History Files


European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes




Index of Germanic TribesMapChamavi (Germans)

The Germanic tribes seem to have originated in a homeland in southern Scandinavia (Sweden and Norway, and probably northern Denmark too), where they had been settled for over two thousand years following the Indo-European migrations. The Germanic ethnic group began as a division of the western edge of late proto-Indo-European dialects around 3300 BC, splitting away from a general westwards migration to head towards the southern coastline of the Baltic Sea. By the time the Germanic tribes were becoming key players in the politics of Western Europe in the last two centuries BC, the previously dominant Celts were on the verge of being conquered and dominated by Rome. They had already been pushed out of northern and central Europe by a mass of Germanic tribes which were steadily carving out a new homeland.

This was one of the smaller Germanic tribes, located in north-western Germany to the east of the lower Rhine. To their north-east were the Ampsivarii, to the east were the Tubantes and Chasuarii, to the south were the Bructeri, to the west were the Batavi, and to the north-west and north, along the North Sea coast, were the Frisii. According to Tacitus, the Chamavi migrated into the territory of the Bructeri after the latter were expelled. However, he doesn't state where they were located before this, although the likelihood is that it was to the north or east (the Germanic tribes almost invariably moved from north to south on their long migration out of Scandinavia). It seems probable, thanks to a passage by Ptolemy in Geographia, that they simply migrated upriver from earlier settlements on the lower east bank of the Rhine.

There are many settlements on the east bank of the lower Rhine that bear a name which could be connected to the Chamavi, including the city of Hamburg. The best etymology for these 'ham' names derives from common Germanic *haimaz, meaning 'home', which descended from the Indo-European *tkei-, meaning 'settle', from which originated the High German place-name suffix of '-heim'. The English equivalent, 'ham', which means 'settlement', seems to have come via Low German, via Dutch and French. The '-avi' part of Chamavi gave an '-au' component in other place names, but was dropped in this one. Therefore, Chamavi would seem to mean 'men of the settlements' or 'settlers' - or perhaps more effectively, 'men of the homeland'.

The Germanic Franks were first documented during the third century (the Period of Migration), when they were to be found occupying territory on the Lower Rhine valley (on the east bank, in what is now northern Belgium and the southern Netherlands). They were one of several west Germanic federations, and were formed of elements of the Ampsivarii, Batavi, Bructeri, Chamavi, Chatti, Chattuarii, Cherusci, Salii, Sicambri, Tencteri, and Usipetes. Most of these peoples were living along the Rhine's northern borders in what was by then known as Francia.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson, from Histories, Annals, Tacitus, and from External Link: Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

c.AD 50

There is an invasion across the Rhine into the Roman empire by a Teutonic people whom later Roman writers name the Chamavi [tribe or group] of the Franci (of which West Germanic confederation they are later a part). This may be part of the migratory movement which later finds them in the lands of the Bructeri, as documented by Tacitus in AD 98. It may also be a trigger for the Roman clearance of this region in AD 58, which leads to conflict between Rome and the Ampsivarii.

Hückelhoven on the Rhine
The crossing of the Rhine by the Chamavi marks their first appearance in history, and perhaps also marks their first arrival in the lower Rhine


Writing at this time, Tacitus mentions a large number of tribes in Germania Magna, including the Bructeri. He relates their recent history and their location in tribal Germania, which seems to have changed to an extent. Their original lands, or part of them, are now occupied by the Angrivarii and Chamavi, after the Bructeri had been defeated and almost annihilated by a coalition of neighbouring tribes (Tacitus is uncertain of the reason). More than 60,000 are killed, according to the writer, who is one of a delegation that is apparently allowed to watch the attack, possibly as impartial observers who can record that fair play has been observed.

3rd century

By now elements of the Ampsivarii, Batavi, Bructeri, Chamavi, Chatti, Chattuarii, Cherusci, Salii, Sicambri, Tencteri, Tubantes, and Usipetes have formed the Franks, one of several West Germanic federations. They are to be found occupying territory on the Lower Rhine Valley, on the east bank, in what is now northern Belgium and the southern Netherlands), a region that has come to be known as Francia. Emperor Constantius finds it necessary to remove the Franks from the lower Rhine (modern Belgium) more than once, and ends up deporting captured warriors and their families to vacant lands in Burgundy, where they are settled as laeti. They work the land there and serve in the Roman army. The Chamavi (or Hamavi) who are amongst them form a pagus (region) named (Ch)amavorum.

355 - 358

The Batavi are mentioned by Emperor Constantius II in 355, by which time they have become almost wholly absorbed by the Salian Franks who are still migrating across the Rhine and into northern Gaul. Three years later, both the Batavi and Salian Franks are ejected by another tribe (whose name is unknown but the Chamavi have been suggested). Both peoples migrate southwards, farther into Gaul, where they resettle in Brabant, accepted into the northern Roman empire by Julian the Apostate.

Julian the Apostate
Julian the Apostate abandoned Christianity in favour of a return to the old Roman ways of worship, and is shown being initiated into the Eleusian mysteries

5th century

The Lex Salica, the laws of the Salian Franks, carries hints of the continued recognition of the Chamavi amongst the Franks in additional elements to the work which are considered to be the earliest attestations of Old Dutch.

9th century

The Lex Chamavorum Francorum, the laws of the Chamavi Franks, is official law under the rule of the Carolingian Frankish Emperor Charlemagne. By this time, the people themselves are gradually fading into the general population of the Netherlands. However, the region they have occupied for the past three centuries continues to bear their name. In this century it emerges as the duchy of Hamaland, which today forms part of Gelderland in the central eastern Netherlands.