Brief History of Romania: From Ancient Tribes to Communist Dictators

If you’re curious to find out more about the country’s past, continue reading this very brief history of Romania. Believe it or not, this destination is one of the best places in Europe to discover key events that marked the entire continent. Influenced by its location at the crossroads of historical empires, Romania’s history witnessed both the action and the drama.

The timeline includes the expansion of the Roman Empire, migrant tribes invasions, Ottoman attacks, the Revolutions of the 19th century, and the two world wars. Still, the most dramatic event remains the communist regime installed by the Soviets.

Keep reading this brief history of Romania to uncover more interesting facts.

From the ancient Dacians to medieval crusades

The Dacians inhabited the territory of modern-day Romania in ancient times. Under the rule of Burebista (82 BC-44 BC), the Dacian Kingdom became a powerful force. However, the Dacians did not escape the expansion of the Roman Empire. During the time of Emperor Traian, the Romans conquered and occupied Dacia at the end of two wars in 101 and 106 AD.

history of Romania Sarmizegetusa

Sarmizegetusa Regia

The Romans colonized a part of the territory of future Romania. Their army remained in the new province until the 3rd century AD. In the few centuries of Roman occupation, Latin became the main language used by the locals.

Don’t miss these ancient sites

Visit the National Museum of History from Bucharest or the history museums from Deva and Sarmizegetusa. Discover also the ruins of the Dacian capital, Sarmizegetusa Regia, and the nearby Dacian fortifications, included in the UNESCO Patrimony. Include a trip to the ruins of the Roman capital Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa.

Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa

Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa

The expansion of the Ottoman Empire marked Romania’s history

Centuries of migratory tribes’ invasions followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Starting with the second millennium, the Romanian historical provinces appeared as distinct and independent regions, except for Transylvania. The Hungarian Kingdom had conquered it already in the 11th century.

But, the independence of the Romanian provinces was short-lived. The expansion of the Ottoman Empire threatened to conquer everything on its way to Central Europe. Following the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman menace was greater than ever for the Romanian provinces.

history of Romania

Chindia Tower, the Princely Court from Targoviste

Few princes had the courage to rebel

By the end of the 15th century, after many wars and immense destruction, local princes accepted the suzerainty of the Ottomans. This translated into annual payments in exchange for autonomy. While the Romanian provinces were never part of the Ottoman Empire, except for Dobrogea, the Sultan often decided the succession to the throne. The long-term consequences were dramatic as local reigns lasted only for a few years. The urgent need to raise tax revenue enough to repay the goodwill of the Sultan was omnipresent.

The princes who rebelled against the Ottomans were outcasted or even executed. One of them, the rich Prince Constantin Brancoveanu, was beheaded in 1714 together with his four sons. His long reign (1688-1714) marked the use of the beautiful ‘Brancovenesc’ architectural style. You can admire it in many old churches from Bucharest and also at Mogosoaia Palace.

Rupea Fortress Snail

Rupea Fortress

The most impressive medieval landmarks date from the time of the Ottoman menace. You can find most in Transylvania. The fortified churches, the fortresses of Rasnov and Rupea are some of the best examples.

At the border or rival empires

The Ottoman threat was even greater in the 18th century. At that time, the Sultan only appointed Greeks as princes in Southern Romania and Moldavia. During this century and the following one, the wars and conflictual interests of the Ottoman, the Russian, and the Habsburg Empires had a destructive impact on the Romanian provinces.

Peles Castle

Peles Castle

The independence from the Ottoman Empire and the unification became the goal of the Romanian elites after the revolution of 1848. A few years later, both Moldavia and Southern Romania elected the same prince as the first step of the unification process.

The arrival of a foreign prince, Carol the 1st of Hohenzollern Sigmaringen, in 1866, reinforced the young Romanian state’s effort to obtain its independence. This finally happened in 1877, under the command of Prince Carol who later became the King of Romania. He died in 1914, followed to the throne by his nephew, Ferdinand.

The role of the royal family is fundamental to the history of Romania. Visit Peles and Pelisor Castles in Sinaia and Cotroceni Palace in Bucharest to discover more about the royals.

WW1 and the unification of Romania

Romania was a constitutional monarchy until the end of 1947 when the communists forced King Michael to abdicate. Until that moment, Romania like all of Europe passed through the horror of the two world wars.

The Romanian Kingdom entered WW1 in 1916, fighting against the Central Powers. Its goal was to free Transylvania, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, where the Romanian majority had limited political and civil rights. After immense losses of lives and two years of occupation, the unification finally happened. Transylvania, Bucovina, and Basarabia became part of the Romanian Kingdom that almost doubled its territory after 1919.

history of Romania

Postcard image of Queen Maria and King Ferdinand during WW1

In the two decades that followed, major social reforms promised during WW1 happened at last. The world crisis of 1929 also affected Romania, but the development of urban areas continued. Still, the country remained an agrarian state until the beginning of WW2. The war caught the country in the middle of a political crisis that had tragic consequences for decades to come.

Our brief history of Romania continues with WW2 and its brutal outcomes.

WW2 changed Romania’s history

Ruled by the authoritarian King Carol II (1930-1940), Romania remained neutral until 1941. Big parts of the country were occupied in the summer of 1940 by its neighbors: Hungary, the Soviet Union, and Bulgaria. The losses led to the king’s abdication and exile. While his son, Mihai, became king, the real political power belonged to General Ion Antonescu. Surrounded by the forces of the Axis and looking to recover the lost territories, he accepted to enter the war alongside Germany.

King Mihai

King Mihai

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August 23, 1944

On this date, King Mihai arrested General Antonescu and announced that Romania was turning the weapons against Germany. It was a brave act that shortened the course of the war but directly threatened his life. The army mobilized over half a million soldiers to free Hungary and Czechoslovakia and fought until the end. Still, its new ally, the USSR, occupied Romania and imposed an illegitimate communist regime.

Romania under the communist regime

At the end of WW2, the country fell under the complete influence of Soviet Russia. The forced abdication of King Mihai was the last piece of the puzzle for the communists who had already imprisoned the political elites.

Many of Romania’s ministers and members of the Parliament died in extermination prisons like the one from Sighetu Marmatiei, while more were sent to forced labor camps or deported.

Sighet Memorial

Exhibition space inside the Memorial of Victims of Communism

The first communist decade was marked by massive arrests, up to two million political prisoners, and devastating economic measures. The nationalization of private property and the forced collectivization of agricultural land destroyed the economy already weakened the war. The successor of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, the first communist Secretary-General, was even more rigid.

The dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu (1965-1989) made impossible any kind of real reform. His omnipresent and ignorant interference in the economy led the country to collapse. The outcome was clear in the last decade of communism when people had to live on strict ratios for food, electricity, heat, and gas. The violent revolution from 1989 was a direct consequence. It was the bloodiest of all from the Eastern block. It ended with the death of many protesters and the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife.

Visit the Palace of the Parliament and the former residence of Ceausescu to discover more about Romania’s communist history.

Romania’s history today

The years that followed after 1989 brought a difficult and slow transition. The main cause was the presence of former communist leaders in the new democratic structures. Their negative impact on the public institutions’ performance remains visible until today.

Today, Romania is a member of the European Union and of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

We hope you enjoyed reading this brief history of Romania. If you’re interested to find out more, check also The People Who Made the History of Romania.

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