Many people think that the oldest temple of Greece is the temple of Athena in Acropolis. Yet, the Temple of Poseidon in Sounio is the first reported by Homer. Specifically, Homer reports that Menelaus’ Ship Captain named “Fronti” during their return from Troy, died at the sight of Sounio Sanctuary. Meneleaos stopped and buried his Captain in the Holy Ground of Sounio.
Yet, Sounio is reported as a place even earlier than Trojan War, and specifically in the Myth of Theseus and Minotaur.
The myth is chronologically placed a millennium before the temple of Poseidon was built.
Around 1,450 BC Athens was a kingdom, at that time, and it had to pay a regular tax and a blood tax to Minoan Crete. The blood tax was paid every nine years, and seven young men as well as seven young women were sent to Crete to be fed to the Minotaur. Minotaur was a creature with a bull's head, tail, and a male body, while he was living in the Labyrinth.
Theseus, the son of the Athenian King Aegeas, offered to be included in the group of young people who would go to Crete. The ship that transported Theseus and other young people to Crete had black sails because of their tragic destination. Aegeas had asked his son, if he managed to kill the Minotaur and return alive from Crete, to change the black sails of the ship in white. In this way, as his father would gaze at the sea could see from far away the white sails which would be the sign that his son was alive.
Theseus when he entered the labyrinth used a thread by tying the one end at the entrance and unrolling it as it progressed through the corridors of the Labyrinth. After locating and killing the Minotaur he could found the exit from the Labyrinth by following the course of the thread.
King Aegeas was everyday standing in Cape Sounio waiting for the ships return. However, Theseus forgot to change the sail from Black to White as instructed by his father. When Aegeas, saw the black sails, committed suicide by falling into the sea from the cliff in Sounio where he sat all day looking to the horizon and hoping that his son would return alive. The sea to which the Aegeas fell is the Aegean Sea.
LOCATION AND HISTORY OF SOUNIO
Sounion is a rocky cape, which in antiquity was the southern boundary of the city-state of Athens. Sounio is strategically placed, as it is the first place to spot any ship moving towards Athens. Pausanias (2nd century AD), described it as follows: "… Sounio in the edge of Agean Sea is the land of Athens."
Sounio was already inhabited since prehistoric times. From the 8th century BC the worship of Poseidon and Athena began to be developed in the area. However, the existence of a sanctuary may be older as stated from Homer. In the 6th century BC the first large temples were being built. In 480 BC the Persians invading Attica destroyed the sanctuary of Sounio. After the Battle of Salamina (28/29 September 480 BC) the Athenians set up a Phoenician warship that they had occupied at the top of the hill as a trophy, but also as an indication of their naval force. Athenians also rebuilt the sanctuary.
The main temple was dedicated to Poseidon, the god of the sea. The second important temple was dedicated to the goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the goddess from which the city was named. In the open air of the sanctuary statues were placed. One of these is known as the "Kouros of Sounio" and is exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum.
THE TEMPLE OF POSEIDON
In the area where today are the ruins of the temple of Poseidon, during the Archaic period there was an altar dedicated to the god, surrounded by two great kouros, but not a temple. The first temple began to be constructed in the early 5th century BC. but was destroyed before it was completed by the Persians in 480 BC. The design was similar to the temple that succeeded a Doric, double-faced, with 6 x 13 columns.
The second temple (the one that exists today) began to be built in 449/8 BC. by the order of Pericles. For its construction was used local marble (Agrileas) as well as parts from the previous temple. To secure the temple, the top of the hill was flattened, creating lobbies to the north and west. The construction was completed in 440 BC. Its dimensions were 31.12 x 13.47 m. The columns were 6.1 meters high and 1 meter in diameter at the base and 79 cm at the top. The architect is unknown, but he is probably the one who designed the Temple of Hephaestus in the Athenian Agora, the Temple of Mars (which in Roman times was transferred to the Athenian Agora) and the Temple of Nemesis in Ramnuna, as these four temples were almost identical.
However, the temple of Poseidon had several innovations: it did not have an internal colonnade thus increasing the Temple’s capacity. The frieze also spanned all four sides of the pronaos, not just the side above the entrance. The frieze theme was Centaurs, the Gigantomachy and the labors of Theseus.
In the later years, parts of the temple detached and moved to museums or private collections out of which Five columns are in England at Chatsworth (where they support the Devonshire's 6th duke statue), 3 in Venice and 3 in Potsdam.
THE TEMPLE OF ATHENA
About 500 meters northeast of the Sanctuary of Poseidon was the sanctuary of Athena Sounias. The temple was generally characterized by austerity. There was no sculptural decoration at all, and the colors were probably confined to the cornice and claystone. Inside it was a statue of supernormal size, whose base is still preserved. The dimension of the temple was 16.4 x 11.6 m and in the middle of its vault there were four columns to support the roof.
In Roman times, the sanctuary was abandoned, and the external colonnade was transferred and used in a building of the Athenian Agora.