Sounion, located at the southernmost tip of Attica, lies 70 kilometers (42 miles) south of Athens and is accessed by a coastal road. Sounion was first inhabited ca. 3000 B.C., as evidenced by prehistoric tombs in the area. In the Odyssey, Homer relates that Menelaos stopped at the sanctuary of Sounion to bury his helmsman, Phrontis, indicating that Sounion was a center of worship as early as the 8th century B.C. During the 8th and 7th centuries, however, the buildings of the sanctuaries and the statues of the gods were made of wood and other perishable materials, and thus no traces of these have survived (Tataki 1978: 17).
In the 7th century B.C., developments in Attic art led to the erection of monumental kouroi both in local sanctuaries and over the tombs of the wealthy. During this time, the Laurion silver mines, located just to the north of Sounion, provided Athens with much wealth. Sounion was a deme of Attica, and it originally belonged to the tribe Leontis (after 200 B.C., Sounion became part of the tribe Attalis). As a result, the history of Sounion and its political and social achievements were very closely tied to those of Athens. Because of its proximity to the mines, Sounion at times became a major slave market. Some authorities theorize that slaves who obtained their freedom after years of working in the mines stayed in Sounion and eventually became citizens.
The principal temple which can still be viewed at Sounion is the temple to Poseidon. Around 490 B.C., a temple began to be constructed in the very same location where the existing temple of Poseidon now stands. This unfinished temple was destroyed by the Persians in 480 B.C.
Directly south of the temple of Poseidon once stood a small building now attested only by some poorly preserved rubble walls. This structure, built after the destruction of the first temple of Poseidon but prior to the erection of the temple that stands today, may have been used as a temporary shrine for the cult statue of Poseidon. Stoas lined the north and west sides of the surrounding sanctuary, into which a gateway (or propylaia) near the northeast corner provided access.
At the end of the Persian wars, the Greeks dedicated a Phoenician ship to Poseidon at Sounion. Herodotus relates, "First of all they set apart for the gods, among other first-fruits, three Phoenician triremes, one to be dedicated at the Isthmus, where it was till my lifetime, the second at Sunium, and the third for Ajax at Salamis where they were" (VIII, 121). This dedication marked Sounion as an extremely important sanctuary in Attica.
The foundations of the present temple, which was probably part of Pericles' famous building program that included the Parthenon and the Propylaia on the acropolis of Athens itself, are considered by some authorities to be closely datable to 444/3 B.C. The architect of this temple was, according to these same authorities, also responsible for the Hephaisteion immediately adjacent to the Athenian Agora, the Temple of Nemesis at Rhamnous, and the Temple of Ares at Acharnai. The architect's name, however, is not generally agreed upon.
The sanctuary of Athena, located on a hill 500 meters northeast of the temple of Poseidon, contains the temple of Athena Sounias that was erected in about 450 BC.
Athens erected the fortification walls at the tip of the promontory at Sounion in 412 B.C., during the last decade of the Peloponnesian War. This fortification allowed for the safe shipment of food from Euboea to Athens. At this time, Athens also kept a military force at Sounion to man and maintain this fortified strongpoint. Throughout the Hellenistic period, the fortifications were kept up in a good state of repair and even somewhat expanded, and two ship sheds were constructed at the northwest corner of the fortifications. During the Chremonidean War (267-261 B.C.), the forces of Antigonos Gonatas seized the fortress at Sounion. Antigonos then proceeded to take over control of the Attic countryside from the stronghold of Sounion. Athens eventually surrendered to the Macedonians in 229 B.C.
Both sanctuaries at Sounion declined and were eventually abandoned. The date of the abandonment of religious activity at Sounion can possibly be deduced from the removal of the temple of Athena Sounias as well as the sima from the Temple of Poseidon from Sounion to Athens. If the sima was actually recycled on the Temple of Ares, then the Temple of Poseidon must have been unroofed, and therefore religious activity at Sounion had probably ended by the very beginning of the 1st century A.D. (Dinsmoor 1974). Under the rule of Augustus, the temple of Athena was dismantled and transported to Athens, to be re-erected in the Agora. Several Ionic columns and a cornice block from it were found in the southeast section of the Agora. In the second century A.D., Pausanias notes, "When you have rounded the promontory you see a harbor and a temple to Athena of Sunium on the peak of the promontory" (I, 1). When Pausanias completed his tour of Greece, however, the temple of Athena Sounias had already been moved to Athens. The temple he mistakenly identified was the temple of Poseidon.
In the 14th century A.D., Sounion was used as a pirate stronghold. The site of Sounion was later visited by the 19th century English poet, Lord Byron, who carved his name into one of the columns of the temple of Poseidon. From its occupation as a sanctuary in the 7th century B.C. through to the abandonment of its temples some 700 years later, Sounion served an important religious function for all of Attica. Over the past two centuries, the site has become a tourist mecca.
-Laura A. Rogers