The Birth of Romanian Identity: From the Roman Invasions to the End of the First World War

ACCORDING to the great philosopher and historian of comparative religion, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), the Romanians

are the descendants of two great peoples of antiquity: the Geta-Dacians and the Romans. The Getae or Dacians, as the Romans used to call them, belong to the large Thracian family, deeply anchored in the ancient history and old religions of Hellas. They emerged in the Carpatho-Danubian regions at the end of the Neolithic age, that is some two thousand years before Christ. [1]

The sweeping Roman invasions that took place under the direction of Emperor Trajan (53-117 AD) between 101-102 AD and, consequently, again in 105–106 AD, each involving two large armies and fuelled by the area’s rich gold and silver deposits, led to half of the Dacian kingdom being reborn as a Roman province known as Dacia Felix. Imperial rule prevailed for 165 years, during which time Roman colonists introduced the Latin tongue to the region and the general process of Romanisation itself led to the development of the Proto-Romanian language.

In the Middle Ages, the future denizens of Romania were scattered across three principalities: Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania. The latter, which eventually became one of the region’s most contested territories, was nonetheless independent as early as the ninth century and also receives a mention in the Gesta Hungarorum. Just two centuries later, however, Transylvania – despite retaining its sovereignty – had become incorporated within the Kingdom of Hungary. The remaining principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, ruled by Basarab I (1272-1352) and Bogdan I (1307-1367) respectively, became embroiled in a desperate struggle against the incessant encroachment of the Ottoman Empire. It was, of course, a religious and cultural struggle between the forces of Christianity and those of Islam. It is no exaggeration for Eliade to inform his readers that the

first political and administrative institutions of the Romanians were born within the church. For the Romanians, the Christian belief has always been the fulcrum of their moral and physical existence. [2]

Nevertheless, as a direct result of Muslim expansionism, by 1541 the entire Balkan peninsula and most of Hungary, Moldavia, Wallachia, and Transylvania found themselves under Ottoman rule.

And so it continued down the centuries, with figures such as Stephen III (1457-1504), Vasile Lupu (1595-1661) and Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723) fighting to retain autonomy in Moldavia; Mircea the Elder (1355-1418), Vlad the Impaler (1431-1477), Matei Basarab (1588-1654), Neagoe Basarab (1459-1621) and Constantin Brâncoveanu (1654-1714) providing stiff resistance in Wallachia; and Gabriel Bethlen (1580-1629), John Hunyadi (1407-1456) and Matthias Corvinus (1443-1490) flying the flag for Transylvanian independence, despite the fact that it was still effectively part of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Curiously, in 1600 all three principalities were simultaneously ruled by the popular Wallachian prince, Michael the Brave (1558-1601), something that later became the focus for those Romanian nationalists who believed that this historical phenomenon accurately epitomises the earliest origins of the Romanian nation itself. The fact that each principality had fought so furiously to retain its respective autonomy seems to have passed them by, but such are the limited perceptions of those who ascribe little importance to ancestral tribal considerations and far too much to the formation of centralised nation-states. What, after all, is modern-day Romania, if not a microcosmic version of the Ottoman Empire that also sought to subsume all three regions within its burgeoning imperial orbit?

Meanwhile, in the nineteenth century, matters became considerably more complex when the region was plunged into the raging fires of a nationalistic inferno that saw both the Romanians and their immediate neighbours attempting to consolidate their own territorial ambitions. Alongside the Ottoman rule that had existed since the Medieval period came the unification of the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, as it became known, lasted from 1867 to 1918, and during that time the Romanians of Transylvania – despite comprising the majority of the population – were very harshly treated. In addition, those living in Wallachia and Moldavia, both of which were still labouring the stubborn domination of the Ottomans, were suffering the same fate. In addition, those parts of Moldavia that were not under the control of the Ottomans – Bukovina and Bessarabia – were ruled by the Hasburgs and the Russians.

Rebellion was inevitable and, in 1821, led by the charismatic Tudor Vladimirescu (1780-1821) and his Pandur militia, the Wallachians rose up against their Ottoman oppressors in a cataclysmic expression of defiance and revolution. Vladimirescu’s men were forced out of Bucharest by the Ottoman forces and, thus, their long and overdue passage towards autonomy and liberation was temporarily postponed.

In 1848, however, the flames of revolution were rekindled, this time in both Wallachia and Moldavia, but whilst the uprisings were unsuccessful it marked a new epoch of unity between the two principalities and the 1859 elections that followed the Crimean War saw the people of each region vote to elect the same leader. Despite the fact that his subsequent election did not change the fact that Moldavia and Wallachia were still under Ottoman Suzerainty, their chosen candidate was Alexandru Ioan Cuza (1820-1873).

In 1866, on the other hand, Cuza – who, by this time, was perceived by his people as the “Domnitor,” or “ruling prince” of the Romanian Principalities and responsible for a great many reforms – was forced into exile in the wake of a military coup d’état and replaced by Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (1839-1914), later proclaimed “Domnitor” as Carol I of Romania. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Romania fought on the Russian side against the Turks and was consequently recognised in the Treaty of San Stefano and Treaty of Berlin as an independent nation-state.

Transylvania, however, which had been abolished in 1867 and absorbed into Transleithania, the Hungarian section of the newly-established Austro-Hungarian Empire, had to wait considerably longer for its inclusion within the freshly-cultivated environs of the Romanian nation and it was not until after the defeat of Austro-Hungary in the First World War that Transylvania finally joined Wallachia and Moldavia. On December 1st, 1918, the ethnic Romanian population of Transylvania openly declared their support for union with the area’s neighbouring principalities and, by 1920, the Treaty of Trianon saw the establishment of a new border between Romania and Hungary, leaving the whole of Transylvania within Romanian state territory. Despite the fact that over 1,600,000 Hungarians, over one-third of the entire population, suddenly found themselves on the Romanian side of the border, particularly in the east, Transylvania had now become part of a Greater Romania.

Although Romania had remained neutral during the first two years of the First World War, between 1916 and 1917 the country joined the Triple Entente that had been formed by Russia, France and the United Kingdom, although the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution soon led to Russia’s sudden withdrawal from the war itself and Romania thus found herself completely isolated and surrounded by enemy troops. A ceasefire followed and, in May 1918, the country was forced to sign a peace treaty. By November that same year, however, Romania had re-entered the conflict and, in total, an estimated 748,000 Romanian soldiers and civilians eventually lost their lives in the fighting that ensued. It did, on the other hand, lead to the formation of a common identity between the peoples of the three principalities and the deep sense of sacrifice and patriotism they shared soon became fertile ground from which the early shoots of a collective Romanian identity could emerge in the period that straddled Europe’s two disastrous world wars.


1. Eliade, Mircea; The Romanians: A Concise History (Roza Vinturilor, 1992), p.7.

2. Ibid., p.45.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.