Vlad the Impaler: The Real Dracula

“Knee-jerk liberals and all the certified saints of sanctified humanism are quick to condemn this great and much-maligned Transylvanian statesman.”—William F. Buckley II

“Seriously Bill? What do you know about him? He wasn’t even Transylvanian.”—Foil H. Ninja I


At this time ten years ago, I was living in Arad, Romania, located in the heart of vampire country, Transylvania (yes, it’s a real place). Since I was reluctantly making preparations to return to the States at the end of the month, l always get a little nostalgic about the place at this time of year. Leaving somewhere that you’ve called home is hard, even if it was only for a few months, and especially if you don’t want to go and know that it’s very possible that you’ll never come back.

Portrait of VladNaturally, this got me thinking about Romania’s most famous citizen, Vlad III, aka Vlad Ţepeş (pronounced tsepesh, meaning spike). Actually, most Romanians would probably tell you that their most famous citizen is Nadia Comaneci, but they’re wrong. Some of you don’t even know who that is, but everyone knows Vlad 3, aka Vlad Dracula, or at least they know the name. Also, Vlad was very fond of monks for some reason. He had a lot of monasteries built during his relatively short reign. Since I’ve spent the last two weeks writing about the Black Monk, this probably reminded me of Vlad as well, although on a more subconscious level.

He was born in 1431, the son of Vlad II (duh), who was a knight in the Order of the Dragon, a religious military organization created by Emperor Sigismund to defend Christian lands from invading Muslim Turks, which was a real problem at the time. Ask any of their neighbors. There isn’t one of them that hasn’t been invaded by Turkey multiple times over the centuries. If you know any Turks, then you probably know that they’ll fight anyone over anything anytime. But I digress.

Anyway, the Romanian word for Dragon at that time was dracul, and since he was a member of the Order of the Dragon, Vlad II’s nickname was Vlad Dracul – Vlad the Dragon. Putting an “a” at the end of nouns in Romanian is like putting “ette” at the ends of them in English. A cigarette is a little cigar, a kitchenette is a little kitchen, and a dracula is a little dracul. Being Vlad Dracul’s son, Vlad III’s first nickname was Vlad Dracula, or Vlad the Little Dragon. It wasn’t until he grew up to be a bloodthirsty psychopath that he became known as Vlad Ţepeş, which was translated into English as Vlad the Impaler, which is a better description even though Vlad the Spike is more accurate. And just so you know, dracul also meant “devil” in Romanian back then, but they’ve since come up with a pair of new words to distinguish between the two. Dracula was never intended to mean “little devil,” no matter how appropriate that might have been, and dracul doesn’t mean anything in modern Romanian.

So that means that the name of the original, most famous of all vampires was literally Little Dragon, or possibly Little Devil. I leave it to you to decide whether that’s cooler than Spike. And I guess Bram Stoker thought that Count Dracula sounded cooler and was easier to pronounce than Count Ţepeş, while Count Spike is just plain silly. 

Incidentally, the best name for a Transylvanian vampire would be Mia Fwamé (pronounced me-eh fwah-meh, spelled mi-e foame in Romanian). It means “I’m hungry.”

One last piece of history that you need to know before we get into Vlad’s bloody reign of terror is that he was actually a prince of Wallachia, which is now the southern part of Romania. Modern Romania is composed of the former principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (merged in 1859), and they later acquired a large segment of Transylvania from Hungary following World War I. Although Vlad was born in Sighişoara, Transylvania, he was really Wallachian.

Little Vlad’s life started off pretty well, with him spending his childhood living in the opulence that the children of noblemen were afforded. Unfortunately for him and a lot of other people, even though his father had sworn to defend Eastern Europe from the Turks, Vlad II turned out to be a traitor and formed an alliance with the Ottoman Empire instead of fighting them. This had the effect of protecting Wallachia from Turkish invasions, but it seriously pissed off the rulers and boyars in the whole region. (A boyar was basically just someone who had power and influence because they had money, so not much has changed between then and now in that regard.) What this meant for Vlad III and his little brother Radu (also a III) was that their own father sent them to Turkey to be hostages as a show of good faith. Vlad was only 13 at the time, and he and Radu would remain there for three years until their father was assassinated in 1447. Once they were free to leave, Vlad returned to Wallachia, but Radu opted to stay behind. By most accounts, the boys had been treated well and received a first-rate education while with their Turkish hosts. Being as young as he was when they were sent there, Radu seems to have grown to feel more Turkish that Wallachian and even converted to Islam. This would come into play later on.

After returning home, Vlad ruled Wallachia briefly in 1448 as a puppet of the Ottoman Turks before he was overthrown later that year and had to flee to Moldavia. He later went to Hungary, and when the Hungarians chased the Turks out of Wallachia in 1456, Vlad regained the throne. This was when he began to earn his nickname. His domestic policies were draconian to say the least. He had people executed in barbaric ways, even for committing petty crimes, usually by impaling them of course. While his methods were horrific, the results were significant. There is one legend that he decided to impress some visiting dignitaries by leaving a goblet full of gold unguarded overnight in the town square of Tirgovişte, the capital of Wallachia. The story goes that it was still there the following morning. No one would risk an agonizing death for being caught stealing any amount of money. There are also tales of Vlad raiding villages in Transylvania that were under the rule of rival factions and impaling everyone in them, alive or dead, no matter how young or old. He also supposedly invited all of the homeless people and beggars in Tirgovişta to a banquet in their honor and then burned the building down with all of them locked inside.

Men being impaledIn fact, there are more stories about sadistic massacres committed by Vlad, sometimes for trivial reasons, than I have time to recount, but it probably doesn’t matter. Most Eastern European scholars think that the majority of them never happened anyway. He may have had entire villages impaled for no other reason than for his own twisted amusement, but there’s no solid evidence to support this. He certainly executed lots of people in horrible ways – over 100,000 by some estimates – but most of them were Turkish soldiers and noblemen who opposed him, not innocent peasants. Some historians claim that he was actually very popular with the common people, and that may well be true. It’s hard to stay in power if you’re slaughtering your own people, as evidenced by events in our own recent history. Even your most loyal generals will tend to turn on you for that sort of thing, which some say is exactly what really happened to Vlad, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Vlad’s foreign policy was even bloodier, if that’s possible. Without going into a lot of boring details about politics and alliances and the significance of specific battles that would make this so dry that it reads like a history textbook, suffice it to say that Vlad kicked a lot of Turkish ass. Not only did he hate them for holding him hostage for three years, but they had also made the mistake of educating him in military strategy and, worst of all, he understood them. They would come to regret having treated him so well, because he didn’t return the favor. Turkish soldiers were terrified of him, even if they wouldn’t admit it, and for good reason. You’d rather be killed than taken prisoner by him, and that’s not a good mindset to go into battle with. He actually intimidated the Turks, and that wasn’t an easy thing to do. Those guys were tough.

Eventually, though, this backfired on him. When Spike led his army on an invasion of the Turkish-held lands to the south, slaughtering and burning everything in sight,  Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II was furious and sent an army to take Wallachia with Vlad’s brother Radu the Handsome (Radu cel Frumos) in command. In their retreat, Vlad initiated a scorched earth policy and had his men burn entire villages to the ground and poison the wells so that the Turks couldn’t restock their supplies. Just before they got to Tirgovişta, Radu’s army found themselves confronted with a grisly sight. On the outskirts of the city was a virtual forest of impaled Turkish soldiers, estimated to have been at least 20,000 corpses rotting in the sun. The men were so rattled by this that Radu decided to fall back, which I guess is why they called him Radu the Handsome as opposed to something else, like Radu the Brave. (I always get the Monty Python “Brave Sir Robin” song stuck in my head whenever I think about this.)

Vlad launched a series of counterattacks that severely weakened the Ottoman army, but the Turks just kept coming. Eventually they chased him out of the country. In the fall of 1462, they cornered him in Poenari Castle in northern Wallachia where he was forced to escape through a secret tunnel and make his way into Transylvania. Without an army, he turned to Matthias Corvinus, the king of Hungary, for help. Instead, Corvinus arrested him for reasons that are still unclear. Wallachia fell and the Turks put Radu in charge.

Vlad spent the next eight years as a prisoner, although he was only locked up for the first three or four. After that, he had free run of the castle, and Corvinus seems to have softened his negative opinion of his captive, or maybe he just decided that Vlad was better than having the Turks at his doorstep. In any case, with the unexpected support of Stephen the Great of Moldavia, Vlad’s cousin with whom he had always had a rocky relationship, Corvinus decided it was time to retake Wallachia. With an army of soldiers from Hungary, Moldavia and Transylvania, they defeated the Turks and reinstated Vlad as ruler in 1475. Radu had died of syphilis earlier that year (maybe he was too handsome for his own good), so Vlad was denied the pleasure of defeating the brother who had run him out of power, but he was back in charge of his homeland just the same.

It didn’t last. The Hungarians and Moldavians had no intention of sticking around to keep him in power, which makes one wonder why they bothered in the first place, because just two months later the Turks were back. With no more than 4,000 troops at his command, Vlad was easily defeated, and killed. No one knows for sure how or when he died. Most think that it was in battle, but there’s also a story that goes that he was killed by one of his own men for some reason. Another theory is that he was assassinated by boyars that he had ticked off with his usual disregard for their perceived entitlement to influence in matters of state. The story told by a Turkish historian that says that he was beheaded by a Turkish soldier and that his head was preserved in honey and taken back to Constantinople as a trophy is unlikely. No head has ever been found, and you don’t just throw something like that away when you’re cleaning out the palace basement.

Vlad's faket tombHe was most likely buried at the Comana monastery, which he had built in 1461. A headless body was found buried there in the 1970s by archaeologists, so maybe that Turkish historian was right, at least to a point. Claims that his body was placed in a tomb at the Snagov monastery – a tomb that is said by some to be mysteriously empty – appear to be, sadly, just a myth. The obvious implication is that it’s empty because he rose from the grave as a vampire. That would make a great story, but there’s just no evidence to support it. If it is empty, it’s probably because there was never anyone in it in the first place. But that hasn’t stopped tourists from being duped into going there anyway to see the vacated ”tomb of Dracula.”

You can, however, visit the actual house where Vlad was born in Sighişoara, although I doubt you’ll be impressed. It’s now a restaurant by day and nightclub after dark. I’m not kidding. I’ve been there, and it isn’t much to see. It just looks like an old house that’s been turned into a restaurant, and unfortunately, there’s a wooden cutout of a stereotypical Dracula in a tuxedo right outside the front door.

My friends and I learned from two women who run a small coffee and pastry shop nearby that the locals aren’t all that happy about the birthplace of one of their national heroes being turned into a cheesy tourist attraction. And make no mistake, Vlad is considered to be a national hero. Despite his cruelty, he managed to keep that part of the world Turk-free for nearly seven years, and that was no small accomplishment at the time. Romanians in general aren’t too thrilled that the rest of the world thinks of one of their greatest heroes as being a suave playboy in a tux with a weird accent who turns into a bat and goes around biting young women on the neck. I think it’s sort of like the way that Americans would feel if the rest of the world thought that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was an accurate representation of the man who was possibly our greatest president.

And just in case you care, there are a lot better reasons to visit Sighişoara than that. Lots of gatherings and conferences get held there, partly because it’s centrally located, but mostly because it’s just one of those places that people like to go. It’s not worth travelling all the way to Romania for, and I wouldn’t spend more than a day there, but if you’re in the neighborhood, you’d be crazy to skip it. You can also visit several places claiming to be Dracula’s Castle, but reliable sources told me that they’re all just tourist traps. Vlad was so busy running around fighting people that he never really had a castle of his own.

One last thing, just because none of the typical Vlad/Dracula websites ever mention it: There has been a theory put forth based on Vlad’s unusual appearance that he might have had some kind of genetic defect that could have affected his mental state and been at the root of his extreme sadism. No one seems willing or able to identify this possible disorder, but there are more than 6,000 of them, and those are just the ones that have been identified. Also, I’m guessing that diagnosing Dracula isn’t a priority for most geneticists and medical researchers. But while it’s just speculation, and there are no indisputable remains to run tests on, abnormal facial features are a frequent indicator for this sort of thing, and Vlad was definitely a funny looking guy. Given all of the inbreeding that went on between noble clans back then to make sure that all of the wealth and power stayed in the family, he could have had some abnormality that no one has seen in centuries.

Or maybe he was just a bloodthirsty psycho.

and all the devils are here




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