The history of Romania is tinged with fascinating tales of battles between Romans and Dacians, tales of monumental fights with great historical empires and moments of disagreements and understandings between peoples of different origins. The story of a small land that went through wars, brave acts and necessary means to become a united state.
To celebrate 100 years of united Romania, we are sharing with you the most important moments that marked the history of the country.
The beginnings: Dacian and Roman roots
Though the history of Romania is even longer we start our tale 2500 years ago, at a time when the actual territory of the country was populated by an Indo-European tribe known as Getae-Dacians. Ruled by brave leaders, such as Burebista and Decebal, it soon became a prosperous kingdom, a fact that didn’t pass unnoticed by the expanding Roman Empire.
Dacians had a rich culture, were knowledgeable in the field of astronomy and had a very developed social life and hierarchy. Traces of their heritage can still be seen today at Sarmizegetusa, former capital of the kingdom, located in Hunedoara County and which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Photo credit: destinatii.eu
After two wars in AD 101-102 and AD 105-106 the Dacian Kingdom was finally conquered by the Romans and the process of Romanization started. The newly acquired territory was rich in natural resources, especially gold and had an advantageous geographical position, along important trade routes. That’s why a large number of colonists from all over the empire came here and built towns, developed roads and imported Roman culture.
Although the Roman domination lasted only about 170 years, until AD 271, it had a tremendous impact on the people. The country became heavily Latinized, a characteristic which can be still seen today in the fact that, unlike all other neighboring countries’ language, Romanian language is of Latin descent.
The main cause for the retreat of the Roman military power was the apparition of the migratory tribes. Along the centuries the Huns, the Goths, the Avars, the Bulgars, the Slavs, the Pechenegs, the Cumans and the Tatars came and settled here, at least for a short period of time. During these centuries of violence the locals were forced to live in the safety of the Carpathian Mountains.
If the Romanization is considered by historians to be the main phase in the formation of the Romanian people, the second phase is thought to be the synthesis between the local Dacian-Romans and the migratory Slavic tribes that came in the 7th century. A difference can be noticed in the way the process took place above the Northern shore of the Danube (the present territory of Romania), where the Latin population assimilated Slavic elements and below the Southern shore of the Danube (present Bulgaria and Serbia), where Latin aspects were absorbed by the Slavic culture.
By the 10th century a divided feudal system came into existence. The population started growing as fertile lands were occupied, so in the 14th century we can finally talk about three main distinct historical provinces in Romania: Transylvania, already conquered by the Magyars in the 11th century, Moldavia and Wallachia.
Wallachia and Moldavia
Around the year 1300 the province of Wallachia came into existence. The legend says that Negru Voda came down in 1290 from the Carpathian Mountains and settled in the southern territory of the actual Romania, while some historians believe that the Prince Basarab I was the first ruler of the province in 1310, having united various small principalities.
On the other hand, the origins of Moldavia are clear in the history of Romania. At the middle of the 14th century Prince Dragos receives a newly-united territory called Moldavia as a gift from the King of Hungary, in exchange of having helped him chase the Tatars. A few years after, however, Moldavia is taken over by Bogdan, whose family rebels against the Hungarian King, and thus Moldavia becomes an independent province.
In both provinces the Romanian peasants constituted the majority of the population. They were either free, land-owning peasants or under the command of the aristocracy, formed mostly by people of other origins.
Throughout the 14th and 15th century Wallachia and Moldavia had to fight against a powerful enemy – the Ottoman Empire. Some of Romania’s bravest rulers come from this period: Mircea the Old, Vlad the Impaler or Stephen the Great. Following numerous battles, at the end of the 15th century the Romanian rulers accepted the suzerainty of the Sultan: in exchange for autonomy, they had to pay annual tribute to the Court.
The cultural heritage which comes from this period is represented best by the Monasteries in Bucovina. It is said that Stephen the Great had the habit of building a new monastery after every battle he won against the Ottomans, and some of these monumental buildings can be visited today.
The development of Transylvania was entirely different from that of the other two principalities. From early on it was part of the Hungarian Kingdom, after which it was ruled by Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians. The Romanian people that lived there, although larger in number, were always considered a minority and were oppressed by their rulers.
From the 12th century Transylvania was colonized by the Hungarian King with Saxons and Szekler people, which had special privileges in the province. The colonists brought with them their knowledge and traditions, thus aiding in developing the agriculture of the region and building fortified towns, which made Transylvania a flourishing area, much more developed than its neighboring principalities.
Many of the touristic sites that can be visited nowadays in Transylvania, such as the Fortified Churches and the old towns of Sibiu and Brasov came to life during this period. They are included as a travel destination in our Tour of Transylvania from Sibiu, Tour of Transylvania from Cluj Napoca and also our Best of Romania Tour.
In the 13th century Transylvania became an autonomous principality under Hungarian rule until 1526, when it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire and acted as a vassal state.
Michael the Brave and the first unification of Romania
A moment of great importance in the history of Romania was the first unification (or re-unification) of the country. Amidst a war led by the Emperor Rudolf II supported by the Pope to finally drive away the weakened Ottoman Empire, Michael the Brave, ruler of Wallachia, manages to conquer for a short period of time both Transylvania and Moldavia.
Map of Romania under Michael the Brave – Photo credit: Wikipedia
From May 1600 until September 1600 he rules over all three principalities, but he is defeated in battles by the Polish Empire and chased away from the country. With the help of the Emperor he manages to win back Transylvania, but he is killed by one of his allies.
The next centuries are marked by a difficult oppression of the Ottomans in Wallachia and Moldavia. They start to get involved more in the current affairs of the principalities by choosing rulers of Greek origins and asking for larger tributes, which led to the raise of tax revenues and consequently, the worsening of the peasants’ condition. Meanwhile, Transylvania became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the Turks were defeated at the gates of Vienna in 1683. The conflicting interests of the Ottoman, the Russian and the Habsburg Empires unfortunately had a direct and detrimental impact on the development of the Romanian provinces.
Following the example of other European countries, in 1848 people rebelled and led a revolution that sought to overthrow the imposed regimens and implement various progressive reforms. The revolution was repressed by a common intervention of Ottoman and Russian armies but, although unsuccessful, it helped to educate the masses and raise in them the nationalist sentiment that constituted the base for the future unification of the country.
The first half of the 19th century was also marked by an impressive progress in the fields of education, science, architecture and arts. It was common practice for the noble families to send their children to study abroad, so after they returned they brought with them aspects of the Occidental culture and implemented them in their local communities.
Wallachia and Moldavia become one country, Romania
A less talked about subject in the history of Romania, but one which had a tremendous impact on how the country came to be is the Romanian masonry. Formed mostly by the young noble class that studied in the Occident, the society was the driving force behind the 1848 Revolution and the Unification of the Principalities in 1859, an event which signified the birth of Romania as a country.
The decision to let Moldavia and Wallachia become one was taken following the 1856 Treaty in Paris, which had the aim to reduce the influence of Russia on the Danubian Provinces. The Romanian Principalities were given partial autonomy, with the requirement that they have separate rulers and only a few common government institutions.
However, in a brilliant strategy plotted by the Romanian masonry the same ruler Alexandru Ioan Cuza was chosen in both countries. After three years of diplomatic negotiations, the Unification was accepted by the European powers on the basis that it would be a temporary merger of 7 years.
Map of Romania after Wallachia and Moldavia united – Photo credit: Wikipedia
The rule of Alexandru Ioan Cuza was marked by progressive reforms: the secularization of monastic lands and buildings, land distribution to the peasants, the adoption of a modern Criminal Code and Civil Code, free and compulsory education for primary schools, amongst others.
Maybe due to his revolutionary governing style, he was met with an increasing opposition and at the end of his seventh year as a ruler he was forced to abdicate by the so-called “monstrous coalition” of Conservatives and Liberals.
The Royal Family in the history of Romania
Following the abdication of Cuza, the government had to find a new leader. The way to truly be accepted as an autonomous country by the rest of the Occident was to choose a foreign prince coming from an important dynasty. That’s how Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was approached and proclaimed Ruling Prince of the Romanian United Principalities on 20 April 1866.
Carol I King of Romania – Photo credit: Wikipedia
Eleven years into his reign, in May 1877, Prince Karl took part in the Russo-Turkish War, fighting against the Ottoman Empire and proclaiming Romania’s independence. He was crowned King of Romania on 10 May 1881, under the name Carol I.
During his reign the country made significant advancements in all fields. Noteworthy are the building of train rails all across the country (most of which are still being used today) and the architectural modernization of Bucharest, which gave it the nickname “Little Paris”.
The First World War
In the moments preceding the First World War Romania was marked by the conflicting interests of its people and ruler. Carol I was attached to his German roots, which made him sign a secret treaty with the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) in 1883 through which he promised to fight by their side in case of need. On the other hand, the Romanian government and the people manifested a hostile attitude towards Austria-Hungary, as a sign of solidarity for the Romanians in Transylvania who were suffering. In the end, Romania decided to stay neutral.
In September 1914 Carol I died and his nephew, Ferdinand I, was chosen to be the new king. His wife, Queen Marie, was closely related to the Royal families of Britain and Russia, and under her influence King Ferdinand, born and raised in Germany, made up his mind and decided to follow the interests of the people. Finally, after two years of neutrality Romania entered I World War on 28th August 1916, joining the Allies (France, Great Britain and Russia). The main goal was to unite Transylvania with the Romanian Kingdom.
The war was a difficult one and the country suffered many casualties. Unprepared and insufficiently armed, the Romanian armies were defeated and pushed back into Moldavia. They managed to win two important battles in the summer of 1917, after receiving help from the Russians during the winter, but they proved to be not enough.
Surrounded by Austria-Hungary, Germany and a Russia affected by its national revolution, Romania decides to sign an armistice with Germany in December 1917, followed by a treaty of peace in May 1918. However, on 10 November 1918, Romania re-enters the war just a day before it ends, on the side of the Allies.
The Great Romania
On 1st December 1918, after the defeat of Austria-Hungary, Romanian representatives from Transylvania announced the union with Romania.
A similar situation happened in other regions that have been historically populated by people of Romanian origins, so following the Treaty of Trianon and the Treaty of Versailles new territories were added to form what is known in history as “the Great Romania”:
- Bessarabia, area which had been part of Moldavia until 1812 when it fell under Russian hands
- Bucovina, which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire since 1775
- Banat, Crisana and Transylvania, also part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
Romania had also acquired Southern Dobrogea from Bulgary in 1913, at the end of the Balkan War.
Map of Greater Romania – Photo credit: Wikipedia
In 1922 King Ferdinand and Queen Marie are crowned rulers over Greater Romania in Alba Iulia, a place of great importance in the history of Romania. This is where Michael the Brave first reunited the three principalities and also where Transylvania proclaimed its union with the rest of the country.
Photo credit: Biblioteca Academiei Romane
So it is the union of Transylvania with what was then Romania that we celebrate on the 1st of December and in 2018 we have extra reasons to celebrate it as it is the 100th anniversary!
The Interwar Period
It was marked by a difficult political maneuvering of the newly united territories and the situation of its minorities, which constituted around 25% of the country. Another problem was that with the implementation of the land reform, the agricultural productivity of the country fell, also affected by the 1929 world crisis.
Following the death of King Ferdinand I in 1927 and a ruling of three years of the still underage King Michael, King Carol II, previously disinherited, became ruler in 1930. He led a government heavily influenced by the far-right extremist movements present elsewhere in Europe. In his attempt to control the situation he installed a royal dictatorship in 1938.
Although politically challenging, it was a flourishing period in the domains of art, literature and architecture. World-renowned artists and writers, such as composer George Enescu, writer Mircea Eliade and philosopher Emil Cioran lived and worked during this period.
The Second World War
In the first years of the Second World War Romania remained neutral. However, the situation changed when almost overnight the country lost approximately a third of its territories, having been forced by Nazi Germany to hand over Bessarabia to the URSS, Northern Transylvania to Hungary and Southern Dobrogea to Bulgaria.
The loss of territories led to an increasing popular fury, so King Carol II abdicated the throne in September 1940 in favour of his son, King Michael. The 19-year-old, however, had no real power, as this was in the hands of Prime Minister Ion Antonescu. The General imposed a fascist dictatorship and entered war on the side of the Axis in June 1941 in ordern to gain back Bessarabia.
The war brought with it a horrible damage in the history of Romania: almost 500 000 Romanian soldiers died fighting and 40-50% of the Romanian Jews and some of the Roma were deported to transit camps or murdered in Auschwitz.
As the tide started turning against Germany and its allies, Romania changed sides. On 23 August 1944 King Michael arrested General Ion Antonescu and declared war on Germany, an action which contributed to shorten the war by probably 6 months as some historians say. Romania managed to gain back Northern Transylvania, but the other territories were retained by the Soviet Union.
The actual map of Romania – Photo credit: Wikipedia
The communist period
Following the end of the Second World War, through manipulations of the Soviet Union, a communist parliament was elected. King Michael was forced to abdicate and Romania became a republic in 1948.
With the Soviet troops still present on Romanian territory until 1958, a period of terror arose: intellectuals were sent to labor camps and prisons, amongst which the most famous is the one in Sighetu Marmatiei (today transformed into the Memorial to the Resistance and Victims of Communism, a place you can’t miss if you visit Maramures), factories were nationalized, a secret policy called Securitate was formed and the collectivization of agriculture was implemented.
In the first years of communism Romania was under the rule of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. After his death in 1965 he was replaced by Nicolae Ceausescu, who at first had a slightly more permissive policy. This earned him a positive image in the West, but after visits to China and North Korea he put into practice massive industrial and architectural development plans (such as the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest) that required enormous amounts of money.
With the single-minded objective of repaying Romania’s foreign debt, from 1981 Ceausescu developed an austerity plan. People had strict ratios for food, heat, electricity and gas; the general standard of living was extremely low.
Another aspect related to Ceausescu’s internal policy was the intensifying of the so-called process of Romanianization of Transylvania. Also put into practice by his predecessors since the interwar period, Ceausescu applied new measures that both helped meet his goal of increasing the percentage of Romanians living in Transylvania and also contributed to the financial reserves of the country: he received money from West Germany and Israel in exchange of every Saxon and Jew that he let emigrate to their countries.
The communist regimen fell following the violent 1989 revolution, which ended with the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena on the 25th of December 1989.
In the history of Romania we can talk about 5 important minorities that inhabited the country along the centuries. During the 20th century they were seriously affected by numerous events, so what is their situation nowadays?
- Magyars: they conquered Transylvania in the 11th century and have since then settled here. They are the second largest ethnic group in Romania, constituting about 6.5% of the population.
- Szekler people: they were brought to Transylvania to defend the eastern frontier of the Kingdom of Hungary in the 12th century and have enjoyed a privileged status in the province, along with Noble Magyars and Saxons. Today they live mostly in three counties: Harghita, Covasna and Mures.
- Saxons: brought also in the 12th century by the Hungarian King, this German-speaking group had an important role in the cultural development of the country. Traces of their heritage can still be seen in the architecture of villages and cities in Transylvania, although most of them left the country. Some of them were sent to Soviet labor camps during the Second World War, while the rest were either allowed to emigrate during Ceausescu’s regime or left the country after the 1989 Revolution.
- Jews: in 1829 we register a vast migration of the Jewish population towards the Romanian principalities. Some of them settle in Moldavia, while others live in Transylvania, where they are granted Hungarian citizenship and are integrated in the society. By 1920, after the unification of Romania, approximately 800 000 Jews lived in the country. During the Second World War, however, more than 300 000 Jews perished and a large number of those who survived emigrated to Israel as soon as the war ended. The rest of them left the country encouraged by Ceausescu’s policy, so in the 2011 census only 3271 Jews were recorded in Romania. You can read more about Jews in Romania here.
- Roma people: they are the ethnic group that suffered the most from social exclusion along the centuries. Even nowadays they are regarded with prejudice, although their situation improved slightly. They are known for being keepers of their traditional occupations (coppersmiths, musicians) and a visit to a Roma family can be included in any of our cultural tours.
Despite the fall of communism, the development of Romania as a prosperous, modern country was hard and is still an ongoing process.
The most important achievements in the recent history of Romania are the integration in NATO in 2004 and in the European Union in 2007.
The Romanian coat of arms
The actual coat of arms of Romania was adopted in 1992, having as inspiration the model used during the time the country was a kingdom (1922-1947). It was slightly modified in 2016 to include a steel crown, a symbol of the Royal Family.
It shows a golden Aquila (which signifies courage, determination and grandeur) holding an Orthodox Cross in its beak and a sword and a scepter in its talons (symbols of sovereignty, reminding people of Stephen the Great and Michael the Brave). On its chest it holds a shield divided into 5 fields, each one representing the Romanian historical provinces.
The coat of arms of Wallachia is the golden Aquila which stands for “the nest of the Basarabs”, the first rulers of the province. It also shows a golden sun and new moon, both on an azure background, symbolizing the sky.
Moldavia’s coat of arms is an aurochs, surrounded by a golden star and two silver elements, a rose and a new moon.
The third field features Oltenia and Banat’s coat of arms, a golden lion set above a golden bridge, which reminds of the bridge the Romans built over the Danube to cross into Dacia.
Photo credit: Cer si pamant Romanesc
The coat of arms of Transylvania (along with Maramures and Crisana) is split into two: the first half shows a silver Aquila, flanked by a golden sun and a silver moon (symbol of the Szekler people), while the second half is an image of seven towers (symbol of the Saxons).
The last region, Dobrogea, is represented by two dolphins, indicating the area near the Black Sea.
Photo credits: Wikipedia
These are the most important moments that marked the history of Romania. To get a more detailed account of what happened and to have a deeper understanding of why history evolved the way it had, we recommend you to read the book A Brief Illustrated History of Romanians written by Neagu Djuvara, which we also included on our list of “5 books about Romania to better understand its history and culture”.
Lastly, we believe that the best way to learn about Romania’s history is visiting the country, so we would be glad to organize a tour for you!