Napoléon Bonaparte (born Napoleone di Buonaparte; August 15, 1769 – May 5, 1821) was a French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the Revolution and the Revolutionary Wars. As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 until 1814, and again for a hundred days in 1815. Simply put, he once dominated European affairs for over a decade while personally leading France's armies in the wars named after him, with much strategic and tactical prowess that are still staples of military schools to this day.
Befitting the name of the events, he won most of these wars and the vast majority of his battles, rapidly gaining control of a united continental Europe, creating a land empire of a size and dimension that had not been witnessed (in the west) since the end of the Western Roman Empire. One of the greatest military commanders in history, his campaigns are still studied at military schools worldwide, and he remains one of the most celebrated and controversial political figures in Western history. In civil affairs, Napoleon consolidated the foundational liberal reforms of the Revolution in France, and through his conquests was spread across Europe and the world. His lasting legal achievement, the Napoleonic Code, has been adopted in various forms by a quarter of the world's legal systems. At the same time, he is criticized as a warmongering imperialist, an autocratic tyrant, and setting the precedent for the military to overthrow the French Republics in a coup d'etat.
Napoleon was born on Corsica, just one year after the island had passed to France from the Genoese Republic, to a relatively modest family of noble Italian ancestry from Tuscany. Following his studies at the military school of Brienne, he served in the French army as an artillery officer, he earned his military spurs fighting to defend the nascent French Republic from the rest of Europe, who invaded France to try and put the deposed Bourbons (the French royal family) back on the throne. During the Directory period, a group of French liberals sought to engineer a coup d'état and approached Napoleon for military help. Napoleon not only participated in the coup, he pulled one on his fellow conspirators. The events happened in November 1799 (18 Brumaire in the French Revolutionary Calendar, by which it has become proverbial). He became First Consul of the Consulate and gradually extended his political control over France. In his early years, he brought an end to the French Revolutionary Wars and negotiated peace with Austria and later with England. It was during this time that he worked on the development of his famous Civil Code. After the 1804 referendum, he was declared Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, setting the stage for the French Empire.
Napoleon invaded Austria in a preemptive action to check the formation of an Anglo-Austrian alliance, after the English declared war on France. Eventually, the coalitions did form against France, leading him to go on a Europe-wide conquest, which he repeatedly won on land, forcing several attempts at peace with only England resisting him as a result of its island defenses and naval dominance.
He's pretty remarkable in European history that he came from relatively modest surroundings. His father was a minor regional noble on an island even educated people forgot existed most of the time. As the son of a backwater Impoverished Patrician, he would not have been more than a footnote in history, mostly just a name on some obscure family tree. In other circumstances, he might have had a shot at becoming a general (his noble ancestry being impeccably oldnote ), but not as early as he did, and his campaigns would not have been nearly as wide-ranging. Or in other words, when he started his military career in 1785, the best he could have hoped for in the history books was something along the lines of "oh yes, this Bonaparte character did a good campaign for Louis XVI fighting the Prussians in the Flemish War of 1813, which forced the cession of Hainaut to France in the Treaty of Rotterdam the following year. Oh, and he was from Corsica, isn't that wild? Guy had an Italian accent, his men used to make fun if him for it." But the Revolution, its reforms, and the instability of the era allowed him, as it did so many other young men of his time, the opportunity of a millennium.
He embodied the ideal of meritocracy in a continent and society dominated by aristocratic hierarchy and which grew even more hostile to encroachments on their privileges upon the arrival of the Revolution and its many children, a group with which Napoleon never failed to include himself in despite doing everything he could (up to marrying Marie-Antoinette's niece) to get away from it. He lived by Asskicking Leads to Leadership and was seen as the ultimate Romantic hero by the likes of Stendhal (who as a young man served in the Grand Army and followed L'Empereur to Russia and Waterloo) as well as a Villain with Good Publicity.
He was one of the defining figures of the 19th century, but whether that was a good or bad thing was a struggle even while he was still active. Some famous anti-Napoleonites such as Leo Tolstoy would go so far as to describe him as a murderous snake, while admirers such as Victor Hugo would emphasize his badass career which no one can ever repeat. Ludwig van Beethoven originally dedicated his 3rd Symphony to him, then angrily gouged out the dedication when word of Napoleon's declaration of the Empire reached Vienna. Similarly, a young Simón Bolívar once saw Napoleon at a distance and had an almost religious experience, but later pointedly refused to leave his lodgings on the day of the imperial coronation (he happened to be living in Paris at the time). With two exceptions early in his career, the only way to defeat him was to make sure you outnumbered him (and even that wouldn't guarantee it). Near the end, his opponents would literally design entire campaign strategies around avoiding fighting him directly and targeting his weakest subordinate commanders. When asked to name the greatest military leader of his time, one of his final opponents The Duke of Wellington said, "In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon."
His downfall began in 1812 with a disastrous invasion in Russia, followed by defeat in the 1813 Battle of Leipzig, the largest battle in Europe before World War I. This defeat led Napoleon to Abdicate the Throne in 1814, with France restored to the toppled Bourbon regime, and Napoleon imprisoned on the Italian island of Elba in 1814. This should have been the end of him as far as everyone was concerned, but a series of political failures such as the returning Bourbon dynasty's reactionary policies, resentment by younger French officers who felt they would not have access to the social mobility that early Napoleonic veterans had benefited from, as well as rumors within Elba that Napoleon would potentially be sent even further away, led him to make a daring escape and comeback in March of 1815.
The Bourbon regime sent a detachment of the Fifth Regiment to intercept and arrest Napoleon at a town called Laffrey. There, Napoleon cemented his legend by confronting the soldiers (who had been his until a year ago), then ripping open his jacket and crying, "If any of you will shoot your Emperor, then here I am!" After a moment, the men cried out "Vive l'Empereur!" and fell in behind him. By the time he reached Paris, most of the units sent to stop him had defected back to his flag. He returned to power, ruling for a hundred days during which he made overtures towards liberalism, such as bringing in critic Benjamin Constant to write a new liberal constitution with checks-and-balances, press freedoms as well as limits on his own power in civilian matters. But the Congress of Vienna convened to shape a post-Napoleonic Europe were having none of it, and branded him an Outlaw. This forced Napoleon to making his Last Stand at Waterloo which proved to be his final decisive defeat.
Much as he feared, the other European nations sent him further away to Saint Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where he was expected to die forgotten and powerless. (Personally, Napoleon wanted to emigrate to America and live out his days in genteel retirement.) He did die there eventually of stomach cancer.note But he would not be forgotten to say the least. In his retirement, Napoleon spent his time dictating his memoirs which were published posthumously and which on his death, became bestsellers in Europe, followed in turn with other accounts by visitors who enjoyed the spectacle of a former world conqueror made into a harmless, decaying old man who spent his days gardening and passing snide comments on the English governor which were generally unfair. His remains were brought back to France and buried in the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris in 1840, on the initiative of Adolphe Thiers and King Louis-Philippe.
Napoleon was a master of propaganda and so successful at it, that much of how we see his career and legend, and his own life, derives from his own words and fabrications. The French printing presses under his rule could go so far as to fabricate entire battles solely for the purpose of glorifying the Emperor. In the field, he kept a staff of artists in his entourage (as did the Duke of Wellington) to capture and romanticise his victories as they took place. In many ways, Napoleon's legend increased after his defeat and death, leaving behind a legacy that would cause much problems in France, where the army periodically invoked Napoleonic grandeur to try and take power, resulting in his nephew coming to power as Napoleon III in 1848, and then later attempted coup d'etat by the likes of General Boulanger. This legacy of grandeur (what is referred to as "la gloire") became valuable as a garb to obscure the reality that Napoleon's downfall marked the end of France as an international great power and culminated in an occupation by foreign powers for five years (the longest until World War II). Never again would France be able to singularly challenge the great powers of Europe on its own, its post-Napoleonic individual successes would come from invading and colonizing weaker and smaller nations outside Europe, while its European successes were achieved with the aid of coalitions and alliances (including with the British who were gracious after finally coming out on top of the centuries long Anglo-French rivalry), while eventually the illusion of its status as the pre-eminent land power in Western Europe would end with the Franco-Prussian War, which was a long-term consequence of the rise of German nationalism formed to combat and repel Bonaparte.
Although generally recognised as the greatest general of his day by his enemies, he was prone to ignoring (what hindsight shows to be) good ideas with "It Will Never Catch On," dismissing both the utility of the rifle (which cost his troops in Spain, see Sharpe) and Robert Fulton's steamship (see Quotes page). His tried-and-tested tactics earned him some decisive victories, but their predictability after their use in two decades of war, especially once his enemies started modernizing their armies to match his, and adopted some new technologies (such as the rifles used by the British in the Peninsular War) was a major reason for his final defeat.
History debates whether he was a brilliant leader or Corsica's greatest gangster. France naturally celebrates his victories and he's a symbol of nationalistic pride not unlike Joan of Arc, but they also acknowledge that his triumphs ran directly contrary to the principles of the Revolution that gave birth to him, although they also note that in many ways Napoleon consolidated and extended its reforms across Europe, chief among them being the deghettoization of Jews. On the other hand, Napoleon reversed the abolition of slavery,note sent a disastrous expedition to Haiti whose only "success" is the dishonorable and perfidious capture of Toussaint L'Ouverture, as well as triggering a major revolt in Guadaloupe where freedmen under the leadership of Louis Delgrès committed mass suicide rather than return to slavery. The fact that both these individuals are in the Pantheon of contemporary France indicates that many of his actions constitute Old Shame for contemporary France. Likewise, the few pro-women reforms in the otherwise macho French Revolution, such as women's rights to divorce, and inheritance, were reversed and overturned by him which needless to say does little to endear him.
It's fairly common to see Napoleon as a tyrant and a precursor to 20th-century dictators, but the balanced historical verdict falls in the middle. It cannot be doubted that Napoleon proved willing, even indifferent, to sacrificing thousands and later millions purely in pursuit of his own greatness. But it's pointed out by more than a few historians that despite being the namesake, the Napoleonic Wars weren't entirely his fault,note and that the conflicts often triggered and kept re-occurring because neighboring powers broke treaties they signed with him first, mostly because they refused to see him as anything other than a Corsican upstart, which more or less meant that he had to stay on the war footing. Napoleon's reforms did much to better the lives of his subjects and soldiers and in his own way, he sought to enforce the building of stable Europe, as well as support limited national sovereignty. Poles remember him fondly as an ally in their struggle for independence - to this day Napoleon is the only foreigner mentioned in the Polish anthem, of course that might be because the Polish national anthem was written during the Napoleonic era and that the short-lived Duchy of Warsaw increased in value in the century of suppression that followed. As noted above, Napoleon emancipated Jews in many of the areas he conquered, especially in Germany (where he is still seen as a hero by German Jews), though controversy still remains about his motives in doing so and his personal attitudes towards the Jews.
Napoleon's meritocratic reforms led to erosion and modification of Europe's aristocracy, by which bureaucrats working in his satellite states, as well as lawyers and other civil servants, and of course his own soldiers, could attain ranks based on their work rather than their background and lineage. In practice, this meritocracy rarely extended to the lowest classes and Napoleon was more or less cultivating a new elite reforming the existing aristocracy rather than overthrowing it.note But Europe was conservative and reactionary enough that it was enough to make Napoleon seem as "Robespierre on Horseback" or "the Corsican Ogre". A despot though he may have been, he was much loved by a good number of his people and his most loyal troops. The Napoleonic Code consolidated the reforms of the Revolution and codified many of its liberal reforms, the consummation of several attempts and false starts that left only someone like Bonaparte in a position to oversee it.
Opinions are all over the place about the guy, but the fact remains that he certainly created a large legacy, for better and for worse:
- The Napoleonic Code (or French Civil Code), which is still in use and constantly modernized. Essentially replaced feudal legal systems, which differed greatly according to region and the whims of local courts.
- The Code has also been extensively exported to other countries, either directly by French colonialism or indirectly by inspiring local jurists. Most notably, the civil laws of Quebec and Louisiana are heavily based on the Napoleonic system. (The sheer amount of relearning that has to happen between a lawyer's undergraduate education—which would mostly cover American common Law, and law school—which would cover the Louisianan legal system, means that the Louisiana State Bar Exam has one of the lowest pass rate in the country.)
- The lycée, a three-year course of further secondary education for children between the ages of 15 and 18 which leads to:
- The baccalauréat, the main qualification required to pursue university studies in France.
- Looting of artefacts from other countries for domestic museums (making him an Adventurer Archaeologist).
- The Rosetta Stone's discovery, allowing for Egyptian hieroglyphics to be read.
- Emancipation of the Jews.
- Doubling the size of The United States by selling French claims west of the Mississippi. The American agents had requested only a small piece of it, which he refused, only to counter-offer the entire territory. Some sources say he did this not only because the British blockade made it useless to him, but also so that the United States would become more of a threat to Britain. They did, but only briefly.
- The spread of nationalism: the idea that you owed more to your nation than to your king or lord.
- His campaigns and battles are still studied by military students to this day.
- Haitians justifiably hate him for sending the Leclerc Expedition to destroy the regime of Toussaint "Le Napoléon Noir"note L'Ouverture (in which it succeeded) and reimpose slavery in their country (in which it failed). Of course, it was in response to the Leclerc Expedition that Haiti declared indepedence (a step Toussaint never took for various reasons), and none of this kept Haiti from adopting a variant of the Napoleonic Code after independence, so take that as you will.
Another notable aspect of Napoleon is his love life, which was known publicly even during his time in career and the source for tabloid fodder, which Napoleon personally encouraged because he saw it as another aspect of building his Cult of Personality, with the Emperor as The Casanova or Chivalrous Pervert and/or Ladykiller in Love. The reality is fairly amusing since for most of his youth, he was considered ugly, especially in France where he was seen as a Corsican boor whose accent wasn't right and more or less struck out with girls because he was seen as unclean and vulgar (he was poor and down-and-out between 1794-1796 and much given to swearing and other coarse words at inopportune times) and spent his spare time with prostitutes. His first marriage and first true love was Joséphine de Beauharnais, the great love of his life, visible in the many letters of their early courtship which survived. Their early passion eventually cooled as a result of mutual infidelities but remained in place until for political reasons he married the Austrian Archduchess Marie-Louise.note He had at least half-a-dozen serious extramarital or premarital affairs and numerous shorter liaisons, and fathered at least three children, all sons (one with Eléonre Denuelle, a member of the entourage of one of his sisters, one with one of his favorite mistresses, the Polish noblewoman Marie Walewska, and one with his second wife Marie-Louise).
The Napoleon and Napoleon Delusion are both named after him but neither of them apply to him in any way. For instance he can't by definition have had a Napoleon Delusion. Since, you know, he was Napoleon. Contrary to popular belief, he was not actually short, at least not especially.note The famous hand-in-jacket pose, much used and parodied by actors portraying him, can be seen in the page picture, by the French painter Jacques-Louis David. In reality Napoleon didn't always do this pose except in portraits, like many other famous people at that time.
- Jean Tulard is perhaps the most renowned French historian about Napoleon.
- French historian Max Gallo wrote a 4-volume biographic cycle in the manner of an epic (instead of being purely a researcher's work) about Napoleon, simply titled Napoléon. The 2002 miniseries is based off that cycle.
- French historian Thierry Lentz, director of the Fondation Napoléon, is famous for his detailed debunkings (including via books) of both approximations and pseudo-history about Napoleon and the wars.
Napoléon in fiction:
Tropes associated with him in fiction:
- Awesome Moment of Crowning: His coronation as Emperor of the French on December 2, 1804 where he took the crown from Pope Pius VII's hands to crown himself and Joséphine was quite famously lavish, with the regalia mixing influences from both The Roman Empire and French monarchy (he said "I found the crown of France in a stream, I picked it with my sword, I cleaned it from the mud and I put it on my head"). It's been recreated by Jacques-Louis David in a gigantic painting, and said painting was used for every following depiction, including 1954's Désirée (with Marlon Brando), 1955's Napoléon (with Raymond Pellegrin), 2002's Napoléon (with Christian Clavier) and 2023's Napoleon (with Joaquin Phoenix). 1960's Austerlitz (with Pierre Mondy) is the odd one of the bunch, turning it into an Offscreen Moment of Awesome instead, with several characters gathering around a model of it and one of them narrating while it happens at the same time (the organ of Notre Dame of Paris and Napoleon's voice are heard).
- Badass Longcoat: Napoleon has been and still is portrayed in his iconic redingote grise (grey overcoat).
- Frontline General: After becoming Emperor, he stood out among European monarchs by directly going to the field himself when at war to devise strategies and tactics (not by fighting at the frontline himself of course, but by camping the closest he could to the battlefield), while the other monarchs delegated such tasks to their high ranking officers and stayed in their capital cities. He always camped with his Old Guard and developed a close bond with them, causing the faith in him to trickle down in the army since the Guard was its spine. The Old Guard even often feared for his life when he was too close to the front and sometimes outright refused to listen to his orders if he didn't move away to safety first. Several novels and live-action works have depicted this.
- Iconic Outfit:
- Few works have depicted him not wearing his grey overcoat and bicorne hat.
- The green jacket with red sleeves of the Mounted Chasseurs combined with epaulets is also quite frequently depicted for his imperial days.
- Malicious Misnaming: In French literature of the time, seeing him being referred as "Buonaparte" (the original Italian/Corsican spelling of his surname) instead of "Bonaparte" is an infaillible clue the text has been written with hostile intents.
- March: Many works about him will feature his armies' famous marches, such as "La Victoire est à nous" ("Victory is Ours"), which was famously used in 1970's Waterloo.