According to legend, it is from these cliffs that Aegeus, the king of Athens, plunged to his death when he thought that his son, Theseus, had not been victorious against the mighty Minotaur in Crete. Having neglected to change, as promised, the black sail with a white one, Theseus led his father to utter despair and the tragic Athenian king ended up lending his name to the Aegean Sea.
Graves dating to the Early Bronze Age (3,000 BCE) show that the cape was inhabited since prehistoric times. In the Odyssey, Homer refers to Sounion as "the sacred cape of the Athenians", which combined with archaeological finds confirms that the site was a place of worship long before the construction of the first temples in the sixth century BCE.It is indeed an ideal place to host a sanctuary dedicated to the god of the sea, but also to the patroness of Athens.
Still, one must bear in mind that the cape was also a location of strategic military importance for the Athenian city-state. After the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE) the Athenians placed a Phoenician warship at the top of the hill both as a trophy and aneloquent symbolof their naval power.In order to control the seafaring lanes to and from the city's main port, Piraeus, as well as access to Lavrion with its valuable silver mines, the Athenians fortified their southern borders and the area was guarded by a garrison. To the north and east, walls almost 400 metres long cutting off the cape from the land were constructed. The enclosed area was occupied by the sanctuary as well as a settlement belonging to the deme of Sounion (following Cleisthenes' political re-organization in 510 BCE). Remnants that are currently visible date to the Hellenistic period.
Located on the sandy cove north of the cape, the portserved as a naval base for Athens in addition to a commercial station. Especially for the maintenance and sheltering of ships and warships (triremes), ship sheds had been built, cut out on the rocky shore at the entrance of the bay. Two of them still survive today.
In the third century BCE, the area fell under the Macedonians, who reinforced and extended the fortifications only to be recaptured by the Athenians in 229 BCE. In the years 104-100 BCE,Sounion was occupied by a thousand revolted slaves from the nearby silver mines. When mining activities seizedshortly afterwards, Sounion began to decline untilthe area was abandoned.
In centuries to come, Cape Sounion with its landmark temple would continue to greet ships and sailors as they made their way to Attica. In fact, the long-standing columns would afford the promontory another name: the Venetians named it Capo Colonne, that is the Cape of the Columns (Kavokolones in Greek).