Saturday, October 13, 2018


 Between myth and history
There are stories about the ship of King Menelaus who stopped briefly at Sounio on his way back from Troy; or about the unfortunate King Aegeus who drowned himself on that spot and the Aegean Sea got named after him; or about the people who built a temple using local marble to honour the god of the sea and safeguard the profits from the neighbouring Lavrio mines.

Decorative elements

The unknown architect is probably the same one who built Theseion in the Ancient Agora of Athens. He decorated the temple with sculptures made of Parian marble (i.e. from Paros Island), which depicted the labours of Theseus as well as battles with Centaurs and Giants (Gigantes). The remaining sculptures are showcased in the Lavrio Museum whereas the impressive kouroi [male youths] that once stood in the temple yard are now on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
Notice the Doric columns, count their flutes and you will see that they are less in number than those on other temples of the same period (mid 5th c. BC). This feature is also found in other seaside ancient temples, for instance in the Temple of Aphaea in Aegina etc.

How to get there
Sounio is located on the southernmost tip of Attica; it is the end point of the Athenian Riviera, at a 69km distance from Athens. Take the intercity coach (KTEL) from Aigyptou Sq. (Victoria ISAP Station) or travel by car along the coast of Athens and Attica (passing by Glyfada, Vouliagmeni, Varkiza, Lagonisi, Anavyssos, Legrena and so on). You will be impressed by the lovely view of the sea and of the Saronic Gulf Islands.

Archaeological evidence indicates that Sounion was a sacred area as far back as the Bronze Age, but the temple visible in our day was built in the middle of the 5th century BCE (between 444 and 440 BCE). It was part of the ambitious building project initiated by Perikles, which included other renown temples such as the Parthenon and the Hephaisteion. Given the similariteis of the Temple of Poseidon to the Hephaisteion and the temple of Nemesis in Rhamnous, many historians have concluded that they were designed by the same architect. One particularly unifying feature of all three temples is the fact that the columns of the porch were aligned with the third column of the peristyle.

An inscription confirms that the temple was dedicated to Poseidon, and it was built upon the remains of an even earlier poros temple whose foundations are still visible. This Archaic temple was razed by the Persians in 490 BCE when it still under construction. Very little is known about this earlier temple, but it is certain that it was a revered landmark, visible from afar as sailors approached or left the safety of the Attica harbors. The newer temple closely follows the size and plan of the more ancient one.

The temple of Poseidon was a peripteral building of the Doric order, made of marble from nearby Agrileza, with six columns at its ends and thirteen on each long side for a total of 34--of which thirteen survive today. Four of the north columns were reconstructed in the late 1950's. The Doric colums are about 20 feet tall and three feet in diameter, with the unusual number of 16 flutes instead of the usual 20. The base of the temple consists of two stacked terraces that supported the peristyle, the cella, the pronaos, and the opisthodromos. The temple's stylobate is 31.1 x 13.4 meters.
The temple's metopes were smooth with no decoration, but the architrave of the pronaos was decorated with a shallow Ionic continous frieze. The frieze's fragments that have survived are baddly erroded but it is believed they illustrated popular mythological themes of amazonomachy (or a battle between Centaurs and Lapiths), gigantomachy, and the deeds of Theseus. They were carved in white marble from Paros. The pediments' raking cornice had a pitch of 12.5° (instead of the usual 15°) and were decorate with sculptures, of which only one fragmented seated female figure has survived.

Cape Sounion (Modern Greek: Aκρωτήριο Σούνιο Akrotírio Soúnio [akroˈtirʝo ˈsuɲo]; Ancient Greek: Ἄκρον Σούνιον Άkron Soúnion, latinized Sunium; Venetian: Capo Colonne "Cape of Columns") is the promontory at the southernmost tip of the Attic peninsula, 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) south of the town of Lavrio (ancient Thoricus), and 70 kilometres (43 mi) southeast of Athens. It is part of Lavreotiki municipality, East Attica, Greece.
Cape Sounion is noted for its Temple of Poseidon, one of the major monuments of the Golden Age of Athens. Its remains are perched on the headland, surrounded on three sides by the sea.


The earliest literary reference to Sounion is in Homer's Odyssey (III. 278–285). The story recounts that as the various Greek commanders sailed back from Troy, the helmsman of the ship of King Menelaus of Sparta died at his post while rounding "Holy Sounion, Cape of Athens."[1] Menelaus landed at Sounion to give his companion full funeral honours (i.e., cremation on a funeral pyre on the beach).
Archaeological finds on the site date from as early as 700 BC. Herodotus (VI.87) mentions that in sixth century BC, the Athenians celebrated a quinquennial festival at Sounion, which involved Athens' leaders sailing to the cape in a sacred boat.


Sounion was a deme of the Leontis tribe (phyle) even before its fortification in the Peloponnesian War. It sent four men to the ancient Boule of 500 at the time of Cleisthenes, and later (3rd century BC) six men to the Boule of 600. In the 2nd century BC, Sounion is still on record as a deme, but now considered part of the recently-introduced Attalid phyle (created in honour of Attalus I).[2]
The deme was located between Amphitrope to the west and Thorikos to the north. Its territory included parts of the Mines of Laurion. According to Traill (1986), the center of the settlement was situated somewhat to the north of the cape, between the modern settlements of Ano Sounio and Kato Sounio (close to 37.674°N 24.030°E).[3]
Sounion was fortified in the nineteenth year of the Peloponnesian War (413 BCE) for the purpose of protecting the passage of the cornships to Athens,[4] and was regarded from that time as one of the principal fortreses of Attica.[5] Its proximity to the silver mines of Laurium probably contributed to its prosperity, which passed into a proverb;[6] but even in the time of Cicero it had sunk into decay.[7] The circuit of the walls may still be traced, except where the precipitous nature of the rocks afforded a natural defence. The walls which are fortified with square towers, are of the most regular Hellenic masonry, and enclose a space or a little more than half a mile in circumference. The southern part of Attica, extending northwards from the promontory of Sounion as far as Thoricus on the east, and Anaphlystus on the west, is called by Herodotus the Suniac angle (τὸν γουνὸν τὸν Σουνιακόν).[8] Though Sounion was especially sacred to Athena, we learn from Aristophanes that Poseidon was also worshipped there.[9]

Temple of Poseidon

The original, Archaic-period temple of Poseidon on the site was built of tufa. The Sounion Kouros, discovered in 1906 in a pit east of the temple alongside fragments of other statues, was probably one of a number of votive statues dedicated to Poseidon which probably stood in front of the god's sanctuary. The archaic temple was probably destroyed in 480 BC by Persian troops during Xerxes I's invasion of Greece.[10] After they defeated Xerxes in the naval Battle of Salamis, the Athenians placed an entire captured enemy trireme (warship with three banks of oars) at Sounion as a trophy dedicated to Poseidon.[11]
Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, built circa 440 BC.
The temple of Poseidon at Sounion was constructed in 444–440 BC. This was during the ascendancy of the Athenian statesman Pericles, who also rebuilt the Parthenon in Athens. It was built on the ruins of a temple dating from the Archaic period. It is perched above the sea at a height of almost 60 metres (200 ft). The design of the temple is a typical hexastyle, i.e., it had a front portico with six columns.[12] Only some columns of the Sounion temple stand today, but when intact it would have closely resembled the contemporary and well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus beneath the Acropolis, which may have been designed by the same architect.
As with all Greek temples, the Poseidon building was rectangular, with a colonnade on all four sides. The total number of original columns was 36: 15  columns still stand today. The columns are of the Doric Order. They were made of locally quarried white marble. They were 6.10 m (20 ft) high, with a diameter of 1 m (3.1 ft) at the base and 79 cm (31 inches) at the top.[13] At the center of the temple, colonnade would have been the hall of worship (naos), a windowless rectangular room, similar to the partly intact hall at the Temple of Hephaestus. It would have contained, at one end facing the entrance, the cult image, a colossal, ceiling-height (6 metres (20 ft)) bronze statue of Poseidon.[14]

Temple of Athena

View from within the remains of the temple of Athena, looking west.
The temple of Athena Sounias (Ναός της Αθηνάς Σουνιάδος 37.653°N 024.027°E), some 300 m northeast of the temple of Poseidon, is built on a low hill. It was built in 470 BC, replacing an older building of the 6th century. Its architecture was unusual inasmuch as it had a colonnades on the southern and eastern, but not on the western or northern sides, a peculiarity mentioned by Vitruvius.[15] It was built adjacent to a peribolos identified as the burial mound and shrine to Phrontis, the helmsman of Menelaus whose burial at Sounion is mentioned in the Odyssey.
A smaller Doric temple next to the temple of Athena is thought to have been dedicated either to the hero Phrontis or to Artemis.[16] A deep pit to the southeast of the temenos was used to deposit the remains of the Archaic-period offerings destroyed in the Persian invasion.
The temple of Athena was demolished in the 1st century AD, and parts of its columns were taken to Athens to be used in the South-East temple of the Agora.[17]


Remains of Bastion Delta seen from the north.
In 413 BC, during the Peloponnesian War against the Spartans, the Athenians fortified the site with a wall and towers to prevent it from falling into Spartan hands. This would have threatened Athens' seaborne grain supply route from Euboea. Athens' supply situation had become critical since the city's land supply lines had been cut by the Spartan fortification of Dekeleia, in north Attica.[18] The Sounion fortress was soon later seized from the Athenians by a force of rebel slaves from the nearby silver mines of Laurium.[19]
The Temple of Poseidon was situated in the southeastern corner of the fortress, with the garrison quarters arranged along a main stream on the western slope of the hill. The fortress included a small naval base, with a shipshed for two warships in the northwestern corner (37.6524°N 24.0228°E).[20] The fortress was maintained well into the Hellenistic period.[21] Repairs and additions to the fortress were made during the Chremonidean War (266–261 BC).

Literary reception

Byron's name carved into temple of Poseidon
The name Capo Colonne (graecicized Καβοκολώνες Kavokolones) is reported from the 17th century, for the reason that unusually, several columns of the temple of Poseidon had remained standing since antiquity. Early modern descriptions in travelogues include those by G. Wheler (1676), J.-D. Le Roy (1754), R. Chandler (1765) and E. Dodwell (1805). Scottish poet William Falconer (1732-1769) was shipwrecked off off Cape Colonna, as Sounion was then known, in 1750, an event depicted in the central scene of his The Shipwreck (1762).[22]
The inscribed name of George Lord Byron, carved into the base of one of the columns of the Temple of Poseidon, possibly dates from his first visit to Greece, on his Grand Tour of Europe before he acquired fame. Byron spent several months in 1810–11 in Athens, including two documented visits to Sounion. There is, however, no direct evidence that the inscription was made by Byron himself. Byron mentions Sounion in his poem Isles of Greece:
Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep...[23]
Martin Heidegger visited Sounion during his journey to Greece in 1962, as described in his book Sojourns.[24] He refers to the "gleaming-white ruins of the temple". In the strong sea breeze "these few standing columns were the strings of an invisible lyre, the song of which the far-seeing Delian god let resonate over the Cycladic world of islands". He marvels at "the way that this single gesture of the land suggests the invisible nearness of the divine and dedicates to it every growth and every human work" (ibid.). He goes on to reflect "the people of this country knew how to inhabit and demarcate the world against the barbarous in honour of the seat of the gods. ...they knew how to praise what is great and by acknowledging it, to bring themselves in front of the sublime, founding, in this way, a world" (ibid.).

Modern development

Sounion beach and Aegeon Beach hotel, seen from Cape Sounion (July 2009 photograph).
Cape Sounino a popular day-excursion for tourists from Athens, with the sunset over the Aegean Sea, as viewed from the ruins, a sought-after sight since the first development of modern tourism in the early 19th century.[25]
Lavreotiki municipality was established in 1890 under the name of Sounio, but renamed to Lavreotiki in 1891. Cape Sounion itself is located between the villages of Kato Sounio and Legena.
The Sounio national park (Εθνικός Δρυμός τού Σουνίου) was established in 1974 with a core area of 750 hectares.
Forming the southeastern endpoint of the Athens Riviera, Sounio is now an upscale summer home location for Athenians. Construction of villas across the bay northwest of Cape Sounio flourished in the 1960s to 1970s. The Grecotel Cape Sounio luxury resort was built in 1973.[26]
The project Arrangement of the Archaeological Site of Sounion (2011–2013) was co-financed by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports and the European Union (ERDF).

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