Cape Sounion, looking out to the
nearby islet of Patroklou
Cape Sounion (Modern
Greek: Aκρωτήριο 'Σούνιο - Akrotírio
'Soúnio; Ancient Greek: Άκρον 'Σούνιον
- Άkron 'Soúnion; Latin:
Sunium promonturium; Venetian:
Sunset at Cape Sounion.
Capo Colonne - "Cape of Columns") is a promontory located 69 km (43 mi, by road) SSE of
Athens, at the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula in Greece.
Cape Sounion is noted as the site of ruins of an ancient Greek temple
, the god of the sea in classical
mythology. The remains are perched on the headland, surrounded on
three sides by the sea. The ruins bear the deeply engraved name of
English Romantic poet Lord Byron
is a popular day-excursion for tourists from Athens, with sunset over the Aegean Sea, as viewed from the ruins, a sought-after
Site and Panorama
The site is accessible by road from Athens. This is the scenic
highway 91, which closely follows the west coast of Attica (the
"Attic riviera"), passing through numerous upscale residential
districts and resorts, such as Glyfada, Vouliagmeni (anc. Zoster), Varkiza.
There is a
regular municipal bus service to Sounion from Omonia Square, in central Athens.
Sounion's position is .The headland is roughly shaped like an
axe-head. A narrow neck of land leads to the higher, gently-sloping
site of the temple. On most sides of the axe-head are steep cliffs,
up to 60 m (197 ft) high.
There were two ancient temples on this site, one dedicated to
(of which only the foundations remain)
and the other the famous one to Poseidon.
Within walking distance, there is
a taverna and a hotel. Further development has been restricted by
the designation of the site, and a large surrounding region, as one
of 10 National parks in
From this jutting headland, there is a panoramic view of the
surrounding Aegean islands. Nearby
are the islets of Makronisi (ancient Helena, to the east)
and Patroklou or Patroclus. Further away, to the
south, the larger islands of Kea, Kithnos, Serifos and, on a
clear day, as far as Milos, 60 miles
(97 km) distant. To the east, looming behind Kea can be seen
the 994 m (3261 ft) peak of Andros
island. To the west, the mountainous shore of the
across the Saronic
Theseus slays the Minotaur.
to legend, Cape Sounion is the spot where Aegeus, king of Athens, leapt to his death off the
cliff, thus giving his name to the Aegean Sea. The story goes that Aegeus, anxiously
looking out from Sounion, despaired when he saw a black sail on his
son Theseus 's ship, returning from Crete.
Detail from Attic red-figure pelike. ca. 470 BC.
led him to believe that his son had been killed in his contest with
the dreaded Minotaur
, a monster that was
half man and half bull. The Minotaur was confined by its owner,
of Crete, in a specially designed
labyrinth. Every year, the Athenians were forced to send 7 boys and
7 girls to Minos as tribute
. These youths
were placed in the labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur.
Theseus had volunteered to go with the third tribute and attempt to
slay the beast. He had agreed with his father that if he survived
the contest, he would hoist a white sail. In fact, Theseus had
overcome and slain the Minotaur, but tragically had simply
forgotten about the white sail.
The earliest literary reference to Sounion is in Homer
's poem the Odyssey
probably composed in the 8th century B.C. This recounts the
mythical tribulations suffered by Greek hero Odysseus in a gruelling 10-year sea-voyage to
return to his native island, Ithaca in the
sea, from the sack of Troy.
ordeal was supposedly inflicted upon him by Poseidon, to whom the
temple at Sounion was dedicated.
told that, as the various Greek commanders sailed back from Troy,
the helmsman of King Menelaos of Sparta 's ship died
at his post while rounding "holy Sounion, cape of Athens".
Menelaos landed at Sounion to give his companion full funeral
honours (i.e. cremation on a funeral pyre on the beach).
ships were then caught by a storm off Cape Malea and scattered in all directions.
Archaeological finds on the site date from as early as 700 B.C.
Herodotus tells us that in the sixth century B.C., the Athenians
celebrated a quadrennial festival at Sounion, which involved
Athens' leaders sailing to the cape in a sacred boat.
The original, Archaic Period
of Poseidon on the site, which was built of tufa
, was probably destroyed in 480 B.C. by Persian
troops during shahanshah Xerxes I
's invasion of Greece (the second Greco-Persian War
). Although there is no
direct evidence for Sounion, Xerxes certainly had the temple of
Athena, and everything else, on the Acropolis of Athens razed as punishment for the Athenians'
After they defeated Xerxes in the naval Battle of Salamis
, the Athenians placed an
entire enemy trireme
(warship with three
banks of oars) at Sounion as a trophy
dedicated to Poseidon.
The later temple at Sounion, whose columns still stand today, was
probably built in ca. 440 B.C. This was during the ascendancy of Athenian
statesman Pericles, who also rebuilt the
Parthenon in Athens.
B.C., 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.
would have threatened Athens' seaborne grain supply route from
Athens' supply situation had become critical, since the city's land
supply - lines had been cut by the Spartan fortification of
Deceleia, in north Attica. However, not long after, the Sounion
fortress was seized from the Athenians by a force of rebel slaves
from the nearby silver mines of Laurium.
Temple of Poseidon
Ancient Greek religion
Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion,
built circa 440 BC.
in nature: i.e., based on the
notion that to avoid misfortune, one must constantly seek the
favour of the relevant gods by prayers, gifts and sacrifices. To
the ancient Greek, every natural feature, e.g. hill, lake, stream
or wood, was controlled by a god. Thus a person about to swim in a
river, for example, would say a prayer to the river-god, or make an
offering to that god's shrine, to avoid the chance of drowning. The
gods were considered immortal, could change shape, become invisible
and travel anywhere instantaneously. But in many other respects
they were considered similar to humans. They shared the whole range
of human emotions, both positive and negative. Thus, in their
attitudes towards humans, they could be both benevolent and
malicious. As humans also, they had family and clan hierarchies.
They could even mate with humans, and produce demi-gods
In a maritime country like Greece, the god of the sea was bound to
occupy a high position in the divine hierarchy. In power, Poseidon
was considered second only to Zeus
the supreme god himself. His implacable wrath, manifested in the
form of storms, was greatly feared by all mariners. In an age
without mechanical power, storms very frequently resulted in
shipwrecks and drownings.
The temple at Sounion, therefore, was a venue where mariners, and
also entire cities or states, could propitiate Poseidon, by making
, or leaving
The temple of Poseidon was constructed in approx. 440 B.C., over
the ruins of a temple dating from the Archaic Period
. It is perched above the sea
at a height of almost 60 m. The design of the temple is a typical
i.e. it had a front portico
with 6 columns. Only some columns of
the Sounion temple stand today, but 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 42: 18 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 79cm
(31 inches) at the top.
At the centre of the temple colonnade would have been the hall of
), 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 (6m)
bronze statue of Poseidon. Probably gold-leafed, it may have
resembled a contemporary representation of the god, appropriately
found in a shipwreck, shown in the figure above. Poseidon was
usually portrayed carrying a trident
weapon he supposedly used to stir up storms.
Archaeological excavation of the site in 1906 uncovered numerous
artefacts and inscriptions, most notably a marble kouros
statueand an impressive votive
relief,both now in the Athens
National Archaeological Museum.
Byron's name carved into temple of
The inscribed name of the famous Romantic poet 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
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
- :Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
- :Where nothing, save the waves and I,
- :May hear our mutual murmurs sweep...
- Homer, Odyssey
- Herodotus, Histories VIII.53.
- Herodotus, Histories, VIII.121.
Peloponnesian War VII.28 and VIII.4.
- 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, article: 'Sunium'
- Perseus Digital Library @
www.perseus.tufts.edu (search term: 'Sounion').
- Perseus Digital Library, for search term 'Sounion
- W. Burkert, Greek Religion (1987).
- David Gill, webpage: .
- David Gill, webpage: .
- Athens National
Archaeological Museum, items NM 2720 and NM 3344.
- Byron, Don Juan, Canto the Third "The Isles of
The following are reference sources, in alpha order (cited in
National Archaeological Museum, items NM 2720 and NM 3344.
- Lord Byron, Don Juan,
- W. Burkert, Greek Religion (1987).
- Herodotus, Histories, Volumes
VI & VIII, "The History of Herodotus" (translated), 440 BC,
- Homer, Odyssey, Volume III &
- Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2-8 CE.
- 1911 Encyclopedia
Britannica, article "Sunium", 1911.
- Perseus Digital Library @ www.perseus.tufts.edu (search term:
- Plutarch, "Theseus" in Parallel Lives, 75 CE.
- Romantic Circles, The Byron Chronology, webpage:
- Thucydides, Peloponnesian
War, Volume VII and VIII, 431 BC (translated by Richard
Crawley), webpage: MIT-Thuc.