Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula

Before vampires did stupid things like sparkle and impregnate high schoolers, they were among the most terrifying creatures of legend, right alongside witches, werewolves, and koalas. The classic vampire that everyone recognizes is Count Dracula; based on Irish author Bram Stoker's classic 1897 novel, the character has been popularized in the storied performances of Béla Lugosi in the 1931 film, Christopher Lee in the 1958 version, and Zale Kessler's fantastic voice acting in 1988's Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School. But the real Dracula was not so much interested in ingesting people's blood as he was killing invading Turks and sticking their rotting corpses on spikes for everyone to see. Not nearly as bad!

Fig.1: What Vlad III Dracula 
lacked in fangs and a thirst 
for blood, he made up for 
with awesome hair!
This man was Vlad III, Prince (or Voivode) of Wallachia. Wallachia was a principality in Eastern Europe located in present-day Romania, just to the south of a little place called Transylvania! Dramatic noise! Vlad III was born in 1431 to Vlad II, whose nickname was Dracul ("the dragon"). Thus his son became known as Dracula, meaning "son of the dragon," implying that Vlad's great-great-great-great grandsons could have been called Draculaaaaaa. Anyway, this was a very precarious time to live in Wallachia, as those darn Ottomans were beginning their surge into Europe, and Vlad's kingdom was right on the front lines. Wallachia needed a strong, ruthless ruler to defend their territory and way of life, and a prince whose nickname would later be used for a blood-sucking monster was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Interestingly enough, Vlad Dracula was actually raised and educated by the Ottoman Turks! His father's position on the throne was always tentative due to the rebellious Romanian nobility known as the boyars, short for "Boy, are those guys annoying little jerks or what?!" So in return for the Ottoman Sultan's support to keep his throne, Vlad II gave him two of his sons, Vlad Dracula and Radu (who was nicknamed "the Handsome" after his soft blue eyes and chiseled chin) as tribute. Oh the days where you can sell off your children in return for job security! Vlad lived in the Ottoman capital of Edrine until was seventeen, and was taught the Turkish language, memorized the Qur'an, and learned the punishment of impaling, or the penetration of a person with a sharpened pole rooted in the ground where the impaled is left to slowly hemorrhage and die. In retrospect, the Turks probably shouldn't have educated Vlad on that last thing, but at the time it was just a bit of fun that they thought couldn't possibly come back to hurt them.

Fig.2: No, not that kind of puppet!
Bad, image editor! Bad!
But then Vlad II was killed in 1447 by those pesky boyars under the influence of Hungarian regent John Hunyadi, and he installed a puppet voivode in his place (fig.2). The Ottomans allowed Vlad Dracula the opportunity to march into Wallachia and retake the throne, in return for the continuation of tribute, trading rights, and shotgun positioning on road trips. But Vlad double-crossed them (get used to that phrase), and teamed up with John Hunyadi of all people! Historians have debated why Vlad did this: was it because Hunyadi was the dominant political player in Eastern Europe, and Vlad knew he wouldn't find a better ally? Was it because he was a fellow Christian, and sought a crusader war against the Muslim Ottomans? Or was it because Hunyadi's mom had one of those cool refurbished basements, complete with a flat-screen and foosball table? Regardless, Hunyadi accepted the alliance since his puppet was becoming too pro-Ottoman for his liking (he even started counting with Arabic numbers, the traitor!), allowing Vlad Dracula to reconquer Wallachia by 1456. He then graduated Voivode School to become Vlad III, with all the rights and privileges thereto pertaining.

When looked at from a practical standpoint, Vlad III was a skilled ruler. During his reign, the economy of agricultural output was strengthened, his government became more established in all corners of Wallachia, and the military turned into a highly-trained fighting force. But when viewed from a more personal angle, Vlad was kind of a really terrible person. He had the majority of the boyars killed, based in his belief that all previous strife in the principality came from their whininess. He cracked down on crime, and everything from robbery to assault to parting your hair to the wrong side became punishable by death. There were also countless stories of Vlad's cruelty that made the antics of pre-Buddhist Ashoka look like the Kids' Choice Awards! As his posthumous nickname will imply, Vlad really got into the whole impaling thing. One story in particular tells of Vlad setting up a banquet table so he could feast while observing the impalement of 20,000 people who failed to use their turn signal while merging. When he noticed one of his soldiers holding his nose at the smell of the corpses, he cried, "Why would I want in my service a man who cannot look at death without regurgitating? Death is a soldier's livelihood! Let him join these others, but because he had been loyal until today, hoist him higher than the rest that he does not have to smell his company!" Such a sweetheart.

Fig.3: Vlad always threw the best impalement parties.
But Vlad is actually celebrated as a folk hero in Romania, not so much for the cruelty towards his people (as much as they deserved it), but for his stand against the Ottomans. Vlad had not paid the expected tribute to the Turks since he took over, delaying it with excuses like, "I'll have the money next week," and, "Oh, my checkbook is in my other pair of pants." When envoys arrived in 1459 to demand the payment, Vlad was insulted that they refused to take off their turbans in his presence, and decided to have them killed by nailing their turbans to their skulls (Vlad was a big fan of the pun-ladden horror tactics of the Saw movies). This infuriated Sultan Mehmed II, who, after knocking the Byzantines out of history, was no one to trifle with. In 1462, he sent a cavalry force led by his best general to teach Vlad a lesson, but instead Vlad passed onto the Turks the valuable message of, "Don't fall asleep in enemy territory," and massacred them in the night. Mehmed resolved to lead his own force of about 90,000 troops across the Danube into Wallachia, but Vlad had a pleasant surprise for him. He ordered the impaled dead and dying bodies of the previous Ottoman force to line the road to his capital, which naturally caused major traffic during rush hour. Mehmed and his soldiers were so spooked by the display (which Vlad called abstract art) that they high-tailed it right back to Istanbul-not-Constantinople.

Alas, Vlad's success would not last forever, just like the thankfully dying vampire fad of today. An Ottoman force would eventually kick Vlad off the throne later that year; it was ironically led by Vlad's brother, Radu the Handsome, who decided to keep his supple check bones and perfectly-aligned teeth on the side of the Sultan. Vlad fled to Hungary and the court of King Matthias, son of the late John Hunyadi, and Matthias welcomed Vlad with open arms...and an open jail cell. He was imprisoned in various palaces throughout Hungary for thirteen years (sorry, triskaidekaphobics) mostly so Matthias wouldn't peeve off the Ottomans (scientifically, this makes him what experts call a pansy). However, Radu died in 1475 after his perfect face was blemished by a single wrinkle, and Vlad was permitted to return and reclaim his throne. Unfortunately, the boyars and the general population never forgave him for the whole impale-everyone-for-no-good-reason thing, and when an Ottoman force was en route, no one volunteered to defend the voivodeship. Thus Vlad III Dracula would meet his end in 1476 not by a wooden stake, or a silver bullet, or a garlic herb-crusted prime rib; a simple beheading did the trick, with his head brought back to the Sultan as a trophy, and his hair kindly donated to Locks of Love.

Fig.4: Vlad wouldn't be caught 
dead wearing that vest...and not 
just because he was beheaded.
Most certainly, Dracula's mythical reputation as a vampire who "vants to suck your blahd!" reigns supreme in the minds of you petty common-folk today. But let's not forget about the real Vlad III's positive qualities, like how he was a self-centered, power-hungry, manipulative, war-mongering, torture-happy psychopath who wholeheartedly enjoyed the suffering of his impaled victims. My guess is that if Vlad knew about his present notoriety of a monster than ingests people's bodily fluids, he would have said, "Man, why didn't I think of that?!" Nonetheless, when children come knocking on your door dressed as one of those stereotypical Draculas, teach them the true story of Vlad the Impaler, defender of Wallachia against the Ottoman Turks, instead of giving out those enamel-rotting chocolate bars. Just make sure to not to answer the phone calls of angry parents who simply don't appreciate having their offspring know how to properly impale their enemies. Our values are just so misplaced nowadays...

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