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Dracula, Cesare Borgia, and Machiavelli’s The Prince

Posted by on Sunday, September 16th, 2018 in Dracula History, Fifteenth Century, Medieval History, Romanian History

Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli in his famous work, The Prince, considers Cesare Borgia as a compelling example for princes to follow if they wish to learn to strengthen their principalities. Although there is no evidence that Machiavelli knew much about the career of the prince of Wallachia, known as Vlad III Dracula, he could also easily have used him as inspiration for his classic work on statecraft.

The parallels between the historical Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler, and the Duke of Valentinois, son of Pope Alexander VI, are remarkable. While Cesare Borgia served as Machiavelli’s model for a wise Renaissance ruler, other writers, familiar with his reign, considered Vlad III Dracula in a similar way. They presented Vlad as a firm but just ruler who could serve as an example for other rulers of the time.

Antonius Bonfinius on Dracula

Title Page of Bonfinius’s Historica Pannonica

One such example is the noted Renaissance chronicler, Antonius Bonfinius, an Italian humanist at the court of Matthias Corvinus. He had been invited to come to Budapest in 1485. His chronicle, Historia Pannonica, begun already during the reign of Matthias Corvinus, was completed only after the death of the king in 1490. It was thus formally dedicated to Matthias’ successor, the new Hungarian king, Vladislav II. Bonfinius published his account around 1495, only about eighteen years after Dracula’s death, almost a quarter of a century before Machiavelli published his famous work.

In it, he writes nine stories about Dracula. While the writer attempts to justify the policy of Matthias Corvinus vis-à-vis Vlad the Impaler, i.e. his arrest and imprisonment in 1462, unlike many of the German stories, Bonfinius is not overly harsh concerning Dracula’s cruelties. He describes him as a cruel, but just ruler. Bonfinius fostered the tradition of seeing Dracula as a typical Renaissance despot. While Machiavelli’s The Prince was not published until 1519, Dracula was already portrayed by Bonfinius and other sources as a similar-type example of the Renaissance despot. Dracula’s apparent cruelties are justified, much like Machiavelli justifies the actions of Cesare Borgia, by the desire to secure a strong centralized authority.

Machiavelli and Maintaining the Authority of the Prince

Vlad III Dracula

Vlad III Dracula as portrayed in a woodcut from the earliest known printing about Dracula published in Lubeck in 1485

Machiavelli discusses the tactics of Cesare Borgia in suppressing the nobles who sowed discord and worked to undermine central authority. Decades earlier, Vlad III Dracula pursued similar policies.

The German stories, originally written as political propaganda pieces to undermine Vlad’s authority and to justify Matthias Corvinus’s imprisonment of the prince who boldly confronted Islamic terror, recount how “he asked his boyars to come to his house for a feast. When the feast was over, Dracula went to the oldest of them and asked him how many princes he thought the country had had? And then he asked the others, one by one, the same question. They all said what they knew; one answered fifty, another thirty, but none of them answered that there had been seven of them, so he had them all impaled. There were five hundred of them altogether.”

The story reveals the chaotic political situation in Wallachia that had plagued the principality since the death of Dracula’s grandfather Mircea the Old in 1418.

Cesare Borgia and Dracula – A Similar Fate?

Cesare Borgia

Cesare Borgia

In Machiavelli’s view, the state, embodied in the person of the Prince, is the most important entity. If the prince has to resort to deception, violence or intrigue to maintain his position, then he is fully justified in doing so. The Slavic stories about Dracula, also composed near the end of the fifteenth century, portraying a firm but just ruler to be held as an example for rulers of the time, teach comparable lessons.

In addition, surviving documents from Vlad’s reign show the Wallachian ruler expressing a political philosophy reminiscent of Machiavelli: “When a man or a Prince is strong and powerful, he can make peace as he wants to” (see Dracula’s Political Philosophy).

For Machiavelli, Cesare Borgia is a prince who ultimately lost what he had because of adverse fortune, the same can be said in the case of of Vlad the Impaler. Thus, both princes, Dracula and Cesare Borgia, stand as examples of Renaissance era rulers who pursued similar objectives and also suffered similar fates. Although neither succeeded in achieving their ultimate objectives, both men became examples of stern but just rulers.

Recommended Reading

For more on the life of Vlad the Impaler, including translations of numerous documents and chronicles from the period, see Dracula: Essays on the Life and Times of Vlad the Impaler, available on Amazon and at HistriaBooks.com.



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