Phanariotes of Wallachia and Moldavia (Romania)

Under the Ottomans, there were areas of that empire that were either self governed or controlled outright by Greeks. In fact, the early Ottomans are more benign than many have given them credit for. Greeks prospered as they generally had a good handle on commerce and merchant trading. In Constantinople Greeks continued the level of schooling and education that was standard during the Byzantine epoch. In an area of the great city called Phanor, you could find thousands of Greeks. A class of bureaucrats emerged. They became known as the Phanariotes.

The territories of Romania are without doubt the most prominent for the Phanariotes who ruled on behalf of the Ottomans, however, they were virtually independent in their own fiefdom.

To pause for a moment, I would like add something about the Ottomans. In ancient Greece or the period of the Romans, there would be uprisings and attempts to overthrow rulers. Under the Ottomans, there was a long period of peace. Once a Sultan had acquired his power, which meant knocking off his rivals, he was immediately satisfied. A Sultan trusted Greeks and many were part of his inner governing circle. Muslim converts can occasionally be found as Grand Viziers (Prime Minister) or military leaders. The Orthodox millet (nation) was ruled by the Patriarchate who was generally allowed to oversee the Millet with minimal interference. As long as Greeks paid their taxes including the disgusting Christian boy tax (Janissary recruits), there was no issues from the Sultan.

In addition, as has been discussed, a number of areas in Greece were allowed self government. Add to this mix the fact that Greeks were content to be under the rule of the Sultan rather than the Pope and the Catholics who had been guilty of abandoning Byzantine Greeks when the Ottomans were pouring in to Europe. Hence, Greek nationalism did not come to the fore until the early 1800s. By that time the Ottomans were beginning a slow, though not unchecked, decline. The problems between Greeks and Ottomans did not degenerate until the Greek Revolution of the 1820s, bringing on conflict, and tragedy, that only recently has receded.

Now back to the Phanariotes. Their fiefdoms were Wallachia and Moldavia.

Wallachia known locally as Valahia was formed in the late medieval period, probably early 1200s and is sandwiched between the Carpathian mountains and the Danube. Along the Danube and its hinterland, there were Byzantine settlements and forts, particularly in the 5th and 6th Centuries.

Over the next 700 years, the area was fought over by Avars, Pechenegs, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Greek Byzantine forces and Mongols before the Ottomans arrived in 1417.

Wallachia and Moldovia were ruled by a Prince and below him were the ‘Boyars,’ local noblemen whom the Sultan had agreed upon. There territories were feudal and the vast majority of the population were peasants bound to work on the land.

Wallachia was closer to the road to Constantinople and the Black Sea, making Greek influence a certainty. Moldavia was to the north and contained fewer Greek speakers, was more prone to influence from Russia.

Wallachia and Moldavia were host to a number of noble families. One of these was the Byzantine nobility of the Cantacuzino. Not content with having accelerated Byzantine decline in the 1300s through a series of disastrous wars; a branch of the family had made their way to the region upon the fall of Constantinople hoping to continue their noble existence.

In 1593, Michael the Brave who was half Greek through his mother Theodora Cantacuzene came to power in Wallachia with the blessing of the Ottomans. Within a few months he had turned against the Sultan and declared Wallachia independent with the support of neighbouring Catholic kingdoms. In 1600 he managed to gain control of Moldavia and Transylvania. This was the first time a unified Romania was created.

Unfortunately, he was unable to hold them for too long and he was assassinated in 1601 as he sought to regain control of Transylvania.

Twentieth Century historian once said of this era, Constantin C. Giurescu

Never in Romanian history was a moment of such highness and glory, closely followed by bitter failure.

Despite his willingness to break free of the Ottomans and unite Romania, Michael passed a law that officially tied peasants to the estates of nobility. Hence, romantics should always tread with caution when elevating rulers, for the peasants became even more empoverished.

The Cantacouzine family helped George Doukas ascend to the title of Prince of Wallachia between 1673 – 78 before a falling out. Ducas was replaced by Șerban Cantacuzino who reigned for a decade. Serban was notable for planning a coalition with Catholic powers to invade Constantinople, though it never came to fruition. It would have been interesting to see how the coalition would have fared with a surprise attack. Upon his death or possible murder, he was replaced by Constantin Brâncoveanu, lasting until 1714. He was related to the Cantacuzino clan, however, it is difficult to ascertain how ‘Greek, he was. What he did have in common with his predecessor was the willingness to stir up a possible campaign against the Sultan. He also approached Russia, which became known in Constinople. The Sultan quickly brught his reign and life o an end.

His immediate replacement was Stefan Cantacouzine who would be executed in Constantinople 2 years later.

There is a theme covering the Cantacouzino reign. They never seem to make it to a natural end in their lives.

The Sultan, having had enough of the Romanian/Greek intrigue from Wallachia and also Moldavia, out an end to the local prince system which was nominally elected by local Boyar nobility. Probably a fine idea except he brought in Greeks from the Phanar area of Constantinople. Clearly a lesson was not learnt.

Nicholas Mavrocordatos was the first Phanariote to rule, and proved to be loyal. He unsuccessfully fought the invading Hapsburgs and sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire proper. He quickly returned to Bucharest and killed those Romanians who m he felte were traitors only to be caputured and held prisoner on bahelf of the Austrians.

John, his brother then reigned until he was returned to power in 1719 when the Ottomans concluded peace with the Hapsburgs. Nicholas ruled until 1730 and his son took his place until 1769.

The key elements of rule by Mavrocordatos was the promotion of Greek culture; from Constantinople they brought into the principalities as much Greek influence as they could muster. This included Greek fashion, increased promotion of the language, costumes and Hellenic manners, whilst building a number of Greek Orthodox churches. Nicholas wrote a Greek novel, the Leisures of Philotheos. Importantly, he abolished serfdom and sought to have his people as educated as possible. It should be noted that the Greek culture was already noticeable prior to the Phanariote era, they simply elevated it to a level that was below local culture.

By the late 1700s, Russia had gained a strong foothold in the Romanian lands due to their temporary occupation and their almost continual state of war with the Ottomans. This helped the Phanariotes even further; by the end of the century they were starting to support the emergence of the secret revolutionary society Philiki Eteria.

The emergence of Napoleon ensured the Sultan relied more on Russia and the Greek Phanariotes to keep the principalities under nominal control. In 1802, the Sultan allowed the term of a Prince to be a minimum of 7 years and could only be dismissed upon consultation with the Russian Ambassador in Constantinople.

In 18012, Russia gained sections of the Danube and a section of Moldavia between the two rivers Pruth and Dniester.

The Ypsilanti family at this time were the effective rulers of Wallachia, with Alexander strongly in favour of the independence movement which had grown from a light breeze to strong wind. It is interesting that the family originated from Trebizond, hence a strong feeling of anti Ottoman resentment was felt. Trebizond was Greek majority city ruled by the Sultan

Some might ask the question, ‘why on earth would one want to give up the good life for a Greek uprising that had no guarantee of success?’ After all, many a revolution had occurred in Greek history only for the heroes to change once the threat was over and become oppressors. Look at the Spartan Empire in the Fourth Century BCE when she installed oligarchs across conquered lands. It’s probable that the Ypsilati’s were genuine in their desire to see the Greeks rise again. Perhaps the Pontian spirit was the true guide. Greeks were educated, had a long history and had proven themselves capable in the Principalities, more or less. It is perhaps the education and enlightenment of the ancestors of Homer and Aristotle that longed to be free of any overlord.

Alexander was succeeded by his son (Constantine) and grandson by the time the 1821 uprising took place. This said grandson was a name that will forever be remembered in Greek folklore, Alexander Ypsilantis.

The young Alexander fought in the service of the Tsar for over a decade, helping turn the tide against Napoleon. He was promoted to the rank of General before making his way back to Bucharest by around 1820. He became the leader of Philiki Eteria. I should volunteer that I once visited the main house of the Eteria in Odessa, Ukraine which is now a museum preserving the revolutionary history.

By the end of the year, Alexander thought he could muster Romanians as well as Greek in the Principalities and from across Europe. Romanians were not enthused by helping Greeks; they had not suffered unduly by the Ottomans who did not keep any troops stationed past the Danube. With the Tsar offering no support, Ypsilanti nonetheless pressed ahead with his plans. Unfortunately, a strong 30,000 military contingent crossed the Danube on orders of the Sultan. Rather than meet them before they crossed in to the Principalities, Alexander fell back on a defensive position with his limited forces. Hence whilst the revolution was declared in March, by June the Greek leader had been completely defeated. Further ignominy was heaped upon him by the Tsar who stripped him of his Russian military rank.

There was no such concept as Greece, as defined by modern boundaries. Ypsilanti, had he been successful would have resurrected a Greek entity that was far from the Greek heartland. It is probable that up to 10% of the population were Greek. Not enough to have a viable Greek country in the long term.

As the Greek Revolution was now in full swing in the Morea, one could historically count 31 Greek Phanariote Princes across the Principalities. They were drawn from less than 10 families. An impressive figure and demonstrates how far Greeks had come since the desperate end of the Byzantine empire. For the Greek princes had governed almost as if they were practising for new Byzantium. It helped that the Ottomans trusted the Princes, were scared of Russia and of Napoleon and did not keep troops on the ground.

From the new Billy Cotsis book, From Pyrrhus to Cyprus Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities & a Fiefdom, available through




One Comment Add yours

  1. Hi!
    I appreciate the work of synthesis made in this text.
    Like a little contribution, here are two big issues that I noticed in this article!

    Firs, this: “Michael passed a law that officially tied peasants to the estates of nobility” is not true.
    Like Constantin C. Giurescu, Dinu C. Giurescu and others proved clearly, in fact Michael the Brave stopped the former rulers of the runaway peasants to follow and bring them back on theirs estates. The “tie” was the freedom for this runaway peasants to stay on the estates they choose, instead of being forced to come back or pay the debts to the estates owners from they had fled. To clarify the problem must be known that this peasants were the landholders of the time, having a contract of working and paying a rent for the land the nobleman let at their’s disposal (the rent was usualy paid in products of the land and in some work on other parts of the nobleman’s estates). Some of the owners were abusive, demanding too much products and work, at the level that some – or even all – landholders runaway, without paying for contract cessation. The law was forcing the runaway landholders to pay the cessation or to return an fulfill their’s contractual duties. Of course, the abusive noblemans use the law in their’s advantage. Michael the Brave just stopped for a while this law, stopped the duty of the runaway tenants for paying the cessation or to return to the former noblemans. So, the “tie” was in the favor of the “peasants” (right, landholders or tenants), not against them.

    Second, this: “Romanians were not enthused by helping Greeks; they had not suffered unduly by the Ottomans who did not keep any troops stationed past the Danube.” is not true.
    At Turnu, Giurgiu and Braila, al three at the North of Danube, there where Ottoman troops for already two or three centuries and the suffering they produced to the Romanians was very deep. On the other hand, the wounds made by Pasvan-Oglu were still open in Oltenia, and very alive in the memory of the Romanians from Muntenia. Moreover, in the South of Danube were living a lot of Romanians, old fighters agains Ottoman rulership.
    In fact (some sources here:,%20purcarescu.pdf) the Romanians where ready to fight against Ottomans, but there were two big problems:
    1) Ypsilanti was proved to lied the Romanians when he claim he had the support of the Tsar. The Romanians were aware that without (big) external help will be no victory against the Ottoman forces.
    2) The Eteria’s forces behave in Romanian Countries exactly like Ottoman forces on enemy’s land, looting, raping and destroying. This make a huge gap between Eteria and Romanian Forces. The Eteria even assasinated the Romanian ruler, Tudor Vladimirescu, in an attempt to take the rule over the Romanians. Even so, thousands or Romanian fighters fought against Ottoman forces but, unhappily aside of Eteria’s forces.

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