October 31, 2015

The real Dracula

I was in the sixth grade when I discovered a copy of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula in my Language Arts classroom's library, and devoured it during silent reading time.

Then I discovered that Stoker's main character wasn't entirely fictional; Dracula actually existed. He wasn't a count or a vampire, however, but a 15th century Romanian prince who became renowned for his cruelty towards enemies and criminals.

Ambras Castle portrait of Vlad Dracula, c. 1560, said to be a copy of one taken from life

Vlad Dracula was born in December of 1431, the son of Prince Vlad Dracul; the name Dracul means "dragon", as Vlad's father was a member of the Order of the Dragon. Ironically, it can also mean "devil"-- the addition of the "a" means "son of"-- and so the name Dracula can be interpreted to mean "son of the devil." I'm sure that, to those on the wrong side of him, that moniker was quite appropriate.

At the time, Romania (the southern part of which was then called Wallachia) was ruled by the Ottoman Sultan, and the princes of Balkan lands were basically puppets who were allowed to remain on their thrones only so long as they paid tribute. The Sultan demanded not only money, but also boys to be trained as soldiers for his army. Princes and nobles were also sometimes made to give up their children as "good faith" hostages to ensure their parents' compliance. So long as the princes and nobles did not do anything stupid, like try to fight, their children were well treated and given a quality education.

When Vlad was only 13, he and his younger brother Radu became such hostages and were sent to live in Turkey. Four years later, Vlad was a commander in the Turkish army, now well versed in their religion, language, and military tactics. This knowledge would serve him well in the future.

Whatever he had endured as a prisoner of the Turks had made him diamond-hard, and after he took the Wallachian throne at age 17, he set out to avenge his father, who had been killed. He blamed the nobles of his land, whom he believed were in cahoots with their hated Ottoman masters, and he exacted brutal payback.

Dracula became known as Vlad Tepes, which means "Impaler", due to his favorite method of executing criminals, deadbeats, and anyone who was, in his eyes, unworthy of living in his realm: shish-kabobing them on wooden stakes and leaving them for display. The impalement was done in such a way that the unfortunate victims didn't die too quickly.

It didn't take much, either, to find yourself on the wrong end of a sharp stake: steal some bread, fail to mend your husband's clothes, and that was it. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a virtually crime-free land where even very expensive items could be safely left out in public squares.

Unlike his father, Dracula refused to pay tribute, which incurred the wrath of Sultan Mehmed. Mehmed sent an army to Wallachia's capital of Tirgoviste, but 60 miles outside the city his forces were met with a gruesome sight: thousands of bodies in varying stages of decomposition impaled on stakes, positioned in a line across a hill. The message was clear: "Come any further, and this will be you." The army retreated.

Vlad the Impaler was finally killed in battle in 1476, at the age of 45; one of his favorite tactics during combat was to disguise himself as a Turk, and he was probably mistaken for one by one of his own men.

Dracula's legend spawned this 16th century depiction of Vlad dining among some of his victims

Vlad Dracula was by no means a nice guy, and today he would be charged with countless war crimes-- but he was a man of his time. Despite his brutality, Dracula was a brilliant and innovative military leader who rewarded soldiers displaying bravery. He was a pioneer in the use of germ warfare, sending soldiers who had the plague into the Turks' camps to spread the disease among them. He also used "scorched earth", destroying crops and poisoning wells so that pursuing Ottoman armies would have nothing to eat or drink.

He single-handedly kept his country free from the Ottomans; it was only after his death that they actually invaded the Balkans. He is still considered a national hero-- perhaps the national hero-- of Romania today.

Bram Stoker, who never actually visited Romania, was inspired by the tales of corpses that rose from their graves and sustained themselves by drinking the blood of the living (a belief that came from not fully understanding the decomposition process). How much he actually intended to model his undead villain after the real-life prince, however, we don't know.

To this day, we can't seem to get enough of vampires. I frankly find the real Vlad Dracula much more interesting than the fictional vampire, and can't understand why there has been only one half decent English-language movie made about him.

A happy and safe Halloween to all.

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