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date: 25 February 2024



  • Kim Shelton


The term palace may be defined as a grand residence or home for a head of state, royal, or high-ranking dignitary. Usually applied to the large houses of the European aristocracy, “palace” is equivalent to palazzo in Italian and palais in Old French, both of which derive from the Latin palātium, residence of the emperor. The designation developed from the location of imperial residences in Rome on the Palatine Hill. In the later Roman Empire, imperial residences were increasingly constructed outside of Rome as well. The term palace is used also by scholars to label the royal residences of the rulers of Macedonia and of the Hellenistic kingdoms; in Greek, these residences were called anaktora, as were the monumental central structures of Minoan Crete and the Mycenaean Greek mainland during the Bronze Age.


  • Greek Material Culture: Bronze Age

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship. Digital materials added.

The Palaces of Rome

Beginning with the House of Augustus (Suet. Aug. 72.1) (41/40–36 bce), one of many wealthy houses on the hill at the time, the Palatine became the preferred location for the ever more audacious residences of the emperors. The definitive construction was the Palace of Domitian, which was built over many earlier buildings (including those of Augustus and Nero) in 81–92 ce. Additions made to this palace by later emperors, including the Severans (193–235 ce), culminated in the Domus Severiana, which was built to the southeast on an extensive brick platform substructure that artificially extended the hill’s surface area. These monumental and modular constructions were possible due to the use of hydraulic concrete.

Nero built his first palace, the Domus Transitoria (Suet. Ner. 31), on the Palatine Hill c. 60 ce to connect all the estates acquired by the imperial family. Located on the central part of the hill, it was made up of a large and brilliantly decorated set of rooms, some of which were preserved under Domitian’s palace. The palace’s brick walls were covered with marble dado courses and its upper walls and ceilings with painted mythological scenes, the earliest examples of fourth-style painting (these can be seen in the Palatine Museum). Rooms were built around a large peristyle court with porticos on three sides and a cryptoporticus on the fourth (northern) side that connected the house with the nearby Domus Tiberiana, also part of the complex. Remarkable features include a large nymphaeum opening onto a courtyard and conceived as the scaenae frons (architectural backdrop) of a theatre that was meant to feature fountains that could function as part of the entertainment and an unexpectedly imposing eighty-seat latrine. Destroyed by the Great Fire in 64 ce along with a large part of the city and the aristocratic villas on the Palatine, the Domus Transitoria was replaced by the Domus Aurea (Golden House).

The Domus Aurea was an enormous palace complex built not only on the Palatine but also on the slopes of the Oppian and Caelian hills. Estimated to have covered between 40 and 120 hectares, the landscaping design that sprawled over a large part of the city included groves of trees, pastures with flocks, vineyards, and an artificial lake in the valley between the hills. Suetonius (Ner. 31) describes the complex as a countryside within the city. The engineer-architects, Celer and Severus, were overseen by Nero himself, who, according to Tacitus (Ann. 15.42), took great interest in every detail of the project.

Expanding on elements of the Domus Transitoria and using reclaimed decorative elements, the Domus Aurea, named for the extensive use of gold leaf in its decoration, was designed with a focus on entertainment and contained hundreds of rooms for dining and non-domestic activities. Rooms of various shapes were designed to play with light through architectural embellishments (niches and exedras), polished marble veneers, and water features such as pools and fountains. A domed octagonal court introduced light through a central oculus, and opening off of this court were two of the principal dining rooms.

Figure 1. Domus Aurea, interior view with painted ceiling vault.

Source. sébastien amiet;l, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The walls of the Domus Aurea were extensively frescoed, principally by an artist identified by the name Famulus (or Fabulus), and the decoration was organized according to different themes in each major group of rooms. Mosaics, previously restricted to floors, were used innovatively in the vaulted ceilings. Stuccoed ceilings were faced not only with coloured marbles and gold leaf but with semiprecious stones and ivory veneers. Pliny the Elder watched the Domus Aurea being built and commented, not altogether approvingly, on its size and magnificence (HN 36.24). Just outside the main palace entrance, in a large porticoed atrium that separated the city from the private villa, Nero commissioned a colossal bronze statue of himself from the Greek artist Zenodorus.

Construction of the Domus Aurea was incomplete at the time of Nero’s death in 68 ce. As a symbol of decadence, it was a severe embarrassment to Nero’s successors, and it was mostly demolished, filled with earth, and built over by monuments such as the Flavian amphitheatre and the baths of Trajan, although a part of it continued to be occupied until it was destroyed by fire in 104 ce.

Figure 2. Reconstruction of Domitian’s Palace on the Palatine Hill with individual parts labelled and articulated with colour-coding.

Source. Cassius Ahenobarbus, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Palace of Domitian, built between 81 and 92 ce, was used as the emperor’s official residence until the 5th century ce. It dominated the Palatine Hill, adjoining or replacing earlier palaces. The massive structure, attributed to the architect Rabirus, was designed as three separate areas to allow parallel conduct of public business and private life. Two of these areas consisted of large brick-and-concrete structures arranged around peristyle courtyards. One of these (the so-called Domus Flavia) had large rooms designed for official receptions and other public functions and was connected on the southeast to the second area (the so-called Domus Augustana), which contained smaller rooms and dining-rooms and was presumably the residential area. The third area, the so-called Stadium of Domitian, extended over the entire southeast side of the Domus Augustana.

Figure 3. Plan of Domitian’s Palace: Domus Flavia, Domus Augustana, and Stadium.

Source. Cassius Ahenobarbus, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Domus Flavia (Stat. Silv. 4.2) was the public section of the palace on the northwest where most of the large “public” rooms for official business, entertaining, and ceremony were concentrated. It was built upon Nero’s earlier palace and to some extent followed its layout, being built mainly around a large peristyle courtyard which was surrounded by many elaborate rooms. The central and largest room, the Aula Regia (royal hall) was flanked by smaller reception rooms, the so-called Basilica and Lararium. A portico along the northern exterior of these rooms facing from the forum formed the main entrance to the palace.

The Aula Regia was an enormous rectangular hall for important public functions such as the reception of embassies. On the southwest end was an apse, flanked by doorways into the peristyle, where the seated emperor could hold audiences. Exotic coloured marbles were used for columns and statues and as a veneer on walls that were further embellished with colossal statues in eight inset niches. The Basilica, named for its architectural plan featuring a long central nave, was likely where the emperor met with his council to conduct political and administrative business. The so-called Lararium, likely used by the Praetorian Guard, is where visitors to the palace arrived. Behind it was staircase access to the Domus Augustana. The huge peristyle garden was dominated by a pool with an octagonal island adorned with channels and fountains at its centre. Here too, the columns and wall veneers were of coloured marble. A large, extravagantly decorated room on the southwest side of the peristyle, the cenatio (banquet hall), provided views of the peristyle’s pool and of two courtyards with elaborate oval marble fountains along its northwest and southwest sides. The marble-covered floor of this hall was heated by a hypocaust, which suggests its use as a banqueting hall in the winter.

The Domus Augustana is believed to have been the private, residential part of the palace, although in antiquity this name may have referred to the entire palace complex. This central section of the palace consisted of at least four main parts, including not only two peristyles on the northern, upper level that was closely linked to the Domus Flavia but also (on the lower level to the southwest) a courtyard complex and the Great Exedra. The so-called Third Peristyle was dominated by a huge pool filled with sculpture and an island, possibly with a temple to Minerva, that was accessed by arched bridges. The elaborate rooms surrounding this peristyle alternated between open and closed spaces suited to public use, perhaps by several social groups. The courtyard complex, reserved for the private quarters of the emperor, was built around another peristyle garden surrounded by a colonnade on two levels. The Great Exedra was a long curving arcaded gallery linking the two wings of the palace and overlooking the Circus Maximus to the southwest.

The so-called Stadium was the last section of the palace complex. It replaced older buildings dating from the time of the Republic to that of Nero. This elaborate sunken garden, originally filled with sculpture, extended along the length of the Domus Augustana’s southeast side and was a replica of a Roman circus on a smaller scale (160 × 48 m). A two-level portico with marble-veneer columns surrounded the perimeter while a large three-level exedra on the southeast side, decorated with fountains and additional sculpture, provided views of the garden below.

During the later phases of the Roman Empire, palaces were also constructed outside of Rome. One example is Diocletian’s palace at Split, begun during the last decade of the 3rd century ce near his home town in the province of Dalmatia. Diocletian began to reside there after his abdication in 305 ce, but the palace was still under construction, being part of an extensive complex that was modelled on contemporary legionary forts. An irregular rectangle in plan, the palace’s interior was divided into four quarters by central avenues running north–south (cardo) and east–west (decumanus) and was surrounded on three sides by fortification-like façades topped by large arches and guarded by a total of sixteen towers. Most of these towers were square, but those flanking the three main entrances (one on each of these three sides) were octagonal. The south façade of the complex faced the sea, was unfortified, and consisted of an arcaded gallery that included a small “Sea Gate.” The northern half of the complex resembled a castrum (“military fortification”) and the southern half was designed like a villa and included public, private, and religious buildings, as well as the emperor’s apartments along the entire south façade. A monumental peristyle court formed the northern access to the imperial apartments and on its eastern side also gave access to Diocletian’s mausoleum.

Classical and Hellenistic Palaces

The palace of the Ptolemies (332–30 bce) at Alexandria in Egypt was located on the Great Harbour, one of two harbours that fronted the city and flanked the causeway to the Pharos (lighthouse) The palace quarter occupied the northeast section of the city and the island of Antirrhodos and included its own smaller harbour, several sanctuaries, and a large park. The historian Strabo (17.1.6–8, 13) described multiple palaces, together with magnificent public precincts, built at Alexandria by successive rulers. The palace complex, like many palaces throughout the Hellenistic world, was hybrid in style, combining elements from the Greek world and the local vernacular. It was likely the model for Roman palaces, beginning with Nero and the Domus Aurea.

A series of earthquakes and tidal waves, beginning in the 4th century ce at the latest, caused the collapse of the harbour floor and destroyed and submerged this area of the city. Underwater research and mapping have revealed elements of the palace area and confirm the written accounts which say that it comprised a complex of various elements rather than a single unified structure. There were several a administrative structures together with special buildings for feasting, one of which, built for Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the form of a Macedonian dining tent, had sufficient space for 130 feasting couches.

The Macedonian kingdom had two capitals—the first at Aegae (modern Vergina) and a second after c. 400 bce, at Pella—and thus had two palaces. Kingship demanded an architecture of status and spectacle so neither expense nor energetic design were spared. The extensive palace at Aegae was constructed during the reign of Philip II in the second half of the 4th century bce as the central structure in a complex that included the agora and theatre in the western part of the city.1 The huge building, with a large peristyle court of Doric colonnades surrounded by carefully planned rooms, functioned as a residence and administrative centre. The formal dining rooms and banqueting halls were sumptuously decorated with mosaic floors, marble thresholds, lustrous stucco that resembled marble, and painted plaster walls. The entrance on the east was flanked by additional dining rooms and a circular shrine to Herakles Patroos, the ancestral deity of the Argead dynasty. A large veranda along the northern façade provided vistas over the city and surrounding landscape. Residential spaces for the royal family and their entourage may have been located on a second story over the east wing. In the Hellenistic period, a second peristyle was added to the west of the monumental complex for service activities, kitchens, and storage. The design of this unique building, attributed to Pytheos, draws on the traditional Greek peristyle home while extending that model to incorporate and emphasize Macedonian elite communal dining. Its public elements, design, and decoration are innovative but may have been inspired by the architecture of the Persian East.

Figure 4. View of the palace at Pella with multiple peristyles and mosaic floors.

Source. Joyofmuseums, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

At Pella, the extensive palace complex (c. 6 ha) was situated on a central hill overlooking the planned city to the south. It consisted of at least five architecturally independent groups of buildings on different terraces linked by corridors, passageways, and colonnades. Each structure included rooms arranged around a peristyle court; one certainly was the residence of the royal family, another structure housed staff, and ample space was provided for banqueting, religious activity, storage, and workshops as well as a gymnasium and pool/bath complex. A large colonnaded facade built on a high foundation and interrupted by a triple gateway anticipated the theatricality of Hellenistic architecture and gave the palace an imposing monumental air when seen from the city below. The size and design of the palace complex reflects its use not only as a royal residence but also as an important administrative centre.

Bronze Age Aegean

“Palace” is a term also applied to complex structures of the Middle and Late Bronze Age Aegean cultures on Crete and the Greek mainland. The designation “palace” and its interpretation as the residence of a king derives in part from early scholars (Schliemann and Evans) who were thinking in terms of the heroic world of the Homeric epics or were otherwise guided by their own expectations. During the 14th and 13th centuries bce, a number of Mycenaean sites on the mainland had a complex monumental structure that defined and dominated the administrative centre of the state. The word “palace” is also used to refer to a particular social entity, a configuration of political and economic power concentrated in a single regional centre with some degree of control over a more or less extensive territory. The precise term used in Greek is anaktoron, meaning the place of the anax or wanax, the word in Mycenaean Greek that is interpreted by scholars to mean “ruler.” Although the Mycenaean palaces were all destroyed by the end of the Bronze Age and there was no continuity of architectural form with later periods, the term anaktoron continued to be used at least until the time of the Hellenistic kingdoms. From a palace centre, the wanax mobilized resources, both human and material, to meet the needs of political economy.

The best-preserved Mycenaean palaces are those at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos, while those at Thebes, Orchomenos, and—possibly—Dhimini in central Greece are only partially exposed. Only traces remain of the palace on the Acropolis at Athens. At Ayios Vasileios in Laconia, a palace is now emerging as a result of ongoing excavations. The palatial structures of mainland Greece share a number of common architectural features and modules that are typically arranged in a standard pattern; other recurring features are deployed according to a variable syntax, and some features of each palace are unusual and site-specific. Most importantly, Mycenaean palaces are dominated by a central rectangular hall, the megaron, and characterized by a simple axial arrangement of rooms that consists of a hall, a fore-hall, and a porch with two columns opening onto a large court. The megaron hall, or throne room, has a monumental central, circular hearth (at Pylos this hearth is c. 4 m in diameter) covered in painted plaster and surrounded by four columns that supported the ceiling. Surrounding the megaron hall are corridors, stairways to an upper story, and chambers of different sizes used for various purposes; usually these chambers include another megaron on a smaller scale. Access to the palace complex and the megaron area is through a series of gateways (propyla) and multiple open-air courts.

Figure 5. Reconstruction by E. Olympios of the megaron at the palace of Mycenae.

Source. Drawing attributed to artist Evangelos Olympios, photograph by Ken Russell Salvador, (Flickr username flypegassus), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

Each palace site displays an extraordinary variety in the overall plan of these common elements outside the central megaron. Some combine the elements into a single, sprawling structure. Others, often built on terraces, have several closely related and interconnected structures. There is also great variety in the individual elements and the appointments of particular rooms. All palaces share monumental masonry in combination with timber-frame construction and have painted plaster walls and floors. Some have stone paving. The throne, of which only the base (or emplacement for a base) now survives, was generally found on the right-hand side of the megaron (as seen from the entrance) and faced the central hearth. The interior of the megaron was highly decorated. Painting programs included processions; heraldic animals; and hunting, banqueting, and battle scenes. Evidence for administrative, religious, and (probably) domestic functions has been found in palace contexts.

The term “palace” is used also to describe complex monumental buildings of closely similar form that are located in larger urban polities across the island of Crete during the Middle and Late Bronze Age, especially in the centre and eastern areas of the island at Knossos (where the palace covers an area of c. 20,000 m2), Phaistos, Malia, and Kato Zakro. A palace at Kydonia (modern Chania) in western Crete likely belongs to the Late Minoan phase of palace-building but is still only partially uncovered. These large structures have no obvious precursors in the archaeological record. They may to some extent emulate Near-Eastern structures, but if so they quickly assumed a unique style. They are centres for storage, production, and perhaps distribution, but they seem to have other functions as well. There is no empirical evidence for seeing the Minoan palace as the residence of a single centralized authority whose domain was the political, religious, and economic affairs of the community, and some scholars prefer the term “court building” to remove any functional bias. The first court buildings (late 3rd millennium bce) suggest the emergence of a new communal space out of which the later palaces develop. In the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1700 bce) there seem to have been a number of differences in size, layout, and architectural elaboration based on the local needs of the community which a palace served. Monumentality does suggest considerable organization of design, materials, and labour, and probably a high level of social complexity as well.

Figure 6. Palace of Knossos: view of pillared hall and north entrance

Source. Photo by author.

After large-scale destruction c. 1700 bce, probably due to seismic activity, the Cretan palaces were rebuilt along the same lines as before, though details of the earlier structures were obscured. Shared characteristic features included paved public courts to the west of the palace proper, raised triangular walkways, indented west facades, rectangular central courts with a north–south orientation, and pillared halls in the east wing. The plans of the rebuilt palaces were similar enough to suggest that each community may have relied on a common scheme but the varying degrees of skill displayed in the palaces’ construction suggests the use of local labour. The shared architectural vocabulary is seen in the recurrence of standard room types that include elaborate multi-purpose halls, small sunken or dark chambers, archives, areas devoted to ritual activity, and storage magazines. Functional areas were separated by corridors, stairways, and other architectural elements and were accessed by separate entrances. Throughout the complexes, walls were decorated with murals—many of them illustrating palace activities— painted stucco, or veneers. The palaces’ highly organized and abundant storage facilities, large public spaces, and evidence of administrative activity indicate that they were centres for organizing the community’s resources and for ritual celebrations. What is most striking about these palaces, however, is their monumentality, and their use of ashlar masonry, multiple stories, and elaborate architectural decoration serves to communicate permanence, power, and status.


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  • 1. In 336 bce Phillip II was assassinated in the theatre at Aegae and his son, Alexander the Great, was proclaimed king.