The Architecture of Power: Great Palaces of the Ancient World

Course No. 3332
Professor Steven L. Tuck, Ph.D.
Miami University
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Course No. 3332
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What Will You Learn?

  • Discover how cultural values, social hierarchies, and political structures are embedded in the grand structures of human societies.
  • Learn how ideals of order and harmony play into everything from ancient Egyptian temples to China's Endless Palace in distinct and fascinating ways.
  • Decipher the hidden code behind design and decorative decisions.
  • Explore how rulers maintain power, evoke fear, and manage their public and private personas.
  • Investigate how ancient palace iconography continues to reveal itself in present-day structures.

Course Overview

The seat of power. A symbol of authority and prosperity. The center of a complex nexus of social and cultural forces. A palace is all of these and more. Palaces are mirrors of the societies that created them and the rulers that occupied them.

The palaces of rulers past and present are truly a sight to behold. Marvel at Weiyang, China’s Endless Palace, about 11 times the size of Vatican City. Tour the gorgeous gardens at the Palace of Versailles, lined with bronze statues inspired by Dionysus, Apollo, and the four elements. Take a ride on the floating palaces, from the Syracusia of 240 BC, which stood an impressive three decks tall and boasted a library and gymnasium, to Cleopatra’s perfumed pleasure ship and Caligula’s luxurious bejeweled vessels.

The Architecture of Power: Great Palaces of the Ancient World offers an insider’s look at some of history’s most awe-inspiring structures. In 24 lectures presented by Professor of Classics Steven L. Tuck of Miami University, you will not only get a glimpse into imposing and magnificent sites, but you will also experience many that are inaccessible to the public—and even some that no longer exist. As you make your way through these storied sites, you’ll also delve into an exploration of the meaning of power and the ways it operated in societies across the globe. You’ll learn how rulers impressed, intimidated, survived, maintained control, and much more.

The Perpetuation of Power

These lectures will reveal a real-world Game of Thrones, where many rulers behaved ruthlessly toward the conquered and presided over their own people with an iron fist. This will to intimidate was often reflected in the immense size and luxury of palaces, built to a scale and degree of opulence that could overwhelm the commoner and elicit awe in neighbors and enemies alike.

However, they also reflected the rulers' insecurities. Everyone from the Egyptian pharaohs to Saddam Hussein lived under constant threat of assassination and uprisings. Therefore, you’ll learn how the palaces offered protection, both internally and externally.

Besides the sheer size and grandeur of the buildings, leaders manipulated their elaborate living spaces in a variety of ways, including:

  • Location: The placement of a structure within its environs has an impact on how its authority is perceived. This is one way the Egyptian pharaohs established themselves as dominant, even more powerful than priests.


  • Materials: Using rare materials was a clear display of status, from the bronze doors of Persepolis to the numerous fountains and pools lining Saddam’s palaces in a land where water is scarce.
  • Imported plants and animals: Perhaps most impressive was the collection of over 40 species of plants as well as domesticated lions and elephants roaming the gardens of the Assyrian palace at Nimrud. This demonstrated the king’s power over not only man but also nature.


  • Artwork: This included paintings and sculptures as well as imposing stone reliefs which would often depict the ruler as a victorious conqueror or in some way honored by the gods.

Meet a Colorful Cast of Characters

Equally as fascinating as the buildings themselves are the rulers who occupied them. You’ll get acquainted with pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who completely redefined Egypt, ushering in a new era and placing himself as an intermediary between his subjects and the sun god. You will hear the captivating stories of Ashurnasirpal II, whose larger-than-life accounts of big-game hunting, immense banquets, and rousing military conquests are enthrallingly depicted in inscriptions throughout the palace at Nimrud. Then there’s Caligula, whose flare for spectacle and excess have become hallmarks of decadence and lavish living that continue to be reflected in modern ideas of wealth and celebrity.

But with great power comes great responsibility. Professor Tuck shows how public and private personas were deeply intertwined for these rulers. As with today’s politicians, the luxurious lifestyles came at a cost, with their primary duty being to serve the people over which they ruled. For instance, Egyptian pharaohs were expected to maintain order in the natural world. Imagine if your life hinged on whether or not the Nile flooded!

Professor Tuck also highlights the notable individuals who managed to excavate these palaces brick by brick so we can marvel over them today. Many of these excavations occurred two hundred or more years ago, without the convenience of modern technology. In some cases, as with the efforts to uncover and reconstruct some of the famous floating vessels of ancient rulers, it took hundreds of years of failed attempts before archaeologists successfully recovered the structures.

 Discover How Structures Reveal Social Hierarchies

Hierarchies were reflected in everything, from the dining hall seating and arrangement of rooms, to even the positioning of individuals in decorative sculptures and murals. You’ll learn how one relief sculpture lining the staircase leading to the mighty Gate of All Nations in Persepolis was intended to keep visitors in their place, both literally and figuratively. This subservience to rank is also illustrated in the famed terra cotta army from the Qin Dynasty. 

In palaces ranging from ancient Assyria and Egypt to Italy and China, courtyards, chambers, and throne rooms were designed in such a way that only the highest-ranking members of society had private access to the ruler. At the same time, large public spaces were included to encourage interaction between the leader and his people, with the degree of interaction varying between regimes and cultures.

Additionally, many rulers held lavish banquets featuring thousands of servings of wild meat, imported vegetables, and exotic spices. These banquets provided an opportunity for rulers to both demonstrate their generosity and their military might, as most of this food frequently came from conquered lands.

Symbolic Meaning in the Past and Present

Palaces are more than just the homes of rulers. Their design and decoration reflect the public images and political needs of their occupants. And on an even deeper level, you’ll see how every aesthetic decision is representative of the culture and regime’s collective values. Professor Tuck demonstrates how design motifs can carry universal significance, reappearing across continents over time. He also reveals the ways in which design evoked not only power, but also ideals of order and balance. For example, in China’s Weiyang Palace, the architectural alignment was intended to create harmony with the surrounding landscape and exemplified the vital balance of Yin and Yang. In fact, the appearance of a palace is so important to its function in society that any alterations or “makeovers” would often signify shifts in culture as well as a change of regime.

You will also look at the way the world and our conception of power via architecture has not changed as much as you might think; palaces are not just relics of a bygone era. Although today’s major structures may not resemble the palaces of ancient Rome and Egypt on the surface, if you look closer you’ll see many iconographic similarities, even in the most mundane and unexpected places. Such similarities can be found in department story layouts, modern political structures like the White House and Houses of Parliament, and even Amazon headquarters in Seattle.


 A Visual Feast with a Favorite Professor

Whether you are planning a trip to visit ancient sites or simply experiencing history from the comfort of your own home, The Architecture of Power is designed to be experienced in a flexible and accessible way. The lectures are arranged in a loose chronology, but each can be experienced individually, in any order or timeframe you prefer.

This course is brought to life with over 700 images including graphics, maps, floor plans, reconstructions, artwork, portraits, artifacts, and interior and exterior photos. You will even see reconstructions and floor plans from palaces that are notoriously inaccessible to the public—and some that no longer exist beyond what history has recorded of them.

Professor Tuck’s engaging and deeply knowledgeable presentation is supported by his own archaeological experience in Europe and Egypt, as well as tours he has led in Italy and Greece. Even for familiar topics such as the Renaissance, he digs deep beneath the surface, revealing unexpected insights and new perspectives.

Throughout the lectures, Professor Tuck doesn’t just present history as a collection of facts and figures, but rather reinforces how everything has contributed to the big picture. While he does delve into the intricacies of design, he’s equally invested in their profound implications for society. After taking this course, you’ll see these places and what they mean—in the past, as well as today—in a whole new way.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 32 minutes each
  • 1
    Palaces Past and Present
    Begin your tour of the ancient world by a look at our modern one as you explore the palaces of Saddam Hussein. Discover how he called upon the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians for inspiration and also how the architecture changed over time in response to threats from Iran and the United States. x
  • 2
    Malkata Palace: Pharaoh, Foreigners, and Gods
    Now, travel back to the 14th century BC, a time of peace, prosperity, and plentitude for Egyptians. Learn how the Malkata Palace represents a microcosm of Egypt. Architectural details reveal little-known facts about religious rituals and telling insights into how pharaohs attempted to assert their domination over others. x
  • 3
    Amarna: Palace of the First Sun King
    Pharaoh Amenhotep IV takes on a new name—Akhenaten—and shifts Egypt's capital to the fascinating city of Amarna. See how his worship of the sun disk defined an era built on temple crops, sacrifices, and complete subservience to the pharaoh. Also learn how relocating his seat of power helped Akhenaten wrestle authority away from religious leaders. x
  • 4
    Phaistos: Palaces between Asia and Europe
    Archaeology often involves a great deal of detective work, as is the case with the mysterious Bronze Age Crete. The myth of Daedalus and his labyrinth symbolizes Crete's location at the intersection of multiple cultures. Discover the Phaistos Palace, where extravagant religious rituals and entertainment spectacles were held. x
  • 5
    Palace of Nestor at Pylos and Bronze Age Greece
    Explore the Palace of Nestor, an extraordinary complex centered around the throne room. We travel in time from the immense treasures discovered in 2015 back to the ancient styles the Mycenaeans developed to bring these elaborate structures to life. Consider what the arrangement of rooms reveals about how royals lived and maintained control. x
  • 6
    The Assyrian Palace at Nimrud: Empire in Stone
    The Assyrian palace at Nimrud, with its imposing 20-foot gates, was designed by Ashurnasirpal II. An epic braggart, he loved to write of his conquests of nature and his knowledge of tree species. Clearly an intellectual, he describes in detail the glory of feasts he threw—and the math behind them. x
  • 7
    Nineveh: The Architecture of Assyrian Power
    Discover the last great Assyrian palace and the largest city the world had ever seen before the Babylonian conquest. See how its designers accomplished incredible civil engineering feats, diverting entire rivers into canals that offered protection and transportation. Also meet the magnificent lamassu guardians that flanked the palace entrances, each of which stood over 12 feet tall. x
  • 8
    Persepolis: Palace of the Persians
    The lore of Persepolis includes the exploits of many great kings. Explore the great citadel at Persepolis with its famed flight of 111 steps leading to the Gate of All Nations, which held a set of wood and bronze doors standing 20 feet high. Learn of the spectacular stone masonry and powerful art filled with lions and mythological creatures. x
  • 9
    Greek Palaces in Conquered Lands I
    While scholars debate the details, it's undeniable that Alexander the Great's conquest of the Persian Empire profoundly changed the world. View his astonishing palaces, boasting gymnasiums and enormous swimming pools and home to elite drinking parties. Examine the unmistakable Greek style blended with Persian and Assyrian influences characteristic of the period. x
  • 10
    Greek Palaces in Conquered Lands II
    This is the tale of two palaces—one in Jordan, the other in Libya—in the wake of Alexander the Great’s death. Both were products of military expansion and occupation, but they displayed distinct identities. Learn how the palace origins influenced the design and layout of each. x
  • 11
    Greek Palaces Come to Roman Italy
    Two men, Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Lucius Licinius Lucullus, were largely responsible for the transformation of Roman architecture; their story is one of political strategy, Persian influence, and sheer determination. Consider why Lucullus may be the most important yet underrated figure in the history of palace creation. x
  • 12
    Masada: Herod the Great between East and West
    Herod the Great is a well-studied, yet controversial, figure. Examine in depth his brilliant methods and materials, including the construction of Masada, which involved many logistical challenges as giant marble tesserae slabs were shipped across the desert and hoisted up as walls. Discover Herod's most startling and mesmerizing architectural invention. x
  • 13
    Herod the Great's Summer and Winter Palaces
    Herod was a complex king whose royal image was defined by insecurity, innovation, and a need to reflect his Jewish identity. Starting with his heated Roman baths in each palace, understand how the king was a master of the land and was able to give his people a marvelous oasis in the desert. x
  • 14
    Caligula's Floating Palaces
    Taking inspiration from Cleopatra as well as the ancient Hellenistic rulers, Caligula's Floating Palaces included all the amenities you would expect to find onboard modern cruise ships: spacious baths, banquet halls, and live music. Caligula, himself, is also quite fascinating, as is the story of the ships' rediscovery. x
  • 15
    Nero's Domus Transitoria at Rome
    A huge fan of spectacle, Nero sponsored grand chariot races and began an architectural revolution. We find Nero's palaces made of a new Roman concrete where bespoke designs could finally replace the utilitarian boxes of stone, thus making way for domed ceilings, custom columns, and any form he desired. x
  • 16
    Nero's Golden House: A Roman Palace Theater
    Nero built the infamous Domus Aurea (Golden House), a 124-acre Xanadu that enraged the rich whose land he occupied. It featured a lavish watered garden with incredible rotating sculptures that could spray perfume. Walking distance from the Colosseum, this palace was literally covered in gold. x
  • 17
    Rome's Great Imperial Palace of Domitian
    The word "palace" comes from the Palatine Hill in Rome, which housed Domitian’s 200-year-old palace. This structure—impeccably built and placed—was essentially the White House for Roman emperors. Learn why the enormous residence and its innovative design was mythologized by poets, who compared Domitian to Jupiter. x
  • 18
    Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli
    Hadrian was an artistic genius who personally designed the palace of his dreams to reflect his many passions, including his love of Greek philosophy. His luxurious villa, now a UNESCO world heritage site, set the standard for Roman architecture. Understand more about Hadrian, a figure so influential that he redefined the concept of Virtus, or manliness. x
  • 19
    Diocletian's Retirement Palace, Split
    Diocletian came to power in the 3rd century AD, a turbulent time for the Roman Empire, which had seen 25 emperors over the course of 50 years. Learn how Diocletian, a visionary and problem-solver, brought stability to the empire and how his palace represented a radical departure from traditional styles. x
  • 20
    Constantine's Palace, Constantinople
    Constantinople was a fresh start for the then-600-year-old Roman Empire, becoming the greatest European city of the Middle Ages. Its founder, Constantine, was (supposedly) a devout Christian. Explore his palace, which featured colossal sculptures and the famed hippodrome, where chariot races, animal hunts, and prisoner executions were held. x
  • 21
    China's Endless Palace: Weiyang Palace
    Weiyang, China's Endless Palace, represented not only an emperor but the very concept of ever-expanding empire itself. Covering an area of 1,200 acres, it was the largest imperial palace ever built. You'll learn how the construction of the palace reflected imperialism as well as Confucianism, the cornerstone of Chinese philosophy. x
  • 22
    The Palace of Montezuma II at Tenochtitlán
    The Aztec capital, founded in a swamp, developed into the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. Meet Montezuma II, creator of Tenochtitlán, a staunch believer in omens, and father to hundreds. Learn how a Spanish army of a few hundred men led by Hernan Cortes conquered an empire of millions. x
  • 23
    Renaissance Palaces and the Classical Revival
    Here we visit such highlights of Renaissance architecture as Kensington Palace and the Tuileries Palace and discover how they were influenced by classical forms. Perhaps most impressive is the Palace of Versailles, which boasted Europe's largest orange tree collection and now attracts tourists from all over the world. x
  • 24
    Palaces in a World of Democracies
    In this final lecture, reflect on the timeless themes explored in this course. First, investigate the White House, where each decorative decision reflects political agenda (and defiance to the previous administration). Then, discover the surprising connection between the Amazon headquarters and ancient imperial palaces as ancient ideas come full circle in our modern era. x

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Your professor

Steven L. Tuck

About Your Professor

Steven L. Tuck, Ph.D.
Miami University
Professor Steven L. Tuck is Professor of Classics at Miami University. After earning his B.A. in History and Classics at Indiana University, he received his Ph.D. in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. He held the postdoctoral Arthur and Joyce Gordon Fellowship in Latin epigraphy at The Ohio State University. An esteemed teacher, Professor Tuck received the 2013 E. Phillips Knox Teaching Award,...
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