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The Land Called Romania Excerpted from “What, if Anything, is a Byzantine?”
by Clifton R. Fox, Professor of History – Tomball College (Texas), 1996
Editorial Note: There is confusion regarding the origin of the name Romania given that it long appeared in history books and on maps as referring to an area currently encompassed by Bulgaria. This article provides a cogent explation of the evolution of the name.
Clever diplomatic insults aside, medieval Westerners referred to the territory of the Romaion Empire with the name “Romania”[Romanland]. Case in point: from the sixth to the eighth century, the city of Ravenna was the capital of the Romaion province of Italy, the headquarters of the Exarch. The region close to Ravenna was directly governed by the Imperial authority. In the minds of the Lombards, the Germanic people who wrested much of Italy from Imperial control, the area around Ravenna was “Romania.” To this day, the same region of Italy is called “Romagna,” derived from “Romania.”
Centuries later, the “Franks” of the Fourth Crusade stormed Constantinople in 1204. In the subsequent Imperial hiatus, these adventurers, largely French, elected their own Emperor and established their own Frankish or Latin Empire. The Frankish or Latin Imperial title: “Imperator Romaniae” [Emperor of Romania]. The “Imperator Romaniae” was something different from the “Imperator Romanorum.” In Western Europe, the title the “Imperator Romanorum” belonged to the German successors of Charlemagne and Otto III when they were crowned by the Pope in Rome. After Otto III, German Kings called themselves “Rex Romanorum” [Roman King] in the interval between their election in Germany and coronation at Rome, which might be many years. After the middle of the thirteenth century, many of the German Kings never took the Imperial crown at all. They remained “Rex Romanorum” throughout their tenure. At the moment that the Fourth Crusaders elected their founding Emperor Baldwin I [reigned 1204-1205], the Western Imperial throne was vacant. German King Philip had not been crowned Emperor by the Pope and never would be crowned Emperor. Still, Baldwin I respected Western tradition: he did not dare offend the Pope by presuming to claim the title “Imperator Romanorum,” but only the title of “Imperator Romaniae,” Emperor of Romania. In Western eyes, only the Pope could make an individual “Imperator Romanorum.”
In the West, the idea of “Imperator Romanorum” survived to describe the ranking Roman Catholic ruler until the nineteenth century. In 1508, the Pope authorized the “Rex Romanorum” to call himself “Imperator Romanorum Electus” [Elected Roman Emperor] without coronation at Rome. The last “Imperator Romanorum Electus” abdicated in 1806. Voltaire scoffed at the Holy Roman Empire in its senescence. The Holy Roman Empire was, Voltaire gibed, “…neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” As in other matters, Voltaire ridiculed the things in which other people believed. Until the end, most Europeans, particularly Catholics, spoke of the “Sacrum Romanorum Imperium”[Holy Roman Empire] as a serious and important enterprise. Nonetheless,Western Europeans did not call themselves Romans or refer to their homeland as Romania. These words were conceded, albeit grudgingly, to Constantinople.
Western Europeans were not the only despoilers of the Romaion Empire to refer to it by the name of Rome. In the eleventh century, a branch of the Seljuk Turks established a Sultanate in Asia Minor carved out of land in Asia Minor. The Sultanate’s territory had been severed from the Empire after the Battle of Manzikert  in which Emperor Romanus IV [reigned 1067-1071] fell into the hands of the Turks as a prisoner. This Turkish state was called “Rum.” from Rome.The Sultanate of Rum continued until after 1300 with its capital at Konya [Iconium].
The later Ottoman Turks adopted the term “Rumelia” to designate the portions of the Balkan Peninsula that they acquired from the Romaioi in the fourteenth century. “Rumelia” was a dimunitive word. If Anatolia was Rome [Rum], than the European territories were Lesser Rome [Rumelia]. The name “Rumelia” survived into the nineteenth century. After a Turkish defeat at the hands of Russia, the two combatant governments signed the Treaty of San Stefano . The Treaty included a provision to create a “Principality of Eastern Rumelia” under Russian “protection” on land now in Bulgaria. The attempt to create Eastern Rumelia never came to fruition. After diplomatic pressure from other powers, the Treaty of San Stefano underwent significant modification at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Eastern Rumelia vanished before it came into proper existence.
One might wonder why the name “Romania” became applied to the present nation called Romania. The association of the name “Romania” with the present nation “Romania”stems from the nineteenth century. In their first appearances in the historical record of the Middle Ages, the Romanians were called “Vlachs” by chroniclers from Hungary and Constantinople. A principality called “Wallachia” emerged among the Vlachs before 1300. Separate Vlach principalities of Moldavia and Transylvania followed. Later, scholars realized that the Vlach language derived from Latin; Vlach was a sister language to Italian, French and Spanish. How did Latin speakers find their way to this remote part of Europe north of the Danube River? Scholars developed the theory that the Vlachs were descended from Roman colonists and Latinized natives who lived in the area north of the Danube River during the second and third centuries AD. In the period, the region constituted the Roman province of Dacia. Whether the theory is right or not, it became the basis of Romanian nationalist feeling in the nineteenth century. The idea of a Roman descent gave Vlachs new pride in themselves. After Wallachia and Moldavia coalesced into a single entity in 1859, the name “Romania” was selected in 1862 to describe the combined state. At the time, Romanian unity and independence required the support of France under Emperor Napoleon III [1852-1870]. The “Latin connection” with France aided the Romanian cause by inspiring French interest in their “sister nation” of Romania.
In light of the late date at which modern Romania acquired its name, it appears clear that earlier, the term “Romania” referred to the territory where the Greek speaking “Romaioi” lived. For more than a millennium, the state that we call, inaccurately, the Byzantine Empire was “Romania.” After the end of the Empire, Greek speaking inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire continued to call themselves “Romaioi.”
Modern Greeks call themselves “Hellenes,” like the ancient Greeks did. The switch from “Romaioi” back to “Hellene,” like the switch from “Vlach” to “Romanian,” came from the politics of nationalism in modern times. Greeks needed Western European help to become independent in the early nineteenth century. The Greeks were not likely to attract assistance if the Western peoples thought of Greeks as Byzantines. However, if the Greeks were imagined as the children of Plato and Pericles, then the sympathies of educated Westerners, steeped in the Classical tradition, would be with Greece. In the Greek Revolution of 1832, the “Philhellenic”[Greek loving] sympathies of Britain and other European governments were deeply engaged. Intervention on behalf of Greek independence proved decisive. The name of “Hellene” was revived in order to create a national image which rejected the “Byzantine” past.