Who Was Vlad the Impaler & Why Do Historians Give his Cruelty a ‘Pass’?

Last updated on November 9th, 2020 at 04:35 pm

Rebranding Vlad the Impaler as some sort of monster makes it easy to forget that he was a human being who did some absolutely vicious things.

Who Was Vlad the Impaler & Why Do Historians Give his Cruelty a ‘Pass’?

While many people know a little about who Vlad the Impaler (also known as Vlad III and Vlad Tepes) was and how his namesake became popular in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula“, most don’t know much about who he was to the people of his day.

In fact, many people in modern-day Romania consider him something of a national folk hero. Since the mid 1800’s, Vlad III has been touted by some historians as one of the greatest Romanian rulers[1]. His struggle to keep Romanian lands independent from invaders such as those from the Ottoman Empire helped to garner this image.

But how does a leader with such legendary cruelty get a pass from historians?

Vlad the Impaler was Absolutely Vicious

Vlad the Impaler eating among impaled victims
Woodcut from the title page of a 1499 pamphlet published by Markus Ayrer in Nuremberg. It depicts Vlad III “the Impaler” (identified as Dracole wyade = Draculea voivode) dining among the impaled corpses of his victims. | Image Credit: By Markus Ayrer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s no shortage of stories regarding the tortuous methods Vlad used against his victims. His cruelty and brutality are legendary.

By most accounts, Vlad the Impaler enjoyed watching his enemies suffer. And although most of his cruel acts were committed during periods of wartime, by today’s standards, he would have been guilty of crimes against humanity.

Once Turkish emissaries visited his castle, but they did not take off their headgear when they greeted him. On being questioned, they said that they never removed their hats as it was a custom of their fathers. In response, Vlad had their hats nailed to their skulls, ensuring that they ‘never broke this excellent custom’[2].

Women and children were not spared. It’s generally believed that Vlad the Impaler killed somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 people during his lifetime.

The way in which he dispatched his enemies appears to be a clear-cut display of evil. So why do some historians consider him a hero?

Vlad Tepes: The Hostage & The Hero

Vlad III spent his early childhood as a prisoner. There’s no doubt he witnessed some very twisted and traumatic things during his formative years.

He then went on to rule Wallachia 3 separate times. Vlad’s prowess in battle made him a legend in his own day.

He learned to use a variety of fear tactics to win battles in which he was severely outnumbered. Among these tactics were impaling enemy soldiers and leaving them in the path of their allies as a warning.

Much of Vlad’s adult life was spent fighting to keep the Romanian lands independent from invading Turks of the Ottoman Empire.

His dedication to fighting off invaders is what made him such a folk hero.

Justifying Atrocities Can be Dangerous

While Bram Stoker might turn Vlad the Impaler into some type of monster, it’s important to never forget that Vlad was a human being. By remembering that this level of brutality and cruelty came from a human being, we can help stop such behavior in the future.

There are very few wars or battles that don’t have atrocities committed on both sides to some degree. It is the nature of war.

But the way that history views these actions in the years and centuries afterwards is incredibly important and shapes who we become as a species.

Sources & Additional Reading

1. Wikipedia: Vlad the Impaler

2. Historyplex: 27 Facts About the History, Life, and Death of Vlad the Impaler

Sharif Jameel is a business owner, IT professional, runner, & musician. His professional certifications include CASP, Sec+, Net+, MCSA, & ITIL and others. He's also the guitar player for the Baltimore-based cover band, Liquifaction.

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