Torture and Executions of Vlad III the Impaler “Dracula” between History and Legend
Vlad III was the prince of Wallachia between 1448 and 1477, and is known by numerous names and appellatives, of which the most famous is the shortest: Dracula. Born in Sighisoara, Romania, he was the second son of Vlad II Dracul, of the House of Drăculeşti, from whom the patronym Dracula originates. Vlad was also known as Ţepeş (impaler in Romanian), for the habit of executing enemies according to the tremendous practice of impalement. Dracula literally means son of the dragon.
In modern Romanian “drac” took the meaning of “devil”, but both impaler and devil were not names that characterized Vlad in life, and were assigned many centuries after death.
The premise on the genesis of the name is, even if long, fundamental to understand how this ancient romanian sovereign has fueled the imagination and the historical analysis in the centuries to follow. Vlad III was at war for almost all his life against the Turks, and proved to be not only a cunning ruler, but also a military leader of incomparable talent.
Probably without Dracula the Ottoman Empire would have managed to conquer more territories, penetrating deeper into Europe. His actions of war, over the years, were also contextualized within the crusade of 1460 organized by Pope Pius II, and his victories against Muhammad II were celebrated by Romania to Italy. To deepen and read the whole story of Vlad III as a governess, this is the dedicated Wikipedia page.
Vlad III made extensive use of spectacularity and torture during his three governments. It is good to specify that he was certainly not an isolated case, and that torture, summary execution and death were a constant at the end of the Middle Ages. In the Ottoman Empire was very widespread use of the impalement, and the death that the Turks destined to their enemies was always atrocious. Dracula himself, not by chance, was at the Ottoman court from 1444 to 1447 as a hostage of war delivered by his father. Vlad III found himself ruling a territory devastated by continuous wars where crime was rampant. The boyars, noble feudal lords of Wallachia, were the first to be troublemakers and restless, and Dracula decided to apply the principles of draconian justice to the letter. The first episode of blood attributed to Vlad III was the bloody Easter at Târgovişte. During that day, 200 boyars were impaled, beheaded or enslaved, guilty of having betrayed or threatened the power of the Voivode. The episode is famous both because it was the first case in the European history of open violence against a group of people considered “noble”, and because it provided the prince with the manpower necessary to completely restored the fortress of Poenari, the castle that became his stable residence.
Two years later, Muhammad II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, sent some messengers to the court of Vlad III to demand the annual tribute in cash owed by Wallachia. Vlad killed the messengers with the excuse that they had not removed the turban in his presence. First he had the hats nailed to the skulls of the victims, and then he had them beheaded. To respond to the offense, the sultan sent Hamza Pasha, governor of Nicopolis, in Wallachia as ambassador, to try to reach a peace or, in extremis, to kill Dracula. Pasha and his 1000 horsemen were slaughtered and tortured, and the governor was reserved the most severe punishment: he was impaled on the taller wood, in order to show the highest degree.
Vlad also made several incursions into the Ottoman territory, thanks to his profound knowledge of the language and the Turkish customs, and the first was in 1462, when he reached and crossed the Danube border, devastating vast territories between Serbia and the Black Sea. He wrote to the Hungarian ally Mattia Corvino, that “I killed peasants, women, old and young … we killed 23,884 Turks, not counting those burned alive in their houses or those whose head was cut by our officers…”
Muhammad II responded to the attack with a large-scale military offensive, attacking Wallachia with 110,000 men. Vlad III was in this case deadly: once landed the Ottomans made him find burnt land, preventing him to refuel and eat. Then launched a Night Attack on the Ottoman army, which weakened it heavily with 15,000 victims, even if failed its primary intent: the sultan’s murder. The Turkish went beyond the Danube, made some sporadic raids and returned hurriedly to Adrianople, celebrating a victory that, historically, was only an Ottoman dream. Contemporary historians claimed that Muhammad II returned home because he was terrorized by the terrible atrocities of Vlad III.
Vlad was then overthrown by his brother, Radu, financed by Muhammad II, and took refuge in Hungary, where he was held prisoner from 1462 to 1474. On his brother’s death he was reinstated on the throne of Wallachia, but died shortly after, in 1477, for historically unknown reasons.
During the years when he ruled the Wallachia and fought the Turks, Vlad III devised different methods of torture, functional to scare their enemies, first of all the Ottomans but also the boyards, nobles of the region, or the merchants. The impalement, a practice that gave him the famous nickname, could be of two kind:
• With a sharp pole, stuck in the abdomen
• With an oiled wooden pole, stuck in the rectum of the condemned man, who was made to die in the following days due to the weight of the body on the pole, which progressed slowly inside the body.
Both methods foresaw that the victim should be hoisted several meters in height, so that it would also be seen and heard by the people.
Vlad III Dracula also respected a strict code of execution, which led him to define the most suitable form of impalement according to the lineage of the condemned.
• The rich had their own pole covered in silver.
• The merchants had the slowest agony, with a few notches engraved on the poles.
• In Sibiu 10,000 people were impaled at the same time, not before they were completely sprinkled with honey to attract all kinds of insects.
• The adulteresses were impaled in front of the door of the house.
Vlad III then did not lack respect for his victims, and witnessed every phase of agony. It was in fact usual to eat, with some members of the court, among the condemned agonizing on the poles. But impaling was not the only form of punishment adopted by Dracula. On 24 August 1459 he invited some merchants to lunch in the city of Braşov, making them feast on the best food. Finished the dishes, he had a first merchant gutted, while the second was ordered to eat the dishes directly from the guts of the first. The second was then killed and passed to the third and so on until the last, which was boiled alive and the meat given to dogs.
Long before Bram Stoker, who never visited Romania, German and Russian literature had already created the myth of the “cruel and tyrannical prince” Vlad III Dracula. From these literary productions, most often without any historical foundation, derive the attributions of cannibalism and hematophagia attributed to Vlad.
Some popular legends exemplify the perception of the character, both at home and abroad:
• It seems that even today, every morning, the monks of the Snagov convent go to pray on the grave of Vlad III, begging him not to return
•A Saxon merchant denounced the theft of 160 gold ducats to Vlad. The voivodas threatened the population who, if he had not delivered the thief, would have made them all impaled. Within a short time the criminal was delivered, which naturally ended up impaled. However, 161 gold ducats were handed over to the Saxon merchant. The next day, the man brought the extra duchy to Vlad, and he told him that if he did not bring it back, he would have impaled it with the thief.
• Vlad had a solid gold cup put in the town of Tirgoviste. The cup remained in the center of the square for over a month, due to the terror of thieves for any punishment.