Those that lived in the dark woods and mountains to the north of the Danube had long remained on the edge of autonomy. The Romans had defeated the ancient Dacians of today’s Romania in 106 AD, but the new Roman province of Dacia only incorporated part of these lands. As Germanic tribes swept into this region in the 3rd century, the Romans pulled out. Local rule persisted for centuries, with semi-regular foreign incursions, until the Danubian Principalities, Moldavia to the north and Wallachia to the south, became independent in the mid-14th century.

Italian Map of Wallachia and Moldavia by G. Pittori, 1782.jpg
Italian Map of Wallachia (South) and Moldavia (North) from 1782

It was in the 15th century, however, that these two principalities began their unique relationship with the Ottoman Empire that defined the two principalities for nearly four centuries and left its mark on the region, culture, and people.

Vlad III Dracula, the Impaler
Vlad III Dracula, known as “the Impaler,” Voivode of Wallachia

As the Ottoman Empire defeated all of the various states in the Balkans, its borders expanded northward. Soon Ottoman armies were at the Danube and Wallachia’s voivodes, or princes, were fighting for their lives. By the mid-15th century Wallachia was paying tribute to the Ottoman sultan and Wallachian royal children, including the future Vlad the Impaler (r. 1448, 1456-1462, 1476), were sent to the Ottoman court as hostages.

But it wasn’t just Ottoman domination of Wallachia from hereon out. Wallachian voivodes often rebelled. For example, Vlad received his nickname from having had his enemies, including Ottomans, impaled on stakes. It was often a fine line between bowing to the sultan and fighting against him.

In 1476 and 1538, Wallachia and Moldavia respectively became Ottoman vassals. They were theoretically autonomous in all but their foreign policy. Along with the Crimean Khanate, they were the only regions to maintain a degree of autonomy throughout the Ottoman period. In comparison, all of the other Balkan states had been annexed directly by the Ottomans. But this loose form of administration did not preclude rebellions. Perhaps the greatest was under Michael the Brave (r. 1593-1601), who united Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia and posed a real challenge to Ottoman authority. But when he was assassinated in 1601, the Danubian principalities were right back where they started.

Constantine Mourouzis, Voivode of Moldavia 1777-82
Constantine Mourouzis, One of the Phanariote Voivodes of Moldavia (r. 1777-1782)

In the 17th century, large numbers of Greeks and Levantines moved to Wallachia and Moldavia, developing a strong presence there that would be especially important later. Meanwhile the periodic rebellions against Ottoman authority continued: in coordination with Transylvania in 1658-1659, with Austria around 1690, and Russia in 1710-1711. The Ottomans had enough and in 1711 and 1714 respectively, they did away with the local election of the voivode and instead installed Phanariotes, prominent Greeks from the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, as voivodes. This was an attempt to create ethnic and loyalty divisions in the Danubian principalities. The voivodes now depended on the Ottoman sultan for their power, not the local nobles. Uprisings did still flare up, but they were less frequent.

A new dimension in Danubian-Phanariote-Ottoman relations emerged in the early 19th century. An uprising in 1821 by Tudor Vladimirescu was aimed primarily not against the Ottomans, but against the ruling Phanariotes. Alexander Ypsilantis, the leader of the Greek revolutionary society the Filiki Eteria, ended this rebellion and later betrayed and killed Vladimirescu. Ypsilantis launched the Greek War of Independence from the Danubian Principalities, where he received support from the local Phanariotes, but not the local Wallachians or Moldavians. Ironically the Greek War of Independence, despite having lacked much Danubian support, scored major improvements for the Principalities. The Ottomans removed the Phanariotes from power and let local nobles rule once again. In the Treaty of Adrianople in 1829, the Danubian Principalities were placed under Russian military occupation, although they theoretically were still Ottoman vassals.

It would take rebellions against Russia, the union of the two principalities under Alexandru Ioan Cuza, and a war with Russia against the Ottoman Empire for Romania to emerge as an independent state. The unique Ottoman experience of the Danubian Principalities, from rebellions to Phanariotes, shaped the future country of Romania and when it did emerge at the end of the 19th century, its national memories were replete with heroic battles of late medieval voivodes against the Ottomans, life as Ottoman vassals, and the rule of the Phanariotes.