Romania’s Phanariote and Greek Revolution connection

Following his visit to Transylvania, Billy Cotsis delves into the long-standing connection between Romania and Greece

The warmth of the people and the picturesque rural towns of Romania reminded me of Greece when I visited. Add in a similar religion and a shared history of Ottoman occupation and it is easy to understand that Romania is not too dissimilar to Greece.

Under the Ottomans, there were areas of that empire that were either self-governed or controlled outright by Greeks. In fact, the early Ottomans are more benign than many have given them credit for. Greeks prospered as they generally had a good handle on commerce and merchant trading. In Constantinople, Greeks continued the level of schooling and education that was standard during the Byzantine epoch. In an area of the great city called Phanor, you could find thousands of Greeks. A class of bureaucrats emerged. They became known as the Phanariotes; they would become the rulers of the Romanian provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia.

Wallachia, known locally as Valahia, was formed in the late medieval period, probably in the early 1200s, and is sandwiched between the Carpathian Mountains and the Danube. Along the Danube and its hinterland, Byzantine Greek settlements and forts were found there in the fifth and sixth centuries AD.

Over the next 700 years, the area was fought over by Avars, Pechenegs, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Byzantine Greek forces and Mongols before the Ottomans arrived in 1417.

Wallachia and Moldovia were ruled by a prince and below him were the boyars – both roles conferred by the sultan. Their territories were feudal and the vast majority of the population were peasants bound to work on the land.

Wallachia was closer to the road to Constantinople and the Black Sea, making Greek influence a certainty. Moldavia was to the north, contained fewer Greek speakers and was prone to influence from Russia.

I should also point out that a number of ancient cities are found on the Black Sea coast; the city of Constanta (ancient Greek colony Tomis) contained a sizeable Greek minority until last century, with 29 per cent of the population at one stage. Today Greek speakers in Constanta number in the hundreds.
Wallachia and Moldavia were host to a number of noble families. One of these was the Byzantine nobility of the Cantacuzino (Kantakouzenos). Not content with having accelerated Byzantine decline in the 1300s through a series of disastrous wars; a branch of the family had made their way to the region upon the fall of Constantinople hoping to continue their noble existence.

In 1593, Michael the Brave, who was half-Greek through his mother Theodora Cantacuzino, came to power in Wallachia with the blessing of the Ottomans. Within a few months he had turned against the sultan and declared Wallachia independent, with the support of neighbouring Catholic kingdoms. In 1600 he managed to gain control of Moldavia and Transylvania. This was the first time a unified Romania was created. The name by the way, can be seen as a reference to Rome, and also to Rûm, a medieval name for the Greek speakers.

Unfortunately, Michael was unable to hold them for long and he was assassinated in 1601 as he sought to regain control of Transylvania.
Despite his willingness to break free of the Ottomans and unite Romania, Michael passed a law that officially tied peasants to the estates of nobility. Hence, romantics should always tread with caution when elevating rulers, for the peasants became more impoverished.

The Cantacuzino family helped George Doukas ascend to the title of Prince of Wallachia between 1673 – 78 before a falling out. Doukas was replaced by Șerban Cantacuzino who reigned for a decade. Serban was notable for planning a coalition with Catholic powers to invade Constantinople, though it never came to fruition. It would have been interesting to see how the coalition would have fared with a surprise attack. Upon his death or possible murder, he was replaced by Constantin Brâncoveanu, who lasted until 1714. He was related to the Cantacuzino clan, however, it is difficult to ascertain how ‘Greek’ he was. What he did have in common with his predecessor was the willingness to stir up a possible campaign against the sultan. He also approached Russia, which became known in Constantinople. The sultan quickly brought his reign and life to an end.

His immediate replacement was Stefan Cantacuzino who would be executed in Constantinople two years later.

There is a theme covering the Cantacuzino reign. They never seem to have made it to a natural end in their lives!

The sultan, having had enough of the Romanian/Greek intrigue from Wallachia and also Moldavia, put an end to the local prince system which was nominally elected by local Boyar nobility. Probably a fine idea except he brought in Greeks from the Phanar area of Constantinople. Clearly a lesson was not learnt.

Nicholas Mavrocordatos was the first Phanariote to rule, and proved to be loyal. He unsuccessfully fought the invading Hapsburgs and sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire proper. He quickly returned to Bucharest and killed those Romanians whom he felt were traitors only to be captured and held prisoner on behalf of the Austrians.

His brother John then reigned until Nicholas was returned to power in 1719 when the Ottomans concluded peace with the Hapsburgs. Nicholas ruled until 1730 and his son took his place until 1769.

The key elements of rule by Mavrocordatos was the promotion of Greek culture; from Constantinople they brought into the principalities as much Greek influence as they could muster. This included Greek fashion, increased promotion of the language, costumes, and Hellenic style customs, while building a number of Greek Orthodox churches. Nicholas wrote the first Greek novel, Philothea Parerga (The Leisures of Philotheos). Importantly, he abolished serfdom and sought to have his people as educated as possible. It should be noted that the Greek culture was already noticeable prior to the Phanariote era: they simply elevated it to a level that was just below local culture.

By the late 1700s, Russia had gained a strong foothold in the Romanian lands due to their temporary occupation and almost continual state of war with the Ottomans. This helped the Phanariotes even further: by the end of the century they were starting to support the emergence of the secret revolutionary society Philiki Eteria.

The emergence of Napoleon ensured the sultan relied more on Russia and the Greek Phanariotes to keep the principalities under nominal control. In 1802, the sultan allowed the term of a prince to be a minimum of seven years and could only be dismissed upon consultation with the Russian Ambassador in Constantinople.

In 1812, Russia gained sections of the Danube and part of Moldavia between the two rivers Pruth and Dniester.

The Ypsilanti family at this time were the effective rulers of Wallachia, with Alexander strongly in favour of the independence movement which had grown from a light breeze to something stronger. It is interesting that the family originated from Trebizond, hence a strong feeling of anti-Ottoman resentment was felt. Trebizond was a Greek majority city ruled by the sultan.

Some might ask the question, ‘why on earth would one want to give up the good life for a Greek uprising that had no guarantee of success?’ After all, many a revolution had occurred in Greek history only for the heroes to become oppressors once the threat was over. Look at the Spartan Empire in the Fourth Century BCE when oligarchs were installed across conquered lands. It is probable that the Ypsilatis were genuine in their desire to see the Greeks rise again. Perhaps the Pontic spirit was the true guide. Greeks were educated, had a long history, and had proven themselves capable in the principalities, more or less. It is perhaps the education and enlightenment of the ancestors of Homer and Aristotle that longed to be free of any overlord.
Alexander was succeeded by his son (Constantine) and grandson by the time the 1821 uprising took place. This said grandson was a name that will forever be remembered in Greek folklore: Alexander Ypsilantis.

The young Alexander fought in the service of the Tsar for over a decade, helping turn the tide against Napoleon. He was promoted to the rank of general before making his way back to Bucharest by around 1820. He became the leader of Philiki Eteria. I should volunteer that I once visited the main house of the Eteria in Odessa, Ukraine which is now a museum preserving the revolutionary history.

By the end of the year, Alexander thought he could muster Romanians as well as Greeks in the principalities and from across Europe. Romanians were not enthused by helping Greeks; they had not suffered unduly by the Ottomans who did not keep any troops stationed past the Danube. With the Tsar offering no support, Ypsilanti nonetheless pressed ahead with his plans. Unfortunately, a 30,000 military contingent crossed the Danube on orders of the sultan. Rather than meet them before they crossed into the principalities, Alexander fell back on a defensive position with his limited forces. Hence, whilst the revolution was declared in March, by June the Greek leader had been completely defeated. Further ignominy was heaped upon him by the Tsar who stripped him of his Russian military rank.

There was not yet a concept of Greece as defined by modern boundaries. Ypsilanti, had he been successful, would have resurrected a Greek entity that was far from the Greek heartland. It is probable that up to 10 per cent of the population was Greek; not enough to have a viable Greek country in the long term.

Trivia note: the town of Ypsilanti in the US is named after Alexander’s brother Demetrios, a hero of the Greek Revolution.

As the Greek Revolution was now in full swing in the Morea, one could historically count 31 Greek Phanariote princes across the Principalities. They were drawn from less than ten families. An impressive figure that demonstrates how far Greeks had come since the end of the Byzantine Empire. The Greek princes had governed almost as if they were practising for a new Byzantium. It helped that the Ottomans trusted the princes, were scared of Russia and of Napoleon and did not keep troops on the ground. Ironically, Napoleon is said to have been from a Greek village in Corsica, though this is a story for another day!

* Billy Cotsis is the writer of ‘From Pyrrhus to Cyprus Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities & a Fiefdom’.