Count Dracula, favorite of Halloween costume shoppers from time immemorial, has been with us since the 1897 publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, of the same name. Stoker’s working titles for the manuscript were “The Un-dead”, and “Count Wampyr”. He nearly kept one of them too, until stumbling into the real-life story of Vlad Țepeș (TSE·pesh), a Wallachian Prince and front-line warrior, against the Jihad of his day.
In modern Romanian, “Dracul” means “the Devil”. In the old language, it meant “the Dragon”, the word “Dracula” (Drăculea) translating as “Son of the Dragon”.
Stoker wrote in his notes, “in Wallachian language means DEVIL”. In a time and place remembered for near-cartoonish levels of violence, Vlad Țepeș stands out for his extraordinary cruelty. There are tales of Țepeș disemboweling his own mistress. That he collected the noses of vanquished adversaries. Some 24,000 of them. That he dined among forests of victims, spitted on poles. That he even impaled the donkeys they rode in on.
In 1436, Vlad II became voivode (prince) of Wallachia, a region in modern-day Romania situated between the Lower Danube river and the Carpathian Mountains. The sobriquet “Dracul” came from membership in the “Order of the Dragon” (literally “Society of the Dragonists”), a monarchical chivalric order founded by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in 1408, and dedicated to stopping the Ottoman advance into Europe.
A crossroads between East and West, the region was scene to frequent bloodshed, as Ottoman forces pushed westward into Europe, and Christian forces pushed back..
A weakened political position left Vlad II no choice but to pay homage to Ottoman Sultan Murad II, in the form of an annual Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) and a contribution of 500 Wallachian boys to serve as Janissaries in the elite slave army of the Ottoman Empire.
Vlad was taken hostage by the Sultan in 1442, along with his two younger sons, Vlad III and Radu. The terms of the boys’ captivity were relatively mild by the standards of the time and both became skilled horsemen and warriors. Radu went over to the Turkish side, but Vlad hated captivity, developing an incandescent hate for his captors which would last all his life.
Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II set his sights on the invasion of all Europe.
The younger Vlad gained the Wallachian throne three years later and immediately stopped all tribute to Sultan Mehmed II, by now risen to 10,000 ducats per year, and 1,000 boys. When a group of visiting Ottoman envoys declined to remove their turbans in Vlad’s court, the Prince ordered the turbans nailed to their skulls.
Vlad now consolidated power as his reputation for savagery, grew. According to stories circulated after his death, hundreds of disloyal boyars (nobles) and their allies met their end, impaled on spikes.
Mehmed II, conqueror of Constantinople, now amassed power of his own, setting his sights on campaigns against Anatolia, the Greek Empire of Trebizond and the White Sheep Turkomans of Uzun Hasan. Throughout this period, Romanian control of the Danube remained a thorn in his side.
Pope Pius II declared a new Crusade against the Ottoman in 1460, but Vlad Țepeș was the only European leader to show any enthusiasm. The Hungarian General and Ţepeş’ only ally Mihály Szilágyi was captured by the Turks, his men tortured to death and Szilágyi himself sawed in half.
Țepeș invaded the Ottoman Empire the following year. In a letter to Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus dated February 11, 1462, Țepeș wrote: I have killed peasants men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, where the Danube flows into the sea, up to Rahova, which is located near Chilia, from the lower Danube up to such places as Samovit and Ghighen. We killed 23,884 Turks without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers…Thus, your highness, you must know that I have broken the peace with him (Sultan Mehmed II).
The Sultan invaded Wallachia at the head of a massive army, only to find a “forest of the impaled”. The Byzantine Greek historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles writes: “The sultan’s army entered into the area of the impalements, which was seventeen long and seven stades wide”.
To give a sense of scale to such a horror, a “stade” derives from the Greek “stadeon” – the dimensions of an ancient sports arena.
Outnumbered five-to-one, Ţepeş employed a scorched earth policy, poisoning the waters, diverting small rivers to create marshes and digging traps covered with timber and leaves. He would send sick people among the Turks, suffering lethal diseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis and bubonic plague.
From his years in captivity, Ţepeş understood Ottoman language and customs as well as the Turks themselves. Fearless, he would disguise himself as a Turk and freely walk about their encampments, gaining valuable intelligence on the Sultan’s organization.
On this day in 1462, the Son of the Dragon launched a night attack on the Ottoman camp near the capital city of Târgoviște, in an effort to assassinate Mehmed himself. Knowing that the Sultan forbade his men from leaving their tents at night, a force of some 7,000 to 10,000 horsemen fell on Mehmed’s camp three hours after sunset. The skirmish lasted all that night until 4 the next morning, killing untold numbers of Turks, their horses and camels. Ţepeş himself aimed for the Sultan’s tent, but mistook it for that of two grand viziers, Ishak Pasha and Mahmud Pasha.
Mehmed II “The Conqueror” survived the Night Attack at Târgovişte. In the end, the Romanian principalities had little with which to oppose the overwhelming force of the Ottoman Empire. Vlad III Țepeș would twice be deposed only to regain the throne but never able to defeat his vastly more powerful adversary.
“Vlad the Impaler” was exiled to Hungary where he spent much of his time, in prison. He died fighting against the Ottomans in December 1476 or January 1477, his body cut into pieces and his head delivered to the Sultan. Drăculea is buried in an unknown grave, stories of his cruelty told and retold in Russian, German and a hundred other languages. Five hundred years later, the Son of the Dragon is remembered as the un-dead vampire, Count Dracula.