Romanian folklore is home to a variety of blood-chilling creatures. For example, the moroi were supposed to be the spirits of unbaptized children, who wandered the countryside drinking the blood of cattle. However, some of the most gruesome figures are legends based in fact. One of the best know figures is Vlad Dracula. This fifteenth century ruler of Walachia was nicknamed Vlad the Impaler. Historical knowledge of this medieval ruler is largely based on texts printed during and after his reign, many of which were written by his enemies. Unfortunately, we have no way of verifying their accuracy. However, there are some things that we do know about the real Dracula.
Vlad spent his teenage years as a political hostage of the Ottoman Empire. He and his brother were tutored in science, philosophy, arts, and the arts of war, while their fates hinged entirely on their father’s actions. While his brother adjusted well to captivity, Vlad was always resentful, which contributed to his later decision to ally with the Hungarians against the Ottomans as the later ruler of Wallachia.
Vlad got his nickname for his preferred method of execution, impalement. His enemies, including prisoners of war, would often be impaled on a spike and left to die. In addition to being cruel, Vlad was also extremely clever, defending Wallachia against Ottoman invaders despite their superior numbers. He employed tactics like disguising his men as Ottoman soldiers and attacking in the night. His clever tactic led the Ottoman soldiers to kill each other in the night, believing that fellow Ottomans were really enemies in Turkish clothing.
Unfortunately for Vlad, war with the Ottomans was both ongoing and expensive. While he won a variety of victories, he eventually ran out of money to pay mercenaries. He was betrayed, captured, and imprisoned by his own Hungarian allies. Vlad’s imprisonment was, luckily for him, rather short-lived.
Years later, Vlad and his Transylvanian ally, Stephen V Bathory, fought to reconquer Wallachia. By then, Vlad’s brother, who had ruled under the Turks, was dead, and a Turkish claimant was on the Wallachian throne. The Turk fled when Vlad’s army arrived, and Vlad declared himself again ruler of Wallachia. This reign lasted barely a few months before he was killed. The circumstances of his death are unknown, with various conflicting reports suggesting all kinds of different events. He could have been killed while fighting the Turks, killed by disloyal Wallachians, or even killed during a hunt.
Vlad had a reputation of cruelty, spread by various pamphlets from Germany and Russia. Western Europeans characterized him as a sadistic tyrant, who would roast children and feed them to their parents. His reputation in Eastern Europe was considerably less bloody. As with most medieval history, it is unlikely that we will ever know the truth of what Vlad III was like.