Vlad the Impaler: even his name sounds downright sinister. As one of the most reviled figures in history, he is remembered as a bloodthirsty tyrant. His love of impaling people has earned him a dark place in the public’s imagination. Claims that he was the real-life inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula – the undead nobleman who, like Vlad, loved to poke holes in people – have only added to the fascination.
But, who was Vlad the Impaler, really? One of the cruelest rulers in history, he was born around 1430 as a prince in Wallachia, a principality in what is today Romania. Vlad Tepes came of age in a turbulent time. The aggressive, expanding Ottoman Empire was setting its sight on eastern Europe after successfully conquering Constantinople in 1453. Vlad, a young ruler struggling to simply hold onto the throne he inherited, was thrust into the role of defender of his lands against the aggression of a much bigger army. He also had enemies closer to home, and even went into conflict against Saxons.
Though this may sound like a feel-good underdog story, Vlad's tactics made it a darker, more complicated one. His campaigns against the Ottomans, Saxons, and other rivals were forged in blood — lots of it. He used gruesome and sinister tactics to do whatever he could to preserve his authority in an unstable world. But, since stories about him come mainly from his enemies, hard facts about Vlad the Impaler are a little difficult to come by. Whether or not totally true, however, Vlad's bloody acts contributed to the legend of the Impaler and cast a dark shadow even to this day.
Vlad's youth was spent in the heart of the Ottoman Empire as a hostage. As a result of the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Vlad's home of Wallachia, the teenaged prince and his younger brother Radu were taken by Sultan Murad II as hostages. As long as their father, the King of Wallachia, didn't resist the Ottomans, they would be fine.
Murad spared their lives and eventually released the Wallachian princes. Though Vlad's time as a hostage may have developed his bloodlust, it didn't seem to bother his younger brother in the slightest. In fact, young Radu seems to have made the most of life in captivity: he befriended many Ottomans and even converted to Islam.
When the newly-free young prince returned to Wallachia in 1448, it was not quite the homecoming he had expected. Both his father and older brother – and heir to the throne –had been assassinated by Wallachian nobles. Vlad was next-in-line for the throne, but he had to fight to keep it. After being deposed and forced into exile, he regained the throne again in 1456. With his new rule came a new form of frenzied bloodlust: most of his atrocities date from this period.
Perhaps the climax of Vlad's penchant for impaling came in 1462. After fleeing an Ottoman advance, Vlad left a so-called "Forest of the Impaled" in his wake. According to accounts, no less than 20,000 prisoners of war had been impaled, their bodies decaying on the pikes. Whether or not 20,000 people were actually impaled remains debatable; but Vlad nonetheless built a chilling reputation for using gruesome war tactics.
Impaling human beings on huge pikes wasn't just to punish them — Vlad knew the horrific spectacle had other uses. Part of the reason Vlad impaled people was so that it would put the fear of God into spectators: impalement was used as a deterrent. Well, deterrent might be too light a word for it. Some claim that Vlad's use of impalement was actually an early form of terrorism.