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Romania's past is defined by violent conflict and war. Peace -- and indeed nationhood -- is new to a region that has been perpetually invaded for well over a millennium.

While Thracian tribes settled here about 3,000 years ago, Romanians trace their culture back to the Dacians. They were a highly regarded race, referred to by Herodotus as "the fairest and most courageous of men" because of their fearlessness in the face of death. Greeks colonized the territory near the Black Sea coast and developed the cities of Tomis (now Constanta), Istria, and Callatis (now Mangalia) from around 700 B.C., while the Dacian king Burebista controlled most of what is now Romania; he established a powerful kingdom between 70 and 44 B.C. By A.D. 100, the Dacian civilization had reached its zenith and the Romans now moved in, forcing its inhabitants to adopt the language of the conquerors. Rome was to rule Dacia for nearly 200 years before Christianity was adopted in the 4th century by the Daco-Romans, who fell subject to invasion by assorted European and Asian tribes for the next 6 centuries. By the 11th century, when Magyar (Hungarian) armies invaded and occupied Transylvania, Romanians were the only Latin-speaking people in the eastern quadrant of the former Roman Empire. They were also the only Latin people still practicing the Orthodox faith.

While Transylvania's Romanian population was almost entirely subjugated by ruling Hungarians and their Saxon allies, the Middle Ages saw great (and bloodthirsty) local warriors in Moldavia and Wallachia -- men like Stephen the Great, Vlad the Impaler, and Michael the Brave -- fighting to maintain their sovereignty in the face of the ongoing Hungarian and Ottoman threat. In 1600, the Wallachian prince, Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul), even briefly united the three provinces, only to be defeated by the Turkish and Habsburg armies; Transylvania became a jewel in the burgeoning Austro-Hungarian Empire, while other bits of Romania were carved up and divided between different powers.

In 1848, Hungary took complete control of Transylvania, while Moldavia and Wallachia headed for unification, finally merging to become a fledgling Romania in the 1860s. A decision was made to give the new country a nonpartisan ruler, and so a German blue blood, Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was chosen to sit on the throne of the new Romanian kingdom, created in 1881. He ruled as King Carol I until 1914, when he was succeeded by his nephew and adopted son, Ferdinand. During Ferdinand's rule, Romania joined World War I on the side of the Triple Entente in a successful effort to incorporate the lost Romanian provinces of Transylvania, Bucovina, and Bessarabia. In 1930, King Ferdinand I was succeeded by his son, Carol II. Ten years later, the Soviet Union annexed Bessarabia as well as northern Bucovina, while Germany and Italy forced Romania to give northern Transylvania to Hungary and southern Dobrogea to Bulgaria. Massive political turmoil and nationwide demonstrations caused the abdication of Carol II, leaving his 19-year-old son, Michael, to sit on the throne. With Carol II in exile, Marshall Ion Antonescu imposed a military dictatorship and Romania joined the Nazis, but the young Michael staged a royal coup in 1944 and quickly changed sides against the Germans.

In 1945, as part of the Yalta Agreement, Romania fell under direct Soviet influence; Red Army presence enabled the rapid strengthening of the country's Communists, who forced King Michael to abdicate in 1947. Less than 70 years after becoming a kingdom, Romania became a People's Republic and was under the direct, often excruciating, economic control of the U.S.S.R. until 1958. The notorious SovRom agreements exhausted the country's already limited resources, and Big Brother made taxing war-reparation demands. But the devastation was not limited to financial resources; during this time an estimated two million Romanians were imprisoned, mostly on spurious charges, and between 1948 and 1964, over 200,000 citizens died in Communist-related "incidents."

In 1968, an upstart Communist named Nicolae Ceausescu publicly condemned Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, thereafter receiving kudos and economic assistance from the West. Apparently nobody noticed Ceausescu's burgeoning megalomania until it was too late, when his obsessions turned toward national debt repayment and a catastrophic systemization of the economic and social structure with rapid industrial development, replete with concrete apartment blocks and toxic factories.

Amid the economic gloom, Ceausescu created a monstrous police state and embarked on a program of cultlike self-glorification, which included the silencing of opponents and extreme and violent violations of human rights and civil liberties. So terrifying and pervasive was the dictatorship that women who suffered miscarriages were subjected to tormenting interrogation sessions, as an inability to carry full term was seen as an attempt to stymie Ceausescu's plan to "grow" the nation's workforce.

Life increasingly unbearable, 1989 saw furious anti-Communist protests -- sparked in Timisoara and then across the country -- and Ceausescu and his regime were finally toppled. Two years later a new democratic constitution was adopted, and the difficult transition toward a free-market economy was underway. But the road to recovery has been rocky due to the instability created by successive governments, a result of schizophrenic public support, marked by corrupt politicians, many of whom were active in the former regime. But after more than a decade of economic instability and decline, the new millennium finally seems to have ushered in an era of transformation, economic growth, and foreign investment. In October 2004, months before the E.U.-accession treaty was signed, the country was granted "functional market economy" status.

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