BRIEF HISTORY OF ROMANIA FOR TRAVELLERS
Life has been documented on the present-day territory of Romania ever since the earliest ages. Archaeological
excavations throughout the country have revealed that people have lived in the region for one or even two
million years. Among other artifacts of historic importance, their life is also attested to by beautiful
polychrome pottery of outstanding quality, such as the Cucuteni-Ariusd.
What is better known and much better documented is that later in Antiquity, Romania's present-day territory
was inhabited by Dacians who were of a Thracian origin. They lived in tribes throughout the Carpathian
Mountains, in Banat, Oltenia and in Transylvania.
On the shores of the Black Sea, Greek colonies were set up in the 7th-6th century B.C. at Histria, Callatis
or Tomis. Part of their remains, which make up a valuable heritage from the point of view of art and
archaeology are still being researched by archaeologists to this day.
During the process of eastward expansion of the Roman Empire across Europe, the Romans attacked Dacia several
times (in 89 A.D. and 101-102 A.D.) and eventually conquered it in 105-106 A.D. The ruler of Dacia,
King Decebal, was forced to flee his capital, Sarmizegetusa, and committed suicide.
Dacia became a Roman province. There followed a period of colonization and Romanization which lasted up to
the 3rd century. The Roman colonists brought from all corners of the Empire helped set up a Roman
administration, build roads and forts that spanned the entire new Roman province. Among the most important
forts dating back to that period one should mention those of the Dacian and Roman Sarmizegetusa in southern
Transylvania and Histria on the shore of Lake Nuntasi in Dobrudja.
After the Romans withdrew their administration from Dacia to the south of the Danube, in 271-275, it seems
likely that the inhabitants of the province took to the mountains. The following period was one of great
migratory waves sweeping across the whole of Europe, Dacia included.
Therefore, it was only later that state-like organizations and states were set up in the region.
The Middle Ages
With the coming of Hungarians (Magyars) to the region, Transylvania became part of the Hungarian Kingdom. In
order to reinforce the military presence and guard the borders, the Hungarian kings brought colonists of
German origin from the regions of the Rhine and Moselle rivers. To this day, the civilization they created as
Transylvanian Saxons is in evidence across Transylvania (Siebenburgen in German, because there were seven
more important cities) in many towns and villages. Their fortified churches, their fortifications and
citadels built at strategic points, such as Sibiu/ Hermannstadt, Brasov/ Kronstadt, Sighisoara/ Schaesburg
dominate the skyline to this day.
Then, in the 14th century, Wallachia (in southern present-day Romania) and Moldavia (in the east)
were also set up as states by ruling princes who came from Transylvania and Maramures. Quite soon, the new
states were forced to confront the Ottoman Empire, a force that had begun to threaten the states in Eastern
and Central Europe. Throughout the following centuries, they were actually forced to clash with the Ottomans
quite often. In fact, for an important period (1541-1689), the Ottomans subdued Hungary and made Transylvania
a principality under Ottoman suzerainty, while Moldavian and Wallachian ruling princes were also forced to
acknowledge Ottoman suzerainty. However, no Romanian provinces were turned into Ottoman provinces.
From the 1400’s to the 1700’s, several ruling princes opposed the Ottomans and decided to fight them. They
are remembered today as promoters of a more independent policy and celebrated as such. Iancu of Hunedoara
(Janos Huniady), Stephen the Great and Vlad the Impaler (the model for Dracula) in the 15th
century and Michael the Brave in the late 16th and early 17th centuries are only some
Others, such as Neagoe Basarab, Matei Basarab and Vasile Lupu, Constantin Brancoveanu or Dimitrie Cantemir
in the 16th to the early 18th centuries are best remembered for their contribution to the cultural
development of Wallachia and Moldavia.
If, among the former, Stephen the Great is especially remembered for having built some of the most beautiful
and famous Moldavian monasteries and for having promoted an outstanding cultural and architectural
development, the latter have been inspired by his lifetime work. They too have founded monasteries, schools
and printed religious books which helped spread the Orthodox teachings and other books among Romanians.
Moreover, their cultural and religious achievements also helped Romanians in Transylvania. By preserving
their Orthodox faith, the latter could also keep their ethnic identity in a province the administration of
which was dominated by Reformed and Roman-Catholic Hungarians or Lutheran Saxons.
The religious buildings which these ruling princes erected in Wallachia and Moldavia, and the churches and
fortresses or princely residences built in Transylvania, are beautiful illustrations of the late Gothic style
and of its synthesis with the local traditions. The Hunyadi/ Hunedoara Castle in southern Transylvania, the
fortifications of Brasov/ Kronstadt or Sibiu/ Hermannstadt and their impressive churches are a reflection of
western European architecture. Other edifices stand out through the synthesis they make between local and
Balkan architecture with late Byzantine traditions, mainly illustrated in painting. Probably, the most
remarkable such synthesis can be found in the painted monasteries of Bukovina with their features borrowed
from Gothic and Renaissance architecture.
The 18th century saw the influence of Enlightenment. Romanian scholars in Transylvania were
trained in Rome or Vienna, and alongside Moldavian scholars educated in Poland, for instance, they had direct
access to sources of western culture. By promoting the ideas of the Enlightenment, they were the ones who
stressed the shared Latin origins of Romanians in Transylvania, Moldavia and Wallachia. Later on, these same
ideas shaped and prepared the Romanians’ 19th century quest for national identity.
This is also the age of the Baroque, of beautiful palaces built by the likes of Prince Constantin Brancoveanu
in Wallachia and Governor Samuel von Brukenthal in Transylvania. Artists from western Europe brought
innovations one can still admire at Mogosoaia or Sibiu as well. Beautiful gardens were carefully designed
around these palaces. Moreover, Governor Brukenthal acted like an important art collector and laid the basis
for one of the first art museums in Europe, at Sibiu.
Then, in the 19th century, the three countries were confronted with revolutions that occurred
along with the revolutions in Europe in 1848. In the wake of these revolutions and the Crimean war
(1853 - 1856), the political situation experienced radical changes. Moldavia and Wallachia took advantage of
the tense relations between the great powers of Europe and succeeded in uniting in 1859 under the rule of a
prince of Romanian origin, Alexandru Ioan Cuza.
Also, Transylvania now became a part of the Kingdom of Hungary, which was itself part of the newly-born
The Union of Moldavia and Wallachia in 1859 opened the way for the modernization of Romania. After a short
rule, marked by important reforms in education and land ownership and especially the unification of the two
principalities’ main institutions, Prince Cuza was forced to abdicate (1866). The Romanian politicians had
decided to call for a foreign prince who could better master the torment of political battles.
Young officer Carol, a member of the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen family, from Germany, was chosen and asked to
become Romania's ruling prince in 1866.
In 1877, Romania affirmed its independence from the Ottoman Empire and later started a war against it along
with Russian troops. During the war, Prince Carol was asked to help the Russians. He thus made a name by
commanding the joint Romanian-Russian troops who were fighting the Ottomans in Bulgaria at present-day
Pleven. The Ottomans were defeated in 1878. This enabled Romania to become 'de jure' an independent state
and acquire the province of Dobrudja (in the south-east) and have access to the Black Sea. However, Romania
had to give up the south-eastern part of Moldavia, also known as Bessarabia. The whole eastern part of
Moldavia had already been occupied by Russia in 1812.
After its independence was acknowledged, Romania became a kingdom in 1881 and Carol became king, Carol I.
In the following years, the King played an instrumental role in setting up institutions to modernise Romania.
By 1914, when World War 1 began, banks had been founded and many important buildings had been erected to
accommodate these new institutions. Headquarters for libraries, universities and government offices along
with many privately-built buildings transformed the way Romanian cities and towns had looked. French
eclectic and neoclassical architecture was favoured by the specialists coming from Paris as well as the
young generation of Romanians educated in western universities.
Transport by rail was also introduced to Romania. Although in 1866 there were almost no railroad tracks, by
1914 the most important tracks had been laid connecting Romania to its neighbours, Austria and Hungary
(with its significant Romanian population in Transylvania), and Bulgaria.
However, the main role of King Carol I, according to historians, was to have brought stability and a German
sense of rigour to a Latin country experiencing constant political turmoil.
After a few decades marked by national Romantic architecture and the revival of Romanian 18th
century religious architecture, Romanian architects, such as Duiliu Marcu or Marcel Iancu, also embraced
modern materials and designs. To this day, districts and boulevards in central Bucharest and in other cities
are a proof of their love for simple, geometrical shapes, either round or square and for materials such as
concrete, glass and metal.
The beginning of World War I brought major changes to the way Romania looked.
Because Romanians wanted their country to deliver their fellow Romanians in Transylvania from the
Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, they felt that the country had to fight the Central Powers (Germany and
Austria and Hungary). Therefore, despite having signed a secret treaty with Austria and Germany, King Carol
had to accept neutrality at the beginning (1914-1916).
Old and weakened by these efforts and thinking he might be forced to fight his native country, Carol I died
soon afterwards. The next in line was the nephew he had adopted, Prince Ferdinand.
With Ferdinand on the throne and with the support of Romania's energetic and charismatic Queen, Maria (the
grand-daughter of Queen Victoria), the country remained neutral, but prepared to wage war. In August 1916,
under Allied pressure, it declared war on the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and Germany. The Romanian armies
entered Transylvania. But they were soon forced to withdraw because Romania was attacked from the south by
Bulgaria and Germany. The capital, Bucharest, was occupied by German troops. The situation seemed desperate.
Lacking military help from its allies, France and Russia, Romania had been reduced to a small part of its
former territory. King, government and parliament had to take refuge in eastern Romania, in Iasi, close to
the border with the Russian Empire.
The events that followed, very quickly changed the way the war was progressing. Because of instability in
Russia and the war in Austria, Romanians' Councils from the provinces of Bessarabia (after the collapse of
Czarist Russia) and Bukovina (under Austrian rule) -which had been part of Moldavia till 1812 and 1774
respectively, were able to meet and vote for the union with the Kingdom of Romania (April 9 and November
By that time, Romanians were preparing to renew their military efforts. With French military help Romania
re-entered the war at the end of 1918.
Shortly afterwards, in December 1918, delegations of Romanians from Transylvania gathered in Alba-Iulia to
vote for the union with Romania, just as their fellows in Bukovina and Bessarabia had done earlier. Their
decision was later sanctioned by Parliament and the King. A new state, called by the contemporaries Greater
Romania had been created.
There followed a constant diplomatic struggle to see the great powers acknowledge to this union during the
peace talks in Paris. Queen Maria, along with Prime-minister Ionel Bratianu did her best to persuade the
Allies of the rightful character of Romania's claims. Eventually, in 1919, the Peace Treaty in Paris
sanctioned the existence of the recently enlarged Romanian state.
Despite the enthusiasm that the outcome of the war had provoked in Romania, a lot of struggles lay ahead. It
was not an easy task to reorganize the Romanian state and harmonize the various traditions and demands of all
Romanians, on the one hand, and of the important minorities (i.e. Hungarians, Saxons, Jews, Russians etc.)
Romania had acquired, on the other.
One of the most important steps taken by the Romanian government was a land distribution reform, which had
been promised before Romania entered the war. A new constitution was voted for in 1923 after King Ferdinand
and Queen Maria were crowned as Sovereigns of Romania in Alba-Iulia.
All these and the energies of the Romanians that had been brought together in one state allowed Romania to
experience an unprecedented period of economic and cultural development. This evolution did not end with the
death of King Ferdinand in 1927, but continued under Prince Mihai's (Ferdinand's grandson) Regency
(1927-1930). Even after Prince Carol, son of Ferdinand and father of Mihai, decided to come back and claim
his throne in 1930 and became King Carol II, Romania's evolution was only slowed by the worldwide economic
Carol II ruled from 1930 to 1940 as a protector of culture, but was also involved in economic matters and
favoured a group of businessmen and industrialists who were among his close friends. The last years of his
rule were those of an authoritarian regime and were marked by the development of extreme right wing,
anti-Semitic movements, such as The Iron Guard.
After World War II started, Romania was asked to give up part of its eastern and western provinces to Russia
and Hungary respectively as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Agreement (1939) and the nefarious political
agreement in Vienna (1940).
Agreeing to these demands weakened the King's position. In September 1940 general Ion Antonescu forced him to
abdicate. In his place, young Prince Mihai (b. 1921) came back to the throne he had occupied as a child.
However, quite soon, the country came to be ruled by a military leader (on the German and Italian pattern),
Romania was allied to Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1944. The Romanian army started to fight with the Soviet
Union in 1941 to get back its eastern territories (Bessarabia), but also fought alongside German troops as
far as Stalingrad. Consequently, Marshall Antonescu's policy was no longer approved of, at least by the
democratic politicians who were not members of the Government.
Therefore, secret peace talks were started in 1943 in Cairo and Stockholm with the Allies and the Soviets
respectively, but they yielded no definite result until the summer of 1944.
As a result, on August 23, 1944, the King backed a coup d'Etat and had Marshall Antonescu and his military
government. The same day, Romania stopped fighting the Soviet Union and started to fight Germany.
Nevertheless, the Red Army, which arrived in Bucharest only days later, was about to change all the King's
plans and Romania's history for the next 45 years.
The Red Army's arrival brought better times for the insignificant Romanian Communist Party and its activists,
schooled in Moscow. Despite the efforts of the King and of the democratic politicians, a Communist government
was set up in March 1945 and began a large-scale communization of Romania. The political and cultural elite
were marginalised and obedient communist activists were brought in in their place. Backed by the presence of
the Red Army in Romania, the Communists were able to change politics, the economy and culture in line with
The first years between 1944 and 1947 was a period when the Communists consolidated their power. The
monarchy and some of the democratic institutions, such as Parliament, continued to exist, but gradually
personnel and institutional changes occurred. Political opponents were put on trial and later jailed or
simply arrested without trial. The role of the institutions was reduced and gradually made obsolete. As
the new regime acquired a stronger base, everything it did became ‘legal’ or was done to look as though it
Elections were organized in November 1946 and as a result of a large-scale fraud, the Romanian Communist
Party was declared the winner. After the King refused to co-operate with the Communists, an action that
lasted months, he was forced to abdicate in December 1947. Then the People's Republic of Romania was
A thorough, up-to-date and competent history of Romania under the Communist regime has yet to be written;
therefore, we outline only the major facts and events between 1945 and 1989.
It probably could be said that, while liberties were restricted and state control was established in every
possible field, there has been certain progress in national welfare and access to education and medical
This was however distorted by the interference of the Romanian Workers' Party (later Romanian Communist
Party - RCP) in all matters of daily life and by the subsequent restrictions imposed by the state on its
In 1948, the state started the collectivization of land in the Soviet style as well as a massive
nationalization of lodgings, private companies and estates. Through the 1950’s severe policies were enforced
to guarantee total control of the state in all fields. Romania respected Soviet policy and backed the Soviet
invasion of Hungary in 1956. In 1958, Red Army troops withdrew from the country, the only Warsaw Treaty
country to receive this treatment.
Communists reinforced their power, but by the 1960's they started to liberalize their policy. This became
accentuated after the death of the Secretary General of the RCP, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, as a younger
activist, Nicolae Ceausescu, was appointed instead. The first years of Ceausescu’s administration promised a
more liberal period and better relations with the Western world. It seems quite likely that, by co-operating
with countries that had been considered communist Romania’s enemies, Ceausescu wanted to secure a place on
the international stage. And he did, by the 1970’s. Not only did he apply a better internal policy at the
beginning, but he also opposed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. As seen by Romanian historian
Florin Constantiniu, this was ‘his finest hour’ and brought him international appreciation by leaders such as
the French President, General Charles de Gaulle and the American President, Richard Nixon, who paid visits
The beginning of the 1970’s, however, saw a dramatic change when Ceausescu visited North Korea and Communist
China. He came back with quite different ideas compared to those of his first years in power. Not only did
he start applying Stalinist and nationalistic policy, but he also promoted a cult of personality and
personal dictatorship on a large scale.
Backed by some members of his family and faithful party activists he had appointed to key positions in the
hierarchy of the RCP and government, both at national and local levels, he created the office of President
of the Socialist Republic of Romania for himself. President Ceausescu decided then to play an even more
important role on the international stage by advocating the cause of the third-world, mostly African
countries. He made friends among dictators and authoritarian rulers around the world, but promoted a
policy of isolation and autarchy for Romania as well.
That is why the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s were a very difficult period for Romanians. While the state was involved
in gigantic projects, both at home and abroad, Romanians had to spend less, eat less, consume less and
produce more so as to repay foreign loans needed to industrialize the country at the beginning of the
Rationing of basic products and the policy of systematization of Romania's villages and city centres drove
the Romanians to despair by 1989. While more protests were heard from Romania and abroad, Perestroika was
progressing fast and other Eastern-European nations were preparing for a different future. Ceausescu,
surprisingly, was keen on following his own policy, and was even re-elected as Secretary General of the
RCP during the 14th Congress of the RCP in November, 1989.
Few had anticipated what followed, and these events have not received a satisfactory explanation to this day.
A bloody revolution followed in December 1989 which was broadcasted live all around the world.
After several government changes and the introduction of reforms, Romania is now a NATO member and hopes to
join the European Union by 2007. The history of the past 15 years is still being written.