Romania’s History: A Centuries-Old Quest for Independence

Romania’s history is eventful and deeply connected with its geographical position on the continent, at the crossroads of great historical empires. In fact, Romania is one of the best places in Europe to discover and understand the history of the entire continent.

A history that starts with the expansion of the Roman Empire to migrant tribes invasions, from the attacks of the Ottoman Empire that threatened to conquer Christianity to the self-determination movements of the 19th century. Romania was in the first line on the eastern fronts of the two world wars and was transformed into a communist state for over four decades.

Romania’s history, from the ancient Dacians to medieval crusades

The territory of modern-day Romania was inhabited in ancient times by the Dacians, mentioned in the historical sources of the time for their bravery. Under the rule of Burebista (82 BC-44 BC), the Dacian Kingdom became a powerful regional force that, however, 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 partially the territory of future Romania and the Roman army was stationed here until the 3rd century AD. In the few centuries of Roman occupation, Latin became the main language used by the locals who also embraced Roman administration and Roman law.

Don’t miss these ancient sites

To find out more about the ancient part of Romania’s history, visit the National Museum of History from Bucharest or the history museums from Deva and Sarmizegetusa. The ruins of the Dacian capital, Sarmizegetusa Regia, and the Dacian fortifications are included in the UNESCO Heritage Sites of Romania. Nearby you can also visit the ruins of the Roman capital from Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa.

Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa

Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa

The expansion of the Ottoman Empire marks Romania’s history

After centuries of migratory tribes invasions that followed the decay of the Roman Empire, the Romanian historical provinces — Transylvania, Southern Romania, Moldavia, Dobrogea — appeared as distinct and independent regions starting with the 13th century. The only exception was Transylvania, conquered by the Hungarian Kingdom in the 11th century.

However, the independence of the Romanian provinces was short-lived because of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire that 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

After numerous wars and immense destruction, by the end of the 15th century, local princes accepted the suzerainty of the Sultan 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 faith of local princes or the succession to the throne. The long-term consequences were dramatic. Local reigns lasted only a few years and were marked by an urgent need to raise tax revenue enough to repay the goodwill of the Sultan.

The princes who rebelled against the Ottomans were rapidly outcasted or even executed, one of them being the very rich Prince Constantin Brancoveanu who was beheaded in 1714 together with his four sons. His long reign (1688-1714) is remembered today also because of the beautiful ‘Brancovenesc’ architectural style you’ll see in many old churches from Bucharest and at Mogosoaia Palace.

Rupea Fortress Snail

Rupea Fortress

The most impressive medieval landmarks still conserved today were built against the Ottoman menace. The fortified churches of Transylvania, the fortresses of Rasnov and RupeaNeamt Fortress, and Poenari Fortress are some of the best examples.

At the border or rival empires

The Ottoman interference was even greater in the 18th century when only Greek princes were named to rule in Southern Romania and Moldavia, Transylvania being during that time part of the Habsburg Empire. During this century and the following one, the wars and conflictual interests of the Ottoman, the Russian, and the Habsburg Empires often had a direct and destructive impact on the Romanian provinces and their territorial integrity.

Peles Castle

Peles Castle

The independence from the Ottoman Empire and the unification of the Romanian provinces became the most important goal of the Romanian elites after the revolution of 1848. A few years later, both Moldavia and Southern Romania elected the same prince and set 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 have the unification accepted by the Great Powers but also to obtain its independence. This eventually happened in 1877, under the command of Prince Carol the 1st who became afterward the King of Romania. He died in 1914 and was followed by his nephew, King Ferdinand together with his wife Queen Maria.

The role of the royal family is fundamental to the history of Romania. For an image of the royal times, visit Peles and Pelisor Castles in Sinaia and Cotroceni Palace in Bucharest.

Romania in the two world wars

Romania was a constitutional monarchy until the end of 1947 when King Michael the 1st, the grandson of King Ferdinand, was forced by the communists to abdicate. Until that moment, Romania like all of Europe passed through the horror of the two world wars.

The Romanian Kingdom entered the First World War in 1916, fighting against the Central Powers. The main goal was to free Transylvania where the majority Romanian population had limited political and civil rights. After immense losses of lives and two years of occupation, the unification of Transylvania, Bucovina, and Basarabia with Romania finally happened.

history of Romania

Postcard image of Queen Maria and King Ferdinand during WW1

In the two decades that followed, the Romanian Kingdom implemented major social reforms promised during the First World War. The world crisis of 1929 also affected Romania, but overall the economy recovered after the war, and the fast-paced development was easily visible in urban areas. Still, the country remained largely an agrarian state until the beginning of WW2 that had the most tragic consequences for the history of Romania.

Ruled by the authoritarian King Carol II (1930-1940), Romania remained neutral until 1940 when big parts of its territory were occupied almost overnight by its neighbors: Hungary, the Soviet Union, and Bulgaria. Surrounded by the forces of the Axis and looking to recover its lost territory, Romania entered the war in 1941 alongside Germany.

King Mihai

King Mihai

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On August 23, 1944, the young King Mihai arrested General Ion Antonescu who ruled Romania de facto since 1940. From this moment, Romania fought against Germany and the Axis, mobilizing over half a million soldiers to free Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Still, Romania lost Basarabia and was occupied by the Soviet Army that rapidly imposed an illegitimate communist regime.

Romania under the communist regime

At the end of the Second World War, the country fell under the complete influence of the USSR and a harsh communist regime was installed until December 1989. The forced abdication of King Mihai at the end of 1947 was the last piece of the puzzle for the communist who had already imprisoned the political elites of Romania.

Many of Romania’s ministers and members of the Parliament were given no chance in extermination camps like the one from Sighetu Marmatiei, transformed today into a Memorial for the Victims of Communism.

Sighet Memorial

Exhibition space inside the Memorial of Victims of Communism

The first decade of communism brought not only massive arrests — the number of political prisoners is estimated up to 2 million — but also devastating economic measures like the nationalization of private property and the forced collectivization of agricultural land. The centralized economy and the overdevelopment of the heavy industry eventually led to collapse like anywhere else in the Eastern block.

The dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu (1965-1989) made impossible any kind of reform, and the last decade of communism was one of the strict ratios for food, electricity, heat, and gas. The direct consequence was the violent revolution from 1989 that ended with the death of many protesters and the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife.

Ceausescu cult of personality

Images of Nicolae Ceausescu’s cult of personality

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Visit the Palace of the Parliament and the former residence of Ceausescu from Bucharest for a glimpse of communist history.

Romania’s history today

The years that followed after 1989 were marked by a difficult and slow transition towards a stable democracy because of the presence of former communist leaders in the new democratic structures. Today, Romania is a member of the European Union and of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

If you’d like to discover more about the history of Romania, check our tours on