Straddling the Black Sea and bounded by Hungary to the north, the Hellenic history of Romania piqued my curiosity and I decided to pay a visit. Greek history in Romania dates back over 2,700 years! Just don’t call them Eastern European…
When I interviewed Ramona, a friend of mine from Ploesti, a small inland city near Bucharest, for my article, it was made abundantly clear to me where they are geographically.
“Billy, we are not East European, we belong to the Romance languages; we are influenced by Greeks and Europe.” Geographically, Romania is actually on the eastern side, however, many people in this ancient country are quick to provide the same sentiment I encountered above.
What’s in a name?
Taking the name itself, some believe this is a place for Roma (gypsies), others will tell you they are named after Romans, whilst an ardent Greek like myself may tell you that the medieval name for a Greek was actually Romai, hence there is a connection to Byzantine Greece. Actually, the name Romania did not officially come into existence until 1861 and had only been referred to by that name in modern times, unofficially since the 1600s.
Romania is technically a coming together of Wallachia, Moldova and the famous state of Dracula, Transylvania, as well as other areas. Having the occasional night out in Romania, I can safely say Dracula wasn’t around during my visit. It is probable he has now retired as the taste of blood is no longer what it once was in Romania.
Oh, and Romania is not named after gypsies!
The ancient land of Romania and its surrounds was called Dacia and at one stage controlled a significant portion of the Balkans. The Greek colonies emerged around 2700BC on the Black Sea to take advantage of sea trade, especially with Crimea, and to ease the over-population of mainland Greece.
Important colonies that emerged included Callatis, Tomis, Histria, Axiopolis, Dionysopoulis, Halmarys. Most of these colonies survived the coming of the Roman Empire in the second century BC with their trade and status reduced under their new masters, though they once again thrived when the Greek speaking Byzantines took possession after the fourth century AD.
The Byzantine rulers renamed Tomis, calling it Constanta, which became a major hub for Byzantine merchants and fleet until the Bulgarians arrived around the late 900s. According to maps I have accessed and the limited research I can undertake on Constanta, the city appears to have been under the rule of Bulgaria for most of the period until the Ottomans arrived. There was of course intermittent return to Greek Byzantine control. The Bulgarians and the Byzantine Empire fought many campaigns against each other in the Balkans during the period with territory changing on numerous occasions.
Greek cultural influences were limited to the area of the Black Sea, the Danube and the area bounded by Hungary. It is hard to imagine how far north in to the interior Greek influence was during ancient and Byzantine times.
Moldavia and Wallachia were quick to bring in Greek nobility and religious institutions when Constantinople was taken in 1453 by the Ottomans.
With the Greek language becoming influential under territory occupied by the Ottomans due to the education of the Greeks, they found it easy to accelerate to the top of the elite in Romania, ushering in the period known as ‘Phanariote’.
By the 1700s modern Greek culture and religion was prevalent across many areas of the Balkans, especially in Romania, and by now the rule of Greek princes in various provinces was evident. The Phanariote people were the main source of bureaucrats for the Ottomans, ensuring that by the period of the Greek Independence movement, Greek speakers were in a good position to dominate the Balkans. In fact, Moldavia was actually occupied by the Hellenes at the time of the Greek Revolution. In retaliation, the Ottomans ended Greek Phanariote privileges in 1822.
Greek presence in the post Byzantine world was spread across the region, and whilst it is hard to accurately assess Greek numbers, it may have been approximately 10-15 per cent by the middle of the 1800s. The highly populated city of Constanta had a Greek population of almost 30 per cent during that period and by 1896 it was 23 per cent. Today they number only in the hundreds.
Constanta is indicative of Greeks in Romania as a whole; there are approximately 10,000 remaining. This is down from double that figure in 1992.
I was told by representatives of the Hellenic Union of Romania that the Greek population declined in the twentieth century due to the growth and stability of modern Greece. Many with Greek heritage sought a return to their ancestral lands. Also, from my own research, the communist leadership around the 1950s and 1960s made it hard for many Greeks, apparently taking various Greek properties and persecuting many Hellenes.
Hellenic Union of Romania
You know that Greece as a concept in the heart as well as being a cultural truism has a strong future when you spend just a few minutes with representatives of the Union. Based in Bucharest, with affiliates across the country, the vast majority of the Greek population of Romania are here. On the day of my visit, I was impressed by the multi-storey dwelling. The building proudly flew the Greek flag and in the driveway was parked the bus of the Union. You can feel the activity and flavour of Hellenism here.
I was greeted by an array of people. Some were there for morning tea, others to oversee the children who were being taught in the kindergarten as well as the Greek dancing. I was impressed with how seriously they take the role of young people and their development. The Greek dancing class was taken by Aris, the teenage son of the president.
I was provided with copies of the magazine of the Hellenic Union and a number of published books on Greek history and significant achievements by Hellenes in Romania. I think my suitcase suddenly weighed double by the time I returned to my hotel room that evening with books I will always cherish. One I would recommend is by Ionel Candea, The Greek Community of Braila, which details medieval Byzantine ceramics in Romania. You can find this title and others like it in their very own library.
The Union is managed by the president, a committee, an administrator and, I believe, another two staff members. They oversee a school that has 200 children enrolled. As I understand it, the Greek school had been shut down in 1972 by the communist regime, a common theme in dictatorships across Europe during this period. The school was reintroduced in 1990.
Students compete for the annual ‘Olympiada’ for the Greek language, which is a prestigious competition. You can see all the annual winners’ pictures hanging up on the walls of the classroom.
From what I experienced on my visit, I am positive that the Hellenic culture will survive here for generations to come, continuing an unbroken presence in Romania. Sadly for me, none of the representatives I met here could trace their heritage back thousands of years!
After my visit to the Union, I drove past a beautiful Greek church which was located nearby. The church was designed in the shape of a Greek temple, which was built around 1893 and is located near the Greek Embassy.
I also had the pleasure of visiting one of the twenty-two associations affiliated to the Union, in Ploesti. Whilst you can see the need for development in the city, you can also gauge the sense of patriotism here. People are proud to be from Romania and everywhere I went, people wanted to tell me how fantastic their country is.
The Greek office I visited was amazing. For a small city with minimal access to funds, I felt the Greek community had a wealth of spirit that money cannot buy. The office has a school classroom, coordinates dancing, organises a Greek festival and does its best to promote Hellenism through its energetic representative, a woman in her 50s (who has not been named in this article).
I was pleased to visit the only Greek tavern here to eat calamari and have an ouzo with the Greek owner who had lived here since the fall of communism. Ploesti will always make me smile. I needed to withdraw money and chose Pireaus Bank. It had no money in it…
Greek students and famous names (Zappas, Averoff)
Romania has always hosted Greek students. I recall meeting Spiros Kontonikos in a small town in Greece in 2004. He has since become a good friend of mine who I catch up with whenever I can, and I appreciate the hospitality provided by him and his family. Spiros told me he went to Romania to study medicine and learn from a new country. It was one of his first trips abroad.
He always reflects glowingly about the people of Romania and there are similarities with the culture of Greece. I was told that this made it easy for him to adapt during his time away from Greece. Spiro studied in Iasi, which is just shy of the border with Moldova, between 1987-1992.
Interestingly, his grandfather lived in Romania as well, way back in the early 1900s, establishing two eateries in Bucharest. I was informed that their grandfather spoke about how the city was full of rich Greeks, as well as Vlahoi from Greece. He lived there for a while but would travel back and forth. Unfortunately, Pappou Kontonikos lost a lot when his sons-in-law gambled away his money, and in the stock market crash of 1929 he lost whatever he had in the bank. In Iasi, Greeks came together to devise the strategy of 1821, to bring down the Ottomans. It was one of the active sites of the Filiki Eteria. Iasi is not too far from Odessa in Ukraine where the house (and museum) of Filiki Eteria is located.
Spiros and his wife Angela reminded me that a lot of Greeks invested in Romania.
Evangelis Zappas was possibly the biggest name, born in 1800 in the village of Labovo near Gjirokaster in Albania, a region with a significant Greek minority.
Zappas was a significant player in the Greek War of Independence, reaching the rank of major, and by 1831 he moved to Wallachia. Here he made a massive fortune in agriculture and land ownership. His most significant achievement is the establishment of the ‘Olympic Games’, for as early as 1856 he was seeking to create a modern Olympiad. He established a fund for the Olympiad in Greece which was then held in 1859 in Athens. He died in 1865; his work on an athletes’ competition was the precursor for the modern Olympic Games that Pierre de Coubertin would officially found.
Another famous name is Evangelos Averoff, the famous politician and author, who was born in Greece. His ancestry was from Romania.
It is fair to say that a country with plenty of natural beauty and access to the sea should be enough to keep the current Hellenic population of Romania in place for many decades to come. With no Ottomans or Dracula to scare them away, I am positive they will stay in this old country for at least another 2,700 years.