Bassarab or Bassaraba, the name of a dynasty in Rumania, which ruled Walachia from the dawn of its history until 1658. The origin of the name and family has not yet been explained. It undoubtedly stands in close connexion with the name of the province of Bessarabia, which oriental chroniclers gave in olden times to the whole of Walachia. The heraldic sign, three heads of negroes in the Bassarab shield, seems to be of late western origin and to rest on a popular etymology connecting the second half of the word with Arabs, who were taken to signify Moors (blacks). The other heraldic signs, the crescent and the star, have evidently been added on the same supposition of an oriental origin of the family. The Servian chroniclers connect its origin with their own nationality, basing this view upon the identification of Sarab with Sorb or Serbia. All this is mere conjecture. It is, however, a fact that the first appearance of the Bassarabs as rulers (knyaz, ban or voivod) is in the western part of Rumania (originally called Little Walachia), and also in the southern parts of Transylvania - the old dukedoms of Fogarash and Almash, which are situated on the right bank of the Olt (Aluta) and extend south to Severin and Craiova. Whatever the origin of the Bassarabs may be, the foundation of the Walachian principality is undoubtedly connected with a member of that family, who, according to tradition, came from Transylvania and settled first in Câmpulung and Tîrgovishtea. It is equally certain that almost every one of the long line of princes and voivods bore a Slavonic surname, perhaps due to the influence of the Slavonic Church, to which the Rumanians belonged.
Starting from the 13th Century the Bassarabs soon split into two rival factions, known in history as the descendants of the two brothers Dan and Dragul. The form Drakul - devil - by which this line is known in history is no doubt a nickname given by the rival line. It has fastened on the family on account of the cruelties perpetrated by Vlad Drakul (1433-1446) and Vlad Tsepesh (1456-1476), who figure in popular legend as representatives of the most fiendish cruelty. The feud between the rival dynasties lasted from the beginning of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th.
The most prominent members of the family were Mircea (1386-1418), who accepted Turkish suzerainty; Neagoe, the founder of the famous cathedral at Curtea de Argesh (q.v.); Michael, surnamed the Brave (1592-1601); and Petru Cercel, famous for his profound learning, who spoke twelve languages and carried on friendly correspondence with the greater scholars and poets of Italy. He was drowned by the Turks in Constantinople in 1590 through the intrigues of Mihnea, who succeeded him on the throne of Walachia. The British Museum possesses the oldest MSS. of the Rumanian Gospels, once owned by this Petru Cercel, and containing his autograph signature. The text was published by Dr M. Caster at the expense of the Rumanian government. Mateiu Bassarab (1633-1654) established the first printing-press in Rumania, and under his influence the first code of laws was compiled and published in Bucharest in 1654. The Bassarab dynasty became extinct with Constantine Sherban in 1658. See Rumania: Language and Literature.