Monday, July 07, 2008


I first learned that there were Greeks in Romania from an Epirot folksong that told the story of Rovas, (the rover), who set off for Wallachia (southern Romania), with horses that had golden horseshoes. «Ο Ρόβας εξεκίνησε μεσ’ την Βλαχιά να πάει.» In years to come I also learned that my grandmother was a fluent Romanian-speaker, as she had attended a Romanian school in her youth. Further, I learned very early on in the piece that a «Βλάχος» was not an uncultivated villager, because my grandfather was one and his meticulously trimmed moustache refuted all allegations of uncultivation, but an Aromanian-speaking Greek. Indeed, the links between Romania and Greece are many and ancient. For example, most of the leaders of the Greek Revolution organized their plans and actually commenced the Greek Revolution in the relative safety of Romania. Greeks ruled over Romania as suzerains of the Turks for hundreds of years and interestingly enough, to the Greeks of two hundred years ago, Romania was the equivalent of Australia or the US, a place of migration, in the perennial quest for better living conditions and foreign currency.
The Greek presence in what is now Romania dates back as far as the apoikiai and emporia founded in and around Dobruja, beginning in the 7th century BC. Starting with the Milesian colony at Istros, the process reached its height after Tomis was founded in the 5th century BC. Although forever subject to the Dacian interference and easily disrupted by changes in the politics of neighbour tribal chieftains, these colonies prospered until being briefly submitted in various forms by King Burebista in the late first century BC. Immediately after, and for the following centuries, they were stripped of their privileges by their new Roman masters. During the Byzantine Empire a living presence north of the Danube, was maintained, retaining a cultural hegemony over various Romanian lands virtually until its disappearance, along with certain periods of political dominance in such places as Tomis and Tyras.
After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans needed skilled administrators and diplomats to run the various sections of their vast Empire. They turned to the Byzantine nobility in Constantinople, the Phanariots, named after the suburb of Fanari, where the Ecumenical Patriarchate is now situated and which up until the 1955 pogrom was the seat of the Greek presence in the City, who had a long mercantile and educational tradition. They thus appointed members of this group as Hospodars or Princes of Moldavia and Wallachia, which were the two principalities comprising modern day Romania. To them was added the exodus of Byzantine officials and commoners to the two countries, which were at the time under a rather relaxed Ottoman tutelage. They took opportunities to advance in office, and from early on included themselves in the inner circle of power. This meant not only the reliance of Princes on a new elite (more often than not, also one to provide it with the funds needed by the administrative effort), but also the gradual ascendancy of Greeks to the highest positions in the principalities themselves.
By the eighteenth century, the Ottomans, who lacked experience in foreign diplomacy, came to rely increasingly on the Phanariotes to identify and keep at bay Russian designs over the Danubian principalities. Greek culture became the norm, and the Greek language was officially used in government and education. On one hand, this meant a noted neglect for the non-Greek institutions inside the principalities; on the other, the channeling of Princes' energies into emancipation from Ottoman rule, through projects that aimed for the erasing of inner borders of the Empire, moving toward the creation of an all-Balkan, neo-Byzantine state, seen as the extended identity of Hellenism.

Although rarely occurring, reigns of local Princes were not excluded on principle. Two arguably hellenized Romanian noble families, the Callimachis (originally Călmaşul) and Racoviţăs, managed to penetrate into the Phanar nucleus, in order to facilitate and increase their chances to occupy the thrones, and later to successfully maintain their positions.
The Phanariote raised to the office of Prince was usually the chief Dragoman of the Porte, and was consequently well versed in contemporary politics and the statecraft of the Ottoman government. The new Prince, who obtained his office in exchange for a heavy bribe, proceeded to the country which he was selected to govern, and whose language he usually did not know. Once the new Princes were appointed, they were escorted to Iaşi or Bucharest by retinues composed of their families, favourites, and their creditors (from whom they had borrowed the bribe funds). The Prince and his appointees counted on recouping these in as short a time as possible and in collecting an among sufficient to live on after the termination of their brief time in office.
Taking the two principalities together, 31 princes from 11 different Greek families ruled during the Phanariote epoch. Many times they were exiled or even executed: seven suffered a violent death. Often rulers would be shifted from one principality to the other by the Turks. The Prince of Wallachia, the richer of the two Principalities, would pay certain sums in order to avert his transfer to Iaşi, while the Prince of Moldavia would bribe supporters in Constantinople in exchange for his appointment to Wallachia. Constantine Mavrocordatos ruled a total of ten different times in Moldavia and Wallachia. The debt was, however, owed to various creditors, and not to the Sultan himself. In one early example, Ahmed III even paid part of Nicholas Mavrocordatos' bribe debt.
The Phanariote epoch was initially characterized by excessive fiscal policies, driven by both Ottoman needs and by the ambitions of some of the Hospodars who, mindful of their fragile status, sought to pay back their creditors and increase their wealth while they still were in a position of power. In order to make the reigns lucrative while raising funds that would satisfy the needs of the Porte, Princes channeled their energies into spoliation, and the inhabitants, liable to increasing and diversified taxation, were in many instances reduced to destitution. However, the most odious taxes, mistakenly identified with the Phanariotes in modern nationalist Romanian historiography, were of much older provenance, such as the văcărit, first imposed by Iancu Sasul in the 1580s.
The mismanagement of many Phanariote rulers stands in contrast with the achievements and projects of others, such as Constantine Mavrocordatos, who abolished serfdom in 1746 in Wallachia, and in 1749 in Moldavia and Alexander Ypsilantis. Ypsilantis tried to reform the legislation and impose salaries for administrative offices. His Pravilniceasca condică, a rather modern legal code, met stiff boyar resistance.
Greek rulers often tried to improve state structures against the wishes of the conservative Romanian boyars. Contemporary documents show that, despite the change in leadership and boyar complaints, around 80% of those seated in the Divan were members of traditionally local families. This tended to render endemic the social and economical issues of previous periods, as the inner circle of boyars not only managed to block initiatives such as Alexander Ypsilantis', but also pressured for tax exemptions — which they obtained, extended, and successfully preserved.
After the end of the Phanariote epoch, various families of Phanariote ancestry in both Wallachia and Moldavia identified themselves as Romanian, and remained present in Romanian society — among them, the Rosetti family, whose member C. A. Rosetti represented the radical and nationalist cause during and after the 1848 Wallachian revolution. Also notable were the Ghicas (who, despite direct Phanariote lineage, held the throne in Wallachia with Grigore IV and Alexandru II as the first "non−Phanariote" rulers after 1821 . Finally the Vacarescu family, of Greek Phanariote origin, provided some of the first poets to Romanian literature.
The active part taken by the Greek Princes in revolts after 1821 together with the disorder provoked by the Philikí Etaireía, of which the Ghica, Vacarescu and Golescu families were active members, following its uprising against the Ottoman Empire in Moldavia and Tudor Vladimirescu's Wallachian uprising, led to the disappearance of promotions from within the Phanar community, as the Greeks were no longer trusted by the Porte. Notably, Vladimirescu's revolt was, for most of its duration, just an attempt to block the ascension of Scarlat Callimachi, the last Phanariote ruler in Bucharest.
Most Phanariotes acted as patrons of Greek culture, education, and printing. They founded academies which attracted teachers and educated pupils from throughout the Orthodox commonwealth, and there was some contact with intellectual trends in Habsburg central Europe.
Nonetheless, condemnation of the Phanariotes is a particular focus of Romanian nationalism, usually integrated with the resentment of foreigners as a whole. The tendency unifies pro− and anti−modernising attitudes: Phanariote Greeks are painted as reactionary elements (as their image was presented by Communist Romania), as well as agents of brutal and opportunistic change (as presented in Mihai Eminescu's Scrisoarea a III-a).
With new trends of migration, Romania became a less important target for exiled Greeks, and this became limited to people of lower social status—with ethnic Greeks being most visible as entrepreneurs, middlemen traders, and especially sailors both on the Danube the Black Sea—in the case of the latter, after the integration of Dobruja in 1878, which also gave Romania a new population of Greeks, already on the spot.
The communities were largely prosperous and maintained specific cultural institutions; they attracted a new wave of arrivals when Greece was hit by the Civil War, in the late 1940s. This situation was challenged by Communist Romania, with the properties of most organizations and many individuals being confiscated, and hundreds of Greek ethnics being imprisoned on sites such as the Danube-Black Sea Canal.
According to the Romanian census of 2002, the Greek community numbered 6,513 persons, most of whom live in Bucharest and its surrounding area. Next in line come the Dobruja counties of Tulcea and Constanţa, and the Danube-facing ones of Brăila and Galaţi. The 1992 census however found 19,594 Greeks; this shows the tendency of ethnic Greeks outside of Greece to acquire Greek citizenship and immigrate to Greece as homogeneis . According to the General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad the Greek community in Romania numbers 14,000. The Hellenic Union of Romania, founded in 1990, continues to represent the political and cultural preservation interests of the community, notably by providing its representatives in the Chamber of Deputies of Romania.
Rigas Feraios, writer of the Thourio, the call to arms that inspired many to revolt against the Ottomans, was for a time, secretary to the hospodar of Wallachia and defended the province against the Russians at Craiova, dreamed of a Balkan federation emancipated from Turkish rule, in which all would enjoy equal rights. We all know what came of that idea. But for the life of me, I was never able to find out what whether Rovas actually ever got to Romania and indeed, what he did when he arrived there. Most probably, he has a lot to answer for.


First published in NKEE on 7 July 2008