The Story of Semigallian Greatness

Semigallians (Seimgaler, Semigalli, Semegallen, Зимъгола) – is an ancient Baltic tribe, one of the fundamental nations of Latvia and Lithuania, which inhabited central part of Latvia – Semigallia (Zemgale) plain – and northern part of Lithuania during the Iron Age and the Middle ages. Semigallians were incorporated into Latvian and Lithuanian nations during the process of their formation.

Latvian archaeology has evidences about the presence of Semigallians dating already from the early Iron Age (1st-4th centuries) and traces a continuous cultural development till the 12th-13th centuries.

The first data regarding Semigallians in the written sources concerns the 9th century and is found in the Scandinavian chronicle „Annales Ryenses”. Semigallians were actively executing trade in the Baltic sea region – the fact, which is provided in the runic writings on the stone from Mervalla (Sweden). An important craft and trade center on the banks of Daugava – the Daugmale hillfort, was under Semigallian control. In the 9th-11th centuries, Semigallians periodically paid tributes and also fought with Rus and Scandinavians. In the written sources is also mentioned a military campaign of the ruler of Polotsk Vseslav Bryachislavich’s to Semigallia, in which fell his son Vseslavich together with 9 000 warriors of Polotsk’s guard.

In the Western Semigallia Tērvete became the center of power and in the 13th century its rulers laid claim for the primacy in the whole region. According to chronicles, Semigallian army had a command, which was organizing, working out and realizing battle plans and was able to rally and bring army to the concrete location. Before battles information was collected, also by the means of intelligence. The army itself had its order and obeyed a strict discipline. Upon facing a stronger enemy, the army applied the tactics of scattering and false retreats with the aim to lure the hostiles into an ambush or to disrupt its battle order.

During the Livonian Crusades, from all the ancient nations of Latvia Semigallians were the ones who provided the heaviest resistance to the crusaders. In 1205 Semigallian elder Viestarts formed a union with German Riga however, after 1219, when Semigallian of Mežotne agreed to accept Christianity and allow the Order’s brethren to enter the castle in order to protect it from the Lithuanians, a conflict between the Order and Viestarts arose. According to the Old Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, Semigallian participated in the battle of Saule, where the Order of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword was defeated and completely destroyed.

In 1272 Archbishop Albert and Master Valter concluded a peace treaty with Zemgalian elders. However, in 1279 Zemgalians united with Lithuanians and slaughtered the Order’s detachment by Aizkraukle and in the autumn, under the command of Nameis, suddenly attacked Riga. Since the moment of surprise was lost, Zemgalians retreated, however they managed to defeat their pursuers from Riga on the ice of Lielupe and even captivated the Order’s Marshall Gerhard von Kacenellenbogen.

In 1281 a big Livonian army which, according to the chronicles, consisted of 14 000 men attacked Tērvete but, after several battles, failed to capture it. With the mediation of the Dean of Riga, Nameis managed to conclude a new peace treaty with the Order, which, however, did not satisfy the Germans. Semigallian leaders were invited to a feast and murdered there. After numerous Order’s raids, Semigallians abandoned and burnt the castle of Tērvete, and later did the same to Rakte, Dobele and Sidrabene. After the abandonment of Sidrabene in the end of 1289 or the beginning of 1290, a big mass of Semigallians moved to Lithuania.

The Grand Duke of Lithuania Gedimin, at the beginning of the 14th century, titled himself as the ruler of Semigallian and in his letter to the Order requested to send him a priest, who would know Semigallian language.

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Lapa atjaunota: 28.05.2021. 10:57
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