A brief overview of Romanian history

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Many Romanians are rightfully proud of their country’s very long and eventful history.  Here are five key historical topics all visitors should know about:

Dacia

Dacia was the name of an ancient kingdom that covered most of what is now Romania. Its rich resources attracted the Ancient Greeks, who colonized the shores of the Black Sea. The ruins of their stunning cities are still to be found in Histria, Tomis (today Constanța) and Callatis (Mangalia). Hundreds of years later, the mighty Roman Empire decided to annex Dacia.

Trajan’s Column (pictured on the following page), which can still be seen in Rome, is considered the best account of the wars that ended with the conquest of Dacia. Romanians define themselves as the descendants of these two populations and speak a Latin language. Sarmizegetusa Regia, the ancient Dacian capital, today in Hunedoara County, also deserves some attention.

Recently, there have been a number of exciting archeological digs that have revealed more about ancient and prehistoric Romania, as well as unearthing many valuable artifacts. Evidence of a very early Neolithic farming settlement was just discovered. At around 8,000 years old, this settlement is one of the oldest in Europe. Sarmizegetusa Regia is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The ancient Dacian capital hosts the Dacian Circular Sanctuary, one of the most important remains of its kind.

Vlad Țepeș & Ștefan cel Mare

Everybody has heard of Dracula! But before the myth, there was the history. During the Middle Ages, what we today call Romania was divided into three principalities. Transylvania (the center and northwest) was actually conquered by the Kingdom of Hungary in the 11th Century.

In the 13th Century, the Hungarian kings invited Saxon colonists to migrate there in order to develop the local economy.

The Saxon heritage, architecture and way of life are still very present in Transylvania. Moldova (the eastern part) and Wallachia (southern Romania) have existed as independent states since the 14th Century. For them, the Middle Ages were at times dark: there were civil wars and misery aplenty, yet the period also saw the beautiful and unique frescoes painted on the outside walls of the UNESCO heritage monasteries in Northern Moldova.

Bram Stoker, the author of the novel Dracula (first published in 1897), did not, however, know too much about the Romanian Middle Ages. This did not stop him from naming the main character of his novel Vlad, who shares his name with Vlad the Impaler, the cruel, yet beloved, Wallachian prince (1431, 1456–1462, 1476). His military actions against the Ottoman Empire — since the 14th Century a dangerous, powerful and influential neighbor — reveal a freedom fighter. Romanians still remember him, as much as they do his cousin, Ștefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great, who lived from 1457 to 1504), as both a warrior and church builder.

Troubled times

The 17th Century began with a significant act: Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave, who ruled shortly between 1593 and 1601) managed to bring the three principalities under his rule. However, it did not last long. This union became a cornerstone of the Romanian national identity. During the 18th century, the Romanian principalities were run by rulers appointed by the Ottoman sultan, called “phanariots,” who are still considered the last word in corrupt political regimes. When the Habsburgs annexed Hungary to Austria, Transylvania followed during the 17th century, and parts of Moldova’s territory were conquered by Austria (1774) and Russia (1812).

Modern times, union and independence

The 19th century brought tremendous transformation for Romanians. First, the long occupations brought reforms, such as the very first Constitutional Acts in 1834. They also brought Western clothes, music and dances, all signs of a newly-developing mentality.

There was also a Romanian Revolution in 1848 and, while perhaps not one of the strongest in Europe, it proved the existence of a young and energetic elite, ready to guide the country in the direction of Western Europe.

This was the engine of the 1859 Union between Wallachia and Moldova, the core of the modern state, still referred to as the “Old Kingdom.” In 1866, a German-born prince, Carol von Hohenzollern–Sigmaringen, related to both the French emperor Napoleon III and the German imperial family, became King of Romania. He reigned until 1914, leading a modernization (or Westernization) process stronger than in the previous decades.

A new Constitution was passed in 1866. In 1878, following a war against the Ottoman Empire and the Berlin Congress, independence was officially gained. Yet, there was never direct Ottoman rule in the principalities. Before the First World War, Romania was reliant on agriculture, but industry was beginning to emerge. In 1913, modern Romania asserted its claims as a regional power through a decisive military and political intervention in the Second Balkan War.

Greater Romania, Communism & Revolution

Romania fought the First World War with the winning side. The year 1916 saw Romania taking arms against the Central Powers. Finally, after heroic fights and a bit of luck, the 1859 Old Kingdom increased with the addition of Transylvania and the territories lost over the centuries to Austria, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. This was the beginning of what we call today, with nostalgia, “Greater Romania.” The interwar period was a time of economic and cultural growth, but problems were not solved by the 1918 Union. On the contrary, the new state had to cope with new and major economic, cultural and political challenges.

But this Golden Age also sowed the seeds of the fascist movements, the collapse of Greater Romania in 1940, and the complete about-turn in the country’s diplomacy. In 1941, following a short extreme right-wing government (replaced after a bloody coup attempt by a military regime) Romania joined the Second World War, aiming to fight with the Nazis against the Soviet Union. After Stalingrad, however, the Romanian military and political elite realized that everything was lost. On August 23, 1944, Romania withdrew its alliance with the Axis Powers and fought for the Allies until May 1945. But despite celebrating V-Day, the outcome of the war was terrible for Romanians. In 1945, the first communist-led government came to power. On December 30, 1947, the last King of Romania abdicated and a Popular Republic was proclaimed. The communist regime meant political repression, forced industrialization and difficult, conflicting daily life. Nicolae Ceaușescu’s ascension to power in 1964 and his policy in the early years was greeted as a possible change, but enthusiasm faded over the next decade. The 1980s were a complete economic and social disaster. Yet, for many, communism was a chance to start a different life. For others, it meant repression, hard daily life and a general setback. It ended in 1989, following the December 22 Revolution.

Bogdan Popa was born, raised, educated and still lives in Bucharest. He has a PhD in history from the University of Bucharest and is a cultural & historical expert for City Compass Tours & Events and City Compass Intercultural Consulting.

Photo source: Pixabay.com

Want to learn more about Romania? Check out our comprehensive English-language guide here.

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