This is the most disturbing lesson we can learn from meeting villains: sometimes they
Vlad was the second son of the warlord Dracul (Dracula means “the son of
Dracul”), prince of Wallachia. His father was a Knight of the Secret Society of the
Dragon, pledged to defend the Orthodox Christian Church for the Holy Roman
In the 1400’s, this meant battling the Turks. The fiery faith of Islam had
dominated great parts of Africa and Asia. This Turkish-led Ottoman Empire was now
chewing at the southeastern edge of Europe. It was led by Murmad II, a nephew of the
Islamic warrior emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent.
In 1437, Dracula’s father was caught between two brutal and powerful forces.
The Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund, and his German lords were nibbling at his
country from the north. Murmad was raiding his southern border. Weighing one
danger against another, Dracul joined Murmad. In 1438 Dracul roared through
neighboring Transylvania with his oldest son Mircea and Murmad’s troops, pillaging
and burning German merchant towns.
Dracul was trying to play on both teams, Holy Roman and Islamic, Sultan
Murmad didn’t trust him. He seized Dracul and his family and threw them into prison
until the warlord swore obedience. Murmad kept Dracul’s younger sons, Dracula and
Radu, as hostages.
As princely hostages, they were treated well and educated. Radu enjoyed the
comfortable Turkish life. Not Dracula. He was a quick learner but cold and defiant.
His teachers and guards feared him.
Their father, angry at being imprisoned, joined Sigismund’s war chief, John
Hunyadi, and attacked the Turks. How would you feel if you were Radu or Dracula,
knowing your father had abandoned you to torture or death?
Curiously, Murmad did not harm the boys. He had other plans.
Dracul and Mircea fought fiercely for Hunyadi but Hunyadi was suspicious of
the side-switching Dragon. In 1471 he trapped both of them in the dismal Wallachian
marshes. He murdered Dracul outright. Mircea was blinded with red-hot iron stakes,
then buried alive.
When Vlad Dracula heard of his father’s death his obligation as a hostage was
over. He escaped. Some say he simply walked away because his guards were too
afraid to stop him. He traveled north to the Moldavian Mountains and the palace of
King Bogdan for refuge. He became a close friend with Bogdan’s son, Prince
In 1451, King Bogdan was assassinated. Dracula had no prince to protect him.
It’s hard for us to understand but Dracula went to the strongest figure in his world: his
father’s murderer, John Hunyadi. Dracula asked to become his pupil. Impressed by
the young man’s boldness, Hunyadi accepted him. For five years, until Hunyadi died
of the Black Plague, Dracula learned military tactics, political maneuvering and the
duties of a prince. When his teacher died in 1456, he used the lessons well and
successfully swept away the warlord who had taken his father’s throne.
Once in power Prince Vlad Dracula of Wallachia faithfully helped Prince
Stephan to win back his father’s Moldavian throne.
Dracula ruled Wallachia with a strong hand but he was dangerously
unpredictable. He hated the rich German merchants and noble families – the boyars.
He held a great feast and asked his boyar guests how many rulers they had seen come
and go. Wanting to impress the young prince with their power they answered,
“There will be only one ruler of Wallachia, now,” Vlad Dracula said mildly, and
ordered all of the boyars present – six hundred men and women – to be executed in a
way that became his cruel symbol: they were impaled. A gruesome death! A tall
wooden stake was sharpened, and its point thrust into the victim’s bottom. The stake
was set into the ground, then the victim was pulled down until the point pushed
through the upper body.
A grisly forest of stakes and their impaled victims expanded along the shoulders
of a ravine hear Dracula’s palace. Sometimes, Dracula would set his table to eat
among the decaying bodies of his victims. Once a visiting boyar chieftain wrinkled
his nose and asked, “How can you stand the smell?”
“You do not like it?” Dracula asked. The chieftain shook his head, No. “Then
you belong up there where the smell will not reach you,” the Prince said, and had him
impaled immediately as the dinner continued.
Dracula “cleaned up” his kingdom. He assembled a thousand or more beggars,
cripples, and diseased folk at a great Feast for the Poor. At the end of a hearty meal
their princely host asked them, “Would you like me to make you free of all earthly
“Yes, Lord Dracula!” they answered in a loud cheer. Dracula nodded and left
the hall. His soldiers sealed the doors and burned the hall to the ground.
Turkish ambassadors came from Murmad’s son, Mehmed II, to demand a tribute
in gold as a recognition of Mehmed’s power. Dracula commented that the emissaries
did not take off their turbans, while everyone else took off their hats in respect to him.
They replied proudly that they never removed their turbans to anyone. “Very well,”
Dracula said, “let it be so,” and ordered his soldiers to fasten their turbans to their
heads with iron nails before sending them back to Mehmed. Without the gold.
We would call Dracula a “law and order” ruler. A visiting merchant came to
Dracula one morning and said “While I was your guest at dinner last night, a thief
took 100 gold coins from my pack saddle.”
“This shall be made right,” the Prince promised. That hour he called the town
council to him: either produce the thief and the coins or the entire town would be
burned to the ground. The thief was quickly found. But Dracula added a single coin to
the bag of a hundred. As the thief was hoisted screaming onto his impaling stake in
the square, Vlad Dracula asked, “Is everything that is yours returned?”
“Yes, my lord,” the wise merchant replied, “but there is one coin more, one gold
piece that is not mine.”
Dracula took it with a cold smile; “It is good that you are an honest man. If you
had not mentioned this little coin,” he gestured with it to the dying agonies of the
impaled thief, “you would be writhing on the stake beside him at this moment.”
Ruthless cruelty did reduce the crime rate. Dracula had a golden cup placed at
the city fountain at Tirgoviste, so that any passer-by could drink from gold. It was
Murmad died, but his son Mehmed continued to harry the southern border and
he demanded another tribute – not only gold but 500 children. The Sultan’s most
feared and loyal warriors, the Janissaries, were children given in tribute, then raised as
Moslem soldiers. Dracula agreed. Mehmed, however, did not trust the dark prince and
sent two famous assassins, Hamza Pasha and Thomas Catavolinos to snare Dracula at
the meeting. The trap was ready. Dracula arrived – not with little children but with a
furious Wallachian army. Hamza Pasha and Catavolinos disappeared and more than
28,000 Turks were slaughtered as he pursued their fleeing forces all the way to the
In fury, Sultan Mehmed mounted a great army and invaded Wallachia. He meant
to set up Dracula’s brother, now called Radu the Handsome, as the new Turkish ruler.
Dracula fought a vicious delaying action, waiting for a Christian army promised by
King Matthias of Hungary. Matthias betrayed him and sent no one.
Dracula’s retreat was bitter and harsh. He left nothing behind for the enemy.
Towns were burned, wells were poisoned, crops destroyed. Dracula snatched Turkish
stragglers and impaled them on the road. He sent murderers from prison and even
diseased Wallachians in Turkish disguise to mix with the invading army – one of the
earliest instances of “germ warfare.” It was a hard, hot march for Mehmed. The night
of June 17, 1462 is now called the Night of Terror. Dracula and his mounted troops
burst into the sleeping Turkish camp with unearthly howls, riding and cutting, striking
for the Sultan’s tent at the center. They killed over a thousand Turks and slashed a
bloody path that faltered within a stone’s throw of Mehmed’s head. Only a suicidal
counterattack by the Janissaries saved him. Dracula cut his way out and disappeared.
One of Dracula’s men was captured but would reveal nothing, even when he
was sawn in half. Did he refuse out of loyalty in the face of death and pain, or was his
fear of Dracula greater than his fear of death? This thought worried Mehmed as he
The army arrived at Tirgoviste. Its buildings were smoldering, its shops bare, its
wells poisoned by dead animals, its golden cup finally gone. Nothing to eat, nothing
to drink. They pushed on a little farther. Then they found a place that robbed the
bravest Turk of his courage. A gorge just north of the city was banked on both sides
with a forest of stakes, each bearing the body of an impaled victim. Carpathian
vultures wheeled about them, ravens nested within their ribcages. A few were recently
impaled Turkish soldiers; most were boyars or Wallachian criminals. There were
more than 20,000 corpses in all. On two higher stakes, close to Sultan Mehmed’s
route of march, hung the rotting bodies of Hamza Pasha and Thomas Catovolinos.
The Sultan ordered a halt to the march and heavily fortified his camp with
ditches and walls that night. He whispered to his chief advisor, “This Dracula is
capable of a horror like this against his own people! What inhuman treatment awaits
us?” The next day, the Ottoman army turned back. In this way Wallachia was saved
from the Turks by Vlad Dracula’s ruthlessness.
In a few years, though, Vlad lost his throne to Radu, who made an alliance
between the Turks and the hated boyars. Dracula appealed to his friend Prince
Stephan for help. He was betrayed again; Stephan joined his enemies.
A great army surrounded Vlad Dracula in his castle on the Arges River.
Dracula’s wife, a beautiful Wallachian peasant woman, cried out that she would
sooner die in the river than become their prisoner. She bolted to the highest tower and
leaped to her death. That part of the river is now known as Riul Doamni, the
A heartsick Vlad escaped with a few lieutenants through a secret castle tunnel
into the wild Carpathian Mountains and across to Hungary where, once again, he was
King Matthias seized and imprisoned Vlad Dracula. The prince was too famous
as a Christian warrior against the Turks to kill or throw into a dungeon. The King
gave him a house in the town of Pest, where he was confined under guard until 1476,
when Mathhias had a use for him.
Fortune seemed to turn back toward Dracula. Matthias drove Radu from the
throne and Vlad Dracula the Impaler was once again the Prince of Wallachia. Prince
Stephan pledged his friendship again and, together, they began to attack the Turks.
This second reign lasted only a short year. During a night battle in 1477, a dozen
assassins ambushed Dracula. Doubtless, he fought like a cornered beast but Prince
Dracula was murdered. His head was taken to Mehmed so the Turkish ruler could at
last sleep easily, knowing that no opponent so fierce as Vlad the Impaler still existed.
Not then, and perhaps never since.
Vlad Dracula lived in a time when life was cheap and short. The Black Death that
killed John Hunyadi had also swept away nearly half the population of Europe. Any
sunrise could bring disease, a horde of ravaging soldiers, hunger or slavery. The loss
of life in those years may have seemed unimportant. They were hard times when
bitter people found it easy to abandon their morals and beliefs in order to protect
themselves or grasp a moment of pleasure at anyone’s expense.
Rulers sat uneasily on their thrones. They feared betrayal from every side. Vlad
was abandoned to the Turks by his father, betrayed by his best friend Stephan,
attacked by his younger brother Radu, and trapped like a wolf by King Matthias.
Perhaps his warrior soul was robbed of any belief in good. He replaced it with the
naked power of terror. He acted without mercy, afraid that kindness could be a signal
of weakness. Swift, terrible lessons, like impalement, might be remembered longer
than compassion. Was killing a few thousand Wallachians – even on the gruesome
stake – better than losing the kingdom? A few years later the Italian writer
Machiavelli would ask the same question: Which is more reliable? Loyalty or fear?
We can’t look back on 15th century deeds with 20th century eyes and understand
Vlad’s motives. Was he a hero? He saved his country from the Turks. He tried to free
his people from the boyars. He was brave. Even when every hand was against him, he
was faithful to his word.
The real Dracula was a man of learning and honor, not a blood-sucking fiend. But
this cannot excuse him. He was a true villain: strong, but not strong enough to keep
his compassion. He became crueler than his enemies. Did he save Wallachia? For a
few years he frightened the boyars and beat back the Turks but look at the terrible
price! How many years was it before his people could rebuild their villages, restore
their wells, replant their fields, forget the loss of their sons and daughters? How many
people – Wallachians, Turks, and boyars – died for Vlad Dracula’s idea of law and
order and for his fearsome reputation?
The fictional vampire Dracula in storybook tales killed a few high-class folks, set
up his own blood bank, and frightened some peasants. The real Dracula believed in an
old wicked lie, something far more gruesome and false than Bram Stoker’s vampire
tale: The End Justifies the Means. He believed that his “noble” goal was more
important than the cruelty he used to reach the goal. He was wrong.
It’s possible that force and perhaps even war are sometimes necessary to push
back evil. But we must always ask, “Whose evil, and at what price?” The loss of
sense and decency and compassion is always too much to pay.
A VAMPIRE is, in folklore, a powerful and violent creature of the night who sucks
blood from his victims, though you can keep him (or her) away with a necklace
of garlic. Some doctors believe this tale … or at least a part of it. It is possible
that vampire legends grew out of murders committed by real people with a rare
blood disease, porphyria. In the small, isolated villages in the Carpathian
Mountains of Transylvania, where many families are closely related, this
disease recurred every generation or so. The blood of porphyria sufferers will
not carry enough oxygen to their brains. They lose their reason, often
becoming violently insane. At the same time, they crave red meat and blood for
its oxygen-carrying properties. They have been known to rip into victims in a
fit of pain and drink their blood. Other symptoms complete the tie with
folklore: the skin of porphyrics becomes painfully sensitive to sunlight, so they
come out only after sundown; enzymes in garlic can cause them terrible pain; a
skin condition related to porphyria is excess hairiness on the face and limbs
and even the palms of the hands, which could also explain the werewolf
legends, too. Sleep well. Was that a growl in the closet?