Caratacus and the Battle of the River Medway
The brothers Togodumnus and Caratacus of the Catuvellauni tribe controlled most of the southern half of England and commanded the British force against Rome in AD43. The British force could have been as much as 150,000, with support coming from all the tribes controlled by the brothers.
The British force may well have assembled initially in the spring of AD 43 and then mostly dispersed on hearing of the mutiny by the Roman Army at Boulogne. Nevertheless some of the British force would have remained to act as a “tripwire” in the event of a later invasion. The two brothers commanded their force using messengers travelling swiftly on horseback.
There were initial skirmishes at Canterbury where the River Stour was fordable. The British were trying to hinder the Romans so that the other British groups would have more time to travel from all over the land to prepare their main defensive position. This is widely assumed to be along the west bank of the River Medway, as there seems to be no possible military alternative.
Caratacus and his brother Togodumnus led the initial defence of the country against Aulus Plautius's four legions, thought to have been around 40,000 men, primarily using guerrilla tactics.
It was normal practice in the Roman Army for auxiliary forces, usually on horseback, to go ahead of the main force as a vanguard to scout for problems. This protection of the invaders would certainly have happened in AD 43 as the countryside was wooded. The vanguard would clear out small parties of enemy to the front and sides. They also gave warning of any major enemy fortification or force.
The British forces, having been recalled from many parts of the country, would need an obvious location to rendezvous. This was almost certainly the west bank of the River Medway. Small numbers of British probably harried the Roman Army to delay further its arrival at the east bank of the Medway. This delay allowed the British force to enlarge, spread out along the west bank and become more co-ordinated under the brothers Togodumnus and Caratacus.
Dio Cassius, the only contemporary source for the Battle of Medway, stated that the Battle opened with the Batavians (a Germanic tribe) using their skill of swimming across rivers in full equipment (Roman History 20). They probably went a little downstream where the current was slower and where a ford may have existed. Then the Batavians attacked the British rear and wounded the horses that pulled their chariots. British morale would have been affected by the loss of their horses and the realisation that the Romans had easily crossed the tidal river. Strategically, the British charioteers were now forced to become slow moving infantry.
In the chaos that followed, the bulk of the invasion force spearheaded by Legio II Augusta under Vespasian (later emperor of Rome, AD69-79) crossed the river, under the overall command of Titus Flavius Sabinus. The natives were taken by surprise at how fully armed legionaries were able to cross the river.
The Romans were unable to press on to victory immediately, and the first day of fighting ended without a result. During the second day, a daring attack led by Gnaeus Hosidius Geta almost led to the Roman officer being captured. His troops retaliated, however, and put the Britons to flight. Geta was awarded a triumph for securing victory, a rare honour for someone who had not been consul.
Togodumnus was killed, making Caratacus leader of the Catuvellauni. However, both Miles Russell and John Hind argue that Dio was mistaken in reporting Togodumnus's death, that he was defeated but survived, and was later appointed by the Romans as a friendly king over a number of territories, becoming the loyal king referred to by Tacitus as Cogidubnus or Togidubnus.
Caratacus at the River Thames
Having won the Battle of the Medway, the Romans would have followed up quickly by killing as many of the retreating British troops as possible. This was a task normally done by the auxiliary cavalry. Their objective was to kill enemy soldiers so they were no longer a threat to Rome. The four legions followed.
The British had retreated to the north bank of the Thames. The Batavian cavalry had fought well in the first phase of the Battle of the Medway by swimming across the river in full equipment. Dio said they performed a similar role here (Roman History 20). The Roman Army then crossed the Thames by a bridge a little further upstream, as Dio also described. The bridge site may have been near the current location of London Bridge or Westminster or even at Brentford, although the latter seems a long way to the west.
Roman sources give no indication of a large battle at this stage of the invasion. This suggests that the crossing of the Thames was essentially unopposed, as the British had given up the unequal struggle.
It was probably at this time that Caratacus realised that the south east of England was a lost cause. This included his family tribal base at Camulodunum (Colchester). This was due to the might and organisation of the Roman Army that had defeated the British at the Battle of the Medway.
Caratacus in Exile and a Final Battle
Caratacus escaped the Romans at the River Thames and made his way to south west Wales and the Silures tribe.
By about AD 50, the Roman Army under the Roman governor Publius Ostorius Scapula had advanced into Wales and the Roman historian Tacitus reports that Caratacus led the Silures and Ordovices tribes against the Roman Army (Annals33).
Tacitus describes the battle between the Roman Army and the British tribesmen. Caratacus erected a rampart on a sloping hill in front of a river. Caratacus encouraged his men to fight and the Roman soldiers urged Scapula to do the same (Annals34-35).
The Romans initially took heavily casualties from missiles which the Britons threw from the rampart. But, after forming a testudo, they advanced, broke down the rampart and routed the armourless Britons (Annals35).
the Romans captured Caratacus’ wife, daughters and his brothers surrendered. Caratacus escaped and sought the protection of Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes. But, she delivered him to the Romans in chains (Annals36).
Caratacus Captive of Rome
Tacitus reports that Caratacus had become famous in the Roman World as a native tribesman who had long defied Roman rule. Caratacus and his family were led through the streets of Rome in a triumphal procession as a captive spoil of war (Annals36).
Tacitus records that Caratacus made an impassioned speech to Emperor Claudius: Had my lineage and my rank been matched by my moderation in success, I should have entered this city rather as a friend than as a captive; nor would you have scorned to admit to a peaceful league a king sprung from famous ancestors and holding sway over many peoples. My present lot, if to me a degradation, is to you a glory. I had horses and men, arms and riches: what wonder if I lost them with a pang? For if you would rule the world, does it follow that the world must welcome servitude? If I were dragged before you after surrendering without a blow, there would have been little heard either of my fall or of your triumph: punishment of me will be followed by oblivion; but save me alive, and I shall be an everlasting memorial of your clemency.” (Annals37)
After this speech, Claudius freed Caratacus and his family and allowed them to live freely in Rome. Above is Andrew Birrells' Caractacus at the Tribunal of Claudius at Rome (1792) after Henry Fuseli.
Caratacus: Chief of the Catuvellauni – Conclusion
Interaction between Britain and the Roman World created substantial change in Britain. But not all Britons greeted the arrival of the Romans warmly. Caratacus and the Catuvellauni were among the chief opponents of Rome in the early years of the Roman occupation of Britain.
Through the writing of Tacitus and Cassius Dio, Caratacus is remembered as a valiant native British chieftain who fought repeatedly against the might of Rome, which had invaded his homeland. Because of this, Caratacus has captured the imagination of British artists, writers and composers for centuries, and even formed part of recruiting efforts in Wales during the Great War 1914-18. You can read more about how later Britons have viewed and used the image of Caratacus here.