The river Medway stands to the south of the Thames in what is now south-eastern England and in the year 43 AD was site of one of the most significant and important battles ever fought on British soil, between a Roman invasion force under the command of Aulus Plautius and a defending British force under the leadership of Caratacus.
In the year 43 AD the Roman Emperor Claudius decided that the time had come to incorporate Britain within the Empire and assembled a large invasion force comprising four legions and a number of auxilliary detachments1 under the command of Aulus Plautius. Aulus Plautius through a combination of good luck and judgement succeeded in making an unopposed landing at Richborough in Kent.
At the time the most powerful tribal kingdom in southern Britain was that of the Catuvellauni which had come to dominate much of the south-east under the leadership of their king Cunobellinus. It was the Catuvellauni, now under the leadership of Cunobellinus' sons Caratacus and Togodumnus who provided the core of the British resistance to the Roman invasion.
Leaving a garrison behind to secure his lines of supply Aulus Plautius continued his advance into Kent but found it difficult to pin down the British forces who engaged in guerilla tactics. Victories were won against both Caratacus and Togodumnus; sufficient to persuade the Dobunni2 to surrender and to persuade the Catuvellauni that the battle for Kent was lost.
Aulus Plautius moved the main body of his forces west towards the River Medway seeking to engage the enemy and force the decisive battle that would secure the success of the Roman invasion plan.
The exact location of the battle has never been precisely identified although a number of possible sites have been suggested in the area between Rochester and Aylesford where the geography fits the accounts of the battle given by Dio Cassius.3
It is probable that the British forces had no intention of making a stand at the Medway but were rather assembling to make a strategic withdrawal across the Thames at the crossing point near East Tilbury and simply awaiting low tide so they could do so. According to Dio Cassius, the British believed themselves safe from attack (for the time being at least) as they were on the opposite bank of the Medway and presumably considered that they would have sufficient time to make their escape before the Romans could cross in sufficient numbers to convern them.
Aulus Plautius however, was keen to force the issue and despatched a cohort of Batavi4, who were particularly skilled at making river crossings, to engage the enemy. The Batavi swam across the river, most likely some way upriver where they were hidden from sight and launched a surprise attack on the British forces, concentrating their assault on the British chariots, in particular the horses in order to disable this potent weapon.
Aulus Plautius then sent Vespasian with a detachment of the Legio II Augusta down river to effect a further crossing and attack the British from the opposite flank. Despite this classic pincer attack the British forces did not scatter, as perhaps might have been expected, but held their ground and the fighting continued until nightfall.
The next day the fighting resumed and proved similarly inconclusive until the intervenion of one Gnaeus Hosidius Geta who made a vigorous attack, which almost resulted in his own destruction but eventually convinced the British forces to withdraw5. They made their way to East Tilbury and sought to escape across the Thames.
The Roman forces pursued them and the Batavi once again swam across the river, this time the Thames whilst others discovered the location of the bridge used by the British and followed them across. But the Roman forces lacked the local knowledge of the pathways through the marshes and suffered serious losses as the British fought a determined rearguard action. It was probably during this action that Togodumnus was killed, but Caratacus successfully eluded the Romans.
Consequences and aftermath
The Battle of the Medway was unusual for its time in that it was a two day affair, the Romans generally managed to finish off the opposition quicker than that; the fact that it did last two days was a testament to the strength and determination of the opposition they faced.
On the plus side (from a Roman point of view), Aulus Plautius had succeeded in defeating a large federated force of the British tribes, secured his hold on Kent and established a bridgehead over the Thames. On the down side he failed to utterly destroy the British forces and in particular he had
failed to capture the British leader Caratacus who was to provide the Romans with a good deal of trouble over the following years.
Despite their losses however the Roman army had achieved a significant victory; up until the time of that victory on the Medway the failure of the invasion was entirely possible. Had Aulus Plautius lost the battle then the Romans would have undoubtedly been forced to abandon their attempt and conquest with no option but to retreat back to Gaul if they could. But Aulus Plautius drove the British forces from the field of battle and won a notable victory.
After the battle Aulus Plautius paused and awaited the arrival of Claudius himself together with reinforcements in the form of elephants. With a crossing over both the Medway and the Thames now secure, the road to the Catuvellauni capital and stronghold of Camulodunum was now open.
The Roman Empire had now secured a new province in Britannia.
1 The invasion force comprised the Legio II Augusta, Legio XIV Germina, Legio XX Valeria Victrix and the Legio IX Hispana which together with auxilliaries constituted a force of around 40,000 to 50,000.
2 A sub-tribe of the Cantiaci who inhabited part of Kent
3 Possible sites of the battle are at Aylesford, Hollborough, Halling, Cuxton (apparently favoured by Kent County Council) and Snodland. Although Snodland is the most likely and where a five-ton Kentish rag stone memorial was erected in March 1998 on the east bank of the River Medway facing the church and bearing the inscription "This stone commemorates the battle of the Medway in A.D. 43 when the Roman army crossed the river and defeated the British tribes under Caratacus"
4 Probably the Cohors Primae Batavorum equitata
5 For which action he was awarded the ornamenta triumphalia
Conquest-The Roman Invasion of Britain by John Peddie (Sutton 1998)
Roman Britain by Peter Salway (OUP 1991)
and http://www.bag.org.uk/apr99/claudian.htm for information on the memorial stone at Snodland.