sunset in Athens


The city of Athens, Greece, with its famous Acropolis, has come to symbolize the whole of the country in the popular imagination, and not without cause. Athens began as a small, Mycenaen community and grew to become a city that, at its height, epitomized the best of Greek virtues and enjoyed such prestige that the Spartans refused to sack the city or enslave the citizens, even after Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War. This set a model that would be followed by future conquerors who would defeat Athens but not destroy it.

Early Settlement

Evidence of human habitation on the Acropolis and, below, in the area around the Agora, dates back clearly as far as 5000 BCE and, probably, as early as 7000 BCE. According to legend, the Athenian King Cecrops named the city after himself but the gods, seeing how beautiful it was, felt it deserved an immortal name. A contest was held among the gods on the Acropolis, with Cecrops and the citizenry looking on, to determine which deity would win the honor. Poseidon struck a rock with his trident and, as water gushed forth, he assured the people that now they would never suffer drought. Athena was next in line and dropped a seed into the earth which sprouted swiftly as an olive tree. The people thought the olive tree more valuable than the water (as, according to some versions of the story, the water was salty, as was Poseidon’s realm) and Athena was chosen as patron and the city named for her. 

Under Pericles, Athens Day Tours Greece entered her golden age and great thinkers, writers, and artists flourished in the city

As the soil was not conducive to large-scale agricultural programs, Athens turned to trade for its livelihood and, mainly, to sea trade. The early Mycenaean period (c. 1550 – 1100 BCE) saw massive fortresses rise all over Greece, and Athens was no exception. The remains of a Mycenaean palace can still be seen today on the Acropolis. Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey portray the Mycenaeans as great warriors and seafaring people, and there is no doubt they traded widely throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean region. In c. 1200 BCE the Sea Peoples invaded the Greek archipelago of the Aegean from the south while, simultaneously, the Dorians came down from the north into mainland Greece. While the Sea Peoples made definite incursions into Attica (the mainland region surrounding Athens) the Dorians by-passed the city, allowing the Mycenaean culture to survive (although, like the rest of Greece, there seems to have been an economic and cultural downturn following these invasions). The Athenians, afterward, claimed for themselves a special status in that they spoke Ionian, instead of Doric, Greek and held to customs they felt were superior to their neighbors.

Caryatids of the Erechtheion

Athenian Government & Laws

The wealthy aristocrats held control of both the land and the government and, in time, poorer land owners became enslaved (or nearly so) through debt to the more wealthy. Further, there was a perceived lack of consistency among the other laws of the city. The first series of laws written to address these problems were provided by the statesman Draco (also known as Dracon/Drakon) in c. 621 BCE but were considered too severe (the penalty for most infractions was death), and so the great lawgiver Solon was called upon to modify and revise them. Solon, though an aristocrat himself, created a series of laws which equalized the political power of the citizenry and, in so doing, laid the groundwork for democracy in Athens in 594 BCE. After Solon resigned from public office various factional leaders sought to seize power and the ultimate victor, Peisistratos, recognized the value of Solon’s revisions and kept them, in a modified form, throughout his reign as a benevolent tyrant. His son, Hippias, continued his policies until his younger brother, Hipparkhos, was assassinated over a love affair in 514 BCE. After this Hippias instituted a reign of terror which finally culminated in the overthrow of the Peisistratid tyranny in the Athenian Revolt of 510 BCE (backed by Sparta and lead by the Spartan Kleomenes). In the aftermath of the coup, and after settling affairs with Spartan factions such as Isagoras’s bid for power, Cleisthenes was appointed to reform the government and the laws and, in 507 BCE, he instituted a new form of government which today is recognized as Democracy. According to the historian Waterfield, “The pride that followed from widespread involvement in public life gave Athenians the energy to develop their city both internally and in relation to their neighbors”. This new form of government would provide the stability necessary to make Athens the cultural and intellectual center of the ancient world; a reputation which lasts even into the modern age.

After the Athenians (with the help of Plataeans) defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE and, again, after driving off a second Persian invasion at Salamis in 480 BCE (and soundly defeating the Persians at Plataea and Mycale in 479 BCE), Athens emerged as the supreme naval power in Greece. They formed the Delian League, ostensibly to create a cohesive Greek network among city-states to ward off further Persian attacks, and, under the leadership of Pericles, grew so powerful that the Athenian Empire could effectively dictate the laws, customs, and trade of all her neighbors in Attica and the islands of the Aegean. The historian Waterfield writes: 

There is no little irony in the fact that one of the things we most admire in the ancient Greeks is their love of freedom – and yet one of the chief manifestations of that love was their constant striving to control in some way the futures of their neighbors.

The Golden Age

Even so, under Pericles, Athens entered her golden age and great thinkers, writers, and artists flourished in the city. Herodotus, the `father of history’, lived and wrote in Athens. Socrates, the `father of philosophy‘, taught in the marketplace. Hippocrates, `the father of medicine’, practiced there. The sculptor Phidias created his great works for the Parthenon on the Acropolis and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Democritus envisioned an atomic universe. Aeschylus, Euripedes, Aristophanes, and Sophocles wrote their famous plays and Pindar his Odes. This legacy would continue as, later, Plato would found his Academy outside the walls of Athens in 385 BCE and, later, Aristotle‘s Lyceum would be founded in the city centre.

Peloponnesian War

The might of the Athenian Empire encouraged an arrogance in the policy makers of the day which grew intolerable to her neighbors. When Athens sent troops to help Sparta put down a Helot rebellion, the Spartans refused the gesture and sent the Athenian force back home in dishonor, thus provoking the war which had long been brewing. Later, when Athens sent their fleet to help defend its ally Cocyra (Corfu) against a Corinthian invasion during the Battle of Sybota in 433 BCE, their action was interpreted by Sparta as aggression instead of assistance, as Corinth was an ally of Sparta.

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta (though involving, directly or indirectly, all of Greece) ended in disaster for Athens after her defeat. Her empire and her wealth gone, her walls destroyed, only her reputation as a great seat of learning and culture prevented the sack of the city and the enslavement of the populace. Athens struggled to throw off her condition as a subject state, and with some success, until they were defeated in 338 BCE by the Macedonian forces under Philip II at Chaeronea. Athens was then subject to Macedonian rule until their defeat by the Romans in 197 BCE at the Battle of Cynocephalae after which Greece was methodically conquered by the Roman Empire. It is a tribute to an enduring legacy that the Roman general Sulla, who sacked Athens in 87-86 BCE, slaughtered the citizenry, and burned the port of Piraeus, refused to allow his soldiers to burn the city itself. In the modern age the name of Athens still conjures to the mind words and images of the classical world and the heights of intellectual and poetic creativity, while the Parthenon on the Acropolis continues to symbolize the golden age of ancient Greece.


Sounion (or Sunium) was an important ancient Greek religious sanctuary sacred to the gods Poseidon and Athena. Spectacularly located on a promontory in southern Attica, the site is dominated by the temple of Poseidon perched on the cliff edge, seventy metres above the sea.

Sounion is the setting for several episodes in Greek mythology and is specifically mentioned as a place of religious significance in Homer’s Odyssey. In some myths it is the spot where the Athenian king Aegeus threw himself into the sea in despair at having sighted the black sail of his son Theseus’ ship returning from Crete and his battle with the Minotaur. Theseus had previously arranged to show a white sail to indicate his safe return but he forgot and so his father needlessly killed himself. The Aegean sea is named after the unfortunate king. It is also where Phrontis, one of Menelaus’ captains, died on the return voyage from the Trojan War, killed by vengeful Apollo, who had supported the Trojans in the conflict.   

Sounion acquired its religious significance from the 7th century BCE and had one temple dedicated to Athena and another to Poseidon.

The sanctuary came under the jurisdiction of the deme of Sounion which had its centre to the north in the Agrilesa Valley and gained its wealth from marble and silver. The site acquired its religious significance from the 7th century BCE and had one temple dedicated to Athena and another to Poseidon, god of the sea. The first stone temple to Athena was constructed in the 5th century BCE in the Ionic style and had an unusual asymmetrical form. The first stone temple to Poseidon was also constructed in the early 5th century BCE but was destroyed before completion by the Persians around 480 BCE and was replaced by a new marble temple.

The sacred area of the temple to Poseidon was entered through a monumental gate or propylaea which had a two Doric column façade creating three entrances, the central measuring 2.2 metres wide. Within the complex there were stoas on the west, south and north sides. The latter was the largest and its length measured 25 metres with 8 or 9 Doric columns on its façade and 6 interior columns, whilst the width of the stoa was 9 metres. This stoa was probably used by visitors to the sanctuary as a source of shelter from sun or rain.

The second and surviving temple of Poseidon was built upon the poros base of its predecessor using the locally pure white marble from Agrileza. The temple is peripteral, that is columns were on all sides – 6 on the façades and 13 on the long sides, each 6.12 metres tall. The temple is also amphiprostyle as the outer rows of columns are of the same order as the inner cella columns. The columns carry only 16 flutes rather than the usual 20, perhaps an attempt by the architect to reduce weathering in such an exposed site. Within the temple stood a statue of Poseidon (which has not survived) and the site’s votive treasures would have been kept in the inner opisthodomos. The outer architrave (and probably pediments too) did not carry any architectural sculpture but the inner pronaos frieze did carry sculpture which depicted scenes from mythology such as a battle with centaurs.

Temple of Poseidon, Sounion, Greece

Sounion was strategically important in controlling ships entering the Saronic gulf and, according to Thucydides, fortifications were constructed in 414 BCE by Athens (located just 67 km from the site) which were extended in the 3rd century BCE with the addition of ship-sheds. The area continued to develop and remain important in the Hellenistic period. Sounion also became involved in the Chremonidean War (266-229 BCE) and the subsequent Macedonian occupation under Antigonus. However, Athens regained control of the sanctuary when Aratus bribed the local commander Diogenes into giving it up after military action had previously failed. In the 2nd century BCE Sounion was the focus of a slave rebellion when it was occupied by over a thousand slaves from the nearby Lavrion silver mines. Following the mines closure shortly afterwards, Sounion began a steady decline and all but disappeared from Mediterranean affairs.

Archaeological finds from the site include two archaic colossal marble kouroi statues which date from around 600 BCE, fourteen sculpted panels from the temple of Poseidon, a fine relief tablet of a victorious athlete and a 7th century BCE lead kouros statue from the Temple of Athena.