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”. 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 reading about Vlad Țepeș (TSE·pesh), a Wallachian Prince and 15th century warrior, who fought on the front lines of the Jihad of his day.
Stoker wrote in his notes, “in Wallachian language means DEVIL“. In a time and place remembered for its brutality, Vlad Țepeș stands out as extraordinarily cruel. There are stories that Țepeș disemboweled his own pregnant mistress. That he collected the noses of vanquished adversaries, some 24,000 of them. That he dined among forests of victims, impaled on spikes. That he even impaled the donkeys they rode in on.
Founded in 1330, the Principality of Wallachia is a region in modern-day Romania, situated between the Lower Danube river and the Carpathian Mountains. 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.
In 1436, Vlad II became voivode, (prince), of Wallachia. 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, dedicated to stopping the Ottoman advance into Europe.
Shifting loyalties put the Wallachian prince in a weakened position, forcing him to pay homage to Ottoman Sultan Murad II, including participation in the Ottoman invasion of the nearby Romanian principality of Transylvania.
Transylvanian voivode John Hunyadi persuaded Vlad to fight with him against the Ottomans. Vlad was summoned to a diplomatic meeting in 1442 with Sultan Murad II, and brought his two younger sons, Vlad III and Radu, along. The meeting was a trap. Vlad was thrown in prison but later released in exchange for a pledge to pay annual tribute, and the promise of 500 Wallachian boys to serve as janissaries in the Ottoman army. Vlad III, age 12, and his younger brother were left behind as hostages, to ensure the loyalty of their father.
The timeline is unclear, but Vlad Dracul appears to have been convinced that his sons were “butchered for the sake of Christian peace”, sometime around 1444. Byzantine historian Michael Critobulus writes that Vlad and Radu fled to the Ottoman Empire in 1447 following the murder of their father and older brother Mircea, suggesting that the two were released, most likely following Vlad’s pledge of homage to the Sultan.
The terms of the boys’ captivity were relatively mild by the standards of the time, and Vlad became a skilled horseman and warrior. Radu went over to the Turkish side, but Vlad hated captivity, developing a deep enmity for his captors that would last all his life.
With the death of his father and older brother, Vlad III became a potential claimant for the throne in Wallachia. Vlad won back his father’s seat in 1448 with Ottoman support, only to be deposed after only two months. Sometime later, he switched sides in the Ottoman-Hungarian conflict.
Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire stood ready to invade all of Europe.
Vlad III regained the Wallachian throne in 1456 with military support from King Ladislaus V of Hungary. The new prince made it his first order of business to cut ties with the Ottoman Empire, terminating the annual tribute which had formerly ensured peace between Wallachia and the Caliphate.
A group of visiting Ottoman envoys declined to remove their turbans in Vlad’s court, citing religious custom. The prince commended them for their religious devotion and ordered the turbans nailed to their skulls, assuring them that now, they would never be removed.
According to stories circulated after his death, Vlad III needed to consolidate power, against his fractious nobles (boyars). Hundreds of them were invited to a banquet, only to be stabbed, their still twitching bodies then impaled on spikes.
Ethnic Germans had long since emigrated to these parts, forming a distinct merchant class in Wallachian society. These Saxon merchants were allied with the boyars. It was not long before they too, found themselves impaled on spikes.
Vlad invaded the Ottoman Empire in 1461, by his own count killing “23,884 Turks and Bulgarians”.
Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, invaded Wallachia at the head of an army 150,000 strong in 1462, only to find the roads lined with a “forest of the impaled”, and the capital city of Târgoviște, deserted.
The Byzantine Greek historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles writes: “The sultan’s army entered into the area of the impalements, which was seventeen stades long and seven stades wide. There were large stakes there on which, as it was said, about twenty thousand men, women, and children had been spitted, quite a sight for the Turks and the sultan himself. The sultan was seized with amazement and said that it was not possible to deprive of his country a man who had done such great deeds, who had such a diabolical understanding of how to govern his realm and its people. And he said that a man who had done such things was worth much. The rest of the Turks were dumbfounded when they saw the multitude of men on the stakes. There were infants too affixed to their mothers on the stakes, and birds had made their nests in their entrails”.
To give a sense of scale to this horror, a “stade” derives from the Greek “stadeon” – the dimensions of an ancient sports arena.
In the end, the Romanian principalities had little with which to oppose the overwhelming force of the Ottoman Empire. Vlad III Țepeș would be twice deposed only to regain power. Unable to defeat his more powerful adversary, Vlad was exiled for several years in Hungary, spending much of that time in prison. Heaven help the poor rodent who fell into his hands, in that wretched cell.
Vlad successfully stole back the throne following the death of his brother Radu at the head of an Ottoman column in 1475, but this last reign would be brief. The prince of Wallachia was marching to yet another battle with the Ottomans in 1477, when he and his small vanguard of soldiers were ambushed, and Vlad was killed.
Today, the mountaintop Castle in Bran, Romania is celebrated as the “home” of Count Dracula. Ironically, neither Bram Stoker nor Vlad Țepeș ever set foot in the place. There is some debate as to the veracity of these tales, and whether they were significantly embellished. Johannes Gutenberg invented the modern movable type printing press in 1439 when Vlad III was about 8, so his contemporaries had ample opportunity to tell their stories. Many were written by his detractors, of which a guy like Vlad “the Impaler”, had many. Yet the details of these stories are virtually identical, suggesting they contain significantly more than a grain of truth.
Statues of Vlad Țepeș dot the Romanian countryside, though his burial place is unknown. In the end, we are left only with the tale of a warlord. A prince. A sadist. An impaler. A psychotic madman who, 400 years after his death, would inspire the name of Count Dracula.