sounioCape Sounion, at the southernmost tip of Attica, is home to one of the most impressive monuments of the Classical Age, the temple of Poseidon, which was built shortly after the mid-fifth century BC, that is, in the same period as the major works on the Athenian Acropolis. Archaeological research has shown that the temple of Poseidon was not alone in the area, as the temple of the goddess Athena stood nearby.


Worship of Athena was widely disseminated in ancient Greece and covered many regions outside Attica, with which the goddess had a very special relationship. A series of sanctuaries of Athena existed in Greece proper: on the Acropolis of Athens, at Delphi, at Lindos and in other cities on the island of Rhodes, at Tegea, and elsewhere. Worship of Poseidon was likewise widely diffused throughout the Hellenic world and the colonies. In addition to the temples at Sounion and the Isthmus of Corinth, there were sanctuaries of the god in many parts of Greece, such as Kalauria (pres. Poros), Thasos, Delos and Cape Tainaron. At Sounion the sanctuaries of the two deities – who clashed with one another over their sovereignty in Athens (see case study, Parthenon) – were about 500 m. apart. A few years after the temple of Poseidon was built, the contest between the two deities was the subject selected for the west pediment of the Parthenon, the most important temple ever dedicated to Athena (see case study, Acropolis, Parthenon, Pediments). At Sounion the two gods were in peaceful proximity and indeed Poseidon had the better location. The Athenians were mindful not to neglect the god, which is why they built for him a splendid temple befitting his place in the hierarchy of the Dodecatheon, first because he had honoured them by expressing his wish to be their patron deity, and second in order to secure his protection for all those sailing in the usually tempestuous sea off the promontory of Sounion. In the fifth century BC, a festival was organized at Sounion every four years, to which the Athenians came grandiosely in a special ship, in order to take part in the events.

sounioThe sanctuary of Poseidon

The present entrance to the fortified tip of Cape Sounion, only a part of which was occupied by the sanctuary of Poseidon, is not the same as the ancient one, which was in the northwest side of the enceinte. The manmade terrace of the sanctuary, which was also the acropolis of the fort, has its own precinct wall (peribolos), enclosing an area measuring 60 x 80 m. On the north side of the peribolos was its sole entrance to the sanctuary, a magnificent propylon, by the standards of the time, which resembled a temple and formed three entrances in its interior. Through the middle and widest one passed wheeled vehicles and animals for sacrifice, while the other two were for pedestrians.         

Beyond the enclosure formed by the circuit wall of the fort, the propylon and the porticoes, stands the temple of Poseidon, on the highest point in the area. It is noted indicatively that the stylobate is 6.42 m. higher than the propylon. The temple of Poseidon built between 449 and 440 BC was not the first temple on this site. In the Archaic period a large poros temple in the Doric order had been raised on precisely the same spot and with many similarities to its marble successor, part of which is visible today. The Archaic temple was slightly larger than the later one but had the same number of columns: 6 on the narrow and 13 on the long sides. The later temple was built of white marble from a quarry near the cape. Unlike Pentelic marble, this marble contains no iron and so does not change colour over time, remaining pristine white. However, it is soft and therefore not very resilient. This seems to have been why the architect innovated in the design of the column shafts, which have 16 flutes instead of the 20 usual until that time. Unfortunately, the name of the architect is not known.

The sculptural decoration of the temple of Poseidon

The metopes of the temple of Poseidon at Sounion were devoid of relief decoration, which was all concentrated in a continuous frieze in the interior of the pronaos. Three subjects have been identified in the scenes of the frieze: the Gigantomachy, the Centauromachy and the Labours of Theseus. The internal colonnade of the cella was omitted in order to leave more space free. At the far end of the cella stood the cult statue of Poseidon, about which there is no information. The opisthodomos, which could only be accessed from the west entrance of the edifice, housed the temple’s “treasury” and various precious ex-votos. All that survives of the sculpted decoration of the temple pediments is a seated, headless female figure, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, and the palmette akroterion that adorned the apex of the pediment. Archaic kouroi and the bases of archaic statues, also in the National Archaeological Museum, were uncovered in front of the façade of the temple of Poseidon, just three metres from the entrance staircase. Some inscriptions were found within the sacred precinct, one of which is particularly significant as it helped to identify the sanctuary.

The sanctuary of Athena

On a low hill about 500 m. from the temple of Poseidon lies the sanctuary of Athena. There was also a precinct on the north side of the hill, which was dedicated to the worship of Phrontes, the helmsman of Menelaos’ ship, whose tomb was at Sounion, as Homer relates.

The peribolos of the sanctuary of Athena encloses an area of 350 sq. m., in which the foundations of two buildings are visible. As the excavation data show, prior to the erection of the temple of Athena some kouroi statues had been set up on the site. The originality of this Ionic temple is that its peristyle covers only two sides of the cella, the east and the south. It too was constructed of white marble and measured approximately 19 x 14.50 m. The monument had no sculptural decoration. There is still debate as to its date: according to one view it was built in 470 BC, to another that it dates to the second half of the fifth century BC, while a third distinguishes two phases in its construction.


From the book: Sounion, the sanctuary of Poseidon, Α.Β. Τataki, Ekdotike Athenon