Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Lecture 8: National revival in Romania, 1848-1866

Previous lecture / Complete list of lectures / Next lecture

Romania's path of revolutionary change in some ways resembles that of Hungary. This is surprising at first glance, because Romania developed under Ottoman and not Habsburg control. However, when revolution came to Romania in 1848, it was not directed primarily at Turkish landlords (as was the case in Serbia and Greece) nor did the revolutionaries have a goal like the revival of a Greek Empire in the East. The themes at work were far more reflective of themes from Western Europe.

In addition, Romanian efforts at independence were complicated deeply by Western European "Great Power" diplomacy. The lands inhabited by Romanians fell into the spheres of influence of three Powers. Turkey dominated Moldavia and Wallachia. Transylvania was part of the Habsburg Empire, and the object of territorial claims by Hungary. The Bessarabian district north of the River Pruth was claimed by Russia. This area, part of which is the present-day Republic of Moldova, had strategic importance because it touched the mouth of the Danube River. To achieve independence, Romanians had to negotiate the thickets of the international "Eastern Question" -- the Great Power debate over the future of the Balkans -- and this situation led to extensive involvement by Western European states.

We will spend most of our time on Moldavia and Wallachia, because it was there that national self-awareness grew among the boyars, the most privileged class of Romanians. Three things had to happen to create a national movement: Romanians had to become aware of their own ethnic identity, they had to accept the idea of self-determination, and they had to find opportunities to overcome their powerful neighbors.


Recall that the modern Romanians emerge from historical obscurity in the late Middle Ages. We should note one figure from that earlier era. Between 1593 and 1601 Prince Michael the Brave of Wallachia briefly took control of both Wallachia and Moldavia. Just as Greek nationalists remember Byzantium and Serbs remember the medieval empire of Stefan Dushan, Romanians have looked back to Michael as a figure who united most Romanians in a single state, and defied Ottoman rule. His legendary and symbolic status matters more than specific facts.

In the 1400s and 1500s, the Turks fought the Romanians and imposed increasing levels of tribute as the price of peace. By the early 1600s, the sultans were taking two-thirds of the revenue of the principalities. In addition to taxes, Ottoman officials exacted "gifts" whenever a new prince came to the throne in Wallachia or Moldavia. To get more gifts, the Ottomans arranged to appoint new rulers as often as possible. These areas were fertile and the Turks demanded tribute in kind, such as thousands of sheep sold every year at a fixed low price to provide meat for the poor in Istanbul.

These Ottoman demands shaped Romania's social structure and created socio-economic problems which lasted into the 20th century. At the top of society were the hospodars or princes, elected by the local "boyar" nobles from among their own ranks but confirmed by the Ottomans. The princes had little real power. A typical prince paid exorbitant bribes to secure his office, then milked as much money out of his province as possible before another prince replaced him. Over time, the average tenure in office gradually fell from eight years to three or four.

Below the princes were the other boyars. Originally they had been elected as village headmen, but the power of the princes increased during the wars of the 1500s and later boyars were appointed by the prince. By doing the bidding of the princes and Turks, these local notables grew into something like a nobility. Dues and taxes paid by peasants went through their hands, and would-be princes bribed them to win their votes. The boyars grew rich on income coming from both sides. When the livestock trade (and later the grain trade) became profitable, the boyars grew rich as middlemen.

At the bottom of the social pyramid were the peasants. Peasants had always owed part of their crops and labor as dues to support local churches and medieval administrative institutions. The boyars gradually claimed control of these dues for themselves. When peasants began to leave their villages to escape excessive taxes, Michael the Brave introduced legal serfdom in 1600, binding families to their land. By the 1700s, peasants owed as much as 17 days' free labor each year to the local boyar, but the boyars increased the legal definition of a day's work until it took some 40 days per year to satisfy the requirement. Legal serfdom was abolished in 1749, but the boyars converted the old dues into high rents: peasants were soon in debt, and were forbidden to leave until they could pay what they owed.

Sources of nationalism

Until the 1700s, Romanian personal identity was defined by village residence, religion (Orthodox vs. Muslim), and class (boyar vs. peasant). Awareness of national ethnic identity grew through the influence of internal and external factors. An early step was awareness of conflicts with the Greek Phanariots. The princely hospodars were elected from the boyar class, but in 1711 the Moldavian prince collaborated with an invading Russian army. To punish this disloyalty, the sultan stopped selecting Romanian boyars as princes and turned instead to the Phanariot Greeks. In the 1600s, Greeks already occupied many church posts in Romania. Romania was Orthodox but church services were conducted in Old Church Slavonic, not in Greek. The new Greek hospodars now abolished the Slavonic Church liturgy. This move backfired. Greeks filled the upper ranks of the clergy and the monasteries, but there were not enough Greek-speaking priests to fill all the rural parishes, and so the new rule led to wider use of the Romanian language as a replacement for Slavonic. This trend developed a crucial linguistic element of Romanian national revival.

The imposition of foreign Greek princes and the growth of Greek merchants as commercial competitors also led the boyars to a sense of their own shared ethnicity, moving beyond their prior sense of shared class interest. In the 1700s, national awareness was a phenomenon of the rural ruling class, not city dwellers, because Greek culture dominated the towns. With increasing wealth, the boyars sought a model for a more sophisticated way of life. They rejected the dominant Greek and Ottoman cultural milieus. Instead they looked abroad, first for luxury goods such as furniture but later for ideas too.

Russia offered them one alternative. Russian troops occupied the principalities from 1769-1774. The boyars became familiar with the idea of a powerful Orthodox country that was not Greek, and the 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji created a legal role for Russia in Romanian affairs. Russia gained the right to monitor and guarantee the religious freedoms and basic rights of the sultan's Christian subjects, and Russian merchants got the right to do business in the region.

Thanks to their Latin-based language, Romanians found a second alternative cultural model in Italy. In the later 1700s some Uniate Catholic Romanians from Transylvania went to Rome to study with the Jesuits. They learned enough about the Roman history of Dacia to identify themselves as descendants of the Latin-speaking Romans. Trajan's Column especially excited them, with its images of the Dacians and the Roman conquest of the Romanian region. Literate Romanians soon gave up the Cyrillic alphabet in favor of the Latin, and purged the language of Greek and Slavic loan-words.

Friction with Magyars in Transylvania was a third source of nationalist sentiment. In the 1800s, ambitious Romanians often left Transylvania because of the growth of Hungarian national chauvinism. Better educated than most Romanians in the Principalities, these immigrants supplied the majority of school teachers for Wallachia and Moldavia. Their background made them advocates of Romanian ethnic rights and unification of the Romanian people.

A fourth model was France. Russian officers spoke French and introduced French culture during their occupation of the area, and some Romanian students went to Paris. Romanians identified with France as another civilization with Roman roots, and paid close attention to the French Revolution and Napoleon. Among French ideas, the ideal of nationalism had special appeal. In the 1820s and 1830s, Romanian students identified with insurgent peoples like the Italians and Poles. Because Russia opposed various Polish uprisings, Romanian interest in the Russian model waned while sympathy for France grew.

The Greek Revolution

The Greek Revolution had a strong impact on Romania. The events of 1821 made it clear that the Romanian boyars wanted to follow their own interests, not exchange Turkish rule for Greek rule.

An important result of the Greek revolt was the restoration of the office of hospodar to Romanian hands, as the Turks reacted to Greek disloyalty. When the war of Greek independence ended with the Treaty of Adrianople in 1829, the Russians secured important provisions for Romania. Divans, or councils of boyars, became part of the administration. Princes would be elected by the boyars for set terms of seven years, increasing their autonomy. The divans were also ordered to draw up two new constitutions (called Organic Statutes) for Wallachia and Moldavia. The new Organic Statutes of 1831 and 1832 firmly established new powers for the boyars. In each province, a legislature of boyars was to make the laws, subject only to veto by the hospodars, who faced periodic election by boyars.

The boyars also cemented their control over land. Until this time, the boyars were limited in law to "usufruct" rights, that is, ownership of peasant produce but not the land itself. The boyars now claimed full proprietary ownership of all estates. Peasants became sharecroppers, supporting themselves off two-thirds of the land. As rent, they now owed as much as 84 days' free labor on the other third of the estate for the landlord's benefit. Boyars paid no taxes and were now in position to profit from growing agricultural exports to Western Europe.

The Organic Statutes didn't unify the two principalities but laid important foundations for a later unification. The two provinces shared identical government structures. In 1847 the two provinces became a Customs Union and it became easy for citizens of one area to become citizens of the other.

The ideas of 1848

By 1848, the Romanian upper class had control of the local government, a monopoly on domestic power and control of the country's land, the key to wealth. However, Liberals and revolutionaries wanted more. Secret societies like the Philharmonic Society of 1833 sought unification of the two provinces, a true constitution, free education and freedom of the press. These ideas reflected Western influences but ignored the needs of poor Romanian peasants. At most, groups like the"Brotherhood" society of 1843 were willing to concede legal equality for all Romanians: this was far short of a land reform or other measures creating social or economic equality.

Another consistent demand was true independence. A revolution that merely replaced Turkish rule with rule by Russia would be a failure. Russia was a special source of worry because the tsars used the special powers of the 1829 treaty to interfere in Romanian affairs. Russia claimed the right to veto any amendments to the Organic Statutes and tried to coerce commercial concessions for Russian companies. Such efforts attacked the new powers of the boyars, and made the boyars into potential supporters of revolutionary ideas.

1848 in Romania

Romanian students took part in the Paris revolutionary events of 1848, then returned to Romania. In April 1848 a thousand people assembled in Jassy, the Moldavian capital. Among them was Alexander Cuza, who later became ruler of the united principalities. He was typical of the 1848 revolutionaries: 28 years old, from a boyar family, educated in Paris. The crowd petitioned the prince for civil liberties, a wider franchise and administrative reforms. These demands might have been accepted but the document also required a new national assembly to replace the divan of boyars, and creation of a "citizen guard," two measures that implied a real shift of power. The prince had his militia arrest 300 people, and the leaders who escaped had to flee the country.

The revolution in Wallachia was more successful because it was better planned. A committee of intellectuals, liberal boyars and sympathetic army commanders placed deputies in various towns so that the June uprising began in several places at once. Among the plotters were members of the Bratianu family: Ion later became leader of the powerful Liberal Party. In 1848 he was 27 years old, another Paris-educated boyar. Faced with widespread unrest, the ruling prince agreed to a new constitution before fleeing Bucharest. The revolutionaries then adopted the constitution for themselves at a mass meeting. It included freedom of the press, equal civil rights for all (including Jews), an end to the privileges of the boyar class, complete internal legislative and administrative autonomy free of Ottoman interference, a responsible government answerable to a representative assembly, a wider franchise and a solution to the peasant problem. The regime asked for unification of the two provinces but did not demand formal independence from the Ottoman Empire.

These demands can be seen as falling into four areas:

1) civil liberties;

2) internal political changes;

3) social and economic reforms; and

4) independence from foreign rule.

The first two categories were less controversial than the latter two, which were unrealistic. Social and economic reforms struck at the well-being of the very boyar class whose support was needed to further political change, and the Great Powers would not consent to complete Romanian independence.

After a month of debate in the divans, the boyars accepted the civil liberties clauses. The franchise for elections to a national Constituent Assembly expanded to include free male Romanians aged 21 or over, who lived in towns (in other words, the rural peasants remained without the vote). There was no income qualification. Voters would elect delegates to county assemblies, from whose ranks the actual assembly delegates would be elected. Thus many Romanians would have some kind of vote, but the two-tiered process guaranteed that prominent notables would sit in the final assembly.

A committee of boyars and peasants looked at the question of peasant land. They agreed in principle that peasants should receive title to land in return for compensation to landlords, but could not agree on how much land or its value.

Before these class conflicts led to open strife, foreign interests stepped in to end the revolution. First, the Ottoman government refused to endorse a revolution that had obvious anti-Russian elements. When a delegation brought the new constitution to Istanbul to get the sultan's approval in August 1848, he refused to see them. A Turkish army was already camped in Wallachia; it was joined in September by a Russian force, and units from both powers then marched into Bucharest and put down the revolution. When the old regime was restored, it was altered to reduce the power of the boyars: princes were now to be appointed by the sultan and then approved by the Russian state, with no role for the Romanian assemblies.

After the revolution

Most of the Romanian leaders fled to Paris, where Napoleon III proved to be sympathetic to their goal of national unification and independence. By emphasizing national pride and patriotism, Napoleon III had rallied most of France around him even while he was dismantling the Republic achieved in 1848. The "nationality principle" was a useful tool for France to use against Habsburg influence in Italy and Germany, and he was willing to apply it to Romania as well.

At first, the "'48ers" (as they were called), found Napoleon III distasteful: his restoration of an imperial monarchy offended their Liberal sentiments. After a time, however, realism changed their minds. If Great Power influence had ended the 1848 Revolution, only Great Power counter-influence could restore it.

In the same vein, the '48ers made some hard choices about the program they would pursue at home. Most now opted for a much more limited goal: unification of the two principalities under a foreign prince who would be free of Ottoman and Russian influence. The Liberal civil liberties agenda and the socio-economic agenda of land reform were set aside, possibly to be pursued after Romania became a sovereign state and free of foreign interference.

The '48ers also decided that armed revolt was futile and chose to work within the system, both in the internal administration of the two provinces and especially in the international diplomatic arena. In 1848 the revolution had been put down by cooperation between Russians and Ottoman Turks. The new Romanian strategy involved waiting for an opportunity when Russia and Turkey were at odds. This was not such a wild plan: after all, Russia and Turkey had fought numerous wars, the latest only twenty years before. An independent Romania, especially one that seemed likely to be anti-Russian, could be acceptable to Turkey. Such a state might become a barrier against Russian invasions along the Black Sea coast.

The other Great Powers were also potential allies against Russia. Great Britain was never willing to accept too much Russian control over the small Balkan states that were replacing the Ottoman Empire. British policy reflected trade and commerce: it was important to keep Balkan markets open to British goods. The Eastern Mediterranean was also a strategic route connecting England with India. Austria also opposed too much Russian influence in the Balkans, partly for reasons of trade rivalry and partly to reduce the attraction of Russia for the Slavic minorities in the Habsburg Monarchy. France also had commercial reasons to resist too much Russian power, and the nationalist regime of Napoleon III was ideologically opposed to Russian autocracy.

The Crimean War

The opportunity for Romanian independence came during the Crimean War of 1853-56. The war pitted Russia against Turkey, England and France.

The crisis began over the symbolic issue of control of Christian Holy Places in Turkish-ruled Jerusalem. Orthodox and Catholic monks quarreled over issues like the possession of keys to locked shrines. Old treaties made Russia and France respectively the international guarantors of each side's rights. In 1852, Napoleon III tried to undo some advances made by Greek Orthodox monks over the years, as a way to distract French Catholic public opinion from resentment against his authoritarian government.

Because the dispute would be resolved at the highest levels of the Turkish government, it became a symbolic struggle for influence. Mistakes led to war. The Russians badly misjudged the other Powers: they failed to see that Britain could not accept a Russian victory, with its implications for control of Turkish policymakers. Tensions rose and both sides sent armed forces to advanced positions: withdrawal by one side then would have meant humiliation. A Russian army occupied the two Principalities, and the Russians failed to see that this act threatened Austria's Balkan interests. Russia expected gratitude from Vienna for its help against Hungary in 1849 but Austria refused to support Russia. With the support of the Western powers, the Turks refused to negotiate and declared war on Russia in 1853.

The Crimean War pulled in the Great Powers even though none of them wanted to go to war, because no one could come up with an acceptable solution to the complex problem of influence in the Balkans. This was not the last time the Balkans became a trap for the Great Powers.

For Romania, the key factor was the isolation of Russia. In 1854 Austria forced the Russians to evacuate the Principalities: Austria stepped in instead, as a neutral power. In 1856 the Allied powers took Sevastopol (the chief Russian port on the Black Sea,) and Tsar Nicholas I died. The new tsar (Alexander II) agreed to terms at the Treaty of Paris. Romania gained important freedoms from Russian domination:

1) the Danube was opened to shipping of all nations, and Southern Bessarabia (the north bank of the mouth of the Danube) became part of Moldavia and no longer part of Russia.

2) Russia lost her unilateral status as the protector of Romanian rights: instead, all the European powers assumed the role of guarantors of the treaty.

3) The two Romanian principalities remained under nominal Ottoman rule.

4) A European commission was set up to determine the basis for administration of the Principalities, in conference with an elected assembly in each province.

This was exactly the situation which Romanians needed. No single Power could now veto local developments.


Elections for constitutional assemblies were held in the summer of 1857. Turkish manipulation of the polls brought in anti-unionist majorities but the interference was so blatant that new elections were held in the fall. This time, assemblies elected in both provinces were pro-unification and promptly voted to unite Wallachia and Moldavia.

Several Powers supported unification by this time. France was one thanks to Napoleon III; Russia was another because of a new desire to curry favor with Romania. Britain and Austria, on the other hand, wanted the principalities to stay separate. Britain realized that unification would remove the area from Turkish control, and this was likely to reduce British influence. Austria feared that the Romanian minority inside the Habsburg Monarchy would be attracted to a unified Romanian state.

The recent assembly votes also contradicted the terms of the 1856 treaty: the Powers only allowed creation of parallel institutions and a joint Central Commission to deal with shared concerns. Each province would still elect its own prince and its own parliament.

The two parliaments were elected in the fall of 1858. When they convened in January and February of 1859, both bodies elected Alexander Cuza as prince for life. Napoleon III at once recognized Cuza. Austria was in no position to enforce its wishes with arms, because she was already on the verge of war in Italy against France and the Italian nationalists. Therefore it was agreed to treat this as an exception: Cuza would fill both offices for the time being, while in all other ways the two provinces would remain separate.

Cuza as prince

Cuza generally is not regarded as a brilliant politician, but he was smart enough to find bright advisors and ministers drawn from the Liberal movement. It might also be accurate to say that he listened well to the advice of those who placed him in power. He had not sought the office of prince, and had only been nominated after Liberals saw conservatives splitting their vote between rival boyar families.

Once in office, Cuza took several steps to bolster his position. In 1861 he persuaded the Ottomans to let him rule with a single unified parliament and cabinet for his lifetime, in recognition of the complexity of the task. Both Liberals and Conservatives in the two assemblies were willing to go along with this because all factions saw the single parliament as an important step toward national unification. Cuza, by his action, made himself personally indispensable for the continuation of that single parliament.

Cuza then addressed another issue, through which he could place himself at the front of boyar interests. Between a fourth and a third of Romania's arable land was controlled by Greek Phanariot "Dedicated Monasteries" whose produce supported Greek monks in shrines like Mount Athos and Jerusalem. These estates were tax-exempt and a substantial drain on state revenues. In 1863 Cuza expropriated these lands with the backing of the parliament. He offered compensation to the Greek Orthodox Church but the Patriarch refused to negotiate. This was a mistake: after several years the Romanian government withdrew its offer and no compensation was ever paid. State revenues thereby increased without adding any domestic tax burden.

Cuza then took up land reform. In doing so he seems to have imitated his sponsor Napoleon III, who secured the support of the French peasants by a land reform measure. Cuza soon found himself in conflict with conservative boyars. A Liberal bill granting peasants title to the land they worked was defeated. Conservatives responded with a bill that ended all peasant dues and responsibilities, but gave landlords title to all the land. Cuza vetoed the bill, then held a plebiscite to alter the constitution, again in imitation of Napoleon III. His plan, to establish universal male suffrage and the power of the prince to rule by decree, passed by a vote of 682,621 to 1,307. Cuza then promulgated the Agrarian Law of 1863. This effort to solve the peasant land question granted peasants freedom of movement and abolished all dues in labor and kind. Peasants received title to some of the land they workedL they shared in the division of up to two thirds of each estate, while landlords retained ownership of the other third. Where there was not enough land available to create farms of realistic size under this formula, state lands (from the Dedicated Monasteries) would be used. In return the boyars would receive payment from the state.

Cuza failed in his effort to create an alliance of prosperous peasants and a strong Liberal prince. Many peasants ended up with smaller farms made up of inferior land in scattered plots. Landlords arranged to keep the best land; they used the compensation fund as investment capital and emerged with new wealth from capitalist agriculture.

At the same time, the landlords resented Cuza's actions. Budget problems and a personal scandal involving his mistress eroded his popularity. In 1866 a group of army officers broke into the palace, forced Cuza to sign abdication papers, and then escorted him over the border into Austria. He never returned.

Ironically, Cuza's abdication accomplished one of the last goals of the '48ers: it led to rule by a foreign prince whose international ties would lend legitimacy to the ruling house. Cuza was replaced by Prince Charles of Hohenzollern, a 27-year old cousin of the King of Prussia. As Carol I, he ruled until 1914.

1866 and 1848

By 1866, roughly the same date as their Hungarian counterparts, the political descendants of the 1848 Romanian revolutionaries achieved most of their original goals. Civil liberties existed at least on paper. The country now had a constitutional government, a unified regime covering both Wallachia and Moldavia, and a ruling house with ties to an influential foreign dynasty. While Romania was technically a possession of Turkey, for all practical purposes it was independent. Only the goals of social and economic reform remained unmet. Cuza's effort to solve the rural land problem had done more for the landlords than the peasants. Nevertheless, only 18 years after the failed nationalist revolutions of 1848, Romanians had achieved the greater part of the revolutionary program.

Next lecture

This lecture is a portion of a larger Web site, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism); click here to return to the Table of Contents page.
This page created 8 November 1996; last modified 11 June 2009.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards