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Elements of Romanian Heraldry

Introduction   Moldavia   Walachia   Transylvania   Romania

Numismatics is closely related to heraldry and history. The goal of this section of our site is to eventually present the contemporary Romanian coat of arms, and that only after concisely going through the heraldic and historical evolution that the coats of arms of the Romanian territories underwent in time. That will be to see when the coats of arms of Moldavia, Walachia and Transylvania appeared, how were they understood and employed and how they fused in the heraldic ensign depicting the Romanians.

To learn about the coats of arms the Romanian lands proudly wore over the centuries it is compulsory to learn about the time they consolidated and the circumstances that allowed their coming into being.

When the Roman Empire started to collapse Roman provinces fell one after another, many of them being voluntarily left by the army and administration, in the case of Dacia even after previous agreements with German invaders - the Goths that took over in Dacia were entitled confederates of Rome, something more alike some friendly allies.

Several peoples come from the indistinct hazy Eastern Europe and far Asia either crossed Dacia or settled here, for a period at least, slowing down any crystallization process that the proto Romanian people might have had. Dacia was struck in the old times by Goths, Vandals, Gepids (German strains), Huns and Avars (Mongolian strains), Slavs, Turkic strains like the Pecenegs, Kumans and Bulgarians (the last should not be confounded with the nowadays Bulgarians) and then the Hungarians (Finno-Ugric strain) - less known invaders were skipped.

The most important influence had over Romanians belonged to the Slavs. Worth mentioning for their not at all neglectable backwash around the Carpathian Mountains are the Hungarians. The later, coming from the Middle Asia Altai Mountains settled first somewhere on the European side of the Ural Mountains, then between the Don and the Nipru river (around 830 A.D.) to get in 889 in Atelkuz (Land between Rivers), land thought to be east of the latter Moldavia between Bug and Nistru river. Pushed by other invaders, they arrived in 896 in Pannonia. They tried to move farther west but after the complete victory of the German Emperor Otto the Great in 955, they ended their journey.

All these mentioned migratory peoples, and not only these, were militarily organized societies that moved like an army and were on foot of war at all times, the fact being proved by the countless battles known by history that changed owners over various lands and even sent some into oblivion. On the other hand the Romanians were a people in a natural transformation aimed to establish ethnic identity and conscience. All Roman military hierarchy left Dacia from the beginning, peaceful and land working individuals remaining though at their homes or workshops (some historians pretend many common workers fled the Empire for the neighboring Barbarians all over the Roman border to elude large taxes, during the period of decadence). The entire situation then is curiously illustrated by a linguistic reality: the Romanian word "oaste", meaning "army", is directly inherited from Latin originating in the word "hostis" meaning "enemy" (akin to the English "hostile").

Towards the 14th century the Tatars were the political rulers of the territories implied. Their invasion in 1241 devastated Europe over to the present day Italy. Cetatea Albă, (ancient Tyras), and Moldavian fortress at the Black Sea was rid of Tatars somewhere towards 1380.


The second independent Romanian principality to arise from the seeds sown by the Roman Empire in Dacia was Moldavia, Walachia being the first. Transylvania had progressively fallen under Hungarian sovereignty starting in the 11th century to the middle of the 13th. However, Romanians in Transylvania were ruled for a long time by local voivods, Slavic-Romanian institution now, borrowed from the assimilated Slav invaders. Transylvania itself was going to maintain a voivodship organization until long latter on.

The natural tendencies of expansion caused in 1353 the Hungarian king to send Dragoș, Romanian voivod from Maramureș (region in Transylvania), on the eastern side of the Carpathatians, as leader of an expeditionary corps that was to establish a defensive mark (having a meaning related to the one of the Old English word "mearc"). So he did. Dragoș "dismounted", as the Romanian chroniclers wrote, somewhere in the nowadays county of Suceava, inside the Tatar controlled regions of the time, sowing a political seed of Moldavia and thus becoming its first known voivod. These are the attested historic facts, but let us see how the Moldavian legends pictured this decisive deed. As stated by the Moldavian voivod and scholar Dimitrie Cantemir in his book "Descriptio Moldaviae", voivod Dragoș of Maramureș and his party were on an urus hunt. The urus crossed the mountains being finally hunted down in the waters of a rapid river. Despite this stately catch, Dragoș grieved the death of his bitch Molda he was very fond of and which drowned after bravely plunging in the cold waters at in pursue of the beast. In order for the drowning place to be always remembered, he called the river Moldova. Also, loving the place he had arrived at, he and his men settled there. The country Dragoș "dismounted" had the urus head as coat of arms ever since.

In 1359 another Romanian voivod of Maramureș, Bogdan I, banished the descendants of Dragoș rendering Moldavia independent under his scepter. This second dismounting can also be considered as birth act of the Moldavian state.

Urus horns, fossil from Antipa Museum (Bucharest)

About the Name of Moldova - Moldavia

Besides river Moldova, many other rivers from all Romanian regions bear names ending in -ova, -ava: Suceava în Moldova, Prahova în Țara Românească, Tîrnava în Transilvania and Bîrzava in Banat are just a few examples. Supposition that, beyond the legend, the name of the country comes from a running water is not pointless or without precedent. It is the case of Moraviei, Bosna and India (from Indus). The possibility exists that some of this cases to feature the Slavic ending -ov, present in many Romanian toponyms.

Also a possibility exists for names of rivers to have integrated a word that once stood alone. Aqua means water in Latin, source of the Romanian "apă" and akin to the Old English word "avon" that is actually inherited from Celtic, meaning "river". [Worth mentioning is that Shakespeare was born and buried at Stratford-upon-Avon.] [The name of the forementioned river of Tîrnava, means River of Thorns, in a striking resemblance to English, although the only used Romanian word for thorn is "spin" - akin to the English "spine" and inherited from Latin]. The Celtic invasion of Europe in the fourth and third centuries B.C. crossed the present day Romania and neighbouring countrues, leaving traces of importance and even cities (old names of Serbian city Belgrade and Romanian city Isaccea are Celtic, Singidunum and Noviodunum.

In conclusion the today's endings in Romanian river names could recall the idea of river, and not a common Slavic ending. It thus due to suppose Moldova actually means River of Molda, where Molda is the bitch of Dragoș, if we take the legend as a fact or just River of Molda, whatever Molda might mean, if we take the legend fact as fictional account.

An interesting fact is that the German name of Czech river Vltava flowing through Prague is Moldau, just as the German name of the principality of Moldavia, a likely connection to be proven.

Many sources, both internal and external, cite Moldavia as Moldavia (Latinized name), Moldova or Moldo-Valachia. If we are supposing that the oldest name of all versions was Moldo-Valachia, we come to a third possible etymology: Moldova is a short appellation for Moldo-Valachia, thusly meaning THE WALACHIA NEXT TO MOLDA (Molda being in the case given a certain toponym, hydronym or not). In this assumption the river Moldova has received the name after the state of Moldova appeared and not the other way around. This is a rational assumption (as far as I know, new) when putting the dawn of the Moldavian principality into historical context. The principality of Walachia, starting in the early decennia of its being and also later on bore often the name of Ugro-Valahia, meaning THE WALACHIA NEXT TO HUNGARY. This mentioning of NEXT TO was necessary because there were other Walachias. Walach, Vlah, Olah, Iflak were the names used by Slavs, Greeks, Hungarians, Turks (later) for calling the Roman origin peoples speaking different versions of the former Latin. The Aromanians, the Romanians of the south (speaking a different Romanian dialect from those north of Danube), stretched once everywhere from Greece to Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia to Italy, in strong settlements now mostly disappeared. But at the times before Romanian principalities were born, there were several Walachias in the Balkan Peninsula. Nicetas Choniates speaks of a Great Walachia comprising Thessaly, in opposition with two other Walachias mentioned by Frantzes, namely Small Walachia in Acarnania and Aetolia and Upper Walachia in Epirus. Pope Clement the Fifth called the Romanians around the Carpathian Arc "Olahi Romani" . [Even nowadays, the Polish name of Italy is "Wlachy" in Polish.]

About the Urus and the Urus Confusion

I previously mentioned the legend according to which voivod Dragoș settled Moldavia after a prolongued urus hunt. The urus was a fierce herbivorous animal that lived in Europe until its complete extinction in the Middle Age. This long horned wild ox is called by the Latin name of Bos primigenius, and it is thought to be, as the word primigenius - first born suggests, the ancestor of the common ox, Bos taurus. The English use yet another word for this beast: aurochs. This later word, according to the Webster Dictionary, is mentioned as also employed (rarely) to define the wisent. So aurochs as a term should be avoided in order to avoid confusion, when it comes to the coat of arms of Moldavia.

Confusion between the urus and the wisent brought curious changes to the Romanian heraldry dur to the fact both species were extinct on Romanian territory. The wisent survived only in and thanks to the Polish / Belarusian swamps.

The last Romanian wisent was hunted in Moldavia in 1790, so the memory of this stately animal still lived, while the urus dissapeared probably centuries before.

The Latin name of the wisent is Bison bison bonasus, while the American buffalo (the bison), is scientifically called Bison bison bison. For the ones not so familiar to the classification of Linnaeus (Swedish scientist Karl von Linné), first comes the genus, secondly the species and then, if necessary, the subspecies, so actually the wisent and the buffalo belong to the same species.

So, the urus head became the Moldavian coat of arms from the very beginning, being accompanied by the astral elements. Check the picture below. Between the horns is a five ray star, the uneven ray pointing up. On the left lies a waning crescent and at right a five petal rose that probably stands for the sun. (In heraldry we report to the left or right of the shield, coat of representation, not the left or right of the beholder.)

Half gros of Alexander the Good (1400-1432) - modern fake

The Moldavian rose is likely to be an avatar of the sun. Instead of a rose, on some Moldavian coats, a plain sun was used. For instance below you can see a Moldavian coat of arms from Grigore Ghica III. The picture was taken from above one of the two fountains built in the walls of his welfare foundation of Saint Spiridon in Iași (the capital of Moldavia) - a hospital and a church mainly - raised in 1765. You can see clearly the moon and the sun, both bearing human countenances.

The astral elements are present on the coat of arms of all main Romanian provinces: Moldavia, Walachia and Transylvania.

Coat of Moldavia in Saint Spiridon - Iași, from Grigore Ghica III (prince of Moldavia between 1764-1767 and between 1774-1777 and of Walachia between 1769-1768)
Introduction   Moldavia   Walachia   Transylvania   Romania

section by Adrian Homutescu