The region around the lower reaches of the Danube (the Dacia of the Roman empire) evolves during the medieval period into the two principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. From the late 15th century the principalities fall under Turkish dominion, though they are ruled in an arms-length manner from Istanbul – mainly by the device of appointing Greek administrators (known as Phanariots) to run the area in the Turkish interest.
By the second half of the 18th century the principalities are the border region between the Russian and Ottoman empires. In the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-74 they are occupied by Russia, on the first of many occasions which contribute to a steady increase in Russian influence.
The treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji in 1774 causes Russia to withdraw from the principalities but allows St Petersburg a continuing involvement in the area, which becomes virtually a Russian protectorate within the Ottoman empire. This relationship, interrupted from time to time by renewed Russian occupation during periods of war with Turkey, lasts for some eighty years.
The revolutionary spirit of 1848 leads to nationalist uprisings in both principalities, which are suppressed by the combined military intervention of Russia and Turkey. Five years later Russia occupies Moldavia and Wallachia (for the last time during the 19th century) in the build-up to the Crimean War.
After the defeat of Russia, the powers meeting in Paris in 1856 consider the future of Wallachia and Moldavia. With the approval of Turkey, the state councils of the two principalities are allowed to vote on their future.
In 1857 they opt for autonomy as a single and neutral principality while nevertheless remaining technically within the Turkish empire (a route already pioneered by Serbia). The name of their new state, reflecting their special link with the Roman empire and the Romance languages, is to be Romania.
Principality and kingdom: AD 1859-1916
The first prince to accept the Romanian throne, in 1859, is a Moldavian – Alexandru Ion Cuza. He introduces sweeping reforms (including emancipation of the serfs, seizure of church lands, and universal male suffrage modified only by the richer classes having more than one vote), but in doing so he alienates many powerful groups. In 1866 he is forced to abdicate.
His elected successor, Carol I, is a member of the German Hohenzollern dynasty. Under his rule the principality of Romania becomes a kingdom (in 1881), after he has gone to war as Russia’s ally against Turkey and the western powers have recognized (in 1878) the full independence of his nation.
As a small country among large and powerful neighbours, Romania is relatively helpless in international affairs. But the young nation has ambitions to recover regions historically linked with Wallachia and Moldavia. To the west is Transylvania – part of the Roman province of Dacia and home to many Romanians, but for centuries under the control of Hungary. To the northeast is Bessarabia, annexed in more recent times by Russia.
When World War I breaks out, these regions are baits offered by the competing alliances. The Central Powers promise Bessarabia once Russia is defeated. The Allies offer Transylvania from the anticipated ruins of Austria. Romania delays until 1916 and then joins the Allies.