The Romans first attempted to invade Britain in 55 BC when Julius Caesar led an army to ‘Britannia.’ It achieved little other than establishing a beachhead on the east coast of Britain at Kent. Caesar returned the following year and installed a puppet ruler named Mandubracius, but no territory was conquered and added to Rome.
Augustus apparently planned an invasion on three occasions between 34 BC and 25 BC but a combination of the British apparently agreeing to peace and revolts in other parts of the Empire prevented him from following through. Fast forward to 40 AD, and Caligula supposedly placed in men in battle formation facing the English Channel. Then he ordered them to pick seashells. Historians debate whether this was the madness of Caligula or if he was punishing the troops for mutiny.
When Claudius became Emperor in 41 AD, he knew it was necessary to legitimize his reign as the Senate did not want him in power. In 43 AD, he ordered a massive invasion of Britain. It was the beginning of over 360 years of Roman occupation. Let’s take a look at 8 crucial events in the history of Roman Britain.
1 – Battle of the Medway (43)
In 43 AD, Claudius placed Aulus Plautius in charge of four Roman legions which totaled around 20,000 men; he also had command of approximately 20,000 auxiliaries. Incidentally, Plautius gave control of Legio II Augusta to future Emperor Vespasian. When the Romans landed off the coast of Kent, the British tribes joined forces and were led by Togodumnus and Caratacus (his brother).
There were an estimated 150,000 men in the combined ranks of the British army, but they suffered an early blow when the Romans forced the surrender of the Dobunni tribe. Historians are in dispute with regards to the location of the battle. The accepted version of events is that it took place near the River Medway. However, other scholars assert that the river was too tidal and wide for a battle. Therefore, it could have been fought near the River Thames.
In the opening phase of the battle, the specially trained Roman auxiliaries swam across the river and attacked the British chariots from behind. The chaos allowed Vespasian and his men to cross the water, but the Romans did not press their advantage, so the battle went to a second day. Gnaeus Hosidius Geta led a bold attack against the British on day two and was almost captured for his troubles. However, the Roman army fought valiantly and forced the British back.
The last stand by the British took place on high ground overlooking the river. While Caratacus left the battlefield at this stage, Togodumnus remained behind and was killed in action. Ultimately, the British lost approximately 5,000 men compared to 500 Roman casualties. It is likely that the Romans killed hundreds of retreating enemy soldiers before building a bridge at Rochester to improve their supply route. They now had a foothold in Britain, and given the length of their occupation, most historians rank the Battle of the Medway next to the Battle of Hastings in terms of important British battles.