Spanning millennia, Romania’s history has shaped the character of the people inhabiting its beautiful lands, and of the landscape itself, which is, to this day, dotted with charming old monasteries, ruins of ancient castles, and proud medieval cities. From ancient Dacia, the Romans’ last great conquest, to the medieval princes that inspired so many legends, and to the modern times, the Romanian history is complex and fascinating.
Many have called themselves the rulers of the lands inhabited by Romanians, over the centuries. The Dacians were the first to rule the area around the Carpathians, followed by the Greeks, the Romans, the Hungarians, the Saxons (Germans) and the Turks. In the end, the resilient Romanians prevailed.
Exploration of the Bones Cave, discovered in 2002 in Caras-Severin County (south-eastern Romania), brought to light some of the oldest human fossils in Europe. The numerous remnants depict an amalgam of archaic, early modern, and Neanderthal features suggesting that 35000 years ago the two human species coexisted in this corner of Europe.
In his “Histories”, Herodotus mentioned for the first time the existence of the Dacian tribes in the area that is now Romania. The warring Dacians were united under king Burebista in a powerful kingdom whose riches caught the eye of Julius Caesar. However, the kingdom was short lived, as soon after the death of Burebista, Dacia broke up again in smaller parts.
About 150 years later, the Dacians once again united under one ruler, king Decebalus, posing a serious threat to the Roman Empire, which ruled the lands south of the Danube, where Dacians war parties made frequent incursions.
Enticed by the rich mineral reserves of the Carpathian Mountains, Emperor Trajan attacked and conquered Dacia in two brutal wars against Decebalus. Between 106 and 275 AD, Dacia was a province of the Roman Empire, well-known for its precious metal mines, timber, and salt. During the two centuries of colonization, an intense process of Romanization took place, with Latin becoming the lingua franca of the area, and eventually the foundation of the modern Romanian language.
The Dark Ages
The Romans left Dacia in 275 under Emperor Aurelian, forced by the pressure of “barbarian” tribes and the relentless attacks of the free Dacians that were not incorporated in the province.
After the retreat, a series of migratory tribes settled temporary in the areas around the Carpathians that would eventually become Romania. The first were the Goths, in the 4th century, followed by the Huns, Gepids, Slavs, Avars, and later the Pechenegs, the Cumans and Uzes.
In the 14th century, Basarab I founded the Principality of Wallachia (the southern part of modern Romania), while a prince from Maramures (northern Transylvania) by the name of Dragos crossed the mountains to establish the principality of Moldavia (covering eastern Romania and the present day Republic of Moldova).
Much of Transylvania, the land within the arc of the Carpathians, was occupied by the Hungarian Kingdom in the 10th century, and would later become an autonomous vassal of Hungary.
When the Turks invaded South Eastern Europe, the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia were able to preserve their autonomy, but they were forced to pay tribute to the Ottoman Empire. Transylvania remained under the rule of the Hungarian Kingdom until the 16th century, when the Kingdom was incorporated in the Ottoman Empire. At that point, all three principalities that would later become Romania’s provinces were vassals of the Ottomans.
Some of the most significant figures of Romanian history from this period were Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Tepes), the bloody ruler of Walachia who served as an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Stephen the Great (Stefan cel Mare), who defeated the enemies of Moldavia in dozens of battles.
Early Modern Period
When, at the end of the 16th century, Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazu) came to rule Wallachia, the time was ripe for a new and revolutionary idea – the unification of the three Romanian principalities into one state. Michael the Brave’s unification (accomplished through military and political means) was a short-lived achievement, but its significance transcended its limited results.
In the early modern period, the three Romanian principalities found themselves at the intersection point of three major empires, a situation that influenced their social, economic, and cultural development – the Ottomans from the south, the Habsburgs from the north-west, and the Russians from the east. Over the next three centuries, Romanians would struggle to break from the influence of their powerful neighbors.
Revolution of 1848 and the unification of Wallachia and Moldavia
During the Revolution of 1848, Romanians attempted to gain the independence of Wallachia and Moldavia, and national emancipation for Romanians living in Transylvania. The revolution ultimately failed, due to the concerted actions of the neighboring empires. Nevertheless, the Revolution of 1848 fueled the growing nationalist Romanian movement and laid the foundation of the future unification.
In 1863, the dream of unification finally became reality when Alexandru Ioan Cuza was elected the ruler of both Wallachia and Moldavia. Although some European powers opposed the unification, in the end, the will of the people was respected.
Independence and Kingdom of Romania
After Alexandru Ioan Cuza was ousted from the rule of the United Principalities, Carol of Hohenzollern, a German prince, was offered the rule of Wallachia and Moldavia. The country went to war against its Turkish suzerain in 1877. Allied with the Russian Empire, the United Principalities defeated the Ottoman Empire in several decisive battles fought in what is now Bulgaria. As a result of the victory, the Romanian lands became independent for the first time. In 1881, the United Principalities became the Kingdom of Romania, under the rule of Carol I.
World War I and the Unification
When World War I erupted in 1914, Romania declared its neutrality, only to enter the war on the side of the Allies two years later, spurred by the French’ agreement to recognize Romania’s rights over Transylvania, which was at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Germans invaded the country and occupied Bucharest, forcing Romania to negotiate a peace agreement and leave the war in 1917.
In 1918, the tides of the war turned, causing the fall of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Romanians seized the opportunity to pursue their longtime dream of unification. Following the implosion of the two empires, Bessarabia (previously part of the Russian Empire), Bukovina, and Transylvania (both parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire) were allowed to unify with the Kingdom of Romania. On December 1st 1918, the day when Transylvanians voted the unification with Romania, the century long aspiration of national unification was finally made reality. Greater Romania was born.
World War II
At the onset of World War II, Romania attempted to maintain neutrality, but faced by the threat of a Soviet invasion, entered the war. In 1940, Romania lost Southern Dobruja, Northern Transylvania, Bessarabia, and northern Bukovina, to Bulgaria, Hungary, and the USSR respectively.
Following King Carol II’s abdication, general Ion Antonescu took control of the country, governing briefly along the fascist Iron Guard. Romania fought along German forces against the Soviet Union for much of the war, but in 1944 changed sides after King Michael I deposed General Antonescu of the power. The end of World War II found Romania in dire condition, under the occupation of Soviet troops.
The Communist period contrasted starkly with the relative prosperous time between the world wars. In 1947, King Michael I was constrained to abdicate and leave the country, under pressure from the fraudulently elected communist regime.
Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej became the first leader of the new communist Republic of Romania. After his death in 1965, Nicolae Ceausescu took the power, which he held until the 1989 revolution. Ceausescu initially showed signs of openness towards the Western world and a degree of independence from the Soviet Union. The 70’s were a period of relative affluence for Romanians, but towards the end of his regime, Ceausescu turned into a despot, isolating the country and forcing the payment of the national debt, a measure that destroyed the economy and caused widespread misery.
Ceausescu’s dictatorship was ended by the Revolution of December 1989, when Romanians took to the streets to vent their frustration over the years of communist oppression. The trial and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu marked the end of the communist era in Romania.
In the years following the 1989 Revolution, Romania took steps towards becoming a true democracy. The country’s transition from a state economy to a free market caused inflation, poverty, and unemployment. Things took a turn for the better at the end of the 90’s, when economy began to improve substantially.
In 2004, the country joined NATO, and in 2007 the European Union.
One of the most diverse and interesting nations of Europe, Romanians carry in their blood the legacy of a complex history and a multitude of cultural influences. From the ancient Roman conquest of the lands that make up modern day Romania, through centuries of rich history, to today’s increasingly cosmopolite generation, Romanians have come a long and often bumpy way.
Romanians are very proud of their Latin origin, which is highly visible in both the Romanian language (based on Latin and resembling Italian and other Romance languages) and their hot-tempered characters. According to historians, colonists from all corners of the Roman Empire settled in the rich lands of Dacia after Trajan conquered this part of Europe. These colonists, along with the local Dacians formed the backbone of the Romanian people, but the truth is many other ethnic groups left their mark on the culture and history of Romanians. From Slavs and Hungarians, to Turks, Germans, and Russians, Romania was often invaded, but its inhabitants prevailed over the hardships time and again.
Romanians resisted the invaders, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t adopt elements of their culture and language. This explains why even today, there are many differences between the historical regions of Romania. At the same time, the Romanians are very open to other cultures, which is visible in the way young people adopted the culture and values of the West in the recent years. Even the language has been constantly changing, adopting many words from foreign languages, especially in the recent period, when the internet helped the widespread use of the English language in Romania.
Ethnically speaking, Romanians are a European people belonging to the Indo-European family. From a socio-linguistic point of view, the term Romanian may refer to the citizens of Romania, regardless of their nationality, but also to the people of Romanian ancestry living in other countries of Europe and from around the world. These include people from the Republic of Moldova (also known as Basarabia or Bessarabia), historically a Romanian region which fell under the occupation of the Russian Empire and later of the Soviet Union, only to gain its independence in 1991. However, some citizens of the Republic of Moldova refuse to call themselves Romanians, preferring the terms Moldovans instead. This is a contentious issue, but mostly politically motivated – the general consensus among historians is that the people of Moldova are Romanians, and that the “Moldovan people” is a fabrication.
Ethnic Romanians live in large numbers in Ukraine, especially in the central southern part of the country (formerly parts of Romania – Maramures and Bucovina), in Hungary (especially in the part of the country bordering Romania), Serbia, Bulgaria, and Russia.
Along with ethnic Romanians, many other nationalities call this beautiful country in South Eastern Europe home. According to the latest census, Romanians make up 88.6% of the country’s total population of approximately 19 million. Hungarians are the largest minority, at 6.5%, though they are mostly concentrated in Transylvania, the historic province that was for a long time under Hungarian domination. Most ethnic Hungarian live in the central counties of Covasna and Harghita, though large communities exist throughout Transylvania and in Bucharest. Another major ethnic minority are the Roma, commonly known as Tigani (Gypsies), who make up about 3.2% of the population. Although the name of the Roma people is similar to that of Romanians, the two ethnic groups are unrelated, Gypsies arriving in Europe in the Middle Ages. Another important minority are the Germans, who are descendants of the Saxon colonists that settled in Transylvania centuries ago. Once numerous, immigration to Germany, especially after the fall of the communist regime, has drastically reduced the number of ethnic Germans in Romania. Jews, Turks, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Russians, and Tatars are some of the other ethnic groups represented in Romania in meaningful numbers.
In addition to the historic minorities living in Romania, the country has attracted people from Western Europe, drawn here by economic opportunities or tourists that fell in love with the place. In recent years, a number of Chinese and Arabs have also settled in Romania, most working in commerce.
The vast majority of Romanian citizens are Christian of the Orthodox denomination, followed by Catholics and Protestants (mostly in the Hungarian minority). In the southeastern part of Romania, a small Islamic minority exists, mostly made up of Turks and Tatars.
In addition to the ethnic Romanians living in neighboring countries, many Romanians have emigrated to Western Europe, Canada, and the United States. While emigration has started in the early 20th century, when many Transylvanians travelled to the New World in search of a better life, the phenomenon accelerated after the fall of the communist regime in the early 90’s. The biggest wave of emigration happened in the 2000s, when millions of young Romanians left the country to work in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, the UK and other countries in Western Europe. Many of the immigrants settled permanently in their adoptive countries, especially in Italy and Spain, where Romanians are an important minority. Over a million Romanians live in Northern Italy and a comparable number live in Spain. A smaller number of Romanians have emigrated to the United States and Canada. The Chicago area and California are two areas in the US where many Romanians have settled. As a consequence of emigration, Romania faces the so-called “brain drain” – the departure of highly trained professionals such as doctors or IT specialists to other countries.
Many foreigners visiting Romanian find its inhabitants friendly, welcoming, and tolerant. While the dire economic conditions of the 90’s have left their mark on a still underdeveloped democratic society, Romanians are constantly shrinking the gap that exists between them and people in more developed countries. Especially the younger generation, which was not exposed to communism or to the hardship of the transition to democracy, is open to Western values. English is widely spoken, though mostly in the cities, and tourists don’t have to worry about getting lost in translation. Moreover, despite the somehow negative reputation that Romania has in the West, the vast majority of places are safe to visit.
The culture of the Romanian people is a complex mixture of old and new, of Eastern and Western influences, of folkloric traditions and modern developments.
From the conquest of Dacia by the Romans to the anti-communist revolution of 1989, historical events had a deep influence on the development of Romanian culture. Periods of economic prosperity and social stability allowed culture, arts, and sciences to flourish, while the numerous historic cataclysms like invasions and wars stunted the cultural development of the Romanian people.
Over the time, Romanians proved receptive to the influence of neighboring civilizations, adopting elements of culture from Greeks, Turks, Slavs, Hungarians in the Middle Ages, and from the Germans, French, and English in the modern times.
Today, the Romanian culture is in the midst of a process of transformation and modernization, as a new generation of Romanians tries to find its identity in the European family.
A brief history of the Romanian culture
The earliest forms of Romanian culture emerged in the 5th-8th century, the time when historians agree that the Latin-based Romanian language was born. However, it isn’t until the Middle Ages that the first recorded Romanian cultural artifacts appeared.
The first document written in Romanian that can be reliably dated is the so called “Neacsu’s letter” from 1521, in which the Wallachian nobleman Neacsu warns the mayor of Brasov about an impending invasion of the Ottomans. A valuable source of information on early Romanian culture is Letopisetul Tarii Moldovei (The Chronicle of Moldavia), written in the 17th century by Grigore Ureche. The chronicle provides important clues about the history and culture of Moldavia, and is the first document to attest the Latin origin of the Romanian language, and the common origin of the three historic Romanian provinces, Moldavia, Wallachia, and Transylvania. The first book printed in Romanian was a catechism, published in Transylvania in 1544. The first piece of Romanian poetry was written in 1673 by the Moldavian bishop Dosoftei, while the first Bible translated into Romanian was printed in 1688.
In the 18th and 19th century, the Romanian culture developed tremendously, under the influence of intellectuals and scholars educated in the West. At the same time, this period saw the emergence of Romanian nationalism, especially in Habsburg-ruled Transylvania, where Romanians were a mere “tolerated nation” and lacked political rights. The 1848 revolution and the union of Moldova and Wallachia from 1859 triggered a cultural boom and a period of intense modernization of the Romanian culture. Major political figures of the time, like Mihail Kogalniceanu, Nicolae Balcescu or Vasile Alecsandri also contributed to the cultural development of the country.
After the 1859 union, the first universities were established in Bucharest and Iasi. The literary cenacle Junimea, established in 1863 by Titu Maiorescu fostered the creation of some of the most important Romanian literary works, such as those of the writer Ion Creanga, the playwright Ion Luca Caragiale, or of the Romanian national poet, Mihai Eminescu. Other major cultural figures of the time were the composer Ciprian Porumbescu, and the founders of Romanian painting, Stefan Luchian and Nicolae Grigorescu.
In Transylvania, incorporated in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the fight for the emancipation of Romanians and the advancement of Romanian culture was promoted by the ASTRA foundation, founded in 1861 in Sibiu, by the Orthodox bishop Andrei Saguna. ASTRA helped publish a great number of Romanian books and journals, culminating with the 1904 publication of the Romanian Encyclopedia.
Some of the greatest literary figures that worked in the late 19th century were the Transylvanian poet George Cosbuc, the playwright Barbu Stefanescu Delavrancea, and George Baritiu, the founding figure of Romanian journalism.
The 20th century
The 20th century is considered the golden age of Romanian culture, a time when Romanian writers, scholars, painters, sculptures, composers, and scientists became known internationally. The Romanian artist that is best known internationally is Constantin Brancusi, widely regarded as the patriarch of modern sculpture. Some of the most famous works of Brancusi are The Kiss (1908), Mademoiselle Pogany (1913), and Bird in Space (1919). His Madame L.R. piece set the record for the highest price ever paid for a sculpture at $37.2 million, in a 2009 auction. Like Brancusi, many Romanian artists lived in the diaspora, with Paris being a hotbed of the Romanian avant-garde. One of the key figures of the European avant-gardist movement known as Dadaism was Tristan Tzara, a Romanian poet, essayist, and performance artist.
Another bright figure of Romanian art and culture was George Enescu, a celebrated composer, violinist, and conductor regarded as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. His most famous works include the Romanian Rhapsodies, influenced by his homeland’s folkloric motifs and the opera Oedipus.
In literature, major figures of the first part of the century were Mihail Sadoveanu, Camil Petrescu and Tudor Arghezi. Some of the most important Romanian painters of the time were Nicolae Tonitza, Camil Ressu, and Theodor Pallady, while in music, Constantin Dumitrescu and pianist Dinu Lipatti enjoyed considerable success.
Among the major Romanian contributors to science were physiologist Nicolae Paulescu, who worked on the extraction of insulin, neurologist George Marinescu, and Victor Babes, one of the pioneers of bacteriology.
Following World War II, Romania came under the rule of the communist regime, an event that had major effects on Romanian culture. The oppressive regime forced many intellectuals and artists to flee the country, while those who remained suffered from censorship and the limitation of creative freedom. Nevertheless, in this period Romania gave the world major cultural figures such as the philosopher Emil Cioran, the playwright Eugen Ionescu, one of the foremost authors of Theater of the Absurd, and the reputed historian of religions Mircea Eliade. George Emil Palade was the first Romanian to be awarded a Nobel Prize for his contributions in cell biology, in 1974.
In 1989, the communist regime in Romania was overthrown, and the country begun its transition to democracy and a free market economy. Despites the hardships of transition, the Romanian culture entered in a new phase of growth, spurred by the new found freedom of expression. In literature, Mircea Cartarescu’s work was translated in numerous languages, with Mircea Dinescu, Gabriel Liiceanu, or Andrei Plesu becoming respected personalities of the Romanian public life.
In cinematography, a new wave of young Romanian filmmakers established themselves internationally. The so called New Romanian Cinema Wave includes directors such as Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, and Radu Munteanu, who won the praise of critics and prestigious awards at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals.
As Romania’s socio-economic standing improved after the 2007 joining of the European Union, the country’s culture entered a new era of growth.
Spoken by over 24 million people, the history of the Romanian language is as complex and controversial as that of the people that speaks it. Indeed, there is a deep connection between the history of the Romanian language and the Romanian people, both from a scientific and a politic perspective. The scientific controversies are generated by the multiple interpretations of historic sources and of other aspects, such as toponymy, comparative linguistics, and lexicology. From a political point of view, the history of the Romanian language has been an argument in the fight for the unification of the Romanian territories.
There are several theories that attempt to explain the formation of the Romanian language, most prominent being the theory of Romanization.
Romanization was the historic process of replacing the language spoken in the provinces conquered by the Romans with the Latin language. The proponents of the theory of Romanization maintain that, following the conquest of Dacia by emperor Trajan, the use of Latin quickly became prevalent in the province. Spoken by the Roman colonists that settled in the area that is now Romania, Latin almost completely replaced the Dacian language in a short period of time. As a consequence of this unusually fast process of Romanization, modern Romanian contains very few words of Dacian origin.
The Roman colonization of Dacia commenced in 106 AD, when the region was incorporated in the Empire. To speed up the process, Trajan settled into Dacia large number of colonists coming from all corners of the empire, including Hispania, Gaul, and even Northern Africa. The common language of the colonists was Latin, which was extensively used in administration and commerce. In time, the Dacians, both those inside the Roman province and the free tribes that remained outside the Roman influence, began to adopt Latin as their own language, a process that was accelerated by the spread of Christianity in the area. All Christian terms, as well as the liturgical rituals were Latin, and missionaries spreading the new religion in Dacia were all speaking Latin.
The process of Romanization (and thus the formation of the modern Romanian language) continued even after the withdrawal of the Roman administration from the territories north of the Danube in the 3rd century. Although numerous migratory peoples such as Huns and Goths temporarily settled in the area that is today Romania, their influence was minor and didn’t change the Latin character of the Romanian language. By the time the Slavic people moved into the area, scholars consider that Romanian was already formed as a language, though a great deal of Slavic words did enter its vocabulary in the 8th and 9th centuries.
As for the precise place where the Romanian language formed, there are three mainstream theories. The first theory maintains that the language formed exclusively north of the Danube (modern Romania), another suggests that Romanian formed south of the Danube and spread later to the north, and a third hypothesis is that the language formed on both sides of the Danube.
Romanian has several distinct dialects, all originating from the so called “common” language, or Proto-Romanian. The main dialect is Romanian proper, spoken north of Danube, while Aromanian, Istro-Romanian, and Megleno-Romanian are dialects spoken in certain areas of the Balkan Peninsula.
The first document written in Romanian is “Neacsu’s Letter” from the 16th century. In the 17th century, chronicle author Miron Costin wrote that the language spoken in Moldavia was called Romanian. In “Description of Moldavia”, published in 1714, Dimitrie Cantemir wrote that the inhabitants of Moldavia, Wallachia, and Transylvania all spoke the same language. Cantemir also noted some small differences in the vocabulary of the language spoken in the three historic regions, as well as the opinion of some contemporary scholars who believed that the roots of the Romanian language are Italian rather than Latin.
The first grammar guide of the Romanian language was published in 1780 in Vienna. Between the 18th and the 19th century, a number of linguists, writers, and scholars attempted to purify the Romanian language from Slavic influences, in a process known as re-Latinization.
Following the unification of the former Romanian principalities and the formation of Greater Romania, the Constitution of 1923 declared Romanian as the official language of the country.
In the period after the First World War, Romanian was deeply influenced by the fundamental changes in the country’s politics, economy, administration, and culture. In this period, an ample process of standardization and unification of the language took place, with the variant spoken in Bucharest being used as a standard.
While modern Romanian is relatively unitary, variants spoken in the historic regions of Romania, known as “graiuri” (dialects) still exist. These include the dialects spoken in Transilvania (Ardeal), Oltenia, Moldova, Banat, Muntenia, and Maramures.
The bulk of the Romanian vocabulary has Latin origins, but over the centuries, the language adopted numerous words from other languages. These include Slavic, Greek, Turkish, and Hungarian, while in modern times, Romanian was greatly influenced by French, German, and English. A few hundred words believed to be of Dacian origin are still preserved in Romanian, most relating to pastoral and agricultural activities.
Romanian is a native language in Romania and the Republic of Moldova, though officially it’s called “Moldovan” in the latter. In addition to that, Romanian is the language of roughly 4 million Romanians living in neighboring countries such as Ukraine, Hungary and Bulgaria. Large Romanian diasporas can be found in Western Europe (especially in Spain and Italy) as well as in the United States and Canada.
Besides Romanian, other languages are spoken in Romania by the country’s ethnic minorities, including Hungarian (in Transylvania) , German (in Transylvania and Banat), Ukrainian (in Maramures), and Roma (Gypsy).
Today, the biggest change in the Romanian language is the adoption of English words, especially terms related to technology.