All significant Iron Age civilizations of the Near East and Mediterranean made some use of columns. In Ancient Egyptian architecture as early as 2600 BC the architect Imhotep made use of stone columns whose surface was carved to reflect the organic form of bundled reeds; in later Egyptian architecture faceted cylinders were also common. Egyptian columns are famously present in the Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak (ca. 1224 BC), where 134 columns are lined up in 16 rows, with some columns reaching heights of 24 metres.
Some of the most elaborate columns in the ancient world were those of the Persians, especially the massive stone columns erected in Persepolis. They included double-bull structures in their capitals. The Hall of Hundred Columns at Persepolis, measuring 70 × 70 metres, was built by the Achaemenid king Darius I (524–486 BC). Many of the ancient Persian columns are standing, some being more than 30 metres tall.
The Minoans used whole tree-trunks, usually turned upside down in order to prevent re-growth, stood on a base set in the stylobate (floor base) and topped by a simple round capital. These were then painted as in the most famous Minoan palace of Knossos. The Minoans employed columns to create large open-plan spaces, light-wells and as a focal point for religious rituals. These traditions were continued by the later Mycenaean civilization, particularly in the megaron or hall at the heart of their palaces. The importance of columns and their reference to palaces and therefore authority is evidenced in their use in heraldic motifs such as the famous lion-gate of Mycenae where two lions stand each side of a column. Being made of wood these early columns have not survived, but their stone bases have and through these we may see their use and arrangement in these palace buildings.
The Egyptians, Persians and other civilizations mostly used columns for the practical purpose of holding up the roof inside a building, preferring outside walls to be decorated with reliefs or painting, but the Ancient Greeks, followed by the Romans, loved to use them on the outside as well, and the extensive use of columns on the interior and exterior of buildings is one of the most characteristic features of classical architecture, in buildings like the Parthenon. The Greeks developed the classical orders of architecture, which are most easily distinguished by the form of the column and its various elements. Their Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders were expanded by the Romans to include the Tuscan and Composite orders (see below).
Columns, or at least large structural exterior ones, became much less significant in the architecture of the Middle Ages. The classical forms were abandoned in both Byzantine architecture and the Romanesque and Gothic architecture of Europe in favour of more flexible forms, with capitals often using various types of foliage decoration, and in the West scenes with figures carved in relief. Renaissance architecture was keen to revive the classical vocabulary and styles, and the informed use and variation of the classical orders remained fundamental to the training of architects throughout Baroque, Rococo and Neo-classical architecture.
Early columns were constructed of stone, some out of a single piece of stone. Monolithic columns are among the heaviest stones used in architecture. Other stone columns are created out of multiple sections of stone, mortared or dry-fit together. In many classical sites, sectioned columns were carved with a centre hole or depression so that they could be pegged together, using stone or metal pins. The design of most classical columns incorporates entasis (the inclusion of a slight outward curve in the sides) plus a reduction in diameter along the height of the column, so that the top is as little as 83% of the bottom diameter. This reduction mimics the parallax effects which the eye expects to see, and tends to make columns look taller and straighter than they are while entasis adds to that effect.
Most classical columns arise from a basis, or base, that rests on the stylobate, or foundation, except for those of the Doric order, which usually rest directly on the stylobate. The basis may consist of several elements, beginning with a wide, square slab known as a plinth. The simplest bases consist of the plinth alone, sometimes separated from the column by a convex circular cushion known as a torus. More elaborate bases include two toruses, separated by a concave section or channel known as a scotia or trochilus. Scotiae could also occur in pairs, separated by a convex section called an astragal, or bead, narrower than a torus. Sometimes these sections were accompanied by still narrower convex sections, known as annulets or fillets.