Because of its position at the southernmost tip of Attica, Cape Sunium was of great strategic and symbolic importance to the Athenians. Herodotus tells how, by the beginning of the fifth century bc (when a temple was being built on the headland), a four-yearly ceremony was held in which a sacred ship sailed round the coast from Athens to Sunium. We have no further details, and would know nothing of the celebrations had not the islanders of Aegina (in 490 bc) ‘lain in wait for the sacred ship and seized it with many of the leading men of Athens on board, whom they took and bound in chains’. Shortly afterwards, the Athenians took vengeance of a sort, when they allowed a boatload of Aeginetan exiles to settle at Sunium, from where they launched piratical raids on their native island.
In late summer 480 bc Sunium witnessed Greece’s rapidly changing fortunes, when its still-unfinished temple was burned by the Persians under Xerxes. Within weeks, however, the Greek fleet defeated Persia’s navy at the Battle of Salamis. In thanks the victors dedicated three enemy triremes: one on Salamis, a second at the sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia and the third at Sunium, where it was hauled in triumph on to the headland and displayed in the ruins of the temple.
Sunium in History & Today Photo Gallery
In 444 bc, as part of Pericles’ programme to restore Attica’s destroyed sanctuaries, building began at Sunium. Four years later the Temple of Poseidon was complete. Although only its ruins can be seen today, its original form can be gauged from the almost identical and still complete Temple of Hephaestus in Athens’ Agora. It was not the only temple built at Sunium A Temple of Athene was constructed on the low hill to the north, whose precinct may have included a hero-shrine to Menelaus’ helmsman, Phrontis.
In 412 bc, during the Peloponnesian War, the promontory of Sunium was fortified. It remained in use as a military base throughout the Hellenistic period, when ship-sheds were built at sea level beneath the temple. Under Rome, Sunium declined. In the first century ad, Athene’s temple was dismantled and re-erected in the Athenian Agora. (Two of its Ionic capitals are displayed in Athens’ Agora Museum) A hundred years later, Pausanias began his Description of Greece with the observation that: ‘Cape Sunium is on the mainland of Greece, jutting out from Attica towards the Aegean and the Cyclades. When you have sailed round the promontory you see a harbour and – on top of the promontory – the Temple of Athene of Sunium’ He meant of course the Temple of Poseidon. It is an unfortunate beginning to an otherwise excellent blog.
By the late fourth century ad (when the Byzantine emperor Arcadius ordered ‘any temples still intact to be demolished discretely and without ado’) the majestic Temple of Poseidon was abandoned. The promontory became the haunt of pirates. When Lord Byron visited in 1810, he wrote of ‘five and twenty Mainnotes (pirates) in the caves at the foot of the cliff with some Greek boatmen their prisoners’. Their presence did not prevent him from carving his name on one of the temple’s columns or eulogizing the site in his poem ‘Don Juan’:
Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep, Where nothing, save the waves and I, May hear our mutual murmurs sweep.
An easy excursion from Athens, Sunium is popular with coach parties, especially in the evening when sunsets can be stunning. As a result, the compact site is often overrun. Out of season, however, its romantic isolation can still be appreciated.
From the car park and conveniently placed restaurant (with good views of the temple), a path leads from the ticket booth, from where it is possible to look across the access road to the foundations of the Temple of Athene (no access). Steps lead up past fortification walls to the Temple of Poseidon (no access to interior). Another path leads west down towards the bay, with a view to the ship-sheds below. From the restaurant, it is possible to walk to the end of the promontory, from where the view towards the temple and out to sea is breathtaking. Care should be taken as the cliffs are sheer and unfenced.