A rocky peninsula jutting into the sea at the S end of the region
lies 69 km SE of Athens. It is famous for its classical marble temple which was
built on the highest point of the cape and dedicated to the god Poseidon. It became
the site of religious activities at least as early as 700 B.C. and in later times
it was frequently used as a place of sanctuary by slaves who had run away from
the nearby silver mines at Laurion. The earliest literary reference to the site
occurs in the Odyssey (3.278) where it is said that Phrontis, Menelaus' pilot,
was struck down by Apollo as he was passing the sacred cape; in the winter of
413-412 B.C. during the Peloponnesian War, it was fortified to protect the ships
carrying corn to Athens (Thuc. 8.4); and later it was held by the slaves from
the mines at Laurion during a civic unheaval (Posidonios, cited by Athenaeus,
The marble Temple of Poseidon, built soon after the middle of the 5th c. B.C., is the main archaeological attraction of Sounion. Originally a colonnade encircled the pronaos, the cella, where the cult statue of Poseidon was placed, and the opisthodomos. Of the original colonnade, which had 6 columns across the facades and 13 along the sides, 2 columns still stand on the N and 9 along the S flank. These unusually thin columns are articulated by 16 flutes, rather than 20 the more common number. The lower two steps on which these columns stand are unusual in their variegated surface and the cavetto molding which undercuts the vertical raisers. One column still stands between the two antae of the pronaos; these are aligned with the third column of the colonnade, an unusual characteristic of this architect. Originally a sculptured frieze lined the four sides of the area in front of the pronaos. The frieze depicted the Battle of the Centaurs, the Battle of the Gods and Giants, and the deeds of Theseus. Several of the frieze blocks can be seen on the site resting against the fortification wall on the left as one approaches the temple. The pediments once held sculpture (no longer preserved) and the whole was crowned by floral akroteria. One of the akroteria, found almost complete, can be seen in the National Museum in Athens. The temple is built of coarse-grained marble from the nearby quarry of Agrileza. It was designed by the same architect who built the Temples of Hephaistos and Ares in Athens and the Temple of Nemesis at Rhamnous, as indicated by the design (for example the relationship of the porches to the lateral colonnade), proportions (the unusually thin columns combined with a heavy superstructure), dimensions, and style (the Ionic moldings and frieze). The Classical temple was constructed on top of the remains of an earlier unfinished temple made of poros limestone, begun in the early years of the 5th c. B.C. and destroyed by the Persians in 480. The foundations, steps, and scattered fragments of the columns and entablature of the earlier structure can be seen beneath the later one. Immediately to the S there is a small structure with partially preserved rubble walls which may have served as a temporary shrine after the destruction of the earlier temple and before the construction of the new one. The poros column drums that can be seen in its walls came from the earlier temple.
Stoas (about which little is known) once lined the N and W sides of the sacred area. Next to the stoa on the N lay the entrance into the precinct. This gateway consisted of two Doric porches of unequal length separated by a gate wall pierced by three doorways. A ramp led through the central door, similar to the Propylaea in Athens, so that animals for sacrifice could be led into the sanctuary. Marble benches lined the two porches. Fragments of 17 early archaic kouroi were found in a deep pit E of the Temple of Poseidon. The statues were probably damaged by the Persians at the time they destroyed the earlier temple. Since they were sacred dedications, they could not be entirely discarded, and thus they were deposited in the pit to make way for newer, undamaged dedications. The best preserved of the statues are on exhibit in the National Museum of Athens.
A fortification wall encircling the summit of the peninsula protected the inhabitants of the site. A few of the houses within the fortification have been excavated. They face onto a street roughly parallel to the N fortification wall and ca. 60 m distant from it. The houses were inhabited from the 5th c. B.C. to Roman times. The fortification wall can best be seen to the NE of the gateway. It is roughly 4 m thick, constructed of rubble masonry and faced with marble blocks. Square towers punctuated the wall at intervals of roughly 20 m. The fortifications were constructed toward the end of the 5th c. B.C.; during the Hellenistic period they were repaired and expanded. At this same time a ship-shed was constructed in a natural cove adjacent to the wall along the E side of the cape. A deep rectangular cutting ca. 21 m x 12 m can be seen extending inland from the sea. On the sloping floor of the cutting, two slipways were constructed to hold the ships; marble masonry originally surrounded the cutting and supported the roof.
On the low hill N of the main sanctuary there is a smaller temenos dedicated to Athena. Foundations of two small Classical temples and an enclosing precinct wall can be seen here. The larger of the two temples was built soon after the middle of the 5th c. B.C. and dedicated to the goddess Athena. Contrary to the normal plan of Greek temples, the colonnade of this temple was placed only across the front and along one side leaving the rear and N side without columns. Originally there appear to have been 10 columns across the front or E side and 12 columns along the S side. A small pronaos led to the main room of the temple. The remains of the base for the cult statue and foundations for 4 columns lie within this room. The two marble slabs at the E end mark the position of the threshold. Fragments of Ionic unfluted columns and various moldings of local gray-blue marble from Agriliza were found on the site. Identical fragments have been found in the Agora in Athens; it would appear that during the reign of the Emperor Augustus in the 1st c. A.D. part of this temple was transported to Athens and reerected in or near the Agora. One of the better-preserved capitals is on display in the Agora Museum and two of the capitals are in the National Museum.
To the N of the Athena Temple are the foundations of a smaller, later 5th c. B.C. temple. Foundations for the two columns which originally stood along the front, the marble threshold, the side and back walls made of local brown stone, and the blue Eleusinian base for the cult statue can be seen.
In the area around Sounion remains of at least five farming establishments have been found. Their most prominent feature is a towerlike structure, which probably served to protect both the inhabitants of the farm and the farm goods during piratical raids.
I. M. Shear, ed.
This text is from: The Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites, Princeton University Press 1976. Cited Sep 2002 from Perseus Project URL below, which contains 54 image(s), bibliography & interesting hyperlinks.
Sunium (Sounion: Eth. Sounieus), the name of a promontory and demus
on the southern coast of Attica. The promontory, which forms the most southerly
point in the country, rises almost perpendicularly from the sea to a great height,
and was crowned with a temple of Athena, the tutelary goddess of Attica. (Paus.
i. 1. § 1; Sounion hiron, Hom. Od. iii. 278; Soph. Ajax, 1235; Eurip. Cycl. 292;
Vitruv. iv. 7). Sunium was fortified in the nineteenth year of the Peloponnesian
War (B.C. 413) for the purpose of protecting the passage of the cornships to Athens
(Thuc. viii. 4), and was regarded from that time as one of the principal fortreses
of Attica (Comp. Dem. pro Cor. p. 238; Liv. xxxi. 25; Scylax, p. 21.) Its proximity
to the silver mines of Laurium probably contributed to its prosperity, which passed
into a proverb (Anaxand. ap. Athen. vi. p. 263, c.); but even in the time of Cicero
it had sunk into decay (ad Att. xiii. 10). 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 Sunium
as far as Thoricus on the east, and Anaphlystus on the west, is called by Herodotus
the Suniac angle (ton gounon ton Souniakon, iv. 99). Though Sunium was especially
sacred to Athena, we learn from Aristophanes (Equit. 557, Aves, 869) that Poseidon
was also worshipped there.
The promontory of Sunium is now called Cape Kolonnes, from the ruins of the temple of Athena which still crown its summit. Leake observes that the temple was a Doric hexastyle; but none of the columns of the fronts remain. The original number of those in the flanks is uncertain; but there are still standing nine columns of the southern, and three of the northern side, with their architraves, together with the two columns and one of the antae of the pronaus, also bearing their architraves. The columns of the peristyle were 3 feet 4 inches in diameter at the base, and 2 feet 7 inches under the capital, with an intercolumniation below of 4 feet 11 inches. The height, including the capital, was 19 feet 3 inches. The exposed situation of the building has caused a great corrosion in the surface of the marble, which was probably brought from the neighbouring mountains; for it is less homogeneous, and of a coarser grain, than the marble of Pentele. The walls of the fortress were faced with the same kind of stone. The entablature of the peristyle of the temple was adorned with sculpture, some remains of which have been found among the ruins. North of the temple, and nearly in a line with its eastern front, are foundations of the Propylaeum or entrance into the sacred peribolus: it was about 50 feet long and 30 broad, and presented at either end a front of two Doric columns between antae, supporting a pediment. The columns were 17 feet high, including the capital, 2 feet 10 inches in diameter at the base, with an opening between them of 8 feet 8 inches. (The Demi of Attica, p. 63, 2nd ed.) Leake remarks that there are no traces of any third building visible, and that we must therefore conclude that here, as in the temple of Athena Polias at Athens, Poseidon was honoured only with an altar. Wordsworth, however, remarks that a little to the NE. of the peninsula on which the temple stands is a conical hill, where are extensive vestiges of an ancient building, which may perhaps be the remains of the temple of Poseidon. (Athens and Attica, p. 207.)
This text is from: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD). Cited September 2004 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks
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