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  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s First Unifier: Michael the Brave



This year Romanians are celebrating 100 years since the Great Union. Back in 1918, King Ferdinand and Queen Marie of Romania saw their Old Kingdom, made up of the former principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, grow into greater Romania through the addition of the other provinces inhabited by Romanians: Bessarabia, Bucovina and Transylvania, which had been previously part of the Russian and Habsburg Empires, respectively.

But Ferdinand and Marie were not the first unifiers of the country. Two important historical figures had accomplished similar, albeit smaller-scale, feats, the first of whom was Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave).

Wrongly believed to have been the illegitimate offspring of Wallachian ruler Pătraşcu Vodă, Mihai was actually, according to recent research, the natural child by unknown father of a Greek-origin innkeeper, Tudora. He was born in 1558 and, like any illegitimate son in the Middle Ages, apparently he had a rough childhood: he was rather poor and had to work as hard as the cattle farmers and the servants in the small-trade environment where he grew up. Later on, as a young man, he traded cattle and even jewels in the Balkans, learned Turkish and Greek, and saved some good money. [1]

The latter and his uncle Iane, a Greek-origin merchant much skilled in dealing with rich traders aspiring to buy ranks and with boyars aspiring to the throne, facilitated young Michael’s swift political rise to the rank of Ban of Mehedinţi (1588), then stolnic at the court of Mihnea Turcitul, then Ban of Craiova. In 1593, following a conflict with Wallachian ruler Alexandru cel Rău, Michael fled to Transylvania and travelled to Constantinople, where, supported by the English Ambassador in the Ottoman capital city and a hefty amount, he purchased his title of Domnitor (ruler) of Wallachia. [2]


Soon after he became Prince of Wallachia, Michael enrolled his country in the Holy League initiated by Pope Clement VIII to counter the rise of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. The League also included Transylvania and Moldavia (besides the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Mantova, Toscana, etc.), but not England and Poland, and following Wallachia’s adherence to it, Michael turned against the Ottoman Empire. His constant policy was to secure the military support and protection of Emperor Rudolf II, so that no danger could come from neighbouring Transylvania, and count on his ally Aron Tiranul, ruler of Moldavia, to fight the Turks and put an end to Ottoman suzerainty over Wallachia.

In what was to be called the Long Turkish War (1593-1606) between the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empires, Michael scored some important victories against the Turks (at Călugăreni, Giurgiu, Hârşova, Putineiu, etc.). However, at some point Transylvania and Moldavia came to be ruled by Andrew Báthory and Ieremia Movilă, respectively. Both of them were on friendly terms with Poland, which was not part of the Holy League, hence it wasn’t opposed to the Turks. So to prevent the two provinces from falling under Ottoman rule, Michael first marched into Transylvania and, with help from the Székelys, defeated Báthory in the battle of Şelimbăr, entered Alba Iulia and in 1599 became the imperial governor, i.e. de facto ruler of Transylvania. Then he invaded Moldavia, reached Iaşi and, since Movilă had fled to Poland, he was declared Prince of Moldavia.


Thus, for five months, from May to September 1600, the three provinces which make up today’s Romania, Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania were technically ruled by the same man: Michael the Brave, who in a document dated 6 July 1600 referred to himself as “ruler of Wallachia and of Transylvania and of the whole country of Moldavia” [3].

Historians say that this first union was the result of circumstances rather than Michael’s vision. They call it Michael the Brave’s “personal union”, accomplished due to the fact that he happened to be in charge of the three provinces for a brief while in 1600, and secured manu militari, i.e. by military force, rather than political consensus between the three provinces. They say that it was only as late as the mid-19th century that Michael’s “personal union” became, especially for passionate paşoptişti (“forty-eighters”) like Nicolae Bălcescu, an almost mythical precedent for the realisation of the “greater Romania” dream.

Whether the result of political vision or mere coincidence, the union of the three provinces inhabited by Romanians was, at the beginning of the 17th century, too ambitious a project to hold water. Three major powers, Poland and the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, strongly opposed the prospect of a Romanian union, and so Michael’s construction was soon dismantled: the Hungarian nobility in Transylvania successfully rebelled against Michael, the Polish recaptured Moldavia, invaded Wallachia and appointed their protégé Simion Movilă as ruler, and Michael eventually lost favour with Emperor Rudolf II, who ordered his assassination. He was killed (speared and beheaded) on 9 August 1601. His body is buried near Turda, in the county of Cluj, and his head – at the Dealu Monastery near Târgovişte.


Historian Constantin C. Giurescu laments, “Never in Romanian history was a moment of such highness and glory so closely followed by bitter failure.” [4] But in the national psyche Michael the Brave will always remain the first legendary unifier of the Romanians whom history kept scattered for centuries in three separate provinces until as late as 1918. And one can’t help wondering, “What if Michael the Brave did have a vision of greater Romania, and what if that Romania had started to exist in 1600?” We would have celebrated not a centenary, but 418 years of Romania, this year...

Notes & Sources

[1] <https://adevarul.ro/locale/botosani/secretele-copilariei-mihai-viteazul-origine-fapt-fost-omul-cheie-carierei-sale-1_5af2ecfcdf52022f75c4537a/index.html>

[2] “Michael the Brave”. Wikipedia. Accessed 10 October 2018. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_the_Brave>

[3] “Mihai Viteazul”. Wikipedia. Accessed 10 October 2018. <https://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihai_Viteazul>

[4] Ibidem.

Picture credits

<https://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marea_Unire#/media/File:MapRegionsRomania.png>

<https://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihai_Viteazul#/media/File:Mihai_1600.png>

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