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Origins

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Romanians/G. James Patterson

Romanians traditionally trace their origins to the Geto-Dacian tribes that inhabited the Roman imperial province of Dacia, which during the second and third centuries C.E. covered a large part of what is today central and southwestern Romania (historic Transylvania and western Walachia). When the Roman legions left, the Geto-Dacian tribes, who may have intermarried with the Roman military, took refuge in the Carpathian Mountains where they survived largely as pastoral herders and came to be known by several names – Vlachs, Arumanians, and Macedo-Romanians, among others. They were distinguished from other peoples in the Balkan peninsula primarily by their language. Romanian is a Romance language distantly related to Italian, and at least since the nineteenth century it has been written in the Roman alphabet.

It was not until the late thirteenth century that distinct state structures were formed in Romanian-inhabited lands, in particular Walachia and Moldavia. Transylvania, meanwhile, which was inhabited by Romanians as well as Hungarians (Magyars) and Germans (Transylvanian Saxons), functioned as a distinct administrative entity within the Kingdom of Hungary. By the early sixteenth century, Walachia and Moldavia were incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. Transylvania, too, came initially under Ottoman hegemony, although it later functioned as an independent principality before it was reincorporated into Habsburg-ruled Hungary in the early eighteenth century.

Like many other Balkan peoples, the Romanians experienced a national revival during the nineteenth century, which had as its goal liberation from Ottoman rule. Walachia and Moldavia (minus Bukovina and Bessarabia) first were united to form a single state (1862) which eventually was transformed into an independent kingdom (1878). Since this was the first sovereign Romanian state entity in modern times, it was later often referred to as the Old Kingdom.

The boundaries of Romania’s Old Kingdom expanded considerably at the close of World War I, when the country acquired Bessarabia from the Russian Empire as well as Transylvania, Bukovina, and the eastern Banat from Austria-Hungary. At the same time, Romanians in the western Banat found themselves within the borders of the new state of Yugoslavia. Inter-war Romania began as a constitutional monarchy but by the late 1930s was transformed into a fascist-style dictatorship. As an ally of Nazi Germany during World War II, Romania was able to survive as a state, although its borders changed radically. In the west it lost territory to Hungary (northern Transylvania), and in the east it acquired a large block of land from the Soviet Union (Transnistria).

When World War II ended, Romania’s pre-war western border was restored, but it lost Bessarabia, Transnistria, and northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union. Aside from border changes, Romania’s king was deposed and replaced by a Communist-led socialist republic that after 1945 was closely allied to the Soviet Union. Under Communist rule, Romania experienced a modest improvement in its economy, although this was accompanied by a totalitarian political regime that tried with much success to repress all means of expression that were not in full accord with Communist Party guidelines. By the 1980s, the centralized command economy was in rapid decline and Romania had become one of the poorest countries in Europe. When Communist rule disintegrated throughout the region in the course of 1989, at the very end of that year, Romania’s Communist head of state since 1965, Nicolae Ceauçescu, was killed in a bloody coup and replaced by a democratically elected government. Since that time, Romania has been trying to adopt a multi-party system of government and free-market economy. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, a second independent “Romanian” state came into existence. This was the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia, renamed Moldova, which covers most of historic eastern Moldavia, the former Russian province of Bessarabia.

Romanian culture has been strongly influenced by the various religious traditions that have evolved in different Romanian-inhabited territories. Romanians first accepted Christianity according to the Orthodox Eastern-rite that derived from Byzantium. By the fifteenth century, Moldavia and Walachia had their own Orthodox metropolitans (archbishops), although the church remained under the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople. On the other hand, the Romanian church and Romanian culture were influenced by their Slavic Orthodox neighbours so that the first Romanian books used the Cyrillic alphabet, a practice that did not die out until the nineteenth century. Finally, in 1885, a self-governing Romanian Orthodox Church with its own patriarch came into being.

Among Romanians living in Transylvania, another church was established when, between 1697 and 1700, several Orthodox bishops accepted the jurisdiction of the pope in Rome. The result was a Romanian Uniate/ Greek Catholic Church which continued to maintain Orthodox ritual but recognized the authority of the pope. Since Transylvania was under Hungarian rule until 1918, the Romanian Greek Catholic Church played an important role during the nineteenth century defending the Romanian language and culture at a time when the government promoted efforts to assimilate minority populations in Hungary. Because the Uniate/Greek Catholics were associated with the Vatican, when the Communists came to power in Romania after World War II, they forcibly liquidated the Greek Catholic Church. It has been revived only since the revolution of 1989.

Finally, Romania has been a home to Jews. In fact, until World War II, northern Moldavia and Bessarabia had some of the highest concentrations of Ashkenazic Jews anywhere in east-central Europe. During World War II, most Romanian Jews perished as a result of persecutions carried out by the fascist-led government of Romania.