We don’t know much about him, save he was Prince of Valachia in the late 15th-century and later inspired Bram Stoker who drew upon his features to design the blood-curling character of Dracula. But who, historically, was Vlad the Impaler? Let’s walk (carefully) into the prince’s footsteps throughout Transylvania.
“The castle of Dracula now stood out against the red sky, and every stone of its broken battlements was articulated against the light of the setting sun.” So does author Bram Stoker describe the fortress inhabited by the infamous vampire Dracula. His novel, published in 1897, contributed to popularize the vampire genre (the same way Haitian folklore ressurrected the zombies); but behind the fanciful, gloomy picture of overcrowded vaults and supernatural creatures lies a true historical figure. Let’s sort out fact from fiction.
Valachia: an ancient Romanian province in Eastern Europe, squeezed between the Carpathian mountains (north) and the Danube river (south). Yet it was not sheltered from the geopolitical chaos of the late medieval period. In the 15th century, the neighboring Ottoman Empire got hungrier than ever, capturing Constantinople in 1453 and burying the Byzantine Empire — last shine of Roman glory — alive.
Valachian leaders thus paid a monthly ransom to the Turks to remain at peace with them and not risk an open conflict. But it did not prevent war. In a territory where Hungarians, Valachians, Transylvanian Saxons and Ottomans cohabited, tensions were commonplace. Besides, religious problems arose — Muslim Turks clashing against Christian East-Europeans. Who could prevent further escalation? On that stage already smelling of blood entered Vlad Dracul, voivode (prince) of Valachia since 1436.
Way of the Dragon
Vlad Dracul was aware of the Turks’ power, so he standed guard at the Transylvanian border. But against all odds came the threat from the inside: a bloody war of succession ended his reign in 1447. Vlad II was assassinated, while his eldest son had his eyes gouged out and ended up buried alive. His second son Vlad Dracula (‘son of the dragon’) escaped the massacre, but had to go into exile in Moldavia. There, Dracula bode his time while his treacherous cousin became the new voivode of Valachia.
Soon enough, however, the legitimate heir to Vlad II’s succession gathered his armies, securing appropriate alliances and funding to come back in full force. In 1456, his father’s murderers were chastised: they were part of a local aristocratic elite known as boyars. In order to purge the region from them (and to prevent further discontent), Dracula invited 200 boyars to a little party thrown on Easter Sunday 1459. But instead of providing them with the usual food and music, he forced his guests to build him a fortress — men, women and children alike, most of whom died of exhaustion.
Despite his brutal methods, Vlad Dracula certainly modernized the region. He reformed the army and the government, regulated trade. When Turkish envoys showed up on his doorstep, sent by sultan Mehmed II, the dragon-prince did not receive them with a warm welcome. As both messengers refused to take off their turbans — as religious custom dictates –, Dracula had their hats nailed to their heads… This certainly did nothing to appease the tensions between Ottomans and Valachians.
Next unfolded a long series of intermittent wars and skirmishes, in which Hungarians and Saxons also took part. Dracula’s bloody reputation was probably built on the battlefield: one story goes that at the end of a battle in 1462, he had more than 20,000 Turkish prisoners impaled. Hence his nickname, ‘the Impaler’ revealing his taste for the unusual torture and execution practice of skewering his enemies on spikes. Eventually captured by the sultan, Dracula moped around Hungaria and died in 1476. Then could the legend begin.
Beyond the myth
Passed on through the Germanic and Muslim chronicles of the late 15th century, the military atrocities of Dracula were echoed around Europe and Asia. But Saxons and Ottomans had good reasons to paint a bleak picture of their enemy, and no one really knows how to sort fact from fiction. Four centuries later, Vlad rose from his tomb in Bram Stoker’s novel, but as the author never mentioned any other name than ‘Dracula’ in his notes, it is likely that Stoker did not know much about the historical figure himself when he deisgned his vampire character.
How to separate shadow from light? It is very likely that the Impaler inherited his nickname from grim deeds; but his personality does not only come down to that. Many wild claims have been made about Dracula’s cruelty, such as the one asserting that he would have dinner among his impaled enemies… But in today’s Romania, the dragon-prince is considered a harsh but fair ruler, who fought for his country’s independence. From a Eastern European perspective, Vlad is closer to the national hero than the blood-sucking vampire. No need for garlic: Dracula may rest in peace.
This was the blog’s #100 post! For more than 4 years now, we have been exploring the backstage of history. That’s been (and still is) our pleasure and privilege. We want to thank you, readers, for your support and curiosity — especially those who have been following us since the very beginning! Now we will keep on going and do our best to bring you new fascinating stories. Reach out (Facebook, email) to suggest new topics or just say hi!
- Matei Cazacu, Dracula (2017), Tallandier.
- Marc Lallanilla, “The Real Dracula: Vlad the Impaler”, September 14, 2017, LiveScience.
- Rachel Nuwer, “Archaeologists Think They’ve Found the Dungeon Where Dracula Was Kept”, October 2, 2014, Smithsonian Magazine.
- Grigore Nandris, “The Historical Dracula: The Theme of His Legend in the Western and in the Eastern Literatures of Europe”, Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 3, no. 4, 1966, pp. 367–396. JSTOR.
- Juan José Sánchez Arreseigor, “Le vrai Dracula, plus sanguinaire que la légende”, National Geographic.
- G. Monod, G. Fagniez (dir.), Revue Historique n°533 (January-March 1980), pp. 206-208, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.