Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius

Classical Architecture – Foundational Design Principles

The Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius (De Architectura) contain many foundational design principles. The basic concepts are useful for architects — and anyone else who designs and builds things. This is a summary and study guide for the Ten Books on Architecture. De Architectura is considered one of the most significant works on architecture to survive from classical antiquity and provided a major influence on Renaissance architects.

Table of Contents

  • Key Facts About Vitruvius
  • Book 1: Vitruvius argues architects should study many disciplines to master both the theory and practice of architecture.
  • Book 2: Traces the historical development of architectural materials and techniques from primitive beginnings to refined Greek temple architecture.
  • Book 3: Provides guidelines on Greek temple design, orientation, columnar orders and proportional systems.
  • Book 4: Emphasizes geometric ratios and symmetries across all elements of sacred temple architecture.
  • Book 5: Gives proportional guidelines and ornamentation directives for public, private and theatrical buildings beyond Greek temples.
  • Book 6: Recommendations on urban planning including site selection, street grids, public spaces and healthful orientation of cities.
  • Book 7: Describes ideal home layouts, decorations and furnishings for wealthy as well as more modest houses.
  • Book 8: Covers designing water supply infrastructure, drainage systems, and decorative water features from an engineering perspective.
  • Book 9: Offers technical instruction on ancient timekeeping equipment like sundials and water clocks.
  • Book 10: Explains both simple machines and more complex mechanical devices useful for construction, manufacturing and entertainment.
  • How Vitruvius and the Romans Changed Architecture
  • Translations
  • Bibliography
  • Peripteral Design – Definition

Key Facts About Vitruvius

  • Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was a Roman architect and engineer who lived in the 1st century BC. He is best known as the author of the treatise De Architectura (On Architecture).
  • De Architectura is the only surviving major book on architecture from classical antiquity. It covers a wide range of topics including urban planning, building materials, proportions, decorations, temples, water supply, etc.
  • Vitruvius advocated for the proper selection and use of architectural elements such as columns, bases and capitals. He believed architecture should have three main qualities: strength, utility and beauty.
  • His ideas on architectural proportion and harmony influenced later Renaissance architects and artists such as Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Vitruvius described many different machines and mechanical inventions in De Architectura, including hoists, pneumatic pumps, water mills and the odometer.
  • He was chief architect under Julius Caesar and Augustus and was responsible for many public projects. However, none of his buildings have survived.
  • The only building possibly designed by Vitruvius is the Basilica at Fano. The basilica’s proportions closely match his specifications.
  • Vitruvius’ writings and ideas had a major influence on neoclassicism in the 18th century. Architects sought to revive classical Greek and Roman principles of design and proportion.

Vitruvius – Three important principles for every design: Beauty, stability, usefulness.

In the following sections we provide a brief summary of each of the 10 books of De Architectura by Vitruvius — commonly known as the Ten Books on Architecture.

Book 1 – Summary

Vitruvius believes architecture requires knowledge of many fields – practice/craftsmanship and theory. Architects should have education in drawing, geometry, history, philosophy, music, medicine, law, etc.

  • He explains why each area of knowledge is useful for architects. For example, music theory helps design theatres and instruments, medicine helps pick healthy sites, philosophy develops morals, law helps write contracts.
  • Vitruvius argues architects need wide knowledge but cannot truly master all these arts. They must have a “fairly good knowledge” of subjects indispensable for architecture.
  • He acknowledges most people cannot gain knowledge of all subjects due to limited talents. A few exceptional ancient scholars mastered many arts through mathematics and philosophy.
  • Vitruvius does not claim to be highly proficient in all subjects. He writes as an architect with “only a dip” into other fields.
  • He promises his writings will prove useful not just for builders but for all scholars. The work covers the theory and efficacy of architecture.

In summary, Vitruvius advocates broad learning across disciplines to properly practice architecture, while conceding architects can’t achieve mastery of all subjects. His writings aim to cover architectural theory comprehensively.

Beauty is produced by the pleasing appearance and good taste of the whole, and by the dimensions of all the parts being duly proportioned to each other.

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio
The remaining arches of a Roman aqueduct in southern France. The Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius (De Architectura) contain many foundational design principles, which are proven over time.
The Pont du Gard is an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge built in the first century AD to carry water. Photo by Benh Lieu Song, CC BY SA 3.0

Book 2 – Summary

History of Buildings and Building Materials

  • Vitruvius discusses the origins and early development of buildings and building materials.
  • He states primitive men originally lived in the woods. They made shelters of leaves and branches before building huts with mud and twigs.
  • The first buildings were cottages of unfired brick or stone construction. Roofs were made of thatch or reeds.
  • Later, as better tools were invented, more sturdy buildings developed using wattle and daub along with fired bricks.
  • Rows of bricks or stones held together by mud and mortar became common. Tile roofs were introduced.
  • Greek architecture refined building with formal styles and proportions. Columns, entablatures and symmetrical plans were developed.
  • Many Greek innovations came from studying wooden temples and translating those details into stone and marble.
  • The Corinthian order was invented later than Doric, Ionic and other styles. Corinthian used ornate capitals with carved acanthus leaves.

In summary, Vitruvius traces early architectural history starting from primitive origins up to the formal Greek orders of architecture. He emphasizes the influence of wooden buildings on later stone temples.

Book 3 – Summary

Designing Temples and Places of Worship

  • Vitruvius discusses Greek temples and religious architecture.
  • He describes the ideal site and orientation for temples based on symmetry, proportion and astronomical principles.
  • Temples should be oriented so the length faces east to west. The pronaos or front porch faces east.
  • Columns can be arranged in a peripteral design with a column surrounding the cella or they may be distyle, amphiprostre, etc. based on the number and placement of columns.
  • Temples had stepped platforms called the crepidoma on which columns were placed. Stylobates formed the top step.
  • Dimensions and proportions followed precise ratios. For example column height was based on a proportion of the lower diameter.
  • Intercolumniation or spacing between columns also followed set ratios. Larger spaces were left at center or ends depending on the style.
  • Moldings, bases, capitals and other elements followed established proportional systems. Corinthian capitals had particularly elaborate rules.

Vitruvius provides a comprehensive guide to temple design, proportions and layout according to Greek architectural principles.

Book 4 – Summary

Proportions and Symmetry For Temple Design

  • Vitruvius states that symmetry arises from proportion, which is a correspondence among the measures of the members of an entire work.
  • The ideal ratio is for the length to be one and a half times the width of the cella.
  • Column height should be based on a precise fraction of the lower diameter. The ideal is for columns to be eight and a half times their lower diameter.
  • Intercolumniation, or spacing between columns, also follows set ratios. For example, the space between columns can equal one column diameter or one and a half diameters. Wider spacing is used at the center or flanks.
  • Steps must be designed based on the proper rise to run ratio. Steps are ideally not higher than 10 inches nor less than 9.
  • Moldings and projecting elements have established proportional sizes. For example, the projection of the corona equals its height.

In summary, Vitruvius emphasizes geometric ratios and symmetry across all elements of sacred architecture from the overall dimensions down to minute details.

Book 5 – Summary

Proportions and Symmetry For Other Buildings

  • This chapter covers the design, proportions and ornaments of buildings other than sacred temples.
  • For public buildings like basilicas, Vitruvius gives guidelines on width relative to length. The width should be not more than half or less than a third of the length.
  • He describes how to proportion columns and intercolumniation for buildings with two or more stories. Upper columns should be thinner.
  • For private buildings, symmetry and design should match function and status of the owner. Houses for everyday citizens are plainer than those for nobility.
  • Decorations and ornaments should be appropriate to the building’s purpose. For example, forums and public spaces can have more ornate columns, pediments, friezes etc.
  • Theatres have their own proportional systems. Seating area dimension ratios follow mathematical acoustic principles. Scene buildings were decorated elaborately.
  • For all buildings, Vitruvius emphasizes symmetry, eurythmy (harmony), propriety and economy suited to the building’s function and status.

In summary, this chapter covers proportional systems and ornamentation guidelines for public, private and theatrical architecture beyond Greek temples.

Book 6 – Summary

Layout and Design of City Streets and Urban Spaces

  • Vitruvius provides guidance on orienting and situating cities based on climate, winds, terrain and resources.
  • He recommends logical, orderly street plans with good drainage. Main thoroughfares should be wide, level and straight.
  • Intersections should be at right angles. Curved and narrow alleys are unsuitable.
  • There should be open public spaces and squares across the city for gatherings. These should be positioned near forums and government buildings.
  • Sites must be reserved for religious temples, theaters, exercise grounds, harbors if near the sea, and other public facilities.
  • Walls should be suited to the form of the site. Rectangular plans are best for plains, curved walls for hills.
  • Proper orientation prevents excess heat and cold. He recommends summer sunrise alignment in colder climates.

In summary, Vitruvius provides guidelines on selecting sites, planning street grids, allowing public spaces and orienting cities advantageously.

Book 7 – Summary

Home Design, Decoration, and Furnishings

  • Vitruvius describes ideal plans and layouts for homes of the wealthy as well as more modest dwellings.
  • Main rooms should face east for light and warmth. Kitchens, baths and other service rooms should be placed to the north.
  • Homes should have an atrium, peristyle courtyard, dining room, bedrooms, library and shaded verandahs. Ideal sites have good views and gardens.
  • Walls can be decorated with stucco, polished marble, or artwork depicting nature, mythology or philosophy.
  • Floors are made of mosaic, marble tiles, or patterned cement.
  • Furnishings include bronze and marble tables, couches for dining, and chairs of Greek or Roman design.
  • Bedrooms should have spring mattresses. Dining rooms may have fountains. Libraries ought to face east and have ample shelves.

In summary, Vitruvius provides guidance on decorating and furnishing homes with style and attention to functionality.

Book 8 – Summary

Water Supply and Drainage for Buildings and Towns

  • Vitruvius describes locating, digging and lining wells for clean water supply. Wells should not be near sewers, cesspools, baths or marshes.
  • Rainwater collection systems include roof gutters, cisterns and reservoirs. Proper drainage prevents erosion and sinkholes.
  • Aqueducts utilize gravity flow to bring water from distant springs and lakes into towns and cities.
  • Baths and fountains should have adequate water volume and drainage. Pools require sound foundations.
  • Decorative water features include bronze and marble fountains, labyrinths, fishponds, water organs and hydraulics powered by waterwheels.
  • Vitruvius provides technical details on materials, slopes and capacities of water systems. Lead pipes are common.

In summary, this chapter covers designing water infrastructure and decorative water elements from a practical engineering perspective.

Book 9 – Summary

Measuring Time Using Sundials and Water Clocks

  • Vitruvius first explains principles of gnomonics, or determining solstices, equinoxes, seasonal hours based on sun positions.
  • Sundials use gnomons – surfaces that cast shadows according to sun angles. Dials are oriented by compass points.
  • He describes equinoctial, solstitial, analemmatic and pelekinic sundials using different gnomon angles.
  • Portable composite dials combine multiple sundial types into folding pocket devices.
  • Water clocks use vessels with small, calibrated openings allowing water to drip at a steady rate to mark time. Some use floats.
  • Mechanical alarm systems can be integrated with water clocks using valves that tip vessels or blow whistles at set times.
  • Public water clocks feature figures that mark the hours mechanically. Dials and sounds announce times.

In summary, this chapter offers a technical guide to ancient timekeeping technology using mathematics and engineering.

Ten Books on Architecture – Book 10 – Summary

A brief summary of chapter 10 (or book 10) of the Ten Books on Architecture: Vitruvius lists simple machines like levers, axles, pulleys, screws and wedges that are the elements of more complex machinery.

  • He describes ratio calculations needed to properly design machines for hauling, lifting, pressure and efficiency.
  • Water wheels, both horizontal and vertical, are discussed as sources of rotary power. Gearing transfers and regulates this power.
  • Mills, presses, cranes and other machines typically incorporate poles, ropes, drivers, drums, gears and water wheels in various combinations.
  • Theatrical machinery utilizes counterweights and pulleys to fly actors playing gods or raise ornamental set pieces.
  • Automata and animated statues amaze audiences in theaters and temples through similar mechanisms.
  • Engineers must calculate weights, loads and capacities using principles of geometry and physics when designing machinery.

In summary, chapter 10 covers both simple machines and more elaborate mechanical devices useful for construction, manufacturing and entertainment.

How Vitruvius and the Romans Changed Architecture

How Vitruvius and the Romans Changed Architecture: A Survey of Classical Architecture, part 2 (see part 1 here)

Ten Books on Architecture – Translations

Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius. Using modern book binding and publishing standards — might actually be called one book with 10 chapters. (Similar to the Holy Bible, which is 66 books, but bound and published in one large volume.) The original Ten Books on Architecture were written in Latin, under the title De Architectura. An English translation was prepared by Morris Hicky Morgan, PH.D. and Herbert Langford Warren, in 1914. It’s in the public domain and available on Wikisource. Project Gutenberg provides several eBook versions of the Morgan-Warren translation. An older English version of the Ten Books on Architecture was translated from the ancient Latin manuscripts by Joseph Gwilt, and published in London in 1826.

Ten Books on Architecture – Bibliography

When writing longer technical articles, I’m trying to provide a bibliography in MLA format.

  1. “Vitruvius.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8-Aug-2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitruvius. Accessed 11-Sep-2023.
  2. “De Architectura.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8-Aug-2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_architectura. Accessed 11-Sep-2023.
  3. “Vitruvius.” Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, 11-May-2022, britannica.com/biography/Vitruvius. Accessed 11-Sep-2023.
  4. Cartwright, Mark . “Vitruvius.” World History, 22-Apr-2015, worldhistory.org/Vitruvius/. Accessed 11-Sep-2023.
  5. Morgan, Morris H. PH.D., and Herbert L. Warren A.M. “Ten Books on Architecture.” WikiSource, 24-Dec-2021, en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ten_Books_on_Architecture. Accessed 11-Sep-2023.
  6. The Architecture of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio: In Ten Books. United Kingdom, Priestley and Weale, 1826. Accessed 11-Sep-2023.

Peripteral Design Principles

A peripteral design refers to the layout and arrangement of columns around a temple cella in ancient Greek architecture.

The key features of a peripteral temple design are:

  • The cella or inner sanctuary is surrounded completely by a single row of columns (the peripteron).
  • There is a portico or porch (pronaos) across the front facade with columns.
  • The opisthodomos is a similar portico in the rear.
  • The columns surrounding the cella stand on a stepped platform or crepidoma.
  • There are an equal number of columns across the front and back. The number of columns on the flanks depends on the proportions.
  • Spacing between the columns is wider at the center and corners, closer along the sides.
  • The columns support an entablature of architrave, frieze and cornice.

The overall effect is of the cella appearing to float within the surrounding colonnade. Examples include the Parthenon, Temple of Apollo at Bassae, and Temple of Athena at Paestum.

Peripteral Design Greek Temple

Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius. Example of peripteral design Greek temple. Art by Doug Vos.
Artistic rendering of peripteral design Greek temple, by Doug Vos.

Pillars stand tall at the old ruins of the ancient Greek Parthenon.
The old ruins of the ancient Greek Parthenon. Photo by Spencer Davis via Pexels.

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