The Athenaion, or temple of Athena, now incorporated into the Cathedral, was erected at the behest of the tyrant Gelon with a dual purpose: on the one hand, to enrich the city with majestic monuments, and on the other, to celebrate the victory by the Greeks over the Carthaginians during the battle of
in 480 BC.
The Athenaion building, in the extreme rationality and austerity of its design, constituted a sort of normative model of Greek architecture for the monumental creations of early classicism in Sicily.
The building, of Doric order, was surrounded by a colonnade with six columns on the short sides and fourteen on the long sides. Honey-coloured limestone from the local quarries was paired with precious and exquisite marble from Paros, from the Cyclades islands, used only in some parts, such as the cymatium moulding , the tiles and the lion-head rain gutter channels, stylistically similar to the limestone ones on the Temple of Victory in Himera.
A literary testimony of the Athenaion comes to us through the famous Roman writer Cicero, who described the precious ivory and gold decorations that adorned the door knockers, which featured a Gorgon ‘s head surrounded by snakes, and the painted panels that decorated the walls of the cella (shrine).
On either side of the pediment stood two acroteria, elegant marble statues in the guise of winged victories. The splendour of the temple culminated in the golden shield placed at the top of the roof.
The defensive weapon shone, reflecting sunlight. Because of this, it was a reference point for those approaching the city from the sea. The columns of the Athenaion are still visible today, incorporated into the structure of the Cathedral of Syracuse.