Vlad the Impaler: Between Fact and Fiction

Vlad the Impaler is one of the most infamous historical figures in Romanian history. Was he really a blood-thirsty brute or a complex underestimated ruler?

Jan 17, 2022By Radu Cristian, BA History, BA Philosophy, MA Medieval History

vlad impaler woodcut portrait


For many people, the name of Vlad the Impaler conjures up images of violence, bloodlust, and cruelty. An image painted during his lifetime and reinforced further by the popularity of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. Over the years, he has become not as much a historical figure, as a pop culture icon or tourist attraction, with portrayals in books, movies, and video games. Because of this, we need to be like vampire hunters to shed light on his story, banishing the shadows of myth and fiction.


Who was Vlad the Impaler?

vlad the impaler esterházy portrait
Vlad the Impaler, by Unknown Artist, c. 15th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Born in 1431, in the Saxon town of Sighișoara, Vlad III was the second son of Vlad II Dracul Voivode of Wallachia (1436-1442;1443-1447). He spent his childhood and teenage years mostly abroad. First, he moved to the capital city of Târgoviște in 1436, when his father took the throne of Wallachia. After that, between 1442 and 1448, he and his younger brother, Radu, were taken as hostages at the court of Ottoman Sultan Murad II to secure their father’s loyalty. During this time, he interacted with several cultures (German, Hungarian, and Ottoman) that shaped his ideas, views, and leadership style.


His campaign for the throne began in 1477 with the murder of his father and older brother in a plot involving Wallachian nobles, his second cousin, and John Hunyadi, regent-governor of Hungary. In the following year, Vlad returned home assisted by the Ottoman cavalry. With their help, he took the throne but lost it after two months. After this, Vlad struggled another eight years until he could finally secure his father’s seat in 1456. He lost his throne again in 1462 when Matthias I, the king of Hungary, imprisoned him on false accusations. He was killed after regaining the throne, in 1474.


Fact: How Vlad III became Dracula and The Impaler

vlad the impaler statue
Statue of Vlad Tepes, Sighisoara, via Fascinate.com


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Besides being the title of Bram Stoker’s novel, the Dracula sobriquet has a historical origin linked to Vlad’s father. He was an illegitimate son of Mircea I of Wallachia (or the Elder) and spent his youth at the court of the king of Hungary, Sigismund of Luxembourg, who inducted him in the Order of the Dragon in 1431. As a result, Vlad II received the nickname The Dragon. This nickname, translated into Romanian, is spelled as Dracul or Drăculea, which became Dracula. As his child, Vlad inherited the same nickname.


The other nickname, The Impaler, is of Turkish origin. It refers to the process of impalement, which was Vlad’s preferred method of execution. It was used for the first time around 1500 by the Ottoman writer Tursun Beg. In his writings, he refers to Vlad as Kazıklı Voyvoda or Impaler Lord. This nickname appears again in a letter written by Mircea the Shepard in 1551. This nickname has endured to the present due to Vlad’s reputation.


Fiction: Vlad the Impaler was the Inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Novel

dracula stoker first edition
Dracula, by Bram Stoker, First edition cover, 1875, via the Christies


Depending on where we look, there are several different origins for the fictional Dracula, but none of them connect directly to Vlad III. As a result, we can take each key aspect of the character penned by Bram Stoker and see where the inspiration came from for each.


First of all, according to Bram Stoker’s son, Irwing, his father had a dream which became the basis for the titular character and novel. Regarding the name, the historical context mentioned above clearly describes how Vlad the Impaler came to be known by this sobriquet, but we need to understand how it connects the novel. There are several theories for this.


Some say Bram Stoker got the name from Johann Christian von Engel’s book about the history of Moldavia and Wallachia or the book written by William Wilkinson entitled, An Account of Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, published in 1820. Others claim that a friend of his, a Hungarian professor from Budapest named Arminius Vambery, may have provided him with information about the historical Vlad.


vlad the impaler painting
Vlad Tepes, by Unknown Artist, c. 15th century, via Kunst Historisches Museum, Vienna


The vampiric and cruel nature of the fictional Dracula can be traced to the two books mentioned before and to several 15th-century Saxon engravings from the Royal Library in London (or the British Museum), which depict Vlad the Impaler as a bloodthirsty monster. Several scenes in the novel prove this connection. Primarily when Dracula is fighting off the Turks, and his physical description, which matches the image of Vlad the Impaler. Also, the act of driving a stake through the heart of a vampire, for example, could be taken from Vlad’s history of impaling his victims.


The red and black color scheme, characteristic of Dracula’s clothing, also takes inspiration from the Order of the Dragon. Every Friday, to commemorate the passion of Jesus Christ, all members of the order would wear a black cape over a red coat.


Fact: Vlad the Impaler was an Important Commander and Ruler

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Vlad the Impaler and the Turkish Envoys, by Theodor Aman, 1863, via HistoryHit.com


His reign followed the same political tradition of other medieval Romanian rulers, such as Mircea the Elder and Stephan the Great. Vlad fought to protect his lands and their independence.


What makes him unique is his extensive upbringing and education. The first phase began after moving to Târgoviște, where Greek or Romanian scholars, commissioned from Constantinople, taught him and his younger brother about the classical arts, philosophy, and the art of war. The second phase took place at the Ottoman court. Here, the goal was to form him and his brother according to Ottoman culture, so when the time would come for them to rule Wallachia, they would not rebel against the Empire.


What we know about the way he ruled comes from second-hand accounts and stories. According to these, he took measures to discourage or punish thievery and laziness. He was the first ruler to integrate the gypsy community into the Romanian army. Also, he ensured fair conduct of trade and commerce.


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Vlad the Impaler, by Ambrosius Huber, 1499, via Britannica


After taking the throne of Wallachia, Vlad the Impaler took part in several significant conflicts of the 15th century. These solidified his role as protector of his lands and Christianity. In 1459, the Ottoman Empire conquered Serbia and transformed it into a pashalik. As a result, their advance prompted Pope Pius II to organize a crusade against them. Aware of the ottoman threat towards Wallachia and his limited military strength, Vlad took advantage of this occasion and joined the pope’s campaign. Between 1461-1462, he attacked several key Ottoman positions south of the Danube to weaken their defense and stop their advance.


The Ottoman’s answer to Vlad’s campaign was an invasion of Wallachia, led by the sultan himself, in June 1462. Due to the size of the Ottoman army (over 100,000 troops), Vlad had to use a strategy that would nullify their advantage. He organized a night attack while the enemy was camping near Târgoviște. While he could not kill the sultan, Vlad caused enough chaos to make the enemy stop their advance.


Fiction: Vlad the Impaler was a Mindless Brute

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Vlad Tepes, by Catalin Draghici, 2020, via Historia.ro


The cruelty and violence, which made Vlad the Impaler infamous, requires a detailed analysis. The main point is that, in his context, these extreme measures were necessary for him to secure his reign and to protect his lands. By no means was he a mindless brute. To see this, we need to look at how he acted as a ruler, diplomat, and commander.


The image of Vlad the Impaler as a cruel ruler originates from his authoritarian leadership style. I mentioned earlier how he went to great lengths to punish laziness and thievery. These measures ranged from minor punishments to torture and impalement. These occurrences later became the basis for the stories that spread after his imprisonment and death.


Another source of his infamy was his relationship with the Valachian nobles. He could never forgive them for murdering his father and brother. Because of this, as soon as he regained the throne in 1456, he punished them. Afterwards, he took no chances and severely punished any suspicion of betrayal. Naturally, the nobles retaliated by spreading false rumors and plotting to depose him. With the aid of a fake letter, they managed to convince the king of Hungary, Matthias I, that Vlad desired to ally himself with the Sultan. As a result, he imprisoned the Wallachian voivode in Visegrad. He was killed fighting the nobles after he regained the throne in 1474.


During Vlad’s imprisonment, news of his false betrayal spread through Europe, fueled further by his reputation. He became the subject of several paintings where he is portrayed as either Pontius Pilate or as Aegeas, the Roman proconsul of Patras, present at the crucifixion of Saint Andrew. Also, he is the subject of a poem written by Michael Beheims, entitled Story of a Despot Called Dracula, Voivode of Wallachia.


amras vlad drawing
Portrait of Vlad the Impaler, from Castle Ambras, c. 1450, via Time Magazine


How Vlad the Impaler acted in matters of diplomacy is also a source of his infamy. To begin with, during his early travels, he became aware of how Europe perceived Wallachia’s weak position. As a result, he made sure he received all the respect he considered that he deserved when a foreign diplomat visited his court. We can look at several legends that describe occurrences of this kind. For example, he gave many gifts to a Hungarian diplomat because he was respectful, while he also nailed the turban of an ottoman diplomat to his head because he was disrespectful.


Regarding war, we have to consider the realities of 15th century Wallachia. Its whole armed force was rather small, consisting of the Small Army (10,000-12,000 troops) and the Large Army (40,000 troops, mainly mercenaries). During this time, the main threat to Europe, the Ottoman Empire, could easily send up to 100, 000 soldiers in any battle. As a result, Vlad and other leaders had to find strategies to compensate for this inequality. These strategies used terrain advantages such as the Battle of Rovine, 10 Oct. 1394 – 17 May 1395, (marshlands), Battle of Vaslui, 1475, (fog), and Vlad’s Târgoviște night attack, 1462, (attack by surprise). In Vlad’s case, he used impalement as a psychological weapon to weaken the enemy’s resolve. He used this strategy to win the final skirmish after the battle of Târgoviște.

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By Radu CristianBA History, BA Philosophy, MA Medieval HistoryCristian holds a BA in History and Philosophy, and a MA in Medieval History. He is a contributing writer with a keen interest in history, philosophy, mythology, and education. Other topics of interest are ethics, psychology, artificial intelligence, and Stoicism. In his free time, he enjoys reading, drawing, editing pictures, and cycling.