Romania Table of Contents

No written or architectural evidence bears witness to the presence of "proto-Romanians" the lands north of the Danube during the millennium after Rome's withdrawal from Dacia. This fact has fueled a centuries-long feud between Romanian and Hungarian historians over Transylvania. The Romanians assert that they are the descendants of Latin-speaking Dacian peasants who remained in Transylvania after the Roman exodus, and of Slavs who lived in Transylvania's secluded valleys, forests, and mountains, and survived there during the tumult of the Dark Ages. Romanian historians explain the absence of hard evidence for their claims by pointing out that the region lacked organized administration until the twelfth century and by positing that the Mongols destroyed any existing records when they plundered the area in 1241. Hungarians assert, among other things, that the Roman population quit Dacia completely in 271, that the Romans could not have made a lasting impression on Transylvania's aboriginal population in only two centuries, and that Transylvania's Romanians descended from Balkan nomads who crossed northward over the Danube in the thirteenth century and flowed into Transylvania in any significant numbers only after Hungary opened its borders to foreigners.

The Magyars' Arrival in Transylvania

In 896 the Magyars, the last of the migrating tribes to establish a state in Europe, settled in the Carpathian Basin. A century later their king, Stephen I, integrated Transylvania into his Hungarian kingdom. The Hungarians constructed fortresses, founded a Roman Catholic bishopric, and began proselytizing Transylvania's indigenous people. There is little doubt that these included some Romanians who remained faithful to the Eastern Orthodox Church after the East-West Schism. Stephen and his successors recruited foreigners to join the Magyars in settling the region. The foreign settlers included people from as far off as Flanders; Szeklers, a Magyar ethnic group; and even Teutonic Knights returned from Palestine, who founded the town of Brasov before a conflict with the king prompted their departure for the Baltic region in 1225. Hungary's kings reinforced the foreigners' loyalty by granting them land, commercial privileges, and considerable autonomy. Nobility was restricted to Roman Catholics and, while some Romanian noblemen converted to the Roman rite to preserve their privileges, most of the Orthodox Romanians became serfs.

In 1241 the Mongols invaded Transylvania from the north and east over the Carpathians. They routed King Béla IV's forces, laid waste Transylvania and central Hungary, and slew much of the populace. When the Mongols withdrew suddenly in 1242, Béla launched a vigorous reconstruction program. He invited more foreigners to settle Transylvania and other devastated regions of the kingdom, granted loyal noblemen lands, and ordered them to build stone fortresses. Béla's reconstruction effort and the fall of the Árpád Dynasty in 1301 shifted the locus of power in Hungary significantly. The royal fortunes declined, and rival magnates carved out petty kingdoms, expropriated peasant land, and stiffened feudal obligations. Transylvania became virtually autonomous. As early as 1288 Transylvania's noblemen convoked their own assembly, or Diet. Under increasing economic pressure from unrestrained feudal lords and religious pressure from zealous Catholics, many Romanians emigrated from Transylvania eastward and southward over the Carpathians.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress