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Who Was Vlad the Impaler?

Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Caution! The following content contains gruesome stories of torture and murder--this is not for the faint of heart!

Over 500 years ago Vlad the Impaler (1431-1477) also known as Dracula, was the princely ruler of Wallachia, a providence in modern day Romania. Born in Transylvania, he ruled barely seven years, but his horrific methods and sadistic cruelty would make him the stuff of legends that persist even today.

In 1431 Vlad's father, a military commander and ruler of Wallachia himself, received an honor from the Holy Roman Emperor initiating him into the Order of the Dragon. The order was one method the royals used to ensure their own protection, but it also swore the initiate to defend Christianity and fight its Turkish enemies. Vlad's father proudly adopted the nickname "Dragon" taken from the Latin "draco," or in his native language, Dracul. Years later his son, Vlad the Impaler, would call himself Dracula, or "son of Dracul."

Though no connection to vampiric myth exists, the bloodiness of his reign was enough to inspire the tales that followed him. The Romanians refer to Vlad as Tepes meaning, impaling prince due to his fondness for impaling as a means of execution; though there is no record that Vlad referred to himself in this way. There are, however, various letters and documents in Romanian museums written by Vlad in which he refers to himself as Dracula.

The Turks had just taken Constantinople a few months before Vlad the Impaler took the throne, following his father who had been burned alive by rival nobles. Wallachia threatened to be swallowed up by Ottoman rule. Vlad's response to the Turkish threat was to refuse to pay the Sultan an agreed upon annual sum, and to deny the Turkish army Wallachian men for their forces. In the famous battle that followed, Vlad found his army badly outnumbered by the Turks. He displayed cruel brilliance in the guerilla tactics he deployed during a strategic retreat as he drew the Turkish army deeper into his own territory.

Poisoning wells and burning villages along the way he left the Turkish army nothing of use. He even engaged his own form of germ warfare, sending infectiously ill people into the Turkish camps. When the Turks finally approached the outskirts of Vlad's capital in 1462, a sight awaited that would psychologically stagger the entire Turkish army. A field nearly 2 miles (3 km) long and half a mile (1 km) wide bristled with 20,000 stakes -- each one impaling a man, woman or child--Vlad's own subjects.

The Turkish Sultan withdrew. Vlad the Impaler had won the battle though the war was not over.

Concurrently the newly invented printing press was turning out pamphlets in Germany about Vlad the Impaler's horrific deeds. At least one such pamphlet may have been a source for later linking Vlad to the legendary persona of a vampire. The pamphlet was titled: The Frightening and Truly Extraordinary Story of a Wicked Blood-drinking Tyrant Called Prince Dracula. Depictions of his atrocities made from woodcuts often decorated the pages of these pamphlets. One such pamphlet claimed:

He had a large pot made and boards with holes fastened over it and had people's heads shoved through there and imprisoned them in this. And he had the pot filled with water and a big fire made under the pot and thus let the people cry out pitiably until they were boiled quite to death.

Also included were stories of roasting men and impaling children to their mother's breasts. Though it is impossible to know if these accounts are true other stories have multiple sources providing some corroboration. In one highly credited story, Vlad the Impaler is said to have been concerned that everyone in his providence be contributing to Wallachia. He invited all those not doing so -- the poor, hungry, sick and crippled -- to a huge hall for a feast. When the feast was over he asked if the people wished to be without cares, wanting for nothing. They wholeheartedly agreed. He then had the hall sealed and set afire, killing everyone. Afterwards he triumphantly declared there were no poor in his realm.

Russian sources also tell of a cruel man, but include a slightly different angle that emphasizes Vlad's adherence to his responsibilities to restore order and justice implying a moral code behind the cruelty. Turkish sources emphasize the atrocities while Romanian villages near the spot where Vlad's fortress stood carry on oral traditions to this day that sing his praises. All of the sources are biased, but between them a figure emerges that sheds a chilling light on the man who called himself Dracula.

Vlad the Impaler died in battle with the Turks in the winter of 1476. His head was displayed on a pike in Constantinople, but his body was buried at a monastery in Snagov that he had frequented. His mystery continues today as excavations in 1931 failed to turn up a coffin.

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Discussion Comments

By anon336861 — On Jun 01, 2013

I also think Vlad was extremely slandered. There were also claims that he refused foreign merchants the right to sell anything that could be found in Wallachia.

Upon hearing this, they returned home with horror stories in hopes Vlad would be challenged, overthrown and then they would be free to do business under a different regime.

I forget the name of the king who had him imprisoned. The king who heard these tales wanted him punished, but let him go. I agree with a couple posts up, who wouldn't claim horrible tales to keep your army looking righteous in the face of defeat.

By anon226067 — On Oct 29, 2011

I have been researching Vlad the Impaler for my AP world history class and found that yes he was extremely cruel and ruthless but i can also see why so many Romanians celebrate him as a hero.

A) Most importantly he stopped the invasion of the Ottoman Turks.

B) He almost completely removed crime from his territory.

C) He eliminated the poor and useless boosting their economy, even though the way he accomplished it was disturbing.

By anon223342 — On Oct 18, 2011

wow. that's crazy.

By anon177606 — On May 18, 2011

Agree with post 3: quite the embellishment regarding his actions. Bottom line: every person in power at that time was a tyrant and used brutal methods to retain their spot. Good ol' Vlad was no different. The Ottoman Turks were the power of the time; his brutal tactics were a necessary evil to retain his throne.

For those who cringe or find themselves shocked at Vlad's actions, pick up a history book. No need to go digging into the medieval section -- just get a modern history book covering the last 100 years. We've had plenty of brutality by so-called "honorable" leaders during our time. Vlad was par for the course and managed to do something no one else could: defeat the Ottoman Turks.

By anon142838 — On Jan 14, 2011

I find your analysis rather biased based on the stories promoted by nations that were ashamed that they cowered like children in front of the turks.

Yes, the poisoning of wells and burning of villages and crop was a guerilla tactic used against invading armies from the times of the dacs. No, he did not kill innocent people. Yes, he punished anyone who broke the law to the full extent. The execution was usually reserved for rich folks, and the impaling was done so that the higher the rank the higher the stake through one's bottom.

The only time he is recorded to have killed women and children is when turks (and adversary nobles) tried to use them as a shield against him, while trying to assassinate him.

The embellishments you speak of are slander from the austro-hungary empire. The reason? Against the turks they proved to be cowards, and the only one who fought them head on with no assistance was Vlad. More than that, he told the austro-hungary authorities that they were cowards to their faces.

By anon119376 — On Oct 17, 2010

this is such an awesome article! Thanks wisegeek!

By anon16902 — On Aug 18, 2008

Wow! I have looked at many versions of this legend and this one has had the most accurate information about him. I find that the impaling people to the stake to scare off the turks was a brilliant but horrific idea. Thank so much for telling me more about Vlad the Impaler.

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