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History of Latvia

Early History

The proto-Baltic forefathers of the Latvian people have lived on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea since the third millennium BC.

At the beginning of this era the territory known today as Latvia became famous as a trading crossroads. The famous "route from the Vikings to the Greeks" mentioned in ancient chronicles stretched from Scandinavia through Latvian territory via the Daugava River to the ancient Rus and Byzantine Empire.

The ancient Balts of this time actively participated in the trading network. Across the European continent, Latvia's coast was known as a place for obtaining amber. Up to and into the Middle Ages amber was more valuable than gold in many places. Latvian amber was known in places as far away as Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire and the Amber Road was intensively used for the transfer of amber to the south of Europe. In the 10th century AD, the ancient Balts started to form specific tribal realms. Gradually, five individual Baltic tribal cultures developed: Curonians, Livonians, Latgalians, Selonians, Semigallians. The largest of them was the Latgallian tribe, which was the most advanced in its socio-political development. The main Latgallian principality was Jersika, ruled by the Greek Orthodox princes from Latgallian-Polotsk branch of Rurik dynasty. The last ruler of Jersika, mentioned in the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia was Prince Visvaldis. During the division of his realm in 1211, part of the country was called "Latvia", probably the first time this name is mentioned in written sources. In contrast, the Couronians maintained a lifestyle of intensive invasions that included looting and pillaging. On the west coast of the Baltic Sea, they became known as the "Baltic Vikings". But Selonians and Semgallians, closely related to Aukštaitians and Samogitians, were known as peace-loving and prosperous farmers. Livonians lived along the shores of the Gulf of Riga and were fishermen and traders.

German Period (1207-1561)

Due to its strategic geographic location, Latvian territory has always been invaded by other larger nations, and this situation has defined the fate of Latvia and its people.

At the end of the 12th century, Latvia was more often visited by traders from western Europe who set out on trading journeys along Latvia's longest river, the Daugava, to Russia. At the very end of the 12th century, German traders arrived and with them came preachers of the Christian faith who attempted to convert the pagan Baltic and Finno-Ugric tribes to the Christian faith. The Balts did not willingly convert to the new and different beliefs and practices, and particularly opposed the ritual of baptism. News of this reached the Pope in Rome and it was decided that Crusaders would be sent into Latvia to influence the situation.

The Germans founded Riga in 1201, and gradually it became the largest city in the southern part of the Baltic Sea. With the arrival of the German Crusaders, the development of separate tribal realms of the ancient Latvians came to an end.

In the 13th century, an ecclesiastical state Terra Mariana was established under the Germanic authorities consisting of Latvia and Estonia. In 1282, Riga and later Cēsis, Limbaži, Koknese and Valmiera were included in the Northern German Trading Organisation, or the Hanseatic League (Hansa). From this time, Riga became an important point in west-east trading. Riga, being the centre of the eastern Baltic region, formed close cultural contacts with Western Europe.

Duchy and Kingdom of Livonia

In 1561 during the Livonian War, Livonia fell to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with vassal dependency of it. The armies of Ivan the Terrible were initially successful, taking Polotsk (1563) and Parnawa (1575) and overrunning much of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania up to Vilnius. Eventually, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland formed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569 under the Union of Lublin. Eric XIV of Sweden did not like this and The Northern Seven Years' War between Free City of Lübeck, Denmark, Poland, and Sweden broke out. While only losing land and trade, Frederick II of Denmark and Magnus von Lyffland of Œsel-Wiek were not faring well. But in 1569 Erik XIV became insane and his brother John III of Sweden took his place. After all parties had been financially drained, Frederick II let his ally, King Zygmunt II August, know that he was ready for peace. On December 15, 1570, the Treaty of Stettin was concluded.

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