The history and culture of Romania

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Ancient Times

The space that is now known as Romania (generally marked by the Carpathian Mountains, the Danube and the Black Sea) has been a multicultural melting pot from Antiquity, long before its existence as a national state. The original inhabitants of the land were the Dacians (part of the Thracian cultural family, a very important nation in Ancient times that has influenced Western culture through Greece especially, introducing such names as Dionyssos, later known as Bacchus by the Romans, Medeea, and so on). The Dacians were divided in various tribes that were ultimately unified under the reign of king Burebista in the Ist century BC. Burebista was a very strict, but efficient leader and managed to form a military force comparable to that of the Romans, to whom the Dacians were a constant threat. Burebista also managed to sign a convenient treaty with Julius Caesar in which the Dacians agreed to stop attacking the Empire in exchange of a very lax protectorate (the Romans provided engineers, architects and other specialists). Caesar was not exactly thrilled about the situation, but before starting a campaign against the Dacians, he was assasinated in 44 B.C. Ironically, Burebista shared the same fate and in that same year and the Dacian state was again divised after his death.

About a century later, the Dacians, now led by King Decebalus re-united and continued on the path left by Burebista. Nevertheless, after continuously pinching the Roman borders, an anger Emperor Trajan decided to take action. After sustained fights broadly between 101 and 106, the Dacia was surrounded and conquered (by betrayal) and became a Roman province. It is said that the golden coins at least doubled their size in the years after this event. Nevertheless, not all the Dacians surrendered (or committed suicide, like Decebalus, not to be captured and presented the way Vercingetorix the leader of the Gauls was after Caesar’s conquest of Gaul) and parts of Dacia, especially in the North were known as Free Dacia, left independent, outside the Empire. Almost two centuries later, due to the growing barbaric threat at the borders of the Empire, Aurelianus ordered the troops’ withdrawal. This moment is controversial and the explanations are given to serve different political interests: some Romantic Hungarian-sided historians claim that all the population left the land to prove their right on Transylvania, but logically, the Romanian answer is that such a large movement of population couldn’t have happened without at least a mention in the histories of that era (see more details about this issue here).

The Dacians were, as I previously stated, were very respected by their contemporaries. They were very good craftsmen, traders, farmers, soldiers and left a great inheritance of monuments, gold and silver jewelry (Romania is quite rich in gold), and not only. The Dacian architecture is also very interesting and closely competes with its Ancient counterparts: citadels such as Sarmizegetusa, the capital, were very complex and modern (the Romans managed to conquer Sarmizegetusa by cuttin the water pipes. (see more details

here).

Transylvania, Vallachia, Moldavia: The Romanian States Before Romania

Before Romania as we know it today, the land was divided in kingdoms (voievodate), of which he main came to be Banat (West) Transylvania (Center/North-West), Vallachia (South) and Moldavia (East). Until broadly around the 1100s, there were no clear borders and no unified language, but Daco-Roman dialects specific to each region. Also, due to the passing of various sometimes barbaric waves (Celtic, Germanic, Mongolian or Slavic tribes). After the birth of Hungary and the creation of its monarchy, Transylvania became very interesting, not only for its proximity to the Pannonic plain, but for its many riches). Valachia and Moldavia grew strong and independent, but both had issues with neighbouring empires: Valachia was desired by the Russians and both Valachia and Moldavia were targets for the Ottoman Empire.

In this period, with the constant fear of large armies invading from all directions, it is obvious that the main goal was defense, therefore all the efforts were in providing the army with the best equipments to face the enemies and protect the people. Nevertheless, there were such Valachian voievozi (a king, the ruler of a voievodat) as Mircea Cel Batran (Mircea The Old) in the XIVth century who was considered a force and was feared. even in the Ottoman Empire (he did suffer though from supporting the wrong candidate for Sultan). Other important names are Stefan Cel Mare (Stephen The Great) in Moldavia or Vlad Tepes in Vallachia (Vlad The Impaler – known in the West as Dracula, but who actually was the typical medieval ruler, but who wasn’t popular with the nobles or everybody else who wanted a piece of the kingdom, and, in reality he didn’t surpass his contemporary homologues in cruelty!). A notable moment is 1600, when, for a brief time the three main regions were united under the sceptre of Mihai Viteazul (Michael The Brave) until his assasination in 1601.

The XVIIth, XVIIIth and part of the XVIIIth Centuries Vallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania each fell under the influence of an outer force or another. From all, Transylvania’s situation was the most precarious: under the rule of the Hungarian kingdom – later Austro-Hungarian Empire, Romanians were not recognized as a nation, even though they represented the majority of the population and were suffering greatly due to that. The Enlightenment came with a national and cultural awakening and the creation of a class of Romanian intellectuals (most of them educated in Vienna, Berlin or Rome) and the birth of the Greek-Catholic/Unionite Church (Romanians were Orthodox, which was not acceptable, so, in order to gain access to education and rights, but not to lose their identity, Romanian intellectuals came with the idea of a Eastern-rite church recognizing the Pope as a leader). That doesn’t mean that the other provinces were in a better state: both Vallachia and Moldavia were under the Ottoman suzerainty.

The Birth of Romania

Then there came 1848 and the awakening of nationalism and subsequent patriotism. Romanians started calling themselves Romanians and, in the fashion of the epoque, they dreamt of a unified Romania, which was done in 1859 by electing Alexandru Ioan Cuza as a domnitor (ruler) in both Moldavia and Vallachia. The European dominant states had to accept this state, even though they did not support the idea. Due to the high level of corruption and pursuit of personal goals amongst those in charge (something rather similar to what is going on in Romania today) the task of modernizing Romania and putting it on the map was very hard. Cuza was most likely prepared to give up the throne if a foreign prince would come to rule Romania, but this was done forcibly in 1866, when Carol I of Romania (formerly known as Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen) became Prince of Romania, and eventually King.

In 1877, after several battles with the Ottomans in what is now called Bulgaria, Romania declared itself independent from The Ottoman Empire and it could begin re-building itself as a modern national state.

Romania, the Kingdom

With the reigns of King Carol I and Ferdinand I along with Queen Maria (grand-daughter of Queen Victoria) and the other members of the Royal Family , political class or intellectuals have helped Romania grow in popularity and prosperity. Even though the two World Wars situations were quite tricky (due to the fact that opposing Empires were holding territories inhabited mainly by Romanians – Bassarabia, Bucovina, Dobrogea and so on) and loyalty to one or another was out of the question while trying to preserve what was already there, Romania was nevertheless a survivor. After World War I and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, Romania finally attached the provinces they craved so much since the dream of Unification was born. In 1918, Romania Mare (Greater Romania) was created and kept until World War II.

The Inter-war period was especially prosperous for Romania, as it became one of the most developed countries in the area (at least from an urban perspective) and gained popularity outside its borders. The Royal Family was loved and respected by both ordinary citizens and Romanian politicians and foreign representatives. Of course, like any other monarchy, it had its scandals: the Carol II situation is most illustrative – After an unacceptable marriage and constant fights with his parents, Carol II finally accepted to marry “royal” and take the crown, nevertheless, he became a dictator and right-wing movements began to flourish, like in some other parts of Europe as well.

Communism

After a series of land-losses subsequent to World War II, Carol II abdicated in the favour of his son, Mihai, who became King. Mihai I, himself had to abdicate in 1947 under Soviet pressure, which put an end to the Romanian monarchy. From now on, Romanian was moved under the Soviet Umbrella, later an independent Communist state, with the advent of the Ceausescu regime.

With or without KGB meddling, communist Romania was a typical totalitarian dictatorship. Until 1965, with Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej as a president, the society was practically beheaded (in a similar manner with the Mao Cultural Revolution), all the intellectuals and anybody who seemed against the system – even die-hard Communists!, the clerical representatives – the Greek-Catholic Church was forbidden by law were eliminated in one way or another. All institutions were infiltrated with secret agents (KGB at that time) assuring that every layer of human life is covered and controlled.

Later, in the Ceausescu regime, the repression was not as violent, but that does not mean it didn’t exist. Because the system was stabilized and there was at least a generation of brainwashed (future) citizens, there was no need for mass murders. Of course, that does not mean people didn’t suffer. Jails were full, both physical and psychical torture were common practices, trusting everybody else was a thing of the past. Moreover, Ceausescu’s own insanity was transferred to a national level: huge and pompous constructions were ordered, women were forbidden to do abortions, censorship was in bloom and so on.

Dissidence was strong, but it was kept mainly outside Romania. In any case, the Securitate was very active both nationally and internationally and reactionary elements considered as dangerous for the system conveniently died in suspicious manners. Also, Ceausescu managed to fool the West by creating the image of an open-minded Communism and hate towards the Soviet Union. In any case, Romania was in good relations with the other Communist(ish) regimes in the world (Korea, China, African or Middle Eastern countries).

1989 and Its Aftermath

1989 was the swan-song of Communism. Romanians caught the occasion to unite against Ceausescu and what he represented and, with a little bit of help from outside, the Revolution was successful. The actual sides are rather controversial and – even now – there are a lot of unknowns of whom did what or who were the real murderers. Some people claim that it wasn’t anything but a coup d’etat orchestrated by second and third ranked Communist Party members who are still in power today.

Right now Romania is trying to recover from the wounds inflicted by the Communist Regime, but with the corruption and vivid remnants of “the belle epoque” chances are that things will not be fixed in less than a generation’s time or so. In any case, with all the negative aspects from politics and mass-media, indivinduals are starting to discover that they can make a better life for themselves, even if the system doesn’t give a helping hand. I believe that the future of Romania is in each and every citizen (no matter what nationality, creed or sex) doing his/her share to bring capital and/or credibility to the whole country.

NB: For more information about Romania’s History, check the Wikipedia homonymous article.

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