Vlad III was prince of Wallachia between 1448 and 1477, and he is known with many different names, and one of the most popular one is Dracula. Born in Sighișoara, he was second born of Vlad II Dracul, from the house of Drăculești, which passed to him all the holdings of the family. Vlad was furthermore known also as Țepeș, “impaler” in Romanian, due to his habit of executing his enemies through the practice of impaling.
Dracula literally means “Son of the Dragon”
In modern Romanian the word “drac” has become “devil”; however both impaler and devil were names which did not describe the man while alive, on the contrary they started calling him so many centuries after his death.
The introduction on the genesis of the name is, although long, fundamental to comprehend how this ancient Romanian sovereign had fuelled fantasy and historical analysis in the following centuries. Vlad III spent almost all his life in a battle against the Turks, and he demonstrated not only to be a smart governor but also a military leader with an incomparable talent.
Probably, without Dracula ruling, the Ottoman Empire would have conquered far more lands, managing this way to penetrate even further the European continent. His war deeds included also the Crusade of the 1460 set up by pope Pius II and the victory against Mehmed II, were celebrated from Romania all the way to Italy as well.
Vlad III made extensive use of theatricality and torture during his 3 terms. It is worth mentioning though that tortures, summary executions and death were common customs during the Middle Ages. The Ottoman Empire was known to impale its victims and the way Turks used to kill their enemies was generally tremendous too. Dracula himself had been hold as a prisoner of war by the Ottoman court from the 1444 to the 1447, delivered to the enemy army from his own father.
Vlad III found himself to rule a land constantly devastated by wars, where criminality was widespread. The boyars, noble vassals from the Wallachia, were the very first ones to be riotous and restless, and Dracula decided to apply the principles of the so called draconian law. First example of blood linked to the Romanian prince was the Easter of blood in Târgoviște. On that day, 200 boyars were impaled, beheaded or enslaved, guilty of having betrayed or threatened the power of the voivode. The episode became famous for being the first case in Europe of open violence against a group of people considered noble. Furthermore the slaughter of that segment allowed the prince to have enough manpower to rebuild the Stronghold of Poenari, castle which became his permanent residence.
Two years later Mehmed II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, sent some messengers to the court of Vlad III asking for the annual tribute that the prince owed Wallachia. Vlad killed the messengers with the excuse that they had not remove their turban in his presence. First he ordered to nail down their turbans to their heads, then they beheaded them.
In response to the offence, the sultan sent as ambassador Hamza Pasha, the governor of Nicopolis, in Wallachia, looking for either peace or the life of the prince. Pasha and his 1,000 knights were slaughtered and tortured; the governor received the heaviest punishment:
Hamza Pasha was impaled in the highest pole, as a symbol of his high rank
Vlad raided the Ottoman empire several times thanks to both the accurate knowledge of its language and the Turkish traditions. The first one occurred in 1462, when he reached and passed the border with the Danube, destroying the area between Serbia and the the Black Sea. In a letter to his ally, the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus, Vlad wrote:
“I have killed farmers, women, elderly people and youngsters…We’ve killed 23,884 Turks, without counting the ones set on fire in their houses or those who were beheaded by our officers…”.
Below: monument to Vlad III in Sighișoara, his homeland. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Mehmed II decided to counterattack with an operation on a lange scale, arriving to Wallachia with 110,000 men. Vlad III was fierce: once the opposing army landed, the prince adopted a scorched-earth policy, denying them the chance to eat and refuel. Through the night he attacked the Ottoman army which weakened it drastically, with a total of 15,000 Ottoman victims. Despite that though, Vlad did not succeed in his main goal of killing the sultan.
The Turk overstepped the Danube, did some minor raids and quickly came back to Hadrianopolis, celebrating a victory which was, historically, just an Ottoman mirage. The modern historians state that:
Mehmed II came back to his land because terrified by the indescribable atrocities perpetrated by Vlad III
Vlad was dethroned by his brother Radu, funded by Mehmed II. He was taken to Hungaria, where he was held prisoner from the 1462 to the 1474. When his brother died he was restored on the throne of Wallachia but he died shortly after in 1477 for unknown reasons.
During the years when he ruled the Wallachia and fought the Turks, Vlad III contrived different types of tortures, functional to scare his enemies, especially his number one enemy the Ottoman Empire as well as the Boyars, the noblemen of the region, or the merchants. As for the practice of impaling there were two possible types:
- with a pointy pole, stuck into the abdomen
- with a wooden, lubricated pole, inserted into the condemned anus, who would die in the following days due to the weight of its body which let the pale advanced through its inner organs.
Both methods expected that the victims were raised a few meters high, so that the population could both see and heard their lament of agony.
Below: illustration representing Dracula receiving the Ottoman messengers
Furthermore Vlad III honoured an ancient code of execution, which led him to define the right type of impaling according to the lineage of the condemned man.
- rich people could have their pole painted in silver
- to the merchants they would destinate the slower agony, with poles with some notches through them
- In Sibiu 10,000 people were impaled all at once and covered in honey so to attract any type of insect on them
- Adulterers were impaled in front of their house door
Also Vlad III was used to attending any phase of their agony. He would eat, with other members of the court, amongst the agonizing condemned people on top of their poles.
Impaling people was not the only form of punishment adopted by the bloody Dracula. On the 24th of August 1459 he invited for lunch some merchants in the city of Brașov, offering his best food. Once the food was over, he sliced open the first merchant and forced the second one to eat the food right from the organs of the other one. The second one was then opened up as well, for then doing the same thing over and over again until the last one, boiled alive and fed him to the dogs.
Way before Bram Stoker, who never visited Romania (and this might explain the misunderstanding about the Bran Castle vs. the Poenari one), the Russian and German literature had already created the myth of the cruel and tyrann Vlad III Dracula. It is from those productions, often lacking of any historical evidence, that it comes all those attributions to cannibalism and hematophagy associated with Vlad.
Some folk legends exemplify the perception of the character both in his homeland and abroad:
- still to this day, the monks of the convent of Snagov go to the tomb of Vlad every morning praying to not come back
- a Saxon merchant sued to Vlad the theft of 160 golden ducats. The voivode threatened the population that, if they had not given to him the criminal, he would have impaled everyone of them. Rapidly, the criminal was delivered and he was impaled. To the merchant they gave 161 ducats. The following day the man went to Vlad to give him the spare ducat. The prince said to him that he would have had him impaled too if he had not taken that one back.
- Vlad set up a cup completely made out of gold in the city of Târgoviște. The cup remained at the centre of the city square for a month time due to the terror of possible consequences.
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