Or: The Importance of Good PR
Quite a few of you know that I'm something of a Dracula geek, and that I've spent a good chunk of time researching both the 15th century Wallachian prince and the vampire mythos that's grown mostly from Stoker's novel. Given the popularity of the undead porn subgenre, I don't think there's any need to discuss PR for vampires, but Vlad III Dracula, "the Impaler", definitely suffered from bad PR.
Okay, I can hear people thinking "Yeah, right. They didn't call him "the Impaler" because he was a nice guy.", and yes, you do have a point. Vlad was not a saint by anyone's standards. But - and there's a message in here for us, now - if you look at him and his life without looking at the context of the era and his contemporaries, you get a very distorted picture.
Perhaps the main source of information today on the kind of man Vlad was are the Dracula stories. The problem with using these to judge him is that the Dracula pamphlets and the Russian chronicles were written by his enemies. The Russians regarded him as apostate for converting to Catholicism (something he did because it was the only way he was going to regain anything resembling freedom). The writer of the German/Saxon pamphlets was financially dependent on the King of Hungary and the Germanic merchant families in Transylvania, both of whom had reasons to want Vlad portrayed as an evil monster. Even the name by which he is mostly known today - "the Impaler" - was coined by the Ottoman Turks, who were probably his bitterest enemies.
Possibly the only sympathetic sources are the Romanian peasant legends, which portray him as harsh but just, and have a subtext that he needed to take drastic action to restore a country which today would be considered a failed state.
Now to his contemporaries. One of the best insights I got into the mindset of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, "the Conquerer", came from translations of contemporary accounts of the siege and fall of Constantinople. All three accounts I found, two from the defenders perspective and one from the besiegers, agreed closely on the events. The short-short version is that Mehmed besieged the city while building an immense cannon to bombard the walls, and carried his ships around the chain stretched across the mouth of the Golden Horn to position them where he could attack the weaker sea-walls. Even so, he might still have failed if not for the good fortune of a small gate left open (or possibly deliberately opened) through which he was able to send forces and get one of the larger gates opened, after which his armies went on a rampage of rape and slaughter (which Mehmed had encouraged - and that information comes from the sympathetic source).
Some of the side excursions proved most illuminating. While the great cannon (also known as the Great Turkish Bombard) was being built, Mehmed took a smaller force to one of the ancillary fortresses, where he besieged it, bombarded it with cannon fire and threw men at it until the garrison surrendered - after which he took the men who surrendered back to Constantinople and impaled them outside the walls of the city. Oh, and standard operating procedure for the Ottoman customs forts further up the Bosphorus Straits? If a ship tried to evade them, sink the ship and impale the survivors.
Mehmed is - mostly - remembered today as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan man who oversaw the restoration of Constantinople to a major trade and cultural center. What's forgotten is that he had his infant brother drowned while the child's mother was congratulating him on his succession to the Imperial Ottoman throne. His harem of attractive young boys and boyish young men is also mostly forgotten - although some of the braver clerics of the time condemned that particular habit. Then there's the known fact that he was precocious in matters of intrigue and murder, and is suspected of arranging the murder of at least one of his older brothers. I've never seen any suggestions that he was involved in his father's short illness and death, but the illness is curiously unspecified.
Then there's the hero of Hungary and his father the White Knight - King Matthias of Hungary, and his father John Hunyadi. Hunyadi's efforts included attempting to negotiate a truce with the Ottoman Sultan while he was organizing a war alliance against the Ottomans. Matthias went one better - he received a good deal of money from the Pope to finance a campaign against Mehmed II, and used the money to ransom the Hungarian crown from Poland. The leader of that campaign? Vlad Dracula. Matthias arrested Dracula on obviously false charges to deflect questions about his lack of action - and his employee produced the first of the Dracula pamphlets shortly afterwards. Perhaps not surprisingly, the pamphlets depict Dracula as a bloodthirsty madman.
So... Filtering the various Dracula stories through that lens (as well as the knowledge that there is simply not enough space in his castles and palaces for him to have impaled hundreds there)... The Dracula 'atrocities' fall into three broad categories. First, there's the law and order set. Remember, he was ruling a failed state. In order to shut down rampant crime, fast, he opted for severe penalties for pretty much everything. Given that he started from a culture where mutilation for minor crime was the norm, he didn't go that much further. Then there are the politically motivated executions. Those were done to break the power base of the Wallachian Boyar class - not least because they were quite willing to swear life-long loyalty to a man, then murder him a couple of months later to install someone else on the throne. The notorious "Forest of the Impaled" falls into this category as well - it was calculated to terrify Mehmed, because Dracula didn't have the numbers to defeat Mehmed in battle. It worked: Mehmed remained terrified of Dracula despite the disparity of power between the two men, and never attempted to directly attack him again. The third category was perhaps Dracula's biggest weakness. He was prone to insane rages that resembled berserk fits. The only Dracula stories that involve him doing something clearly counterproductive show him in one of these rages.
On the positive side: he was the only one of his contemporaries who never broke an oath. The evidence I could find suggests that while he initially paid the tribute required by the Ottomans, he didn't actually swear loyalty to them and never considered himself a vassal of the Sultan. He remained loyal to the Hungarian King despite Matthias's lack of support and later betrayal. He risked his life to help one of his few friends, Mihaly Szilagy (who was later sawn in two by the Ottomans) and helped his cousin Stephen of Moldavia (known today as St Stephen the Great) to claim the Moldavian throne. He appears to have belived in honor and duty, and maintained both to the best of his ability all his life. He was also acutely aware of his failings, if his time praying and the large amounts he donated to various churches are any guide.
Complicated? Hell yes. Easy to find? Not bloody likely. To find out more about Dracula the man, I spent a lot of time digging through obscure legends, translations of primary documents that would leave you cross-eyed, and a whole lot of international politics in 15th century Eastern Europe. The point, of course, being that ultimately what gets remembered is what other people say about you, not why they said it.
I should probably apologize for inflicting so much Dracula geekery on you, but I'm not going to because it illustrates something particularly useful to us as writers - good PR matters. None of us are likely to be remembered as one of history's greatest villains, but we writers do work in an industry largely driven by gossip, and gossip is basically viral PR. If we don't control it and seed the rumors that help us, we will be controlled by it and not in a good way.
What other historical figures got really bad PR? Conversely, who's been unfairly glorified? And what tactics can be used to seed helpful rumors for the gossip mill?