Sometimes referred to as 'Europe's great survivor', this melting pot of Romanians, Hungarians, Germans and Roma has been constantly invaded and occupied throughout its existence. The name ‘Romania’ didn’t refer to Wallachia or Moldavia until 1859 and, in fact, Transylvania remained part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918 – so what exactly is ‘Romania’? Understanding its ancient past and the surrounding empires and countries who influenced it is probably the best way to get a grip on this fascinating country.

Roman Dacia

For thousands of years, the territory of what was to become modern Romania was inhabited by various Neolithic and Bronze Age tribes. These include the fascinating Cucuteni people, who thrived from 6000 to 3500 BC and left behind a legacy of beautiful, modern-looking pottery.

From around the 7th century BC the Greeks established trading colonies along the Black Sea at Callatis (Mangalia), Tomis (Constanţa) and Histria. In the 1st century BC, a strong state was formed by indigenous Dacian tribes, led by King Burebista, to counter the growing might in the area of the Roman Empire. The last Dacian king, Decebal (r AD 87–106), consolidated this state but was unable to stave off attacks led by the Roman emperor Trajan between AD 101 and 102, and Dacia became a Roman province.

The slave-owning Romans mixed with the conquered tribes to form a Daco-Roman people who spoke Latin. The reflected glory of Rome was short lived when, after increasing Goth attacks in AD 271, Emperor Aurelian (r 270–75) decided to withdraw the Roman legions to south of the Danube River, meaning Rome governed here for fewer than 175 years. Romanised peasants remained in Dacia and mixed with the locals; hence the Roman heritage of contemporary Romanians.

Medieval Principalities

Waves of migrating peoples, including the Goths, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars and Magyars, swept across the territory from the 4th to the 10th centuries, each one leaving its mark on the local culture, language and gene pool. By the 10th century a fragmented feudal system ruled by a military class appeared. Around this point, the Magyars (Hungarians) expanded into Transylvania, and by the 13th century the area had become an autonomous principality under the Hungarian crown. Following devastating Tatar raids on Transylvania in 1241 and 1242, King Bela IV of Hungary persuaded German Saxons to settle in Transylvania with free land and tax incentives. He also granted the Székelys – a Hungarian ethnic group who had earlier migrated to the region with the Magyars – autonomy in return for their military support.

In the 14th century, Prince Basarab I (r 1310–52) united various political formations in the region south of the Carpathians to create the first Romanian principality – Wallachia, dubbed Ţara Românească (Romanian Land). Its indigenous peasantry became known as Vlachs. Around this period, a similar process of state formation was underway along the eastern and northern sides of the Carpathians that would eventually form a second Romanian principality: Moldavia. In the early days, these two principalities served mainly to buffer the Hungarian Kingdom from the growing Ottoman Empire, but the two would eventually form the nucleus of a future Romanian state. They were both ruled by a prince who was also the military leader. Most noblemen at this time were Hungarian; the peasants were Romanians.

Ottoman Expansion

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries Wallachia and Moldavia offered strong resistance against the Ottoman’s northward expansion. Mircea cel Bătrân (Mircea the Old; r 1386–1418), Vlad Ţepeş (‘The Impaler’; r 1448, 1456–62, 1476) and Ştefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great; r 1457–1504) were legendary figures in this struggle. When the Turks conquered Hungary in the 16th century, Transylvania became a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, retaining its autonomy by paying tribute to the sultan, as did Wallachia and Moldavia. In 1600 these three principalities were briefly united at Alba Iulia under the leadership of Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave; r 1593–1601), who shortly after was defeated by a joint Habsburg-Transylvanian noble army and beheaded.

Following the defeat of the Turks in the 1687 Battle of Mohács in Hungary, the area of Transylvania came under Habsburg rule. Large pieces of Wallachia and Moldavia, however, remained under Ottoman control, though both areas retained some autonomy.

The 18th century marked the start of the Transylvanian Romanians’ fight for political emancipation. Romanian peasants constituted around 60% of the population, yet continued to be mostly excluded from political life. In 1784, three serfs named Horea, Cloşca and Crişan led a major uprising against Hungarian rule. The uprising was quashed and two of the instigators were executed; nevertheless the revolt was not without some success. In 1785, Habsburg Emperor Joseph II abolished serfdom in the then-Hungarian province of Transylvania.

The 17th century in Wallachia, under the reign of Constantin Brâncoveanu (r 1688–1714), brought a period of prosperity characterised by a cultural and artistic renaissance. In 1775 part of Moldavia’s northern territory – Bucovina – was annexed by Austria-Hungary. This was followed in 1812 by the loss of its eastern territory – Bessarabia (most of which is in present-day Moldova) – to Russia. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29, Wallachia and Moldavia became Russian protectorates while remaining nominally in the Ottoman Empire.

One State

In the 19th century, the Austrian-led Habsburg Empire came under threat from within by the growing might of individual nations within the empire – above all from nationalist Hungarians agitating for their own state. To quell the rebellion, the Habsburgs struck a deal with Transylvania’s Romanians, promising them national recognition in return for joining forces with them against the Hungarian revolutionaries. Thus Transylvanian Romanians fought against and enacted revenge upon the Hungarians in the province for what was seen as centuries of mistreatment. Russian intervention finally settled the issue in favour of the Habsburgs and ended a revolution that had shocked all sides in its viciousness.

In the aftermath, the region fell under the direct rule of Austria-Hungary from Budapest. Ruthless ‘Magyarisation’ followed: Hungarian was established as the official language and any Romanian who dared oppose the regime was severely punished. Austria-Hungary would rule the region uncontested until WWI.

By contrast, Wallachia and Moldavia prospered. In 1859, with French support, Alexandru Ioan Cuza was elected to the thrones of Moldavia and Wallachia, which created a national state known as the United Romanian Principalities on 11 December 1861. This was renamed Romania in 1862. The reform-minded Cuza was forced to abdicate in 1866 by mutinous army officers, and his place was taken by the Prussian prince Carol I. With Russian assistance, Romania declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1877. In 1881 it was declared a kingdom and on 22 May 1881 Carol I was crowned the first king of Romania.

WWI & Greater Romania

Through shrewd political manoeuvring, Romania greatly benefited from WWI. Despite having formed a secret alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1883, it began WWI as a neutral state. In 1916 the government, under pressure from the Western allies, declared war on Austria-Hungary, with the ultimate prize being to annex Transylvania.

The defeat of Austria-Hungary in 1918 paved the way for the formation of modern Romania. Through settlements and treaties after the war, the country gained Bessarabia, the area east of the Prut River that had been part of Moldavia until 1812, part of Bucovina that had been in Austro-Hungarian hands since 1775, part of the Banat, and eventually Transylvania. By the end of WWI, Romania had more than doubled its territory (from 120,000 to 295,000 sq km) and population (from 7.5 to 16 million). The acquisition of the new lands was ratified in 1920 under the Treaty of Trianon – a settlement that has never rested easily with Hungary.

Carol II & the Iron Guard

In the years leading up to WWII, Romania sought an alliance with France and Britain, and joined Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the Little Entente. Romania also signed a Balkan Pact with Yugoslavia, Turkey and Greece, and later established diplomatic relations with the USSR. These efforts were weakened by the Western powers’ appeasement of Hitler and by Romania’s own King Carol II, who succeeded his father Ferdinand I to the throne. Extreme right-wing parties opposed to a democratic regime emerged, notably the anti-Semitic League of the National Christian Defence, which consequently gave birth to the Legion of the Archangel Michael in 1927. This notorious breakaway faction, better known as the fascist Iron Guard, was led by Corneliu Codreanu, and by 1935 it dominated the political scene.

Finding himself unable to manipulate the political parties, Carol II declared a royal dictatorship in February 1938. All political parties were dissolved and laws were passed to halve the size of the electorate. Between 1939 and 1940 alone, Romania had no fewer than nine different governments. In 1939 Carol II clamped down on the Iron Guard, which he had supported until 1937. Codreanu and 13 other legionaries were arrested, sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and then assassinated. In revenge for their leader’s death, Iron Guard members murdered Carol II’s prime minister, Armand Călinescu, leading to the butchering of 252 Iron Guard members by Carol II’s forces. In accordance with the king’s wishes, the corpses were strung up in public squares. Only with the collapse of the Axis powers at the end of WWII did the Iron Guard disintegrate.

Romania, formally allied to the West, was isolated after the fall of France in May 1940, and in June 1940 Greater Romania collapsed in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939. The Soviet Union re-occupied Bessarabia. On 30 August 1940, Romania was forced to cede northern Transylvania to Nazi-ally Hungary by order of Germany and fascist Italy. In September 1940 Southern Dobrogea was given to Bulgaria. Not surprisingly, the loss of territories sparked widespread popular demonstrations. Even Carol II realised he could not quash the increasing mass hysteria and on the advice of one of his councillors, the king called in General Marshall Ion Antonescu. To defend the interests of the ruling classes, Antonescu forced King Carol II to abdicate in favour of the king’s 19-year-old son Michael. Antonescu then imposed a fascist dictatorship, with himself as conducător (supreme leader).

Romanian–Nazi Alliance

German troops were allowed to enter Romania in October 1940, and in June 1941 Antonescu joined Hitler’s anti-Soviet war. The results of this Romanian–Nazi alliance were gruesome, with over 200,000 Romanian Jews – mainly from newly regained Bessarabia – and 40,000 Roma deported to transit camps in Transdniestr and later murdered. After the war, Antonescu was turned over to the Soviet authorities who condemned him to death in a show trial.

As the war went badly and the Soviet army approached Romania’s borders, on 23 August 1944 an opportunistic Romania suddenly changed sides again, joining the Soviet and Western alliance, by capturing the 53,159 German soldiers stationed in Romania and declaring war on Nazi Germany. By this dramatic act, Romania salvaged its independence and shortened the war. By 25 October the combined Romanian and Soviet armies had driven the Hungarian and German forces out of Transylvania, replacing the valued territory back under Romanian control. And the cost? About 500,000 Romanian soldiers died fighting for the Axis powers, and another 170,000 died after Romania joined the Allies.

Romanian People's Republic

Of all the countries that burst forward into the mass-industrialised, communist experiment in the 20th century, Romania and Russia were the least prepared, both being overwhelmingly rural, agricultural countries. Prior to 1945 Romania’s Communist Party had no more than 1000 members. Its postwar ascendancy, which saw membership soar to 710,000 by 1947, was a consequence of backing from Moscow. The Soviet-engineered return of Transylvania greatly enhanced the prestige of the left-wing parties, which won the parliamentary elections in November 1946. A year later Prime Minister Petru Groza forced King Michael to abdicate (allegedly by holding the queen mother at gunpoint), the monarchy was abolished and a Romanian People’s Republic was proclaimed. The year 1948 saw a shift to collectivisation – the process by which industry was redesigned as a state farm, and villagers were ripped from their ancestral land and forced to live in dehumanising city high-rises.

A period of terror ensued in which all the prewar leaders, prominent intellectuals and suspected dissidents were imprisoned or interned in hard-labour camps. The most notorious prisons were in Piteşti, Gherla, Sighetu Marmaţiei and Aiud. Factories and businesses were nationalised, and in 1953 a new Slavicised orthography was introduced to obliterate all Latin roots of the Romanian language, while street and town names were changed to honour Soviet figures. Braşov was renamed Oraşul Stalin. Romania’s loyalty to Moscow continued until Soviet troops withdrew in 1958, and after 1960 the country adopted an independent foreign policy under two ‘national’ communist leaders, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (leader from 1952 to 1965) and his protégé Nicolae Ceauşescu (leader from 1965 to 1989). By 1962 the communist state controlled 77% of Romania's land.

Ceauşescu famously refused to assist the Soviets in their 1968 armed ‘intervention’ in Czechoslovakia, his public condemnation earning him 'maverick' status in the West and more than US$1 billion in US-backed credits in the decade that followed. And when Romania condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and participated in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games despite a Soviet-bloc boycott, Ceauşescu was officially decorated by Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

Ceauşescu & the Grand Delusion

It's all but impossible to fully appreciate how hard life became under the megalomaniacal 25-year dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife Elena. Political freedom was verboten, as was freedom of the media (ownership of a typewriter could be punishable by death). TV and radio programs entirely revolved around the personality cult of their venerable leader; the brainwashing of the population even stretched its tentacles into schools. In the 1980s, in his attempts to eliminate a $10 billion foreign debt and impress the world, Ceauşescu exported Romania’s food while his own people were forced to ration even staple goods. Unless you were a high-ranking member of the Communist Party you had to queue for two hours for basics such as milk and potatoes, returning to a house where electricity was turned off to save energy.

Along with bugged phones and recorded conversations there were strict curfews. Few of the dictator's sinister schemes were more frightening than the pro-birth campaign, designed to increase the working population from 23 to 30 million. In 1966 it was decreed: 'The fetus is the property of the entire society…' A celibacy tax was charged on offenders with up to 10% of their monthly wages docked until they had children. Romania's birth rate predictably swelled, with the country's infant-mortality rate soaring to 83 deaths in every 1000 births. Women under the age of 45 were rounded up at their workplaces and examined for signs of pregnancy (in the presence of government agents – dubbed the 'menstrual police'). Many fled to Hungary, leaving a legacy of millions of hungry orphans – many with serious developmental problems – to the outrage of the international community when the story broke in 1990.

The Securitate (Secret Police) was Ceauşescu's chief instrument and it ruled with an iron hand, proliferating paranoia and fear, delivering torture and threatening to place people on its infamous 'blacklist'. Estimates suggest that as many as one person in 30 had been recruited as a Securitate by the 1980s – many Romanians couldn't trust their own families for fear of them being informers. Worse still, many of them were children. In March 1987 Ceauşescu embarked on 'Systematisation', a rural urbanisation program that would see the total destruction of 8000 villages (mainly in Transylvania) and the resettlement of their (mainly Hungarian) inhabitants into ugly apartment blocks.

The 1989 Revolution

In late 1989, as the world watched the collapse of one communist regime after another, it seemed only a matter of time before Romania’s turn would come. The Romanian revolution was carried out with Latin passion and intensity – of all the Soviet bloc countries, only Romania experienced a government transfer that ended with a dead leader. The spark that ignited Romania occurred on 15 December 1989 when Father László Tökés publicly condemned the dictator from his Hungarian church in Timişoara, prompting the Reformed Church of Romania to remove him from his post. Police attempts to arrest demonstrating parishioners failed and within days the unrest had spread across the city, leading to some 115 deaths. Ceauşescu proclaimed martial law in Timiş County and dispatched trainloads of troops to crush the rebellion. The turning point came on 19 December when the army in Timişoara went over to the side of the demonstrators.

On 21 December, anti-Ceauşescu demonstrators in Bucharest interrupted an address by Ceauşescu to a mass rally intended to shore up support for the dictator. They booed and shouted ‘Timişoara!’. This moment is often seen as the decisive turning point in the country. The demonstrators retreated to the wide boulevard between Piaţa Universităţii and Piaţa Romană – only to be crushed a couple of hours later by police gunfire and armoured cars. Drenched by ice-cold water from fire hoses, they refused to submit, erecting barricades, under the eyes of Western journalists in the adjacent Hotel Inter-Continental. At 11pm the police began their assault using a tank to smash through the barricades, and by dawn the square had been cleared of debris and the corpses of insurgents. Estimates vary, but at least 1033 were killed.

The following morning thousands more demonstrators took to the streets, and a state of emergency was announced. Around noon Ceauşescu reappeared briefly on the balcony of the Central Committee building to try to speak again, only to be forced to flee by helicopter from the roof of the building. Ceauşescu and his wife Elena were arrested near Târgovişte and taken to a military base there. On 25 December, they were condemned by an anonymous court and executed by a firing squad. Footage of the Ceauşescu family’s luxury apartments broadcast on TV showed pure-gold food scales in the kitchen and rows of diamond-studded shoes in Elena’s bedroom.

While these events had all the earmarks of a people’s revolution, many scholars have advanced the notion that they were just as much the result of a coup d’état: the Communist Party, tired of having to bow down to Ceauşescu, had been planning an overthrow for months. Communist bystanders quickly came to power following Ceauşescu’s fall, calling themselves the ‘National Salvation Front’ (FSN). Not until 2004 did Romania have a president who was not a former high-ranking communist.

Attempts at Democracy

The years immediately following the revolution were rocky and the future was uncertain. The National Salvation Front took immediate control of the country. In May 1990 it won the first democratic elections since 1946, placing Ion Iliescu, a Communist Party member since the age of 14, at the helm as president. Protests ensued, but Iliescu sent in 20,000 coal miners to violently quash them. Iliescu was nonetheless re-elected in 1992 as the head of a coalition government under the banner of the Party of Social Democracy. New name, same policies. Market reforms remained nowhere in sight. In 1993 subsidies on food, transportation and energy were scrapped, prompting higher prices and widespread unemployment.

Iliescu was ousted in the 1996 presidential elections by an impoverished populace, who ushered in Emil Constantinescu, leader of the right-of-centre election alliance Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR), as president. Constantinescu’s reform-minded government made entry into NATO and the European Union (EU) its stated priorities, together with fast-paced structural economic reform, the fight against corruption and improved relations with Romania’s neighbours, especially Hungary.

Scandal and corruption surrounded the November 2000 electoral race. In May of that year the National Fund for Investment (NFI) collapsed. Thousands of investors – mainly pensioners who’d deposited their life savings into the government fund – took to the streets to demand their cash back (US$47.4 million, long squandered by the NFI).

After Constantinescu refused to run in the 2000 elections, Iliescu retook the helm as the country’s president and his Social Democrat Party (PSD) formed a minority government, with Adrian Nastase as prime minister. The 2004 elections were marred by accusations of electoral fraud, and there were two rounds of voting before centre-right politician and former Bucharest mayor Traian Băsescu was announced the winner, with 51% of the vote. The PNL (National Liberal Party) leader, Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, became prime minister and swore in a new coalition that excluded the PSD.

The government’s main goal, aside from addressing the many domestic issues, was integration with international bodies, most notably the EU. In 2002 Romania was invited to join NATO. Romania (and Bulgaria) finally joined the EU in 2007, their membership having been delayed by Romania’s record of organised crime, corruption and food safety. Brussels would continue to be a big supporter of Romania’s EU cause, granting billions of euros towards infrastructure, business development, environmental protection and social services.

Băsescu re-nominated the leader of the Democratic Liberal party, Emil Boc, as prime minister in December 2009, following which a coalition government of the Democrat Liberals and the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) was formed. Boc resigned in 2012 after street protests and increasing pressure from the opposition to call early elections. He was followed briefly by Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu, who was later trounced by Victor Ponta, leader of the Social Democratic Party, who formed a coalition with the National Liberal Party.

Trouble at the Top

The union of Băsescu as president and Ponta as prime minister was rocky from the start. Ponta went on to accuse Băsescu of breaching the constitution. Among his assertions, Ponta accused the president of pressuring prosecutors in legal cases and abusing his control of the secret service. Băsescu, in turn, accused Ponta of engineering a coup d’état. The conflict came to a head in the summer of 2012, when Ponta and his allies called for a national referendum to impeach Băsescu. The referendum failed because fewer than 50% of voters went to the polls.

Ponta was dogged by scandals of his own, including allegations he plagiarised his doctoral thesis at university. Băsescu went on to serve until the end of his term in 2014. Ponta eventually ran for president to succeed him, but was narrowly defeated at the polls in November of that year by the centre-right candidate, Klaus Iohannis. Ponta's career ended in disgrace after he was forced to resign in 2015 in the wake of the 'Colectiv' nightclub fire in October in which more than 60 people died.

Iohannis, an ethnic German and former mayor of Sibiu, ran on the familiar theme of anticorruption and won overwhelming support from the country's young people. At the time of writing the jury is still out on whether he will succeed where his predecessors have failed. His first major act in office was to launch a massive anticorruption campaign, which resulted in the jailing of mayors, judges and businessmen around the country.