at the sacred spring of Ismene. Cadmus has a Gorgon-emblazoned shield and strikes towards the serpent, which is curled around a pillar of the well house. However, the interesting part for the present (quadralectic) survey is the left side of the scene with a great checkerboard pattern (fig. 585). Is the 10 x 19 grid a representation of the city of Thebes?


Fig. 585 – Cadmus fighting the dragon is seen here on Laconic Black Figure ware known as a kylix and attributed to the Horsemen Painter. The vessel dated from ca 550 – 540 BC and is now in the Museum Collection of the Louvre Museum in Paris. The grid on the left side of the representation could be a rendering of the city of Thebes.

The peregrinations of Cadmus (and his later association with Harmonia) remains an enigmatic mythical story with many aspects – of which the foundation of a (grid) city is just a part. The multiplicity of the narrative gives it a ‘Fourth Quadrant’ atmosphere, and a sequence of major events could support this setting. Searching Europa (I), visiting the oracle (II), fighting the dragon (III) and building a city (IV) are ‘quadralectic’ actions, which ‘fit’ into the characteristics of the various quadrants. The events, on the other hand, might be too arbitrary chosen in the light of the many other aspects of the myth to be convincing.

The evolution of Greek settlements and planning styles can be divided into two, rather unequal, time units. The Archaioteros tropos (or ‘older style’) of city planning runs from ca. 1200 – 500 BC and the Neoteros tropos (‘newer style’) was applied from 494 – 330 BC (VON GERKAN, 1922/1924; GUTJAHR, 1999). Cities of the ‘older style’ were, among others, places like Sparta, Epidaurus, Megara, Magnesia, Halikarnossos, Syracuse and Athens. The ancient city had a number of necessary elements, like the acropolis, walls, agora, stoas, bouleuterion, gymnasium, etc. The cities were often built over a long period of time and buildings changed in time. The architecture aimed at unification with cohesive design elements (like colonnades) resulting in an asymmetrical balance.

The cities of the Neoteros Tropos cover the classical period of the Greek cultural history with its pinnacle in the age of Pericles (443 – 429 BC). The civil grid became a major element in city design, without specific military implications.  The abstract configuration of the Greek population, living in the fourth part of their Third Quadrant (450 – 375 BC) and entering the first part of the Fourth Quadrant (375 – 300 BC), must have liked the efficiency of a grid town. Inspirational ideas of such cities could have been supplied by the Greek historian Herodotus (484 – 425 BC), who traveled widely in his life and collected a wealth of urban planning knowledge from the orient.

The Greek-Ionian settlers on the shores of (south) western Turkey, and in particular the Milesian architect Hippodamos, were credited to be the ‘inventors’ of the checkerboard type of city in the fifth and fourth century BC. However, historical researches made it clear that (Greek) colonies used grid-type layouts as early as the seventh century BC, like Smyrna (Turkey) and Selinunt near the southwestern coast of Sicily (Italy). It is now assumed that Aristotle and his followers were wrong (or just chauvinistic) to credit the before-mentioned architect.

The city of Smyrna (now: Izmir) was an Aeolian colony, which came to wealth and prosperity in the eight century BC. The city was destroyed by the Lydian king Alyattes III around 600 BC and was later conquered by the Persians in 546 BC. This period of foreign domination ended in 333 BC when Alexander of Macedon took control and ordered Lysimachus (see fig. 388) to rebuild the city.

Pausanias recorded in his ‘Description of Greece’ (7.5.3) that Alexander the Great went on a hunting trip to Mt. Pagos one day and fell asleep under a tree, in front of the Sanctuary of the Two Nemeseis. The goddesses appeared to him in a dream and bade him to be the founder of a new city there. The oracle of Apollo at Claros was consulted in due course and the medium declared that: ‘Three and four times happy will those men be, who are going to inhabit Pagos beyond the sacred Meles’.

An example of a possible inspiration for the checkerboard pattern of the later Ionian cities is the Urartian city of Zernaki Tepe (CHAHIN, 2001). The city is situated in the eastern Van Region of Turkey (Armenia) and has a regular quadratic grid (fig. 586).  The ancient site was dated from the eighth to seventh century BC (FLETCHER, 1975). The streets were about five meters wide and separated the housing blocks, which measured eighteenth by eighteenth meters. Zernaki Tepe had no gateways and its stonewalls were low, which could point to an unfinished state.


Fig. 586 – The grid-plan of the Urartian town of Zernaki Tepe, east of the Van Lake in Turkey (Armenia) might be an eight century BC predecessor of similar (Greek-Ionian) towns built in Asia Minor in the fourth century BC. Other researchers identified the town as a Roman settlement from the first or second century AD.

Anne Elizabeth REDGATE (1998) noted the dual character of the Urartian fortress town, on the one hand, and the nearby unfinished planned grid town of Zernaki Tepe on the other. The hill site town is ‘typical Roman of the first or second century AD’. Zimansky (1985; in: REDGATE, 1998) reckoned that the idea of an eight century BC grid town is unwarranted and should be considered a ‘twentieth-century invention’. This true scientific bickering is interesting, because it reveals the force of the grid idea in the context of a modern European setting.

The city of Miletus (in Greek, Hippodamia) is probably the most typical example of a grid town in the fifth century BC. (fig. 587). Miletus was, according to Herodotus, one of the twelve cities founded by Ionians fleeing the northern Peloponnese. The geographer Strabo and the historian Epheros stated that the city of Miletus was founded by Cretans and was related to the city of Milatos on that island. The settlement area reached prominence in the seventh/sixth century BC as a naval base.


Fig. 587 – The checkerboard plan of the city of Miletus (Hippodamia) was designed by Hippodamos in the fifth century BC. This design was credited (by Aristotle and others) as a Greek invention, but earlier grid-types of cities are known from the Middle East.

Miletus was the birthplace of the philosopher Thales (ca 624 – 547 BC), who was associated with an elementary form of division thinking (see p. 121; fig. 85). The protective city walls of Miletus dated back to circa 650 BC. They were restored around 550 BC. A renewed prosperity of the city started when the revolt against the Persians (500 – 494 BC) succeeded. The walls were again improved in the Hellenistic period (around 200 BC) and during the Roman occupation (125 – 88 BC).

The reconstruction of Miletus after the Persian Wars was organized by the architect and town planner Hippodamos in 479 BC. The city included three public realms (agora) linked to each other by a Stoa, in a checkerboard pattern. The architect Hippodamos also used the geometrical ground plan to create the city of Piraeus (the harbor city of Athens, c. 450) (CHOAY, 1980). His ‘Urban Planning Study for Peiraeus’ (451 BC) became the planning standard of that era and many later cities were laid out according to this plan, like the city of Rhodos (408) and Thurii (Italy, c. 440). The writer Theano of Thurii, living in the sixth century BC, dedicated her work ‘On Virtue’ to Hippodamus. Theano was the wife and pupil of Pythagoras, and taught mathematics in his school in Samos and Croton. She also wrote a ‘Theory of Numbers’ and a book about the construction of the universe.

The Greek polis of Olynthus (Chalcidice) was mentioned earlier as an example of modular orthogonal development according to the ‘Hippodamian plan’. The city in Macedonia was situated at the head of the Gulf of Torone, east of Thessalonica (Greece). It had a rich history, but the actual city life on the northern hill (in the new settlement with the grid layout) only lasted from 432 to 348 BC.

Olynthus became the capital of the so-called Chalcidic League, probably in the period of the peace of Nicias (421 BC). The settlement was thoroughly destructed by Philip of Macedon in 348 BC and the greater part of the site was abandoned. This situation led – wryly – to its good preservation, and subsequent excavation from 1928 onwards (CAHILL, 2001). The historian Callisthenes of Olynthus (c. 370 – 327) wrote the book ‘Alexandrou praxeis’ (Deeds of Alexander), which is now lost. His report on the campaigns of Alexander the Great provided the bulk of the historic material for later writers.

The ancient city of Priene was situated in western Turkey at the foot of Mt. Mykale, overlooking the Meander River. It can be seen as the pinnacle of Greek urbanization using a rectangular grid (fig. 588). The silting of the Meander River probably urged an earlier occupation (yet undiscovered) to change its location in the mid-fourth century BC. The Temple of Athena Polias was one of the first structures to be built in the newly moved city (334 BC). Towards the southeast was the open area of the agora surrounded by stoas (a portico with a colonnade, in Doric style).


Fig. 588 – The plan of the lower city of Priene shows the rectangular grid with blocks measuring about 35 x 47 meters (3 : 4).

The city was designed by Pytheos, who also contributed to the construction of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, apparently without any constraint of a directive government. It might therefore be assumed that the grid design was a ‘natural’ result of a particular frame of mind of the people living in that area (Ionia).

The modular rules of design were later expanded by the Ionian architect Hermogenes of Priene (late third century BC). The grid pattern became a political instrument in the foundation of many Greek colonies in the Hellenistic period (336 – 31 BC). In particular Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, and his successors, the Diadochi, founded a great number of grid cities. The former started during his short reign (eleven years) at least thirteen towns bearing his name, while the latter are credited with some seventy more during the following twenty-two years.

The victorious Greek believed that their culture was superior to that of the occupied countries, and they wanted to bring their ideas about ‘democracy’ with peace and justice into practice. The gridiron plan produced lots of equal size, which had administrative advantages and allowed a systematic and controlled growth of the city. The city planner Deinocrates of Rhodos worked as an architect and adviser for Alexander the Great and used the grid pattern for the layout of the city of Alexandria (Egypt) in 332 BC. A painting by André Castaigne (1898/99) gives a romantic representation of this event (fig. 589).


Fig. 589 – This painting by André Castaigne (1898/99) shows Alexander the Great (and maybe Deinocrates of Rhodos) in the process of measuring the city of Alexandria around 332 BC.

The following period of the Ptolemies, Seleucids and Antigonids saw a struggle for supremacy, mainly led by generals. Military objectives started to dominate the planning of cities and the grid design proved useful in the hands of the rulers. Its orderliness made it easy to control and a wall around the city provided protection. The concept of a wall was not dominant in the formative period of the Greek city (1100 – 800 BC), when living conditions were founded upon agriculture. The idea of the polis (or city-state) changed all that. Trade between the people of Greece accelerated strongly around 800 BC. Market places became the major features of a city and defensive units and fortifications were built to defend the products of increased wealth. The (later) cities in the colonized areas put the idea of a polis directly into practice.

The city of Dura-Europos is situated on the river Euphrates in eastern Syria. It was founded about 303 BC by the Seleucids to accommodate Macedonian veterans. Hence the name – ‘Fort Europos’ – referring to the birthplace of Seleucus I Nicator. The city was a strategic point on the route between Antioch on the Orontes and Seleucia on the Tigris.


Dura was rebuilt as a Hellenistic city in the second century BC with rectangular streets (fig. 590). Dura-Europos later became a frontier fortress of the Parthian Empire until the Romans captured it in 165 AD. The Romans were familiar with the grid layout, which they found in the conquered city. The grid was also the very end product of their art of castrametation or the layout of military camps. It was under their subsequent occupation that the famous house church and synagogue were built in Dura-Europos. The presence of a Temple of Bel, Temple of Adonis and a Mithraeum subscribed the multi-cultural setting of the town before it was destructed in a Sassanian attack in 256-257 AD and went into oblivion.


Fig. 590 – The city of Dura-Europos was founded around 300 BC as a stronghold at the Euphrates River on the road between Antioch and Seleucia. The grid pattern, with block sizes of 70 x 35 meters and a street width of 7-8 meters, dated from the second century BC, when Dura was rebuilt as a Hellenistic city.

The (colonial) Greek grid-cities will now be projected on the CF-graph of its cultural history (fig. 591). This graph was given earlier (fig. 74) as a (subjective) representation of the Greek culture-as-unity in time. The visible visibility period (X) starts in 900 BC and ‘ends’ in the Hellenistic Period in 150 (146) BC, when Greece was annexed by the Roman Empire.


Fig. 591 – This CF-graph of the Greek cultural history gives the position of some (colonial) grid towns around the Mediterranean, the Aegean Sea and other colonized areas.

The distribution of grid towns in the Greek cultural sphere of influence is concentrated in the second half of its visibility period (X), i.e. after the Pivotal Point in the year 525 BC. Their genesis, in particular in the Classical Period (475 – 300 BC), does not seem to be related to a directive government, which pressed their ideas about law and order onto architectural creativity. The cities in the Hellenistic period (300 – 30 BC), on the other hand, like Alexandria (in Egypt) and Dura Europos (in Syria), derived their grid design from Greek imperialistic ideas, which started by Alexander the Great. He was born in 356 BC as the son of king Philip II (360 – 336 BC) and queen Olympias and his roots were firmly embedded in the ancient Macedonian homeland of ‘Europos’ (in northern Greece).

The building of grid cities seemed to be a genuine psychological aspect of the dynamic, multi-ethnic population living in the area around the Aegean Sea. However, the concept (of the gridiron) can also be used, as Alexander and his successors did, as a political tool to influence a clash of various types of division thinking, which was encountered in the occupied areas. The dualism of the east (Persia) and tetradic spirit from the west (Ionian Greece) understood each other in the order of the grid design. The unity of the multitude, as embodied in the grid, surpasses oppositional thinking: the fourfold way is a perfect compromise, even if the lower form does not understand the higher type.

3 Responses to The Greek grid towns

  1. coxribadom says:

    excellent work, thank you

  2. Pingback: World Architecture: Greek Architecture – Doruk Özkoç

  3. Pingback: The Greek grid towns | Die Goldene Landschaft

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