The Safety Deposit Blunder Of Ancient Chalcedon

Around the year 408 BCE, Athenian forces led by Alcibiades, Theramenes, and Thrasyllus upped their pressure on the Peloponnesian-Persian partnership by maneuvering troops for a siege of Chalcedon, an important city along the Bosporus. Defending the region was a Spartan general named Hippocrates, and the Persian satrap, Pharnabazus, was also in the vicinity. Despite the presence of these two leaders on the defense, the locals of Chalcedon apparently did not have the greatest faith that their city and property would be adequately defended. As told by the contemporaneous scholar and warrior, Xenophon (c. 420-350 BCE), worried people in Chalcedon allegedly packed up their valuables and handed the treasure over to trusted persons in the nearby Bithynian community. This exodus of wealth, it seems, was successfully completed before the Athenians could effectively deploy in the regions. Yet, the move by Chalcedon had not gone unnoticed.

As the story goes, the Athenian leader, Alcibiades, decided to take a detour before he fully committed to the siege of Chalcedon. According to Xenophon, Alcibiades “ordered the ships to sail after him along the coast and, taking the cavalry and a few hoplites with him, went to the Bithynians and demanded that they should give up the property…They accordingly handed it over, and Alcibiades, after making a treaty with them, came back to camp with the booty” (Hellenica, I.3.3). Therefore, Chalcedon’s hopes of hiding their wealth from the besieging army turned out to be a bust.

Although the above Bithynians opted for negotiation, the Athenian forces were still facing plenty of resistance at Chalcedon. Hippocrates, the Spartan general, evidently was caught within the siege of Chalcedon, and he took over leadership of the forces in the city. Pharnabazus, on the other hand, was outside the siegeworks, and the Athenians set up stockades in a way that kept the Persians from offering any effective assistance to Chalcedon. Despite Pharnabazus’ inability to maneuver in a helpful manner, Hippocrates launched an ambitious assault with the city garrison against the besiegers. The sortie failed, however, and Hippocrates was killed in the battle. His death, although demoralizing, did not cause Chalcedon to fall. Instead, the garrison maintained enough discipline to withdraw back into their city and keep up the defense. Now that Hippocrates was dead, Pharnabazus became the lead negotiator on behalf of Chalcedon. He negotiated a truce between the two sides, in which Athens took no more hostile actions against the city, in exchange for a monetary payment from Persia, as well as the resumption of tribute payments by Chalcedon to Athens. As for Chalcedon’s wealth that Alcibiades had seized from the Bithynians, Athens likely held on to that.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Two-handled bowl, Attic, c. 550 BC, exhibited in the Martin von Wagner Museum in Wurzburg, Germany, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).



  • A History of My Times by Xenophon, translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 1979.
  • The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).

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