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The Real Dracula: Transylvania's Impaling Prince
Real life is oftentimes stranger than fiction. Vlad III, was very real and much crueler than the blood-sucking character created by Bram Stoker in his 1897 novel, “Dracula”. He was known by his own people and enemies alike, as ‘Vlad Tepes’, which translates from Romanian to , ‘Vlad the Impaler”. Garlic knots and crucifixes be damned; if Vlad Tepes wanted your blood, he’d get it. He’s an interesting figure, because he is viewed as a hero by many Romanian people and reviled by others who point to his obsession and enjoyment in carrying out cruel and unusual punishments. His reign as crown prince of the Romanian principality known as Wallachia (modern day Transylvania) was short, but it was brutal.
Dracula: "Son of the Dragon"
Vlad Tepes father,Vlad II, known as Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Dragon) , preceded younger Vlad as prince of Wallachia. When Vlad III took over the throne, people referred to him as Vlad Dracula (son of the dragon), which is the name Stoker decided to give his title character. It’s hard to comprehend Vlad’s brutality, but context does provide some clarity. Historical accounts tell us that Vlad along with brother Radu, were imprisoned by the Ottoman Turks in order to secure the loyalty of their father. Basically, you could look at it as a type of insurance policy, the premise being that the father wouldn’t dare go to war with the Turks and jeopardize the lives of his sons. Well, the father didn’t hold up his end of the bargain, and supported a military campaign mounted by several European Monarchs, to stop the Ottoman expansion of Eastern Europe. The seeds of anger were planted in young Vlad’s mind after learning of this betrayal.
Vlad was thirteen, abandoned by his father, left without a mother, and a Christian amongst a foreign practitioners of a strange religion; the hatred was bubbling up inside and he began channeling this hatred for his captors through bloodthirsty ideas of revenge. Plans were devised by the Sultan to use the two brothers as puppet leaders when they returned to rule Wallachia, in the name of Islam. They were given military training, but the one thing that really intrigued Vlad was the public executions carried out by the Turks, and its effectiveness to instill fear in enemies and native citizens alike. He couldn’t wait to exact revenge on these Muslim invaders, by going above and beyond their own standards of punishment. Radu, on the other hand became indoctrinated with the Muslim faith and didn’t share his brothers lust for revenge. To Vlad, Radu was a traitor--never to be trusted again.
A New Dracula in Town
In 1448, Vlad returned to rule Wallachia after being released by the Turks who were under the impression that he’d rule as a puppet prince in the interests of the sultan. However, things took a turn, when he banished the sultan from his realm. Vlad then hastily built great fortresses, bastions, and underground tunnels with the realization that he was on the brink of war with the Turks for his insurrection. When he finally finished battening down the hatches, he decided to teach the men who facilitated the murder of his father a lesson on intimidation. The Boyars(nobility) were invited to a great feast and were wined and dined by Vlad. Their fate was sealed when asked by Vlad how many princes they have seen come and go throughout their lifetime. Many answered ten, twelve, thirteen...this was all he needed to hear. He gathered that they had no respect for the ruling prince, and thus had his guards surround the men when they least expected it and forced them on a death march in the biting Romanian winter to his castle where they were forced to work to the death. Many died simply by falling off the precarious path during the march over(There were thousand foot drops on each side).
After this incident, Vlad was now feared and in a sense emboldened when he witnessed the results of administering unadulterated violence. It was at this point, where Vlad Dracula would begin to embody the nickname “Tepes” or “The Impaler”, for his prefered method of execution. Vlad learned this form of torturous execution while he was a captive of the Turks. ‘Impaling’ in the classical sense involved spreading your victim on the ground, tying the arms to one set of horses and the legs to another. Then you take a stake as the horses move slowly forward, and hoist the victim up as the ropes are cut. It was an incredibly cruel death, as it would take up to three days or sometimes more for you to expire. Death would not come from your innards being pierced, but from exposure to the elements. Its safe to say that this was extremely effective in hammering home the point, that it would be unwise to oppose or disobey Vlad in any manner…
Now, after achieving sovereignty, Vlad instituted a strict and severe moral code for his own people; he was very much a law & order person. The punishment for offenses both minor and egregious were of course...impalement. For example, if a woman committed adultery, he had her body skinned and exposed on the village square. Or if a woman was lazy, he had her hands cut off and displayed in the square as a lesson to lazy wives. (Modern day feminists would have had a field day with this horrible human) He impaled the old people and the children because they were of no use to him. The fear of his wrath created an environment of obsequity to the likes of which civilized society had never seen. As a way of touting such authority, Vlad had a golden cup placed in the middle of the peasant inhabited village, daring anyone to steal it (He even allowed the people to drink from it) . The cup remained in place throughout the entirety of his rule...
His cruelty never waned, and lasted the entirety of his reign as Prince of Wallachia ; as a matter of fact it became increasingly worse. Vlad would kill on a whim and seemed to enjoy the sight of blood so much that he’d often dine amongst the impaled victims. As legend has it, he would have the blood of his victims gathered in a bowl to be used as a dipping sauce for bread. When a Polish nobleman dined with Vlad amongst the decaying corpse, he began to (understandably) hold his nose. Vlad noticed and asked the man, “What’s the matter with you?” The man replied, “My Lord I can’t stand the stench of all these rotting corpses all around.” So Vlad had this man impaled on a higher stake than all the others and remarked, “Well, now he’s up there where the gentle breezes blow, and he doesn’t have to worry about the stench down here anymore.”
One story in particular, that precisely demonstrates Vlad’s philosophy of intimidation, happened during the time in which the Ottoman Turks attempted to take back the Wallachian throne from the ‘impaling prince’. The first wave of invaders were defeated by Vlad, who then used the dead and injured bodies as a warning signal. Around twenty thousand Turkish bodies (some still alive) were hoisted on stakes, forming what is infamously referred to as, “The Forest of the Impaled”. When the second wave of reinforcements arrived, they came upon this most horrific scene, and turned right back around and left! The feeling was -- what can you do to defeat a devil that would commit such atrocities?
Death & Legacy
Vlad would eventually meet his demise at the hands of a hired assassin contracted by the Turkish sultan. They severed his head, preserved it in a jar of honey, and sent it back to the sultan for proof. The world was rid of a monster but his death was anticlimactic,in a sense, when you remember the manner in which he himself killed people. The legacy of Vlad Dracula is a vicious one, but also a complicated one. You would assume that given the nature of his brutality and the unspeakable human atrocities committed, that he’d be reviled by any and all. However, as long as he fought against the Muslim Turks he was accepted and even supported by the Pope! Many Romanian people to this day view Vlad as a national hero for the simple fact that he fought ardently to stop the spread of Islam in Romania. Context is important here also, because we’re talking about the 1400”s; a time in which rules of engagement were non-existent and standards of morality or decency were quite a bit different than in the world we live today. That being said, the nickname of “The Impaler” was not bestowed upon him as a term of endearment. His enduring legacy will be that of, “one of the most evil men to ever walk the earth.”