Cape Sounion, at the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula, is a promontory located appr. 70 kilometres (45 mi) south-southeast of Athens, Greece. The cape is the point for ships to enter the Saronic Gulf and reach the Port of Piraeus and the city of Athens and it’s an approximate cut-off point of the Aegean Sea.
According to Greek mythology and the founding myth of the city of Athens, Cape Sounion is the spot from where King Aegeus of Athens, leapt to his death off a cliff and thus giving his name to the sea. The Aegean Sea has been the backdrop of the Greek culture since historical records exist. It’s the sea where many city-states on smaller islands flourished, where great trade took place among Hellenistic and foreign peoples. To ancient Greeks in Athens, the Aegean Sea was the window to the world of the Dardanelles and the Black Sea (Hellespont, etc) to the north, to the eastern Mediterranean Basin (Phoenicians, Egyptians, etc) and to the western Mediterranean Basin (Romans, Carthaginians, etc) The Aegean Sea was the life and the blood of the ancient Greece (and of course, of the modern Greece).
What a better place for a temple to the god of Poseidon, brother of Zeus and a major deity among the Olympian gods, and the god in charge of keeping the seas and the waters in control? Cape Sounion is the location of a majestic temple to god of the seas, a great place from where to oversee his kingdom and stay in touch with his subjects, nested atop steep cliffs of appr. 60 meter high (200 ft), a place with commandeering views and fantastic sunsets, at the crossroads of the trading routes and still, a place close enough to the city of Athens.
Archaeological finds on the site date from as early as 700 BC. The original, Archaic-period temple of Poseidon on the site, was probably destroyed in 480 BC by Persian troops during Xerxes I’s invasion of Greece. The later temple at Sounion, whose columns still stand today, was probably built ca. 440 BC. This was during the ascendancy of the Athenian statesman Pericles, who also rebuilt the Parthenon in Athens. 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.
The temple of Poseidon was constructed in 444–440 BC, over the ruins of a temple dating from the Archaic period. The design of the temple is a typical hexastyle, i.e., it had a front portico with six columns. It has been hypothesized that 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.
The Poseidon building, with a southeastern orientation, is rectangular, with a colonnade on all four sides. The total number of original columns was 34; only 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 79 cm (31 inches) at the top.
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 meters (20 ft)) bronze statue of Poseidon. Probably covered in gold leaf, 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, the weapon he supposedly used to stir up storms. On the longest day of the year, the sun sets exactly in the middle of the caldera of the island of Patroklos, the extinct volcano that lies a mile offshore, suggesting astrological significance for the siting of the temple. The temple of Poseidon was destroyed in 399 by Emperor Arcadius.
Archaeological excavation of the site in 1906 uncovered numerous artifacts and inscriptions, most notably a marble kouros statue known as the Sounion Kouros and an impressive votive relief, both now in the Athens National Archaeological Museum. A column from the temple can be seen in the British Museum.
Certain material on the blog has been reproduced by Wikipedia; an article on Poseidon and images of a marble statue of the god (Poseidon of Milos) from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens can be found at a previous posting on this blog.
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