“I have never met a vampire personally, but I don’t know what might happen tomorrow” – Bela Lugosi
By the time Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566 A.D.) took the reins of the Ottoman Empire, the tribal confederation of Orghuz Turks that had begun spilling out of Anatolia in 1299 A.D. had emerged as one of the most powerful political entities in the world. By the 1453 fall of Constantinople, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II had effectively ended the existence of the Byzantine Empire, placing the Ottomans in an ideal strategic position to invade Europe through the Balkans. Things were looking a little dicey for the future of Christendom at this point. In 1458, the first Borgia Pope, Calixtus III (uncle of the infamous Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, otherwise known as Pope Alexander VI) died, after unsuccessful attempts to urge a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. He was succeeded by Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini, who took the name Pope Pius II (somewhat ironically, since he is also the only Pope known for writing erotica – several poems and the best-selling novel The Tale of Two Lovers), and immediately recognized he had a serious problem in the East. Pius II convened the somewhat ineffectual Council of Mantua in 1459, calling for a new crusade against the Ottomans, who by this point were making forays into southeastern Europe. The Christian princes of Europe were a little too busy stealing stuff from each other to take him seriously, except for one particularly enthusiastic supporter named Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (1431–1476), also referred to by the Romanian moniker Vlad Tepes (“the Impaler”), or his patrynomic name “Dracula”.
Sourpuss historians will quickly point out that Vlad Tepes was not actually undead, or really a vampire at all, our classic image deriving largely from the poetic license Bram Stoker took with the history of Transylvania (Vlad was born in Transylvania, but ruled the nearby Romanian region of Wallachia). In fact, Vlad was reputedly so extreme in his bloodthirsty nastiness, that most vampires would consider him a bit over the top, and could learn a thing or two about homicidal insanity from him. At the time of Pope Pius II’s crusade against the Turks, most people agreed that Vlad was a stand-up guy and defender of the faith, and to this day he is a bit of a folk hero in Romania for his steadfast resistance to Ottoman incursions. Diplomats, Ambassadors, papal nuncio’s, and finally, even Pope Pius II himself sang his praises, admiring his military exploits, particularly after a series of brutal defeats he handed to the Ottomans along the Danube. Now, Sultan Mehmed II was no slouch when it came to wartime atrocities, practicing rape, destruction, pedophilia, and the enslavement of vast numbers of folks with wondrous abandon, but when he encountered Vlad’s fascination with impalement (the numbers vary, but surely in the thousands, some say 20,000), he didn’t think he could compete.
This picturesque barbarity appealed to the imagination of the Turkish ruler, who, as an artist in cruelty, conceded that Vlad belonged to a class above him. When the Turkish sovereign made a punitive expedition to Bucharest, he found the approach to the town, half a mile long, lined with stakes, on which were rotting the bodies of 2000 dead Turks. “How,” Mohammed said, ”can we despoil of his estates a man who is not afraid to defend it by such means as these?” Vlad hung on the invading army, always inflicting losses, without showing himself long enough to be attacked in a formal battle (Bevan, 1913, p268).
And Pope Pius II loved this guy, who was actually making his crusade happen despite the lukewarm response of the rest of Europe and giving the Ottoman Turks pause. Vlad actually had a few good reasons to hate the Turks. Vlald’s father, a certain Vlad II Dracul, the former ruler of Wallachia, had been usurped in 1442 by the political machinations of rivals supported by the big kid on the block, the Kingdom of Hungary. He managed to get Ottoman support and reclaim his throne, but was forced to send his two sons Radu and Vlad to the Ottoman court as hostages. Radu flourished, eventually converting to Islam, whereas Vlad developed a deep seated hate for his ostensible hosts. By the time Vlad Tepes ascended to the Voivodeship of Wallalchia (something along the lines of being a Baron), he had a number of problems, apart from his psychotic rage, passion for gruesome torture, and other psychological issues. He seemed to be the only European aristocrat (apart from his neighbor Stephen the Great of Moldavia) heeding Pope Pius II’s crusader call, he was vastly outnumbered by the massive Ottoman army, the King of Hungary was busy embezzling the funds Rome promised to fund the crusade, his brother Radu was working for the Sultan, and Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II was sallying across the Carpathians, not to mention he was saddled with an unruly bunch of nobles that continuously plotted to overthrow him. This would make anyone cranky.
But in 1456 and 1457 two strong princes ascended the thrones of the principalities; these were Vlad “the Impaler” or “the Devil,” in Wallachia, and Stephen the Great in Moldavia. The hideous surname, which history has bestowed upon this Wallachian prince, was fully deserved. No man, even in that age, was so cruel. Contemporary writers describe him as a tiger who thirsted for human blood. In six years he put twenty thousand persons to death by the most horrible tortures — a record which it would be hard to surpass even in the sanguinary annals of the Orient. But Vlad not only craved the blood of his victims; he took a fiendish delight in mocking their agonies when under torture. His cruelty had, at least, the effect of suppressing brigandage and intimidating the disloyal nobles. When the Sultan sent an army against him, not a single man of them dared to desert him, although his brother was on the side of the Turks. Foreign merchants had no fear of travelling with large sums of money through a land where thieves met with such a terrible fate. Vlad chafed under the ignominy to which the puny successors of Mirtschea had submitted, and refused to send the annual tribute of five hundred youths, which Wallachia was expected to furnish for the corps of Janissaries. Mohammed II headed an army against this audacious ruler, but Vlad, disguised as a Turk, spied out the Turkish camp and utterly routed the invaders, impaling those whom he took prisoners. But he did not long keep his crown. Stephen the Great of Moldavia, whom he had placed on the throne of that country, attacked him in 1462 while he was pursuing the Turks, and forced him to seek refuge in Hungary. Wallachia came under the influence of the sister-principality after his flight, and, though he was afterwards restored, he fell by the hand of an assassin. Moldavia rued ere long the fatal blunder of her prince in dethroning the man, who, in spite of his cruelties, had been a bulwark of the two principalities against the Turks, soon to become masters of both (Miller, 1896, p41-43).
Vlad Tepes was able to hold out for a little while, making the Ottomans reconsider the wisdom of tangling with a Balkan prince who didn’t think twice about setting twenty thousand Turkish soldiers on pointy sticks to die slow and agonizing deaths, just to make a point. Since everybody else in Europe except for the Pope was waffling on just how dangerous the Ottoman’s were, Vlad was in a tricky position. As the Ottomans delivered repeated defeats throughout the region, various Mediterranean powers began to realize that they better cowboy up or start learning Turkish. This of course, emboldened Vlad enough that he started making daring and brilliantly executed commando raids across the Danube River in an effort to (1) irritate the Ottomans, and (2) keep his supply of victims to impale flowing.
Pope Pius II received the news of the surrender of Smederevo as an unmitigated disaster for the west, and consequently during the deliberations at the Congress of Mantua in 1459 the launching of a crusade was officially announced. As a result of the establishment of despot Thomas’s control over the Morea with western support, Pius regarded the Morea as an excellent base for operations against the Ottomans. The sultan, however, invaded the Morea in 1460 and annexed the entire region, with the exception of a few fortresses on the coasts which belonged to Venice. The capture of Argos by the Ottomans finally convinced the Venetians of the necessity of declaring war (July 28, 1463). Meanwhile, new developments in Wallachia and Bosnia had made inevitable the outbreak of an open conflict between the Hungarians and the Ottomans. In 1461 Mehmed had sought to regain the allegiance of the voivode of Wallachia, but Vlad III Tepesh (“the Impaler”) had responded by allying himself with the king of Hungary instead, and even went so far as to take advantage of the sultan’s absence during the Trebizond campaign to attack Ottoman outposts across the Danube (Setton, 1955, p325).
Much of Vlad Tepes reputation could be written off to psychological warfare and wartime propaganda if it wasn’t for the fact that he was relatively unpleasant to his own people, diplomatic missions, housepets, plants, and more or less anybody that looked at him sideways as well.
They are said to have given him the name of ‘ the Devil’, but the same designation, as well as that of the Impaler, has also been bestowed upon Vlad, a voivode of Wallachia, who was probably the ally of Hunniades, and who, if one-tenth of what has been related of him be true, has a much better claim to the title. He is represented to have been one of the most atrocious and cruel tyrants who ever disgraced even those dark ages. One day he massacred 500 boyars who were dissatisfied with his rule. The torture of men, women, and children, seems to have been his delight. Certain Turkish envoys, when admitted into his presence, refused to remove their whereupon he had them nailed to their heads. He burned 400 missionaries and impaled 500 gypsies to secure their property. In order to strike terror into Mohammed II, he crossed over into Bulgaria, defeated the Turks, and brought back with him 25,000 prisoners, men, women, and children, whom he is said to have impaled upon a large plain called Praelatu. Notwithstanding his successes, however, Vlad was at length compelled to submit to the Turkish rule, and he concluded the ‘ Second Capitulation ‘ at Adrianople (1460), in which the tribute to the Porte was increased, but no other important change was made in the terms of suzerainty (Samuelson, 1882, p161).
In the end, Vlad Tepes was fighting a losing battle, mostly because he was the only one even trying to fight. The insane bloodlust probably helped to stave off the inevitable for a little while, until the Ottomans figured out that they just needed to use their vastly superior military might and roll up the entire Balkans, which they did by the 1480’s and Wallachians realized that their life expectancy was remarkably short as long as Vlad Tepes was around contemplating new ways to torture, dismember, boil, or roast them for giggles. The Wallalchian nobles ended up conspiring with the Ottomans to kick out Vlad, who fled to Hungary, where he was imprisoned (Matthew Corvinus, King of Hungary had been spending the Pope’s crusade money on liquor and prostitutes with no intention of helping Vlad in his crusade), which was easier than admitting the financial improprieties he was guilty of. Eventually, the Ottomans got their hands on him (after a brief re-instatement to the throne of Wallalchia in 1475, which his pro-Ottoman brother Radu had been installed in), beheaded him, and sent his noggin to Constantinople as a trophy. Meanwhile King Corvinus, still covering up the fact that he hadn’t sent any troops against the Turks, and had spent all the Pope’s money, started encouraging propaganda (sort of, since the truth is Vlad did actually love impalement and killed tens of thousands of people in rather disturbing ways) describing the vicious and un-christian behaviors of Vlad Tepes. Popular pamphlets and manuscripts circulated throughout the Holy Roman Empire detailing the gruesome exploits of Vlad. Pope Pius II eventually caught wind of the change in attitude towards his Wallachian hitman, with whom he had previously had a chummy relationship, and by the time he got around to writing his Commentaries (the only autobiography ever written by a Pope, although written in third person), he had completely disavowed the Wallachian Prince, despite the fact that it was Pius’ call for an all out holy war against the Ottomans that both motivated Vlad in the first place (although maybe he was just hanging around waiting for a good excuse to shed gallons of blood), and originally inspired the admiration of the Pope for Vlad’s exuberant defense of Christendom. Not sure why he winds up referring to both Vlad and his father as “John Dragula” – maybe that’s what his close friends called him.
We must now go on to describe the atrocious infamy and monstrous nature of John Dragula, whose crimes are so notorious among the Wallachians whom he governed that no tragedy could surpass them. The Wallachians live beyond the Danube between the Euxine and the districts today called Transylvania where there are seven German-speaking cities. The Wallachians speak Italian, but an imperfect, corrupted Italian. Some think that once Roman legions were sent there against the Dacians who used to inhabit these lands and that these legions were commanded by a certain Flaccus from whose name they were called first Flacci and then with a change of letters Valachi. Their descendants, as has been said above, became more barbarous than the barbarians. In our day they were governed by Dragula, a man of fickle and inconstant character. In the year of the Incarnate Word 1456, because he had deserted to the Turks, John Hunyadi, regent of the kingdom of Hungary, after conquering him in war, took him captive and put him to death together with his second son. A certain Ladislas was put in his place to rule over the Wallachians. Dragula’s other son named John escaped the regent’s clutches and soon after, having gathered an army, slew Ladislas, regained much of his paternal inheritance and put to a cruel death all who had been opposed to himself and his father. He invaded the province of Cibinium and burned many farmhouses with all their occupants. A great number of men were taken in chains to Wallachia and there impaled on stakes. Traders who were crossing through Wallachia with precious merchandise, induced to do so by promises of safe-conduct from the state, he plundered of their goods and killed. He had four hundred boys brought from Vurcia on the pretext of having them taught the Wallachian language and shut them up in a furnace where they were burned to death. The nobler men of his race and those who were most nearly akin to him he killed together with their wives and children. Some of his household he had buried naked up to the navel and then riddled with arrows; some he had skinned. For a certain Daym, son of another Daym, the Voivode whom he took in war, he built a tomb while he was still alive and ordered the priests to chant the burial service; when they had finished he beheaded the prisoner. Fifty-three ambassadors who had been sent to him by the Siculi and Transsylvanians he imprisoned. Then he invaded their lands which had no fear of any hostile move, and ravaged them with fire and sword. Ceilinus,” the captain of his own troops, he impaled because he refused to satisfy his monstrous cruelty. He burned at the stake six hundred men of Vurcia who fell into his hands as they were crossing to an adjoining province. A certain Zeganurus who had refused to hang with his own hands a thief who had been caught, he boiled in a great kettle and served him up as a banquet to his fellow-citizens. He tore sucking babes from their mothers’ breasts and before their eyes dashed them upon the rocks. Entering the province of Transylvania he summoned as his friends all the Wallachians who lived there and when they were all gathered he let loose his soldiers and killed them and burned all their farms. By these methods he is said to have murdered more than 30,000 persons (Pius II, Commentaries, Book XI).
Just a few years earlier, Pope Pius II couldn’t get enough of Vlad Tepes. You just can’t trust anybody to have your back. Even popes. The Catholic Church has always had a sort of logistical problem. They’re supposed to defend the faith, but it would be unseemly to have a great big standing army of commando monks. So, historically, they’ve had to rely on some questionable folks to uphold their theological perspective on geopolitics, up to and including, bloodsucking fiends from hell. Somebody’s got to do the dirty work, or the ruling powers don’t take you seriously and dismiss your temporal authority, evidenced in Joseph Stalin’s catty remark, “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?”
Bevan, Wilson Lloyd. The World’s Leading Conquerors: Alexander the Great, Caesar, Charles the Great: the Ottoman Sultans, the Spanish Conquistadors, Napoleon. New York: H. Holt and company, 1913.
Florescu, Radu R. & McNally, Raymond T. Dracula, Prince of Many Faces. New York, NY: Hachette, 1989.
Miller, William, 1864-1945. The Balkans: Roumania, Bulgaria, Servia, And Montenegro. New York: G. P. Putnam’s sons; [etc.,etc.], 1896.
Pius II, Pope, 1405-1464. The Commentaries of Pius II. Northampton, Mass.: Dept. of history of Smith College, 1937.
Samuelson, James, b. 1829. Roumania Past And Present. London: Longmans, Green, 1882.
Setton, Kenneth M. 1914-1995. A History of the Crusades v.6. [Philadelphia]: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1955.
Wow, love your articles! History is so rich with interesting stories. I’ve always had a love of history and story-telling myself, and your posts always combine the two. Excellent work!
Many thanks. Seems like the deeper one digs into history, the weirder it gets.
The truth is stranger than fiction they say.
They are now advertising movie “Dracula Untold”. Turns him into a tragic hero in a sort-of-historical setting. From the looks of the trailer, they were more inspired by Wolverine and movie version of Conan, instead of either actual history or Stoker’s novel. 😀
Thank’s for the tip. I’ll have to catch that when it comes out just for laughs. I can just see the pitch meeting – “It’s like Wolverine meets Conan the Barbarian…with fangs”.
Brilliant essay. You really have a way of making history fascinating and magical, which is exactly what is needed in these times.
Thank you, kindly.