A short view on Vlad Ţepeş and his image from an amateur

Vlad Ţepeş was the voivode of Wallachia thrice: first in 1448 for just two months, then between 1456 and 1462 and then  in 1476 for just about the same amount of time as his first rule.

Vlad is, by far, the most notorious Romanian ruler in the world. His name is, almost exclusively, associated with Count Dracula. His image in the Western world is that of a cruel ruler and a sadistic man whose only pleasure would come from seeing people suffer. In contrast, his image inside Romania’s border is that of a national hero who fought against Turks for the independence and well-being of the Romanian people and for the salvation of the Christendom from the Ottoman menace. He is also seen as a fighter for justice, using his unorthodox methods of punishment against thieves, liars, beggars or criminals. But what exactly altered Vlad’s image in the eyes of the Western world and why is there such a great diference between his personality known in Romania and in other parts of the world?

Vlad Ţepeş was born and ruled in a country with a very unstable internal situation at that time[1],  and also it was a country which as constantly threatened by a major force: the Ottoman Empire. Born as the son of another voivode, Vlad Dracul, he also had three more brothers: Mircea, who died after being buried alive; Radu, who will also become a ruler of Wallachia between 1462 and 1475 (with some interuptons starting in 1473 caused by a conflict with Moldova’s ruler, Ştefan cel Mare); and Vlad, nicknamed „Călugărul”, also a ruler of Wallachia between 1482 and 1495.

It appears that he spent a lot of time in Adrianople, the Ottoman capital city at that time, as a pledge of his father, along with his brother Radu. He didn’t really enjoy the life there, as his brother did, who became a close friend of sultan Mehmed II and head of Janissary corp of army.

In the year of 1448 Vlad had his first reign. At that time, the ruler of Wallachia was Vladislav II, a son of Dan II, a member of the Dăneşti. Vladislav was a vassal of Iancu de Hunedoara (better known as John Hunyade in the English-speaking world) and for some time he had good relationships with him. 1448 was the year of the battle of Kossovopolje lead by Iancu. Vladislav had to help Iancu and left Wallachia for the battleground with some 8000 soldiers both from Wallachia and Moldavia[2]. While Vladislav was out of the country, Vlad, with help from the Turks, took the throne of Wallachia but only for a short period of time because after Vladislav returned from the expedition, which ended up with a disaster, he managed to take the throne again.

For some time between 1448 and 1456 Vlad wandered here and there seeking help for his cause. In his eyes Vladislav was an illegitimate ruler. We consider that this wandering was the result of his hate for the Turks.  It also seems that Vladislav approached himself to them, so the Turks would not care anymore about Vlad, since they had already a voivode on Wallachia’s throne. During this time he was in Moldova, at the royal court of Bogdan II, father of Ştefan cel Mare[3]. A proof that stands for this fact is the name of a boyar from his royal council. He was named, or maybe nicknamed, Moldoveanul[4] (the Moldavian one). After Bogdan was killed by his rival, Petru Aron, Vlad wento to Transylvania where he would be harassed by Iancu and his acolytes until 1456.

It seems that after the battle of Kossovopolje the relations between Iancu and Vladislav were not going so well and at some point Iancu was seeking someone to replace his vassal. He chose Vlad who came to rule from 1456 to 1462; this is the rule that made him famous.

From 1459 to 1462 he was at war with the Ottoman Turks. The cause of this war was his refusal to pay the tribute. And he was also at war with the city of Braşov (Kronstadt);the Transylvanian Saxons are responsible for the German version of the stories about him.

A major influence upon the view on Vlad’s personality were the German and Slavic stories about him. There are some doubts on who wrote the Slavic version and some authors are saying that a Romanian from Transylvania wrote this version. The German version is, without doubt, a product of the Transylvanian Saxons. But why would someone write these stories?

We consider that the main reason for this is the echo of Vlad’s doings, especially the raid that he did south of the Danube in the winter of 1461-1462 when he killed almost 20.000 people. It seems that this action triggered a massive migration of the population towards Asia[5] and Vlad came to king Matthias Corvinus with an act showing the exact number of killings. Also, after this raid, there was a myth that he made pyramids out of the heads of the ones who were killed. The news about the act that he showed to king Matthias might have spread into the kingdom. In a time when news were transmited, almost exclusively, by oral means and were sometimes distorted we think that they had some great impact on local population.

The German stories were written by the Transylvanian Saxons from the city of Braşov.[6] Why? Because Vlad was in a conflict with them. The conflict had an economical background but it also started because the people of Braşov hosted one of Vlad’s rivals, a member of the Dăneşti, whose name was Dan. As a response, Vlad raided their town and the surroundings. To make Vlad look bad in the eyes of the West, from where was seeking help against the Turks they created these stories. There, the Romanian voivode is shown as a cruel ruler and a tyrant whose only pleasure would come from seeing people suffer. Of couse, almost everyone who read those stories were horrified by his actions and because these manuscripts started to be printed in the sixteenth century and later –  in the Western world – they had a major impact on the collective mind. Even though there are clearly exagerated hat didn’t make any kind of difference. In these versions there is a particular part in which the author sais that Vlad, while he was being imprisoned in Visegrad, used to impale rats. That’s how fanatical he used to be.

The Slavic version is written some time after the German version[7]. In contrast to the German on, the Slavic version shows Vlad in a more brighter light, not only a fanatical killer, but also a fighter for justice and for the independence of his country. This facts made authors think that the creator of this version might have been a Romanian from Transylvania, because it is written in Slavonic, the cult language of the Orthodox Church, and puts Vlad in a good light. It is probable that a Romanian noble or member of clergy, that considered Vlad to be a much better person than it’s shown in the German version, and also a Romanian like him, wrote the Slavic version to tell the version of the Romanians about Vlad.

Unfortunately the Slavic tales did not influence he people as the German version will eventually do and so Vlad’s image in the collective memory of the people outside the borders of Romania, especially in the west, remained that of a fanatical killer and of a tyrant.

And this is why Bram Stoker in his novel, Dracula, used Vlad’s image. Stoker never came to Transylvania, but he, for sure, used travel notes by others. In his time, for the westerners, that part of Europe, Romania, was still a strange and unexplored land, full of myths, misteries and superstitions. People there were believing in myths and superstitions dating back from the Middle Ages. Stoker made some research on maps, other encyclopedias and, we strongly support this thing, on the stories about Vlad, most probably on the German ones. His book is remarkable. It’s a masterpiece of the Romantic era, but it’s also the thing that influenced people’s view on Vlad in the last 150 years. Almost all the films about Dracula had this novel as a starting point and Vlad Ţepeş as the fanatic ruler who turned into a vampire that still kills at night. Even though the book is full of myths, like the one with Scholomance, the Devil’s academy, that didn’t make any difference; to the collective memory that already knew about Vlad’s image from the German stories, Bram Stoker’s image of Vlad made a full impact that it’s still strong and will remain strong because the story of Vlad Ţepeş and Dracula is a great marketing opportunity.


[1] Following the death of Mircea cel Bătrân, 1386-1418 (the Elder) fights between two major rival factions started. It was a fight between (the) Drăculeşti and (the) Dăneşti. The Drăculeşti were descendents of Mircea cel Bătrân but took their name from Vlad Dracul. The Dăneşti were  descendents of  Mircea’s brother, Dan I (1383-1386). The fights were often very violent and ended up with beheadings. This unstable situation – 8 rulers came to the throne of Wallachia since the death of Mircea cel Bătrân until Vlad’s second rule, so between 1418 an 1456 – made Wallachia a battleground between rivals of these factions but also a battleground for the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, because, when needed, members of the Drăculeşti asked for help from the Ottomans, while the Dăneşti asked for help from the Hungarians.

[2] Laonykos Chalkokondyles says that the soldiers were lead by someone named „Dan”. Ştefan Andreescu in his monography –  „Vlad Ţepeş (Dracula): between legend and historical truth” – says that it could be a mistake and Chalkokondyles used the name Dan because Vladislav was a member of the Dăneşti.

[3]  It seems that during his wandering Bogdan was also well received at Vlad Dracul’s royal court. Ştefan cel Mare’s mother,  Oltea, was from the county of Buzău, which is in Wallachia.

[4] Andreescu, Ştefan (1998). Vlad Ţepeş (Dracula) – between legend and historical truth, Ed. Enciclopedică.

[5] Andreescu, Ştefan (1998). Ibidem

[6] It seems that the first manuscript was written in 1462 shortly after Vlad was arrested and imprisoned by king Matthias.

[7] Probably sometimes between 1486 and 1495