The Chamavi were a Germanic tribe of Roman imperial times whose name survived into the Early Middle Ages. They first appear under that name in the 1st century AD Germania of Tacitus as a Germanic tribe that lived to the north of the Lower Rhine. Their name probably survives in the region today called Hamaland, which is in the Gelderland province of the Netherlands, between the Ijssel and Ems rivers.
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The best etymology derives Ham- from common Germanic *haimaz, "home", from Indo-European *tkei-, "settle", from which the High German place-name suffix, -heim. The ham- form, "settlement", seems to have come from North Sea Germanic (id. name Henry), as we acquired it through Dutch and French. The -avi, an adjectival ending, later resulted in -au in other place names, but was dropped in this one. Chamavi in this derivation would mean "men of the settlements" or "settlers." When and in what sense they were so is lost in prehistory.
According to Velleius Paterculus, in 4 BC, Tiberius crossed the Rhine and attacked, in sequence, the Chamavi, Chattuari, and Bructeri (between Ems and Lippe), implying that the Chamavi lived west of the other two named tribes, probably west of the Ems.
In his Germania, Tacitus reported that the Chamavi and Angrivarii had moved, apparently recently in his time (around 100 AD) into the lands of the Bructeri, the Bructeri having been expelled and utterly destroyed by an alliance of neighboring peoples.... The Bructeri lived in the area between the Lippe and Ems rivers, to the southeast of modern Hamaland, which is to the west of the Ems. Tacitus also reports that to the north of the Chamavi and Angrivarii lived "the Dulgubini and Chasuarii, and other tribes not equally famous".
Concerning their earlier homeland, it is not extremely clear, but Tacitus reports in his Annals that the Angrivarii, having been ejected from their homes further to the north, pled with Rome to allow them to live in a military buffer zone on the northern bank of the Rhine, saying that "these fields belonged to the Chamavi; then to the Tubantes; after them to the Usipii". These fields, being on the Rhine between Ijssel and Lippe, were to the south of modern Hamaland, and to the west of the Bructeri.
- Ptolemy describes the peoples between the Frisians and Chauci on the North Sea coast, and the more nomadic and newly arrived Suebic nations who he describes (unusually) as now living in a band from their more well-known locations near the Elbe all the way to the Rhine, where he places at least part of the Suebic Langobardi. From west to east: Between the Frisians and the Rhine, he places the lesser Bructeri; between the Ems and Weser rivers he places the greater Bructeri, and the "Chaimai"; and between Weser and Elbe, the Angrivarii, "Laccobardi" (probably Langobardi, and this is a more normal place for them to be reported living), and Dulgubnii. These "Chaimai" are therefore neighbours of the Angrivarii, Chauci, and Dulgubni, roughly matching Tacitus, although the Bructeri have not disappeared. So this passage matches other classical texts.
- On the other hand, coming from the direction of the Elbe, and now south of the Suebian band of peoples, the Kamauoi (Latinized to Camavi) are mentioned together with the Cherusci at "Mount Melibocus", which is thought to be the Harz mountains. Both are said to be "under", meaning south of, the Calucones, who lived on both side of the Elbe. Matching the Harz, the Elbe is also to the west, where the "Bainochaimai" live. Although these Cherusci are close to where other texts report them, this is quite far to the east of Hamaland, and also somewhat to the east of the land of the Bructeri. So this is an unusual placement to be reported for the Chamavi.
- In a third place, when describing the tribes south of the band of Suevi, and east of the Abnobian mountains running parallel to the Rhine, apparently coming from the west this time, Ptolemy mentions first that "under" the most westerly Suevi are, apparently from north to south, the Chasuarii, then Nertereani, then Danduti, then the Turoni and Marvingi, then under the Marvingi, the Curiones, then Chattuari, as far as the Danube and the Parmaecampi. The next apparent north to south series starts not with Suevi but with the Camavi (presumably the ones in the Harz mountains, who are described as being south of the Suebi) "under" whom are the Chatti and Tubanti, and then between these and the Sudetes mountains, thought to be the Erzgebirge, the Teuriochaemae (an otherwise unknown name, but in the place previously inhabited by the Hermanduri and later by the Thuringii, with these three names often thought to be equivalent). Not only the Chamavi, but also the Tubanti, Chasuarii, and Chattuari, are described by Tacitus and other sources as living much further to the north of the Rhine and the Harz mountains, nowhere near the Danube. The Chatti however, are in approximately the expected place.
In 392 AD, according to a citation by Gregory of Tours, Sulpicius Alexander reported that Arbogast crossed the Rhine to punish the "Franks" for incursions into Gaul. He first devastated the territory of the "Bricteri", near the bank of the Rhine, then the Chamavi, apparently their neighbours. Both tribes did not confront him. The Ampsivarii and the Chatti however were under military leadership of the Frankish princes Marcomer and Sunno and they appeared "on the ridges of distant hills". At this time the Bructeri apparently lived near Cologne. Note that the Chamavi and the Ampsivarii are the two peoples that Tacitus had long before noted as having conquered the Bructeri from their north. This description would place the lands of the Chamavi still close to the old Bructeri lands.
With the Salian Franks
When next the Chamavi appear in historical finds the Chamavi are again associated with the region north of the Rhine, but with a new people in the historical record, the Salians, also identified as Franks. While the Salii were probably from Salland in the modern Netherlands, there were probably elements of Frisians, Chamavi and Batavi included in this population. They became a distinct ethnic polity and immediately began to unsettle the region, becoming troublesome to the Romans. In the earliest records, they are almost always found in association with Chamavi.
The new name "Franks" also started to be used to refer to both Salians, Chamavi, and some other tribes, in this period. The Panegyrici Latini, a series of twelve speeches given in praise of Roman emperors, describe the efforts of Constantius Chlorus, father of Constantine the Great, to pacify the Franks, who in this case are kept distinct from the Chamavi.
Conflict with the last emperors of Rome
In the late 3rd century Constantius, as described by the Panegyrici, found it necessary to remove the Franks from Belgium again and again. Leaving the peaceful Franks in place, he deported the captured soldiers and their dependents, who were called laeti, to vacant lands in Burgundy, where they worked the land and served in the Roman army. We know the Chamavi were among them because there was a settlement pagus (Ch)amavorum (French; Amous) . These Franks later rose to the high ranks, coming to dominate the Roman army on the Rhine.
Some Romans at least did consider the Chamavi to be Franks. On the Peutinger map, which dates to as early as the 4th century, is a brief note written in the space north of the Rhine, generally interpreted as Hamavi qui et Pranci which is translated as The Hamavi, who are Franks.
The Chamavi also appear in the 5th century Notitia Dignitatum as a Roman military unit. Long before then, however, we hear of them in a letter of Flavius Claudius Julianus (Julian the Apostate) to the Athenians. He says that he forced the Salii to sue for peace and drove the Chamavi out of Gaul.
The full story is told in Ammianus Marcellinus (17.8-9). The two tribes knew they were where they were apparently hoping not to have to fight. When Julian approached with a business-like force, they sent envoys begging for peace in exchange for returning home and promising to stay there. Julian dismissed them with assurances but with no definite answer and then secretly trailed the envoys to the locations of their armies, which he attacked with the element of surprise. Some of the Chamavi were killed, others put in chains, and the rest fled to their homes, to send envoys later petitioning Julian from a supine position. This time peace was accepted. The Chamavi were to make payments of grain, but none were probably ever made, due to further Roman troubles.
Life for the Chamavi thus went on. We have a hint as to their language from the 5th century Lex Salica, a body of law developed by the Salians themselves. On one manuscript are written glosses which are considered the earliest attestations of Old Dutch (Old West Low Franconian). Gregory of Tours also mentions the Chamavi as being among the Franks. The name and the unity proved unusually enduring, as the Lex Chamavorum Francorum is known from the 9th century, and was official under Charlemagne. After that they vanish from their province by diffusion into the new population of the Netherlands. The age of tribal polities was finished in west Europe.
- Lanting; van der Plicht (2010), "De 14C-chronologie van de Nederlandse Pre- en Protohistorie VI: Romeinse tijd en Merovingische periode, deel A: historische bronnen en chronologische schema’s", Palaeohistoria, 51/52: 62
- Tac. Ger. 34
- Tac. Ann. 13.55
- Tacitus, Germania.XXXIV