Being the Voivode of Wallachia in the 15th century couldn’t have been an easy gig. The principality was strategically located on both the shore of the Black Sea and the northern bank of the Danube, and also happened to sit smack on the frontier between Hungarian Transylvania and the Ottoman Empire. Successive Wallachian rulers tried to manage their two larger neighbors, with varying degrees of success. Mircea I (d. 1418) fought a number of successful engagements against the Ottomans, but ultimately was forced in 1417 to make Wallachia an Ottoman vassal because the alternative was complete subjugation. The reason why the David vs. Goliath story is so powerful is because, usually, Goliath wins. David might steal a victory here or there, but unless he can kill Goliath–and nobody was killing the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s–eventually Goliath will wear him down and win the war. Wallachia, in case it’s not obvious, is David in this scenario. They could win battles, they could resist the Ottomans, but in the long-run they couldn’t decisively win the war.
Wallachian rulers also had to deal with their nobles, the boyars, who frequently resisted the voivode and backed rival claimants to the throne, and in the middle of the century the rivalry between the royal Dănești and Drăculești houses gripped the principality. These internal challenges forced Voivode Vlad II of the Drăculești house, or Vlad Dracul, to seek Ottoman backing against the boyars and at times the Hungarians, even though Vlad II belonged to a military order, the Order of the Dragon, whose main ethos was resisting Ottoman control. On top of monetary tribute, Vlad II was obliged to send two sons, Radu and the future Vlad III or Vlad Țepeș, to the Ottomans as hostages. Vlad III, yes the Dracula one, spent part of his youth in the Ottoman Empire, and it seems this time engendered him with a real distaste for the Ottomans. Nevertheless, he was in Ottoman possession and thus under their control, and when Vlad II was killed in 1447, with the approval if not outright connivance of the boyars, the Ottomans sponsored Vlad III in his first attempt to gain the Wallachian throne. That attempt failed, and the Dănești claimant, Vladislav II–who may have assassinated Vlad II and may have had Hungarian help doing it–took the throne instead.
If Vladislav II had Hungarian help in gaining the Wallachian throne, their mutual good feelings didn’t last very long. After a stint in exile living once more under the Ottomans, Vlad III found himself in Hungary in 1456, being put at the head of an army by Hungarian strongman John Hunyadi and sent to topple Vladislav. Which he did. Vlad III’s first order of business was a giant purge, and it’s here that he probably began to earn his nickname, “the Impaler.” Between his purge of the boyars and a conflict with the Transylvanian Saxons, Vlad had occasion to see a lot of people off into the afterlife in the most painful ways possible. Once he’d consolidated his power, Vlad’s attentions turned toward the Ottomans.
As the son of a reluctant Ottoman vassal who’d apparently worked up a fair amount of hatred for the Ottomans during his captivity in the empire, and as someone who was helped to the Wallachian throne by the Hungarians, Vlad had plenty of reason to resist the empire. But as David to the empire’s Goliath, he wasn’t in a position to provoke a full-on war, at least not at first. Instead, Vlad’s resistance took the form of withholding tribute, both monetary (he insisted that he just couldn’t afford to pay it) and in the form of conscripted boys, and negotiating with Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus about possibly shifting allegiances.
In 1460, this started to change. Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II sent an envoy to, let’s say, strenuously encourage Vlad to pay his back tribute. Mehmed sent a company of soldiers into Wallachia to recruit conscripts themselves since Vlad wouldn’t send any–Vlad had them captured and impaled. Meanwhile he began sending diplomatic feelers west, to the Transylvanian Saxons and Hungary, asking for help against an imminent Ottoman invasion. Mehmed summoned him to Constantinople, but Vlad insisted that he simply couldn’t leave Wallachia at such a critical time, his war against the Saxons still up in the air, and reiterated that he just couldn’t afford his tribute at that time but would totally make good on it as soon as he could. Unfortunately for him, Mehmed already knew that Vlad was negotiating with Matthias Corvinus, and so the Ottoman sultan sent a cavalry force into Wallachia to compel him to come to Constantinople. Vlad got wind of this and his army ambushed the Ottoman force and massacred it.
In early 1462, Vlad led an army into southern Wallachia and Bulgaria, killing an estimated 23,000 Turks in a matter of weeks. In one engagement, he apparently did such a convincing impression of an Ottoman officer (his time as a hostage paying off, I suppose), that he talked the guards into letting his army into the Ottoman fortress at Giurgiu, which they of course promptly destroyed. Mehmed sent a small army to deal with the Wallacians and once again Vlad defeated it. With Vlad’s successes multiplying and his public stature skyrocketing along with them, Mehmed finally had enough. He assembled an army that was at least as large as the one he’d led against Constantinople, so over 100,000 men and probably more like 150,000 at the low end, and set out in late April or early May to rid himself of Vlad and just get it over with and annex Wallachia altogether. Vlad, once he knew the invasion was coming, appealed in vain to Matthias Corvinus for aid and instead cobbled together an army of around 30,000, most of them peasant conscripts. Goliath was on the road to meet David.
Obviously unable to stand toe-to-toe with the Ottomans while outnumbered at least 5:1, Vlad employed irregular tactics–scorched earth, traps, guerrilla hit and run raids, even the 15th century equivalent of biological warfare (i.e., paying sick people to “wander” into the Ottoman camp). At best these tactics only slowed the Ottoman advance on Vlad’s capital, Târgovişte.
The Wallachians’ Night Attack at Târgovişte was one of those guerrilla attacks, though Vlad was hoping it would be more than that. The story goes that, prior to the attack, Vlad once again did his Turk impression and was able to enter the Ottoman camp. He scouted it out and, in particular, made note of where Mehmed’s tent was. He wanted his attack on the camp to be decisive–his David and Goliath moment. On the night of June 17, Vlad led a force generally cited at 24,000, though that may be an exaggeration, into the Ottoman camp. What followed was definitely a Wallachian victory, but it’s not clear how great a victory. The consensus seems to be that Vlad lost about 5000 men against 15,000 Ottomans. Which is a lopsided result, except inasmuch as 5000 dead represented perhaps a sixth or more of Vlad’s army, against maybe a tenth or less of the Ottoman army killed. And what is particularly relevant in our David and Goliath story is that the raid failed to kill Mehmed. David shot his shot…and missed.
Despite having suffered significant losses in the night attack, Mehmed proceeded with his plan to besiege Târgovişte. Until, it seems, he and his men got a firsthand look at why Vlad III was called Vlad the Impaler. Vlad had apparently lined the main road to the capital for miles with the impaled bodies of Ottoman soldiers. This was too much for Mehmed, who ordered his forces to turn around and head home.
Victory for the Wallachians, right? David over Goliath? Well, not really. Despite having won multiple small engagements against the Ottomans including the night attack, Vlad wound up agreeing to a new vassal arrangement with the Ottomans that actually increased Wallachia’s tribute requirements, and then he was overthrown, with Ottoman help, by his brother, Radu the Fair. He even wound up being imprisoned by Matthias Corvinus, though eventually they patched things up and Matthias Corvinus, at the encouragement of Stephen III of Moldavia, once again set Vlad up as Voivode of Wallachia in 1476, displacing another Ottoman client, Basarab Laiotă. But his return to power was very brief–the Ottomans invaded Wallachia to restore Basarab Laiotă, and Vlad died in battle against them in either late 1476 or early 1477. It may take a while, but unless you kill him, Goliath eventually wins in the end.
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