Little is known about the history of the territory of nowadays Romania during the Stone, Bronze or Iron Ages. We do know, however, that this region represented an attraction point for colonizers and conquerors over the millennia, especially for Greeks and Romans. In the 7th century BC, the Greeks established trading colonies in Pontus Euxinus, along the Black Sea coast. The first documented mentioning of these places and their inhabitants dates from the 5th century BC, when Herodotus reports the presence of the Thracian tribes: the Geto – Dacians.
Decebal, the last Dacian King, continued the state consolidation started by his predecessor Burebista. After the wars in 101-102 and 105-106, he was defeated by the Roman emperor Trajan, and Dacia became a province of the Roman Empire. The Roman occupation did not last long, though. In 271 AD, Emperor Aurelian decided to withdraw the Roman legions. The remaining soldiers established a new civilization, which was not one entirely Roman. They mixed with the locals and formed a new Latin speaking people, the Daco – Romans, the real precursors of the actual Romanians.
The Middle Ages: migrations and the first medieval principalities
After the Romans’ departure, our country’s territory was crossed by waves of migrating peoples. From the 4th to the 13th centuries, in turns Goths, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars and Magyars came to these lands. Even if they were immediately assimilated by the local population, they still left their marks, especially on the language.
In the meantime, the Romanian population was divided in different feudal forms of state organization. Although we all speak the same language and have the same Daco – Roman origins, it was not until the 1859 union (with a short exception in 1600) that we lived in three separate provinces: Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia.
After the massive migration of the Magyars in Transylvania (10th century), the region became an autonomous principality under Hungarian rule. Three centuries later, another people flooded in: the German Saxons. Their establishment in the area took place with the help of the Szekelys, a Hungarian ethnic group who had come to Transylvania together with the Magyars. In the 15th century took place the Bobâlna Revolt, when the Transylvanian peasants upraised against the Hungarian rule. As a consequence, the Magyars allied with the Saxons and Szekelys, forming Fraterna Unio, a political pact through which they governed the region until the 16th century.
In the south of the Carpathians, things were a bit different. The region was even more fragmented, but, in the 14th century, various administrative units created the first medieval Romanian principality. They united under the name of Wallachia, also known as Ţara Românească. However, the Romanians did not have a very good social position here either, just as they did not have in Moldavia also. They were mainly serf peasants who were serving the boyars. The ruler of the principality, who was also the military leader, was surrounded by the aristocracy, mainly formed from Hungarian noblemen.
Ottoman expansion and the struggle for independence
Wallachia and Moldavia were true barriers against the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, holding it outside the gates of Europe for most part of the 14th and 15th centuries. Symbolic national leaders who had the most reverberating victories against the Turks were Mircea the Elder (Mircea cel Bătrân) and his grandson, Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Ţepeş, also known as Dracula) in Wallachia, and Stephen the Great (Ştefan cel Mare) in Moldavia. However, in the 16th centuries, all the three principalities (Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia) were paying tribute to the Ottoman sultan.
The first political union of the three regions took place in 1600, under the rule of Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul). Although it lasted for a bit over one year, the union represents one of the most praised moments in the history of the Romanians.
In the 17th century, Transylvania was conquered by the Habsburgs. In the meantime, in Wallachia ruled Constantin Brâncoveanu, who succeeded in maintaining a relative peace with the Ottomans. This prosperous period was characterized by a great cultural development, marked by the establishment of the Brâncovenesc architectural style.
The following century brought more bad than good. On the one hand, the Romanians in Transylvania started to claim their political emancipation and they finally got it in 1785, when, after a peasants’ revolt, the Habsburg emperor abolished serfdom in the region. On the other hand, there were great losses in what regards the territorial unity of the Romanian principalities. Austria-Hungary took Bucovina, in the north of Moldavia, while Russia took Bessarabia (Basarabia). Wallachia and Moldavia remained part of the Ottoman Empire, but were under Russian protectorate in the same time.
Romania as a modern state
The end of the 19th century brought a revolutionary breath all over Europe. The Russians intervened in a three-part conflict in Transylvania, between the Hungarians on one side, and the Romanians and Habsburgs on another. Although the Hungarians were defeated, the final outcome of the revolution was a process of Magyarisation imposed by the Austro-Hungarians on the Transylvanians.
In the same time, Wallachia and Moldavia were unified under the leadership of a single person. In 1859, Alexandru Ioan Cuza was elected ruler of both regions, which created a unitary state – the United Romanian Principalities, later renamed Romania. Cuza was forced to abdicate 7 years later, being replaced by the German prince Carol of Hohenzollern Sigmaringen. The following years came with some changes. In 1877, the country declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire and one year later it annexed Dobrogea. 1881 was the year when monarchy was installed, once with Carol I’s crowning as king of Romania.
World War I and Greater Romania
When World War I started, Romania declared its neutrality. However, foreseeing the development of the events and driven by certain political reasons, the country’s leaders finally decided to involve and declared war to Austria-Hungary in 1916. The outcome of the war was favourable to Romania, as Bessarabia, Bucovina, Banat and Transylvania were reunited with the mother-country, which doubled its territory and population. This change of the Romanian map was established on December 1st 1918 (now the Romanian National Day), when the Alba-Iulia National Assembly adopted a resolution which approved the unification of all these territories with Romania, forming what was known as Greater Romania.
World War II
Before the outbreak of World War II, Romania had already “made friends” with many of the countries and powers on the European political scene. It signed alliances with France, Britain, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, signed pacts with Turkey and Greece and established diplomatic relations with URSS. However, these efforts to acquire a safe position in case of political and military conflict were weakened, among others, by Romania’s own king, Carol II, who succeeded his father, Ferdinand I, to the throne. Although the country was passing through a phase of important economic growth, doubled by an intense cultural development, Carol II’s authoritarian predisposition led to the dissolution of the democratic political life. He declared a royal dictatorship in 1938, abolishing all political parties. Moreover, due to the events that took place on the European battlefield, Greater Romania collapsed, losing one third on its territory: Bessarabia was occupied by URSS; northern Transylvania was ceded to Hungary, while southern Dobrogea was annexed by Bulgaria. The widespread popular demonstrations which followed both of these events forced King Carol II to act. He drew on the military and political experience of General Marshal Ion Antonescu.
In 1940, General Antonescu asked the King for absolute powers, to suspend the Constitution and to dissolve the Parliament. Carol II was forced to abdicate and he left the country, leaving the throne to his son, Mihai. King Mihai I, only 19 years old when he was invested, was a puppet in the hands of Antonescu, who declared himself the supreme leader. His fascist dictatorship led to an alliance with Nazi Germany. The effects were devastating, more than 250.000 people, most of which were Jews and Roma people, being deported and murdered.
The change took place on August 23rd 1944, when King Mihai decided to join the Allies against the Axis powers. Switching sides, Romania turned the weapons against Hitler’s soldiers and participated in the final victory. Although we regained control over Transylvania, the human loss counted more than 670.000 Romanians dead in the war.
Communism and the Ceausescu Era
After the war, Romania’s Communist Party faced a great ascendancy, which led to it winning the parliamentary elections in 1946. With King Mihai’s forced abdication in 1947, the Communist Prime Minister proclaimed Romania a people’s republic. After being like a satellite of Russia for over a decade, Romania adopted an independent foreign policy under the rule of the Communist leaders Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej and Nicolae Ceauşescu. Refusing to help the Soviets and issuing strong criticism against their actions, Ceauşescu earned the appreciation of many Western leaders. Meanwhile, Romanians suffered during the 25-year dictatorship of the Ceauşescu family, living in poverty, fearfully of the oppressive secret police (Securitate).
The 1989 Revolution
Like all the ex-Soviet countries, Romania experienced the collapse of the Communist regime that ended with a dead leader. The spark of the revolution started in Timisoara. Ceauşescu sent the troops there to repress the rebellion, but they went over to the side of the revolutionaries. On December 21st, during a public speech in Bucharest, Ceauşescu was booed by the public. The emergency state was declared and fights against the police started immediately. On the next day, Ceauşescu and his wife tried to flee by helicopter but they were arrested, condemned and executed.
In May 1990 took place the first democratic elections. President of Romania was elected Ion Iliescu, who had been a member of the Communist party for more than 35 years.
Re-elected president in 1992, as candidate of the Party of Social Democracy, Iliescu was not ousted until 1996, when Emil Constantinescu, representing the Democratic Convention of Romania, came to power. The 2000 elections brought back Ion Iliescu to the helm and since 2004 Romania is led by Traian Băsescu, a controversial figure himself.
In 2004 Romania joined NATO and 3 years later it became part of the European Union. This led to an economic progress and the improvement of the Romanians’ quality of life.