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Sudovians / Yotvingians (Balts)
Incorporating the Jatvians & Yatvyags

Small Nav - Indo-Europeans - Balts

The Balts were a north-western division of Indo-Europeans. They originated along the Pontic-Caspian steppe prior to the Yamnaya horizon event which saw the widespread outwards migration of Indo-Europeans (IEs). Eventually arriving at the south-eastern shore of Mare Suebicum, the Baltic Sea, around 2500-2000 BC, they spread out to form several later groupings. These can largely be categorised as Lithuanians and most Latvians, plus Couronians, Samogitians, two groups of Galindians, the theorised Dnieper Balts (Eastern Balts), the Pomeranian Balts, the Old Prussians, and the Yotvingians/Sudovians (Western Balts). The Neuri are a more complicated question but are most probably Eastern Balts.

The proto-Balts and the closely-related proto-Slavs divided around 2500 BC, with the former heading towards the Baltic coast. Once there, and pushing the already-present Uralic-speaking Finno-Ugric tribes northwards by their arrival, they spread out westwards along what is now the Polish coast and eastwards as far as the area around Moscow. The Fatyonovo culture is the localised archaeological expression of their settlement here, part of the greater Corded Ware horizon. Late to unite into organised states, they did so in the face of outside pressure.

Lying to the immediate south-east of the Old Prussians and south of the Lithuanians, the Yotvingians (otherwise known as the Yatvyags, Jatvians, Jatvingians, Jotvingai, Jatwiagi, Sudovians, or even Suduvians), were Western Balts. They were not counted amongst the Old Prussians, although having said that, the Sudovians are often counted as Old Prussians even though the Yotvingians are not, thanks to a complicated network of tribal links and haphazard references by various historians and chroniclers. The Yotvingians were almost annihilated by the Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Their language was very similar but with some variation. Both they and the neighbouring Western Galindians were largely subsumed by the growing Polish state.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information by Gediminas Kiveris, Yury Kanavalau, and Leitgiris Living History Club, from The History of the Baltic Countries, Zigmantas Kiaupa, Ain Mäesalu, Ago Pajur, & Gvido Straube (Eds, Estonia 2008), from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from the Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, J P Mallory & D Q Adams (Eds, 1997), from Mes Baltai (We, the Balts), A Sabaliauskas (Lithuania, 1995), from Encyclopedia Lituanica, Sužiedėlis Simas (Ed, Boston, 1970-1978), from Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire Within East-Central Europe, 1295-1345, S C Rowell (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Fourth Series, Cambridge University Press, 1994), and from External Links: Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe, Nature.com, and Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and The Balts, Marija Gimbutas (1963, previously available online thanks to Gabriella at Vaidilute, but still available as a PDF - click on link to download or access it), and Leitgiris.)

c.AD 50 - 150

The arrival on the southern Baltic coastline of the Gothic people in the first and second centuries AD has a great impact on the Baltic population there. The strongest tribe of the western Baltic bloc which had previously manifested itself in face and pot-covered urn graves of the Face-Urn culture eventually disintegrates due to this and the preceding Celtic expansion. The other Baltic tribes have been less touched by outside influences and have conservatively preserved their local character.

Map of European Tribes
River Vistula
The mouth of the Vistula in the first century AD was an ideal route for settlement for groups coming south from Scandinavia, but also for groups migrating along the coast such as the speculated movement of Venedi Celts, while above is a map showing the locations of European tribes around the first centuries BC and AD (click on map to view at an intermediate size)

It is generally thought that the Gothic arrival now results in the western Balts retreating towards eastern Lithuania, but perhaps the previously mentioned tribal disintegration is the true reason for the disappearance of Baltic culture along the coast at this time. In all probability though, due to the ethnic affinity of these peoples, peaceful relations are still established. The appearance of various new groups of pottery, part of the Oxhöft and Willenberg cultures, testifies to the further merging of these ethnic groupings.

The ancestors of the Galindians, Lets, Lithuanians, Natangians, Sambians, and Semigallians continue throughout the entire Early Iron Age to build stone cists in which they place urns of a family or kin, covering them with an earth barrow secured by a stone pavement from above and stone rings around. While available, Middle and Late La Tène fibulae are also imported and imitated. In marked contrast to Celtic and Germanic graves, however, weapons are extremely rare in Baltic graves. The inland Prussian tribes seem to live a rather peaceful life.

Other Baltic tribes are now developing their own distinctive burial rites. Sudovians build stone barrows, Couronians place their dead in stone circles or rectangular walls, while their neighbours in central Lithuania use flat graves supporting tree-trunk coffins with stones. The differentiation of local burial rites from around this time permits modern scholars the chance of perceiving tribal borders between the various Baltic tribes, which thereafter remain unchanged in this region until the coming of the Germans. Until then, there is no evidence of migrations, shifts of population, or invasions of the Baltic lands by foreign peoples.

c.150

Ptolemy, who writes in the mid-second century, records the existence of the Galindai and Soudinoi tribes, the later Galindians and Sudovians (Yotvingians). Both of these are Western Balts, but not Old Prussians, although they do closely border the Old Prussians to the south. The fact that these names already exist shows that Prussian tribes (and probably the other Baltic tribes) have their own names and that they survive virtually unchanged for the next millennium.

c.150 - 200

Far from remaining settled where they are in Poland, the Goths gradually renew their migration, now moving slowly southwards from the Oder and Vistula, heading on a path that will eventually take them into Ukraine. The migration could be caused by pressure from the Baltic tribes, early segments of the later Old Prussians and Lithuanians who are expanding back into territory they had lost to the Germanic tribes in the first century AD. The Prussians hold onto their newly-regained territory for the next millennium or so.

100s - 400s

Between the second and fifth centuries AD the material standards of the Baltic culture rise tremendously, due to intensive amber trade with the provinces of the Roman empire. The East Baltic area becomes a strong cultural centre, and its influences extended across north-eastern Europe. This is the Baltic culture's 'golden age', according to Marija Gimbutas. It begins to fade from around the end of the fourth century or in the early part of the fifth century, as eastern Slav expansion reaches the Baltic lands in what is now western Russia. The gradual influx of Slavs continues right up until the twelfth century and onwards.

Amber beads
The amber trade of which the Balts were the masters meant that amber beads would ends up in all sorts of places after travelling through the trade network - these beads ended up in the Middle East

5th century

In the first half of the fifth century, there is some evidence of a new wave of invaders in Lithuania. There is every reason to believe that nomadic hordes (either the Huns or a fringe group related to or vassals of them) carry out raids on the forts of southern and eastern Lithuania. Traces of fires and three blade spearheads are later uncovered at the forts of Aukstadvaris, Kernave, Pasvonis, and Vilnius to support the idea. An increase in fortifications around hill forts and their associated villages, with the use of timber constructions and tamped clay for building ramparts, can be observed from the fifth century onwards, probably as a reaction to these raids and also to Slavic pressure (probably one and the same thing).

Although Prussian tribes have returned westwards to reoccupy some of the lands previously lost to East Germanic tribes, they start to come under pressure from Slavs who are now migrating into what is now central Poland towards the later part of the same century, in regions such as Galicia, Lusatia, and Silesia. This migration is a product of the Hunnic invasion of their traditional lands. Masuria is also reoccupied, by the West Baltic tribe of the Galindians, after parts of it have been abandoned by the Vidivarii and their preceding Willenberg culture ancestors.

7th century

The Baltic tribes enjoy what could be termed a 'second golden age', buoyed by rapidly-expanding Viking trade networks which are reaching far to the west and deep into Eastern Europe to establish contacts with the Byzantine empire at Constantinople. It's not all peaceful trade, however. The Vikings see the Balts as a viable target for raids, little realising at first how good are the Balts at defending their territories and even striking back at Viking targets. To the south the Slavs also pose a threat, but the well-equipped cavalry of the southern Baltic tribes, especially it must be assumed the Galindians and Yotvingians, serves to prevent the Slavs from penetrating into Baltic lands.

The numerous Baltic tribes are currently ruled by powerful chieftains and landlords, a system which remains in place until the beginning of recorded history in the region. Among the Baltic tribes the Prussians and Couronians continue to play leading roles. In the previous century or so, the Lets have expanded their territory to cover much of northern Latvia, replacing the previously dominant Finno-Ugric tribes there, the early Estonians.

8th century

By this century, small Slavic states are beginning to emerge in the region of Poland, and these coalesce and expand over the course of the next century. Western Balts also still occupy regions of Poland, mostly around the lower Vistula. Two tribes named by Ptolemy in the mid-second century, the Galindai and Soudinoi, survive as the Galindians (in Masuria and the northern fringes of Mazovia) and the Sudovians or Yotvingians into the eleventh century, before being absorbed into the duchy of Poland. These Western Balts are survived by their kinfolk, the Old Prussians, although remaining groups of independent Western Galindians do eventually become classed as Old Prussians themselves.

9th century

From the beginning of the Slavic expansion to the formation of the three Slavic states, Novgorod, Rjazan, and Kiev, in the ninth century and even several centuries later, there are considerable numbers of Balts in what is now Belarus and in the west of greater Russia. The process of Slavicisation which had begun in prehistoric times continues into the nineteenth century. The Belarus borrow many words, most of them in daily usage, from the Lithuanian peasant vocabulary. The ethnography in the districts of Kaluga, Moscow, Smolensk, Vitebsk, Polotsk, and Minsk to the middle of the nineteenth century is highly indicative of the Baltic character. Indeed, Slavicised eastern Balts make up much of the population of present Belarus and a part of greater Russia.

Yotvingian stone burial monument
Funeral symbols in the form of a pole with a semi-circle are spread across northern Belarus, connected with the tradition of burials in stone tombs with these monuments located near older burials in stone barrows, a progression of late-prehistoric Baltic funerary practices which in this case would have been practised by the Yotvingians, although Galindian customs would have been very similar

1180

German Christian missionaries arrive, converting small numbers of Balts and probably establishing nascent congregations. On the whole the Balts appear reluctant to convert, perhaps fervently so, which means German Crusaders are sent to the Lats and their neighbouring tribes to convert the pagan population - a pretext for a grab for land and resources which is supported by the Pope. They are strongly opposed, although extremely little is known about the Liv native leaders who lead that opposition.

1236 - 1241

The Order of the Knights are decimated by the Samogitians and Semigallians at the Battle of Schaulen (Saule). The defeat allows the Lithuanians to consolidate their territories and form a single state which will stand against the invaders in the future. The following year, what remains of the Order joins the Teutonic Knights as an autonomous branch in Livonia, now known as the Livonian Order, or Livonian Knights. While being subject to the grand master of the Teutonic Knights, the Livonian Knights continue to operate on their own behalf.

The Teutonic Knights pursue their own goals in Prussia. By 1237-1238, Pamedė (of the Pomesanians) and Pagudė (of the Pogesanians) are already under the Order's rule. Next, the Teutons push on along the Frisches Haff and in 1240 defeat the united Bard (Bartians), Natangians, and Warmians. In 1241 the conquered and newly-baptised Prussians, no longer able to stand the oppression of the conquerors, rise up in revolt, but they are defeated by 1249. Following this interruption, the Order continues its advance to the north, intent on forming its own military-religious state (known as the Ordenstaat) which it governs for the next three hundred years.

fl c.1260 - 1285

Skomantas / Komantas / *Gomants

Leader of the Sudovians/Yotvingians.

1250s - 1280s?

Skomantas or Komantas is known by a number of variations of his name, due to the native language and dialect of those recording his existence - *Gomants or *Komants in Yotvingian, Koommat (Latin), Kormat (Ruthenian), and Skomand or Skumand (German). He is a powerful duke and pagan priest of the Sudovians/Yotvingians, the priest king being a typical form of rule for Indo-European tribal structures. He is notably active from around the 1260s to the mid-1280s, although he may survive for a time after this period, and may govern his people from an earlier date.

He is first named as Skomantas by Peter von Dusburg during the Great Prussian Uprising (1260-1274). He is responsible for leading the raid on the Teutonic Knight stronghold of Chełmno in 1263. At the same time he is diverted by campaigns he leads against Pinsk and other Slavic territories, thereby diluting his efforts in support of the Prussian uprising. Later, with Lithuanian support, he leads four thousand men against the Teutonic Knights, but in the end his struggle to stave off German control is unwinnable. His estate is devastated in 1280-1281 and he is forced to flee to Black Ruthenia with three sons: Galms, Gedetes, and Rukals. Black Ruthenia is under Lithuanian control at this time, so he is relatively safe there.

At the same time, in 1283, the Knights continue to advance north. Having already conquered the lands of the Skalvs and part of that of the Yotvingians, they now drive the Nadruvians to the River Nemunas, right on the border with Lithuania. The population of these areas is killed off, with only a few managing to escape across the border. Skomantas soon returns, but in an apparently defeated frame of mind. He accepts baptism into the Roman Catholic church, and acknowledges the superiority of the Teutonic Knights. He goes on to lead armies on behalf of the Knights and is awarded lands within Prussia. His eventual fate is unknown but it is as a minor figure, and his people are soon submerged within the new Prussian territories.

Map of the Baltic tribes around AD 1000
By about AD 1000 the final locations of the Baltic tribes were well known by the Germans who were beginning their attempts to subdue and control them, although the work would take a few centuries to complete and the Lithuanians would never be conquered by them (click on map to view full sized)

The slow trickle of arriving Germans has turned into a flood in the twelfth century. This marks the gradual end of Baltic tribal existence and the start of larger states which are created by the Germans themselves (in Livonia and Old Prussian). The Lithuanians manage to forge an independent state of their own which survives to this day, and they are joined in that independence in 1918 by the Latvian state. Kaliningrad marks the remnants of Old Prussia.