• Home
  • /
  • The Domitii Ahenobarbi in Argentario
villa dei domizi enobarbi a giannutri

The Domitii Ahenobarbi in Argentario

The Domitii Ahenobarbi lords of the Argentario and of the islands of Giglio and Giannutri

News on this territory, after the serious reprisals of Sulla in 82 BC, are obtained through the epistolary of Cicero and the testimony of Julius Caesar: in two letters to Atticus in 49 BC Cicero mentions the presence at the Argentario of the important Domitii Ahenobarbi family (“in Cosano“, meaning the promontorium Cosanum)1 and Julius Caesar remembers that in the same 49 BC Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (consul a few years before, in 54 BC), in an attempt to oppose him, sailed to occupy Marseille with 7 ships requisitioned to private individuals in Giglio and Argentario, ships that he filled with servants, freemen and his coloni2. Since the coloni were none other than contracted peasants of the landowner, like in modern sharecropping3, it follows that coloni who were forced to board ships to Marseille were the farmers of Giglio and of the Argentario, employed in the agricultural funds owned by the Domitii. Also the circumstance of the confiscation of the ships in today’s Giglio Porto and in other landings of the Cosanum (Porto Ercole or Porto Santo Stefano) by a private citizen, even a wealthy Roman senator, leads to thinking that Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was considered in these places as a real dominus (lord), and that as such he boasted rights both on lands and on ports, like a medieval feudal lord.

Also the archaeological surveys in the territory of Cosa have shown an evident change in settlement dynamics and in the parcelling of the land during the first half of the 1st century BC: the ancient centuriation (the subdivision in batches granted by the State to the assignees) that accompanied the deduction of the colony of Cosa, with fields of 16 iugera (about 4 hectares) each with its own farm, was substituted by estates managed by a few noble villas4. At the same time small farmers were transformed from free citizens into coloni contractually bound to their dominus.

How the rich Roman family has taken possession of the Giglio and the Argentario, entirely or in part, and probably also of the uninhabited Giannutri, it is not clear. But their adherence to the optimates faction, confirmed by the news of the assassination in 83 BC of the homonymous uncle of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus because of his declared support to Sulla5, leaves open the possibility that the family has been rewarded by the same Sulla with confiscated lands in the territory of Cosa, that together with other centers of the area had dared to increase the Marian militias opposed to him: confiscations of lands then given to supporters and veterans of Sulla, starting from 82 BC, are in fact remembered in Chiusi, Arezzo, Fiesole and Volterra, who likewise took part in the civil war on Marius’ side6.

The properties of the Domitii Ahenobarbi at the Argentario and in the islands

The mention by Caesar of the confiscation of ships in the port of Giglio by L. Domitius Ahenobarbus allows, with almost absolute certainty, to identify in the remains of the Roman villa of Cala del Saraceno (Giglio Porto) the residence in Giglio of the Ahenobarbi. Moreover, in the remaining part of the island no traces of further Roman villas have been found. The villa was located on the edge of the town of Giglio Porto (of which many remains have been identified between the streets and modern houses), therefore fully integrated into the life of the village and its mercantile activities. Igilium was in fact a regular stop along the routes that led from the ports of Rome and the South Italy to Gaul: to supply drinking water for the boats and for the water needs of the islanders had to serve the large cistern recognized in via Trento, in the northern slope of the port basin7. The villa, on the other slope, was panoramically laid out on the cliffs south of the port and articulated on terracing. The small inlet of Cala del Saraceno, located within the confines of the villa, housed a pool for the breeding of fish connected to the open sea, still clearly identifiable under the surface of the water. The structures of the villa are instead difficult to recognize because of the demolitions and overlaps of modern buildings: it has returned parts of mosaic floors, cryptoporticus and later decorations in opus sectile8.

The Domitii Ahenobarbi are also associated with the remains of the great Roman villa of Santa Liberata (Porto Santo Stefano), stretching out over the sea just beyond the end of the Giannella tombolo, to be considered probably the nerve center of the Ahenobarbi’s estates in this part of the Tyrrhenian Sea (it is therefore the property of L. Domitius Ahenobarbus “in Cosano” mentioned by Cicero). Its ruins still appear majestic today and mark a stretch of the Argentario coast 300 m long: in the water stands out the rectangular mass of a semi-submerged pool for the breeding of fish, with the size of 50 x 40 m, from which it juts out a front part used as a docking pier; other pylons in water used as piers are located a few tens of meters to the northwest. The villa has been investigated only with essays and lies under the villa already Savoy then Gerini and Rattazzi. The residential structures were on an artificial terrace on the promontory; the spas and a large cistern have been identified. The villa maritima, consistent with what we know from historical sources, was founded in the late Republican era but appears restored and enlarged around 100 AD, when the properties of the Ahenobarbi were transferred through Nero to the fiscus Caesaris (the private property of the emperor)9. In the Itinerarium maritimum (a catalog of ports and landings with relative distances in miles, from the late ancient age and with the text partly corrupted by medieval copyists) before the landing at the mouth of the river Albegna (Alminia, error for Albinia) appears a landing (positio) with the name of Domitiana: the distance in miles indicated corresponds sufficiently precisely to the distance between the mouth of the Albegna and the villa of Santa Liberata, removing any doubt on the name of its owner.

Before the (villa) Domitiana the same itinerary recalls a real port (and not a landing place) called Incitaria (far from the large villa of the Domitii Ahenobarbi only 3 miles), beyond which, continuing south for another 9 miles, Porto Ercole is reached: it is clear that in the ancient name of Incitaria we must recognize the modern Porto Santo Stefano. The term certainly derives from the Latin cetaria, a breeding of fish or tonnara, an activity that is practiced in Porto Santo Stefano until the end of the nineteenth century. The portus of Incetaria/Incitaria was controlled by the Roman villa of the Muracci (Porto Santo Stefano) on which it was built the current Villa Varoli, placed in a similar situation to that already described for Giglio Porto, on a relief immediately behind the town. On the basis of this parallel and of the proximity between Porto Santo Stefano and the Domitiana villa, the hypothesis that includes Porto Santo Stefano in the estates of the Ahenobarbi appears likely: Porto Santo Stefano would therefore be the indefinite port of the Cosano promontory (the Argentario) cited by Caesar as the second place in which L. Domitius Ahenobarbus seized the boats with which he intended to head for Marseille. The excavations of the 80s of the nineteenth century returned an overall image of the residence, whose relatively small size (30 m facing the sea, 70 the long side) is well suited to those of an appendix of the great villa of Santa Liberata: the activities of the port, where traces of fish breeding facilities and public baths were found, were controlled by the large front terrace, followed by a loggia and a small residential structure. Mosaics, coins and even large statues have been found among the rooms of the villa, which from the walls appears restored towards 100 AD10.

We then come to the island of Giannutri: it, like Giglio and at least the northern part of the Argentario, probably belonged to the Domitii Ahenobarbi but it is uncertain if they had built anything on it, because all the materials recovered and the walls of the Roman villa indicate a first phase of occupation in the Flavian period (last decades of the first century AD). This however does not exclude that the current Roman villa, which appears to be the subject of intense construction activity in the years around 100 AD (as already observed for the Domitiana and for the villa of Porto Santo Stefano), is actually the reconstruction of an older structure, not necessarily a villa maritima. As already said the last male heir of the Ahenobarbi, the emperor Nero, born with the name of L. Domitius Ahenobarbus and then adopted by the emperor Claudius, added his family properties to the imperial assets. The tragic conclusion of his story and the absence of heirs caused the following emperors to continue to administer the assets belonging to the Ahenobarbi: a good part of the Argentario, the Giglio and Giannutri became territories included in the fiscus Caesaris11.

1 Cic., Ad Att., 9.6.2, 9.9.3.
2 Caes., B.C., 1.34.
3 From this meaning of the Latin term derives, for example, the Italian “casa colonica”.
4 See Cosa in Enciclopedia dell’Arte Antica (second updates).
5 App., B.C., 1.88; Vell., 2.26; Oro., 5.20. L. Domitius Ahenobarbus consul of 54 BC had married Porcia, sister of Cato Uticense (one of the most upright exponents of optimates; Porcia was also aunt of M. Junius Brutus, one of Caesar’s assassins), and died in the battle of Farsalo of 48 BC fighting against Caesar, new leader of populares. The only “black sheep” of the family was the brother of L. Domitius Ahenobarbus consul of 54 BC, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, who had married Cornelia daughter of Cinna (one of Marius’ main allies) and fought against Sulla in Africa until to be defeated and killed in 81 BC. The story of the Domitii Ahenobarbi thus recounts that the civil war had also made division into the families of the Roman nobilitas.
6 See M. Cristofani, Etruschi: una nuova immagine, Firenze 200, p. 66. A news that I see spread in numerous articles on the web instead reports that the Domitii Ahenobarbi, who would be argentarii (bankers), would be rewarded by the Roman Senate with the territories of the Argentario and Giglio after the second Punic war, to reward them for loans granted to the State. The Monte Argentario would have taken its name from this affair. The news is to be considered an urban legend born from the imagination of the geographer Assunto Mori in an article of 1922 (Boll. Soc. Geogr., 1922, p.73): first the Domitii Ahenobarbi, advocates of the more closed aristocratic traditionalism (as remembered from historical sources), they would never put their reputation at risk with activities that in the Roman mentality were considered unworthy of a member of the nobilitas (whose wealth, according to the custom of the ancestors, had to be based on possession of land and not on mercantile activities or even worse on loaning of money); moreover, no historical source remembers them as bankers or lenders of money.
7 See P. Rendini, Isola del Giglio (GR). I lavori a Giglio Porto, in Notiziario della Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana, 2, 2006, p. 371.
8 See P. Rendini, op. cit., pp. 371-373; P. Rendini, Mosaici della villa del Saraceno a Giglio Porto, in Atti del II Colloquio AISCOM (Roma, 1994), Roma 1995, pp. 149-158.
9 See A. Carandini (a cura di), Paesaggi d’Etruria. Valle dell’Albegna, Valle d’Oro, Valle del Chiarone, Valle del Tarone. Progetto di ricerca italo-britannico seguito allo scavo di Settefinistre, Roma 2002, p. 203.
10 See M. Pasquinucci, Contributo allo studio dell’ager Cosanus: La villa dei “Muracci” (Porto S. Stefano), Studi Classici e Orientali, 32, 1983, pp. 141-155.
11 A contemporary parallel can be recognized in the legal status of the presidential estate of Castel Porziano near Rome, administered by the Quirinale and where the Presidents of the Republic who gradually succeed each other have the right to stay.

Back to Top