Dracula, prince of darkness, lord of the undead! This mythical character leaped onto the page from the fevered imagination of Irish writer Bram Stoker in 1897. But the historical figure who shares a name with the literary icon was no less fearsome. Vlad III Draculea was the voivode (a prince-like military leader) of Walachia—a principality that joined with Moldavia in 1859 to form Romania—on and off between 1448 and 1476. Also known as Vlad III, Vlad Dracula (son of the Dragon), and—most famously—Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Tepes in Romanian), he was a brutal, sadistic leader famous for torturing his foes. By some estimates he is responsible for the deaths of more than 80,000 people in his lifetime—a large percentage of them by impalement.
Vlad III’s cruelty was real, but his reputation as a villain spread through 15th-century Europe thanks to the printing press, whose rise coincided with his reign. Propagandist pamphlets written by his enemies became best sellers. Centuries later, the sinister reputation of Vlad the Impaler took on new life when Stoker came across the name Dracula in an old history book, learned that it could also mean “devil” in Walachia, and gave the name to his fictional vampire. Yet today Vlad III is something of a national hero in Romania, where he is remembered for defending his people from foreign invasion, whether Turkish soldiers or German merchants.