Temple of Poseidon, Sounion, Greece

Temple of Poseidon, Sounion, Greece

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Sounion (Σούνιον modern Greek: Σούνιο) is the southernmost point of Attica to the east, about 40 miles from Athens. Because it commanded the seafaring lanes to and from Athens it was was fortified to guard the maritime interests of the Athenians. A strong garrison of Athenians hoplites and triremes was stationed at the promontory and guarded the all-important food supplies from Eubea and Pontos, as well as the nearby silver mines of Lavrion. Today, it is an archaeological site crowned by the elegant Doric Temple of Poseidon.

"Cape Sounion is part of the territory of ATTICA projecting from the mainland of Greece and facing the Aegean and the Cyclades. Sail round the cape and you come to the harbour on the point of the cape is a TEMPLE OF ATHENE OF SOUNION."

This is how Pausanias opens his Guide to Greece and he might be excused for mistaking the temple of Poseidon as belonging to Athena--there is a temple of Athena nearby, and he visited Greece about 500 years after the building spree at Sounion when parts of the temples were farmed for other building projects. An inscription confirms that the temple belonged to Poseidon.

Touched by the sea on three sides the promontory is shrouded in legends. It was considered the place where Aegeus ended his life by leaping off the Sounion cliffs, distraught at the thought that his son Theseus was not successful in killing the Minotaur in Crete. In a tragic turn of events, typical of Greek mythology, Theseus was in fact victorious but his neglect to replace the black sail with a white one when he sailed home had grave consequences for his father. Aegeus' memory was immortalized by giving his name to the Aegean sea. In Odyssey, Homer describes Sounion as the "sacred" place where Phrontis died and buried: "Meanwhile Menelaus and I were on our way home from Troy, on good terms with one another. When we got to Sunium, which is the point of Athens, Apollo with his painless shafts killed Phrontis the steersman of Menelaus' ship (and never man knew better how to handle a vessel in rough weather) so that he died then and there with the helm in his hand, and Menelaus, though very anxious to press forward, had to wait in order to bury his comrade and give him his due funeral rites."

Sounion bay, just below the promontory toward the east was a safe harbor where a garison of Athenian triremes was stationed. The bay hosted regattas in honor of Poseidon since ancient times, and the Athenians dedicated one of the captured Phoenician war ships there after the battle of Salamis. Above it, to the southeast, the rocky promontory that rises abruptly from the sea was a well-known and a welcome sight for all sailors who approached the Saronic Gulf and gazed at the crowning Temple of Poseidon--the god who commanded the mood of the waters they sailed upon. Naturally, sailors and their families paid their respects at the site because a host of artifacts were unearthed during excavations such as Cycladic statuettes, Mycenaean seals, Archaic ceramic shards, and a number of Kouros statues.

The sacred area which included the temple, and the Athenian garrison were sheltered behind defensive walls with small towers built 66 feet apart. The fortification were constructed by the Athenians between 413-412 BCE, at the height of the Peloponnesian War when the Spartans with their allies were a constant threat to Attica, raiding both its surrounding land and interrupting its food supplies that came by sea. From the living area, a series of steps led to the sea where triremes were sheltered inside a double dock that was partially cut into the rock. The ship sheds were probably built in the 3d century BCE, and consisted of two roofed slipways, steeply rising out of the sea so triremes or other ships could be hoisted out of the water. Keeping triremes dry was of paramount importance because if their hauls were saturated with water they became heavy and slow.

Remnants of the ancient town are barely visible on the site. A wide street and few house foundations can be deciphered and show that the town was laid on an Hippodamian grid plan.

Access to the sacred site was through the Propylaea, which was a simple portico divided by two Doric columns with two flights of steps and a ramp. The portico was constructed at the same time as the temple. Immediately to the west of the propylaea were a banquet room, used for ritual feasts, and a two-aisle portico which was also built in the 5th century BCE partly by utilizing columns from the earlier Archaic temple of Poseidon. Two stoas framed the sacred perimeter's northwest corner.

The Macedonians reinforced and enlarged the fortifications and added shipsheds in the 3d century BCE. But their rise to dominance in Greece, and the shifting of the commercial and cultural centers toward the eastern Mediterranean ports after Alexander the Great's death, led to the eventual decline of Sounion.

Today, besides the Temple of Poseidon's extensive ruins very little remains from the other structures of the citadel. Scant foundations of the sanctuary's Propylaea and the defensive walls are scattered about the site and on the opposing hill to the north, the Sanctuary of Athena Sounias goes largely unnoticed by most visitors.

The Sacred Triangle of Greece

The temple of Poseidon at Sounion The temple of Hephaestus on the Agora

An iscocEles triangle

So apparently, the temple of Aphaia in Aegina, the temple of Poseidon in Sounion and either the temple of Hephaestus on the Agora on the Acropolis from an isosceles triangle. In geometry this is a triangle which has two or at least two equal sides. So I decided to put all of the temples into a map on Google Maps and connected the dots. Lo and behold, one such triangle appears.

Interestingly, these four temples were also built within a few years of one another. This poses the question: were these temples purposely positioned according to a greater design and if so what was the purpose of this? There are several theories, but one of the most interesting one is that these religious sites were chosen according to astronomy or mythology, an idea also called ‘sacred geography’. The idea that the Greeks choose to built and align their temples in accordance with a grander scheme is interesting, especially as the Parthenon, the temple of Apollo in Delphi and the temple of Aphaia apparently make up another isosceles triangle. However, due to the lack of written evidence to support a theory such as this, I’m afraid we will never truly know if the placing of these temples in such a triangle was done with a higher purpose in mind or if this is just a coincidence. It remains an interesting fact to share with you however!

Close your eyes, feel the breeze on the skin of your face and listen to everything that it has to say.

Constructed in 444 – 440 B.C. over the remains of an older one dating from the Archaic period, the temple is thought to have been built by Iktinos, the architect of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens’ Ancient Agora and was dedicated to Poseidon, god of the sea – constituting one of the most emblematic altars where mariners, but also entire cities and states, could propitiate the god in order to appease him and help them have a safe return home.

Propitiating a god, though, is not the only thing to which the temple of Poseidon at Sounion owes its standing-between-legend-and-history status. It is its Doric marble columns that sailors were looking forward to see glittering through the sea fog – because this meant that they would have a safe return home it was from this cliff that king Aegeus drowned himself when he thought that his son, Theseus, was killed in Crete by the mythical King Minos and it was here that king Menelaus stopped on his way back from Troy, according to Homer.

Mythical or not, unique stories have always been lingering in the Temple of Poseidon, having left their mark in this sacred place – like Byron’s inscription on the front pillars. It’s time for you to create your own, by putting yourself in this legendary frame.

The Temple of Poseidon in the Cape of Sounion

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Cape of Sounion and Marathon, Full Day

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Athens Sounio Poseidon temple

The Temple of Poseidon in Sounion Athens: Cape Sounion is found about 70 km to the south-east of Athens, on the southernmost tip of Attica peninsula. According to the myth, this is the site where Aegeus, king of Athens, fell into the sea because of a misunderstanding. Theseus, the son of Aegeus, had traveled to Crete to kill Minotaur, the legendary monster who lived in the palace of Knossos, and to release Athens from the obligation to send seven boys and seven girls every year to the king of Crete, only to be eaten by Minotaur.

Book an unforgettable Tour to the Temple Of Poseidon!

Theseus thus had said to his father that if he killed Minotaur, he would hoist a white sail on the return home. Theseus indeed killed Minotaur and was returning to Athens safe and well but unfortunately, he forgot to hoist white sail and had a black sail on his mast. Aegeus saw the black sail from Cape Sounion and believed that his son was dead. His despair made him fall into the sea and, later on, the Athenians gave the sea his name, the Aegean Sea.

Some of the archaeological items found in this site date from as early as the 8th century BC, while Herodotus affirms in his documents that in the 6th century BC, the Athenians used to celebrate a quadrennial festival at Cape Sounion. In Homer's Odyssey, Menelaus while returning from Troy, stopped at this temple where he buried Phrontes, his helmsman.

In fact, this place was emotionally important for the Athenians, as this was the last point of their land that the ancient Athenian sea farers and warriors could see when they sailed away into the Aegean and around the Mediterranean Sea and also this was the first spot of Attica to see when they returned from the journey or war. That is why the Athenians decided to built a temple there, dedicated to Poseidon, the god of the sea, to give them nice sea trips so that they would come back home.

The first version of the temple was built in the archaic period but it was destroyed by the Persians in 480 B.C, in the second Greco-Persian War. Pericles, the famous Athenian leader, rebuilt the temple of Poseidon probably around 440 B.C. but only some columns of it stand till today. A 5m tall statue of Poseidon used to stand inside the temple, but today only a part of it survives and it is displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Athens. The frieze of the temple was made of marble from Paros island and it depicted the legends of Theseus. On one column, you can see the word "Byron" on it, engraved by the famous poet Lord Byron during a visit in 1810.

Many daily excursions are organized to Cape Sounion from the centre of Athens. It is considered among the sites you should definitely visit if you come to Athens. Apart from the archaeological remains, Cape Sounion is also famous for its beautiful sunset and the great views to the Aegean Sea. This site can be accessed through a scenic highway that crosses many residential resorts, like Glyfada, Vouliagmeni and Varkiza. There are also regular tours to Sounio departing from Omonia Square. The trip lasts for about one and a half to two hours.

Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion

Perhaps the most fascinating difference in this set of photographs is that the Temple itself has not changed – the same columns remain standing and seemingly there has been no major restoration work around this Temple, unlike it’s contemporary – the Parthenon- in Athens. Given it’s proximity to the sea it is no surprise that this Temple was dedicated to the Greek God of the Sea – Poseidon himself.

The major difference in the photos, aside from the weather, is entirely down to the people. As recently as the 1960s the Temple was entirely open to be explored at will – I even have a family photo taken in front of the Temple from this period. By the time I first visited in 1999 it was roped off to visitors, and I’m certain it happened many years before that.

The Archaeological Site

There are two sanctuaries present on the cape: the sanctuary of Poseidon and the sanctuary of Athena two gods that were held in high esteem by the ancient Athenians.

The promontory that’s home to the Temple of Poseidon is surrounded completely by the blue sea (except the north approach to the site), and it’s perhaps the only site where one can really comprehend the importance of seafaring in ancient Greece.

The ruins as we see them today are the result of renovations that took place during the 5th century B.C., and replaced a succession of buildings that date back to the archaic period.

The temple atop the hill was visible for miles from the sea and signaled to approaching ships that they were entering a place of culture, power, and prestige.

It is a Doric, peripteral structure with 34 columns (6 at its ends, and thirteen on each long side). It has a double-stacked terrace at its foundation, a peristyle, a cella, a pronaos, and an opisthodromos. The majority of the building is made of mable quarried from nearby Agrileza.

The temple had no decorations on the metopes, but had a shallow Ionic frieze on the architrave of the pronaos. It was carved in Parian mable.

The columns diverge from the norm for Doric temples in that they have 16 flutes instead of the usual 20.

Similarly, the pediment’s cornice diverged from the norm by having a pitch of 12.5° (instead of the usual 15°). It was decorated with sculptures, all of which have not survived to our day.

The temple of Poseidon has been the ground for countless graffiti artists throughout the centuries, and a favorite topic of tour guides is to point out the graffiti location of famous persons like Lord Byron.

Other Ruins

Besides the Temple of Poseidon, there are a few other ruins of visual interest on the promontory.

You will see the remnants of the defensive walls and traces of ancient building foundations.

You can also observe the dock that was partly cut out of the rock below the west cliff, but there is no trace of the two roofed slipways that sheltered and kept the garrison’s triremes dry (a 3d century addition).

The Temple of Athena Sounias

On the low hill to the north, you will see the Temple of Athena Sounias. The site is in complete ruins, with few building foundations and scattered marbles betraying that it was an important site of worship.

That Temple was built in 470 BCE to replace an earlier, Archaic building. In the 1st century CE many of its parts were shipped to Athens where they were repurposed in the Ancient Agora of Athens. You can see two beautiful Ionic capitals in the Agora Museum.

A second, smaller temple on the site is associated with either Artemis or the hero Phrontis.

Don’t Forget to Dream

But these archaeological sites are not just for study. It’s ok to take off your scholar hat and be a child again.

Stop and take in the view from the temple of Poseidon looking south.

The horizon is full of sea three quarters of the way, and a few meters away the rock dips and disappears towards the smashing waves below. You can’t help but feel as if the whole rock is just a floating platform.

You can easily imagine yourself on a massive raft which detached itself from land and time, now floating softly along the waves towards the expanse of the Aegean Sea and the depths of history.

You have joined Poseidon and are on a journey of discovery!

History of the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion

According to archaeological evidence, the wider area of Cape Sounion had been considered sacred since the Bronze Age.

Cape Sounion is mentioned in the Odyssey, and it was one of the places where the Greek fleet stopped on their return from Troy.

The existing Temple of Poseidon at Sounion was built between 444-440 BC. It was constructed on top of the ruins of an Archaic poros temple, and was made out of marble collected in nearby Lavrion.

During the Peloponnesian war, a couple of decades later, the Cape was enclosed by an extensive wall, which was considered the strongest existing fortification in the proximity of Athens. Parts of these defensive walls still survive today.

Who was Poseidon?

To understand Poseidon’s significance in Ancient Greece, it is useful to know some more information about this dominant God.

Poseidon came from a very powerful family. He was the son of the Titans, Cronus and his sister-wife Rhea. As Cronus was obsessed that his children would try to throw him off the throne, he ate all of them as soon as they were born.

However, Rhea manage to save one of her children, who later returned to take revenge from his father. This God was none other than Zeus, the King of Gods and ultimate god of the Skies and the Universe.

Poseidon and the rest of Zeus’ siblings, Hades, Hera, Demeter and Hestia, helped the King of Gods overthrow his father from the throne. Eventually, Zeus and the Olympians won the War, and each God assumed a role.

Poseidon, the mighty God of the Sea

In the ancient Greek universe, Poseidon was known as the God of the Sea. Additionally, he was the God of fresh waters, earthquakes and horses.

Is this Zeus, or Poseidon? National Archaeological Museum in Athens

Poseidon was the God responsible for the fates of sailors, but he also controlled rivers, pools and lakes, and regulated earthquakes and natural disasters. For this reason he was worshipped all around Greece, and his temples were not only founded close to the coastline, but also inland.

Like many other gods, Poseidon was particularly fertile. It is said that he had over 100 children, with goddesses and mortal women alike. At the same time, he was also attracted by men, such as Niritis and Pelopas.

Poseidon was officially married to Queen Amphitrite, with whom he had a son, Triton, and by some accounts a daughter, Benthesikyme. Pegasus, the flying horse, was the offspring of Poseidon and Medusa.

Fame riding Pegasus by Antoine Coysevox

15. Temple of Artemis (Vravrona)

As with many ancient ruins, the sanctuary of Artemis in Vravrona and Brauron is not as well-known as other temples like the Parthenon in Athens.

Located 33 kilometers out of central Athens, this lesser-known archaeological site may seem impractical to visit if you're only looking for a quick day trip, but it's worth the half-day trip. The site reached its peak between 500 BC and 300 BC during Classical Greece era.

Dave Briggs
Dave is a travel writer who has been living in Greece and writing about the country since 2015. As well as creating this Greece temples guide, he's written many more guides to Greece and the islands. Follow Dave on social media for travel inspiration from Greece and beyond:

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Watch the video: Temple of Poseidon at Sunset and The Beautiful Vistas in Cape Sounion. Greece. 4K (February 2023).

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