Born into the obscure nobility of the city of Ajaccio, Corsica, Napoleon became France’s most dashing and succesful general during the French Revolutionary wars. His numerous victories in the battlefield became a sprigboard to political power, first as consul, then as Emperor of the French, while his armies conquered and dominated most of Europe for over a decade. He would be finally defeated in 1815 by a coalition of allies led by his indefatigable nemesis, the British Empire. But who was Napoleon? Was he a dictator, or the champion of the principles spoused by the French Revolution, who fought against the reestablishment of feudalism? And most important, was he as short as hearsay had us believe? All the answers below.

1The ‘Italian’ Origins

Napoleon Bonaparte, born Napoleone di Buonaparte 15th August 1769, was the son of Carlo Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino. That very same day, a comet crossed the sky, and on 1821, a few days before he died in St Helena, another comet passed. His family, of Italian ancestry, resided in Ajaccio, capital of Corsica, which back then, was mired in a struggle of independence lead by Pasqual Paoli, first against the Republic of Genoa, and then against France, who purchased the island from the Genoese in 1768.

Albeith pysically part of Corsica, Ajaccio had a different character, in stark contrast with the insular inhabitants. Author: wejphotos. Source

Carlo and Letizia fervently supported Paoli’s failed bid for independence, but later managed to ingratiate themselves with the new French authorities and were fully pardoned. In fact, it is rumoured that Letizia had an affair with Marbeuf, the French family’s patron, but wether true or not, this shift of alliances was fruitful to the Buonapartes, and specially for Napoleon.

2Carrer in the army

In Ajaccio, Napoleon quickly befriended the garrison and took an interest in soldiering, therefore in 1778 he was sent to study in France, at Brienne-le-Château, to become a soldier. He initially struggled due his poor command of French, an issue that would mark him out to his mocking peers, since such strong accents were unusual in the nobility, the only class allowed in the officer’s ranks. In Brienne he learnt the usefulness of self-discipline, a habit that would never leave him, and a taste for frugality thanks to the Spartan lifestyle instilled in the students. However, due to his lack of friends and isolation, he quickly grew nostalgic, rejecting everything French and revering Paoli as his hero.

In 1784 his application for the Navy, the most prestigious branch of the military, was rejected. He applied next to artillery, a field he would master and excel like few others. He moved to Paris’ military school to further his studies, and graduated in a year. In 1785 he suddenly facing dire prospects with the death of his father Carlo in 1785, of a stomach cancer, and of his family’s patron Marbeuf, just a year later. He was a brilliant student with bright prospects but now he had reluctantly became the bread-winner of the family, a task that would keep him too busy and half-distracted from military duties.

3# The French Revolution

All changed in 1789 with the outbreak of the French Revolution. From the beginning, Napoleon adhered to its ideas: equality in front of the law, abolition of privileges, and specially important for him, unrestricted access to careers for men of talent like himself. His brothers Joseph and Lucien became spokesmen for political clubs in Tolouse and Marseille, while Napoleon, also very supportive of these political clubs, was given command of a battalion of Corsican volunteers to defend the Revolution from its enemies.

Napoleon in 1792, aged 23. Lieutenant-Colonel of a batallion of Corsican Republican volunteers. Source

His childhood hero, Paoli, was granted amnesty to return to Corsica but instead of immediately pushing for the independence of the island, he united forces with the National Constituent Assembly to fight against the restoration of the Ancient Regime. Napoleon and his family quickly threw their lot with him. Napoleon’s initial enthusiasm for the Revolution however, was damped in Paris on August 10th 1792, when he witnessed an unruly mob killing the Swiss guards of Louis XVI, king of France, and dragging him out of his palace of the Tuileries to place him under the protection of the Assembly. He didn’t discard the ideas of freedom or equality, but he became convinced that a lack of order and a weak executive were to become the ruin of France.

The storming of the Tuileries Palace, known as Insurrection of 10 August 1792. Source

On his return to Ajaccio, Paoli, then mistrusted by the National Convention (new government), was ordered to take Sardinia, and deprive the British (then at war with France together with Austria, Prussia, Naples, Portugal, the Dutch Republic and a myriad other countries) to use it to resupply their fleets. The adventure ended in fiasco and the National Convention moved against Paoli. In a life-changing event, Lucien Bonaparte denounced Paoli as a traitor to the Revolution in his club but Corsica rallied behind Paoli. As a result, the Bonapartes had to flee in exile on April 1793, in fear of Paoli’s retribution.

4# Jacobin friends

Exile from his native island was the push that Napoleon needed to become wholly French. Devoid of means but not of friends, he was recommended by a fellow Corsican, Saliceti, to Augustin Robespierre. Augustin’s brother, Maximilien Robespierre, one of the main leaders of the Revolution and a prominent Jacobin, appointed Napoleon as artillery commander at the siege of Toulon, whose harbour was in British hands. Napoleon didn’t waste a minute, and his managerial skills and leadership dazzleed the authorities of yet a new revolutionary government, the Committee of Public Safety, presided by Robespierre. By helping to retake Toulon, he earned himself a promotion to brigadier general at just 24.

Bonaparte at the Siege of Toulon. 1793. Source

Fame is fleeting. Power even more so. Robespierre was overthrown to the Thermidorian reaction and executed on 28th July 1794, and the new authorities didn’t delay in hunting the former jacobins. Napoleon was arrested after being denounced by Saliceti, after the later tried to save his head from the clean-shave of the guillotine. No evidence enough was find to condemn him to the guillotine, but Napoleon was nonetheless demoted to infantry, an affront in his view, and sent to fight counter-revolutionary uprisings in the Vendée. Napoleon refused, alleging poor health, and the government replied by taking him off the list of active generals.

5# Resurrection and marriage

Paul Barras, a prominent member of the Thermidorian Reaction and , and who had met Napoleon during the siege of Toulon, summoned him to disperse a pro-royalist mob besieging the Convention (parliament) in the Palace of the Tuileries. Barras was so impressed by Napoleon’s ruthless dispersing of the mob by the use of grapeshot, an event known as 13 Vendémiaire, that they appointed him Commander of the army of the Interior, under the belief that they could control him. It was through his connection with Barras that he came to meet Joséphine de Beauharnais, who had recently been Barras’ mistress. Napoleon, who wasn’t precisely a Casanova, much less confident around women, fell for her, despite her constant infidelities and the loathing all his family felt for her. They married on March 11th 1796 and two days later Napoleon departed to his new post as commander of the French Army in Italy.  

Joséphine, or Madame Bonaparte in 1801. Source

In Italy he found a weary and ill-supplied army in tatters, but quickly reinvigorated them with his incredible energy, first knocking the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia off the war, and then harrying the Austrians out of the Italian states. In the process, his soldiers even found time to terrorise some convents and even raid the Papal States for funds. After all, the Pope was rich and overtly opposed France and the Revolution. He kept pushing east, enough close to Vienna to force the Austrians to sue for peace. The Treaty of Campo Formio on October 17th 1797 ended the War of the First Coalition, proving a great success for both Napoleon and France.

6Expedition to Egypt

He returned to Paris a hero, but the Directory (government from 1795), fearing his growing popularity, sent him to lead an expedition into Egypt, in spring of 1798. The far-fetched goal of the plan was to attack the British possessions in India, but the Directory was more interested in keeping Bonaparte away from Paris. On July 1st 1798, after a pit stop to invade Malta, he landed in Alexandria at the head of a massive fleet, which would be later splintered to matches by Viscount Nelson and his fearsome squad of the British Royal Navy.

The campaign didn’t result as expected, despite his famous victory against Ottoman and Egyptian armies in the Battle of the Pyramids. His subsequent invasion of Syria floundered againsty the walls of Acre (modern day Israel), and the unpopularity of French rule in Egypt and lack of fleet to defend themselves from Nelson made a sustained occupation of Egypt, untenable. In a cultural and scientific level Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition scored a massive victory by discovering the Rosetta Stone, the key to decipher hieroglyphs, and thus was massively contributed to our modern understanding of ancient Egypt.

The Rosetta Stone, nowadays exposed in the British Museum. By Hans Hillewaert. Source

7# Napoleon’s Rise to power

With the War of the Second Coalition breaking out in 1798, and undoing most of Napoleon’s Italian victories, it didn’t make any sense to have France’s best general stuck in a sideshow front, while France itself faced invasion from Austria on the Italian border. Therefore, on September 10th 1799, Napoleon was ordered home by the Directory, and left his army stranded behind, which finally surrended to British forces in 1801. Moreover, France was plunged into a political crisis as well, a neo-Jacobin victory during April’s elections had revived the fears of a return to the Terror of 1794, and together with the rampant corruption and impopularity of the Directory convinced many of the necessity of a strong hand ruling of the country. Talleyrand, ex-minister of foreign affairs, and Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, a member of the Directory, conspired to take power, and Talleyrand chose Napoleon as the sword of the coup.

Thanks to his brother, Lucien, who was a well-connected member of the Council of 500 (the lower chamber) the coup of 18 Brumaire was successful and both chambers were blackmailed to accept the new government. The Republic and the Revolution thus, passed to history.

Napoleon surrounded by members of the Council of 500 during the 18 of Brumaire. Source

A provisional government of Three Consuls was established, with Napoleon as First Consul, thanks to his seemingly unstoppable ascendancy, and Sieyès and Ducos completing the new Triumvirate which reminded that of Caesar or Octavius. On 7th February 1800 France received a new constitution, vesting Napoleon with almost all power, while the other two Consuls became simple advisors. Napoleon had finally showed his cards after so much self-restraint and intrigue.

Secured at home, he headed for Switzerland to take command of the ragged French army in Italy, and then he thrusted into Piedmont once more, battling the Austrians in the hard-won battle of Marengo , June 14th 1800. War-weary, the Austrians sued for peace once more, and Napoleon, having delivered the victory he had promised to the French, reclaimed northern Italy for France and stabilised the home front at the same time.

Artistic depiction of Napoleon crossing the Alps to invade Italy. The reality would have been more grim. Source

8# Dictator, or fair ruler?

After peace with Great Britain, the last remaining enemy, was ratified in Amiens in 1802, the French went out to vote a new constitution, which unsurprisingly made Napoleon First Consul for life, with an entirely implausible 99% approval of the electorate. Nonetheless, the lack of internal unrest and political opposition to this suggests he nonetheless counted with strong approval.

Indefatigable, he centralised France and strengthened the administration, by keeping unruly provincials on a tight leash thanks to his prefects and the creation of a Gendarmerie, a modern Police force which tackled the brigandage that had plagued the countryside at large since the outbreak of the Revolution. The Gendarmerie was so successesful at this that several other states copied it, and it remains nowadays a key pillar for most modern states.

The First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. Source

The nation’s finances were stabilised for the first time in a decade, and Napoleon promoted the creation of the first Bank of France, helping to solve or alleviate many the economic issues which had caused the Revolution on the first place. Especially notable was his inclination for delegating, acknowledging talent on his subordinates and leaving them free hand to work on issues he wasn’t qualified for. Tax collection, that unpopular prerogative of the government, was refined and improved by compiling and updating a cadastre of all properties in France, and its value to be accurately taxed.

Napoleon and his meritocratic government also set to work on a Civil Code, a single, uniform set of laws for the whole country, as opposed to customs and local privileges. It enshrined equality before the law, one of the sacred pillars of the Revolution, protecting the rights of the individual and its accountability only to the state. In a few words, it was a sort of legal framework based on progressive, enlightened ideas. This is considered to be Napoleon’s greatest accomplishment, and many modern countries’ civil codes owe to this Napoleonic Code.

9# The Coronation of Napoleon

But despite his political and military successes, the First Consul of France didn’t feel quite safe on his velveted chair. Several attempts were made against his life, and since any excuse is as good as any other in politics, it served him as a useful pretext to launch yet another referendum to confirm his brand new title of ‘Emperor of the French’. Of course he rolled over with an overwhelming 99% of approval. But in defence of the new, flamboyant emperor, it’s worth mentioning that he didn’t shoot, sack, or even demote those ministers or subordinates of any rank who opposed it. The Corsican spirit of Vendetta and retribution was simply lacking in Napoleon, who appreciated talent more than he despised opposition.

His coronation on 2nd December 1804 was officiated by the Pope Pius VII, with whom Napoleon had previously signed the Concordat of 1801, to bring the religious strife caused by the Revolution to an end. In an unprecedented gesture, Napoleon crowned himself, and then he crowned his wife Joséphine. Catholicism was confirmed as the religion of the majority in France, and Napoleon was careful to seek their support, while at the same time juggling to keep his moderate revolutionary supporters content, making very clear that the changes of the Revolution would not be reversed.

This did little to ease the anxieties of the other European powers, especially Great Britain, who resumed hostilities in May 1803. Their superiority in the sea, and the predominance of France’s armies in the continent kept hostilities to a minimum, and only in 1805, when Russia, Austria, Naples, and Sicily joined forces with Great Britain, did the real fight begun.

The War of the Third Coalition started catastrophically for the French Empire when on October 21st 1805, a Franco-Spanish fleet was annihilated off Cape Trafalgar, by a British squadron commanded by the Viscount Nelson. Napoleon’s miss-management and incapacity to delegate on more technical navy officers  ended his hopes of contesting the British naval superiority at any rate, much less to invade Britain as he had prepared and hoped for.


Napoleon’s mistrust towards his admirals thankfully wasn’t mirrored to his Field Marshals. In anticipation of an amphibious invasion of England, France’s new army had been bolstered by an improved system of conscriptions and supervised by Napoleon himself, and had become an impressive fighting force. It was around this time that the legend of his short stature also took root. Napoleon was actually 1,69 m (5,5 feet), a perfectly normal height for his time and even above average, but the guards of his military entourage were often exceptionally tall, misleading many to believe him sshort.   

The Grande Armée (Great Army) was divided into corps, each trained and drilled to act independently and fight against the enemy as a single unit. Their training and discipline was unparalleled, and unlike other armies, extreme corporal punishments were abolished, together with the privilege of the nobility to exercise them, or being immune to them. And unlike anything related to naval strategy, Napoleon’s expertise and organisation skills were amongst the finest in military history.

Austria made the first move when on September 14th more than 70.000 troops occupied Munich, the capital of the German State of Bavaria, which Francis, both the Austrian and Holy Roman Emperor, coveted. Tsar Alexander I of Russia, counting on Austria to carry the bulk of the fighting, promised to link with them at the head of 75,000 troops by the next month, convinced that Napoleon and his army would take a long time in crossing the Rhine River.

It wouldn’t be the first nor the last time his enemies underestimated Napoleon. Racing at a mind-blowing speed at the cost of negligible desertions, the Grande Armée crossed the Rhine, swiftly enveloping and cutting supply lines and communication of the Austrian army commanded by Mack, who had no choice but to surrender by late October.

With Alexander and Francis forced to retreat further northeast to regroup, Vienna was left open to French, who plundered it at ease. Meanwhile Napoleon and his 70.000 strong-army chased Alexander and Francis, but suddenly stopped, feigning fatigue to lure them in. Russians and Austrians bit the bait, and on December 1st 1805 the battle of Austerlitz begun on what is nowadays Czech Republic.

The Battle of Austerlitz became Napoleon’s ‘perfect’ battle. Source 

Often compared to Alexander’s Gaugamela or Hannibal’s Cannae, the battle is regarded as a stunning tactical masterpiece, which knocked Austria out of the war. Bavaria and northern Italy were once more liberated from Austrian interference, and Russia retreated to lick their wounds. Francis would, as a consequence, abdicate his throne of the Holy Roman Empire, effectively bringing it to an end after a thousand years. The War of the Third Coalition would last until the completion of the invasion of Naples by the French, who in July 1806 installed a puppet king, Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s older brother.

Napoleon was the incontestable master of Europe, commanding the most able state and the mightiest army. Only Britain withstood. From exiled to Emperor, Napoleon was on the height of his power and his Grande Armée seemed invincible, heralding an end to the Ancien Régime of kings, nobles and inequality. But a military glory worthy of Alexander and Caesar, Napoleon’s greatest heroes, couldn’t hide that fact that the French occupation in the new territories, and their demands for conscripts and funds were causing widespread resentment. The fight for Napoleon and the First French Empire had just begun.

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