The Tale Of Coeratadas’ Prison Break At Piraeus

Around 408 BCE, a Theban military leader named Coeratadas could be found commanding a contingent of Boeotian warriors who were stationed at the city of Byzantium. Coeratadas and his troops were one piece of a coalition force serving under a Spartan general, Clearchus, who was tasked with defending Byzantium against attacks from Athens. The danger was real, as the Athenian military had recalled back from exile Alcibiades—a skilled tactician whose brilliance, unfortunately, often came with a counterbalance of detrimental chaos for his employers. From 411-408 BCE, Alcibiades helped the Athenians regain some momentum in the long-running Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE). Much of this momentum came from attacks launched by Alcibiades and his fellow Athenian generals against Spartan-aligned regions in the Hellespont and Bosporus regions. By 408 BCE, the Athenian attacks were drawing ever nearer to Byzantium. First, the Athenians killed a Spartan general at Chalcedon and then forced the city to enter a truce. With that objective cleared, the Athenians next sailed across the strait to attack Byzantium.

Clearchus and his officers mounted a tough resistance to the Athenian assaults against the city. As Byzantium could not be taken with an outright attack, Alcibiades and his partners decided to besiege the city. It was an effective move, for along with testing the preparedness of the city’s food stores, the siege also strained the relationship between the Spartan alliance’s garrison and the native inhabitants of Byzantium.  This harmony between the foreign defenders and civilian bystanders quickly deteriorated as the siege dragged on and the supplies dwindled. Before long, a group of disgruntled civilians in Byzantium began plotting a way to deliver the city into Athenian hands. Clearchus, unknowingly, emboldened these plotters by sailing away from the city in the middle of the siege in order to gather more funds and reinforcements. Before the Spartan general could return, the conspirators helped the Athenians gain access to the city during a successful night operation. Coeratadas and the other officers left behind to command the garrison were caught off guard by the surprise attack and eventually surrendered.

Coeratadas’ story, however, did not end that night at Byzantium. He and other members of the defeated garrison were taken as prisoners of war and were brought by Alcibiades to Piraeus, a fortified port adjacent to Athens. There, while the prisoners were being unloaded from the ships, Coeratadas managed a remarkable feat. Somehow, he ducked out of sight from his captors and blended into the crowds at Piraeus without any of the surrounding Athenians sounding an alarm. After escaping the military, he similarly was able to make his way out of Piraeus without raising any suspicion. Finally, with the port and the Athenian army at his back, Coeratadas trekked his way to a nearby Spartan fort, where he rejoined the war effort. Xenophon (c. 420-350 BCE), who personally met the man, wrote a brief description of this escape, stating, “Coeratadas, when they were disembarking at Piraeus, managed to slip away in the crowd and got away safely to Decelea” (Hellenica, I.3.22). After the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE, Coeratadas was known to have been a military advisor and mercenary. He eventually returned to Thebes to devote himself to politics.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Terracotta squat lekythos (oil flask) depicting Philoktetes, c. 420 B.C., [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The Metropolitan Museum of Art).



  • A History of My Times (Hellenica) by Xenophon, translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 1979.

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