Napoleon I, born Napoleone di Buonaparte, is among the most renowned figures in modern European history. He rose to prominence during the French Revolution (1789-1799) to become first consul of the French Republic, and then emperor of France. He conquered much of Europe militarily and instituted a series of liberal political reforms, including the Code Napoleon, making him one of history’s most contradictory rulers.
Napoleon’s extraordinary military and political career was evident enough to his contemporaries, who often likened him to Alexander, Caesar, or Hannibal. The art and literature of the period are littered with such imagery. Napoleon was deeply conscious of his place in time and carefully cultivated his image as a “great man” of history. He embraced the French Revolution and became its foremost beneficiary. He consolidated many of the reforms of the revolution and spread them across Europe, coupled with much violence in doing so. Napoleon crowned himself emperor of the French before Pope Pius VII, in conscious imitation of Charlemagne a thousand years earlier. He made his son the king of Rome, linking his name to the legacy of the so-called Eternal City. Napoleon’s epic battles, such as those at Austerlitz and Waterloo, are among the most consequential in history. Taken together, the French Revolution and Napoleonic period represent a transitional moment from the ancien regime to modern Europe.
Napoleon (1769-1821) was born at Ajaccio, Corsica, soon after the island became a French possession. His parents, Carlo and Letizia Buonaparte, sent the young Napoleon to study in Paris where he graduated from the military academy in 1785. An admirer of Rousseau and Voltaire, Napoleon supported the French Revolution that erupted in 1789 and joined the revolutionary Jacobin Club. Patronage and prodigious service as an artillery commander won him promotion in the French army. Following highly publicized campaigns in Italy and Egypt, he returned to Paris and took part in the coup d’etat of 18 Brumaire. He held the position of first consul until 1804, by which time he had consolidated enough power to declare himself emperor in a grand ceremony at the Notre Dame de Paris. Napoleon’s insatiable appetite for power and glory brought France into conflict with the other states of Europe, which formed a series of alliances led by Great Britain. At its height, the Napoleonic Empire included nations across Europe, to which many reforms of the French Revolution were extended, as well as much exploitation.
Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, immortalized in Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, demonstrated that the emperor could be defeated. Napoleon abdicated in 1814 following additional defeats and was exiled by the Allies to the tiny island of Elba. He escaped the following year and marched on Paris, gaining followers along the way. The so-called Hundred Days of rule ended abruptly with Napoleon’s legendary defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. The Allies exiled Napoleon this time to the island of St. Helena off of the coast of West Africa, where he died on May 5, 1821, at the age of 51. Today, Napoleon I is entombed at Les Invalides in Paris.
The period denoting the rise and fall of Napoleon is often referred to as the Napoleonic period or the Age of Napoleon, a designation reserved for few figures in world history. Napoleon’s legacy remains controversial; he has been both celebrated and vilified perhaps more than any other figure of his time. His self-destructive ambition drove Europe into years of brutal warfare that has been described as the first total war. Moreover, his sweeping changes to the political map of Europe gave impetus to national unification movements, such as in Italy and Germany.
James P. Bonanno
See also Alexander the Great; Caesar, Gaius Julius; Hitler, Adolf; Nevsky, Saint Alexander; Stalin, Joseph; Tolstoy, Leo Nikolaevich
Alexander, R. S. (2001). Napoleon. New York: Oxford University Press.
Durant, W., & Durant, A. (1975). The story of civilization: vol. 11. The Age of Napoleon. A history of European civilization from 1789-1815. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Dwyer, P. G. (2003). Napoleon and Europe. London: Longman.