The Napoleon complex

Diminutive in stature but towering in influence – few figures in history stand taller than Napoleon Bonaparte. Loved by his men, feared by his foes, the Duke of Wellington claimed he was worth 40,000 men on the battlefield.

From outsider to emperor, trace Napoleon's meteoric rise to greatness – and find out how he was brought crashing back down to earth.


Birth and early life

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Napoleon's father, Carlo Buonaparte

Napoleon's father, Carlo Buonaparte, had been active in Paoli's resistance army but made terms with the French.

Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, Corsica on 15 August. The occupying French forces who ran the island had acquired it from Genoa the year before.

Though well off by local standards, Napoleon's parents were not rich, and their vigorous claims of noble descent fail to stand up to scrutiny. His mother Letizia and father Carlo were part of Corsica's bourgeoisie. Once involved in the Corsican resistance to French occupation, Carlo had made personal peace with the French when leader Pasquale Paoli was forced to flee and became assessor to the royal court. Little in the context of Napoleon's birth hinted at his remarkable future.

Pasquale Paoli monument in Westminster Abbey



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Young Napoleon Bonaparte at Brienne military school

Napoleon attended the military school at Brienne for five years.

Aged nine, Napoleon left for school in France. He was an outsider, unversed in the customs and traditions of his new home.

Always destined for the military, Napoleon was educated first, briefly, at Autun, then five years in Brienne before a final year at the military academy in Paris. He graduated in September 1785 – ranked 42nd in a class of 58. It was while he was in Paris that Napoleon's father died, leaving the family facing financial hardship. Not yet 16, nor even the eldest son, it was nonetheless Napoleon who assumed responsibility as head of the family.


Vive la Corse

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Corsican resistance leader Pasquale Paoli

Corsican resistance leader Pasquale Paoli.

Napoleon took his first commission, as a 2nd lieutenant of artillery. He read voraciously – on military strategy and tactics – determined to succeed.

But his native land still had his heart. In his book Lettres sur la Corse he set out his vision for an independent Corsica, free of French control. In September he returned to the island of his birth, not rejoining his regiment until June 1788. Above all else, Napoleon felt, he was a Corsican.

I was born when [Corsica] was perishing. Thirty thousand Frenchmen spewed onto our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in waves of blood…

Napoleon Bonaparte, writing to Pasquale Paoli


Vive la France

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Storming of the Bastille in 1789

The storming of the Bastille in 1789.

Revolution changed France forever. When the crowds stormed the Bastille in 1789 they heralded a new era. Napoleon's personal revolution came later.

France’s new National Assembly allowed the old resistance leader Pasquale Paoli to return to Corsica. Napoleon left France again to join him. Despite his father’s earlier defection, Napoleon was initially welcomed back. But when his younger brother Lucien denounced Paoli as a traitor for suspected ties to the British, the Bonapartes were no longer welcome in Corsica. Stung by the rejection, and struck by the spirit of the revolution in France, Napoleon was a Frenchman now.

In Our Time: The French Revolution's legacyAndrew Marr on the French Revolution

December 1793

Siege of Toulon

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Napoleon directs troops at the Siege of Toulon

Napoleon succeeded in driving the British from Toulon.

It wasn't long before Napoleon had the opportunity to demonstrate his new loyalty. At Toulon he won the first major military victory of his career.

French anti-government forces had handed the port over to British troops. It was essential that the town be recaptured. Strategically important, the damage suffered to the prestige of the Revolution was just as significant. Napoleon was entrusted with breaking the resistance and by mid-December his tactics had forced the British to evacuate. Days later, Napoleon was promoted to brigadier general – he was just 24 years old.


French connections

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Maximilien Robespierre

Napoleon was associated with Maximilien Robespierre, chief orchestrator of the Reign of Terror.

Napoleon's exploits won the attention of friends in high places. The commissioner to the army wrote a letter praising his young general.

The recipient of that letter was the commissioner's brother, Maximilien Robespierre, the man now in effective control of France and orchestrating the terror which had gripped the country. As tens of thousands died at the guillotine, Napoleon's career went from strength to strength. In February he was appointed inspector of artillery in the Army of the Alps. Robespierre's downfall halted Napoleon's upward climb, but it wouldn't be long before he again proved his services invaluable.

In Our Time: The Reign of TerrorFind out more about Maximilien Robespierre


Saviour of the Republic

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Napoleon saves the National Convention from rebels

Napoleon's defeat of the royalist forces threatening the National Convention built his prestige to new heights.

When a royalist revolt in Paris threatened to overthrow the government, it fell to Napoleon – the liberator of Toulon – to save the Republic.

Facing a force of more than 20,000 men, Napoleon was massively outnumbered. But when the royalists descended on the National Convention in Paris on 5 October, Napoleon's troops forced them back. In less than an hour, 300 royalists lay dead. Not only had Napoleon saved the republic, but his exploits won him ever greater standing among the politicians running the new regime – the Directory. His upward trajectory was increasing.



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Josephine de Beauharnais, first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon loved Josephine passionately, marrying her in 1796.

Napoleon's growing status was opening other doors too. After a brief engagement, in March he married.

He met Josephine in 1795, a widow who had lost her first husband to Robespierre’s guillotine. She was the mistress of the most powerful man in France, Paul Barras. Barras, though, wanted rid and encouraged her into Napoleon's arms. Though she was a few years older than Napoleon, he was happy to oblige. He loved her, passionately, but for Josephine it was a marriage of convenience. Discarded by Barras, she wanted security for herself and for her children.

Great Lives: Josephine Bonaparte


Commander in Italy

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Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps into Italy

Napoleon led his men across the Alps into Italy.

Two days after his marriage, Napoleon left. His loyalty to the Directory had been rewarded with a new post as commander in chief of the Army of Italy.

When he inspected the forces under his command he found a motley ill-equipped crew vastly smaller than the 43,000 men he’d been promised. Regardless, he won a series of impressive victories. After years of conflict on the continent, Napoleon won peace. Now de-facto ruler of northern Italy, Napoleon learnt how to be a head of state – how to create a constitution, how to get people to work together, how to rule. By the end of 1797, Napoleon's prestige was greater than ever.

Misha Glenny: The invention of Italy

Soldiers, you are naked, badly fed.…Rich provinces and great towns will be in your power, and in them you will find honour, glory, wealth.

Napoleon Bonaparte, addressing his new Italian troops in 1796


Land of the pharaohs

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The Battle of the Pyramids

Napoleon won the Battle of the Pyramids but Nelson's destruction of the French fleet trapped his men in Egypt.

Britain alone now stood against France. Napoleon's next move took him to Egypt.

He hoped to force a peace with Britain by striking at the source of her wealth. By disrupting trade routes to India, Napoleon thought he could build a French empire in the east. But at the Battle of the Nile, a young British admiral, Horatio Nelson, ensured this dream would not become a reality. With the French fleet destroyed, 35,000 men under Napoleon’s command were trapped, unable to travel back to France.

Great Lives: Horatio Nelson


Coup d'etat

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Emmanuel Sieyes

Emmanuel Sieyes was instrumental in Napoleon's elevation.

A new coalition, including Britain and Russia, was formed to continue fighting the French. The turning tide led to disturbances in France itself.

One of France's new directors, Emmanuel Sieyes, was convinced that only a stronger executive with military presence could prevent a reinstatement of the monarchy. Seeing an opportunity, Napoleon left his men behind in Egypt and returned to France. By the time he arrived in Paris, victories in Switzerland and Holland had averted immediate danger of a restoration but Sieyes and Napoleon launched their coup anyway. Named as first consul, Napoleon was now leading the greatest power in Europe.

I am looking for a sabre.

Emmanuel Sieyes, prior to Napoleon's appointment to the consulate


First consul

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Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul of France

As first consul, Napoleon instituted a series of far-reaching reforms.

Napoleon quickly made his mark. His military victories made him a legend and his civic reforms changed France forever.

By 1802 Napoleon had succeeded in winning peace. The Austrians had been defeated again in Italy and Germany and Britain quickly tired of standing alone against him. At home, the Napoleonic Code enshrined the gains of the Revolution in law – individual liberty, freedom of conscience and equality before the law, all the while creating the greatest army ever seen. Napoleon was rewarded with a new title – consul for life.

Find out more about the Napoleonic Code

Shall Napoleon Bonaparte be consul for life?

Question posed to the French in 1802. It was overwhelmingly approved



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Coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte

In the presence of the Pope, Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France.

Napoleon's hard-won but short-lived peace had made him consul for life. Conflict at home and abroad now put a crown on his head.

Georges Cadoudal and Charles Pichegru, opponents of the regime hiding in England, were smuggled back to France. They hoped to assassinate Napoleon and restore the monarchy. When the plot was uncovered, Napoleon was convinced only a hereditary empire would both discourage similar assassination attempts and raise his status in the eyes of foreign powers. He even persuaded the Pope to attend his coronation and witness the moment when Napoleon crowned himself emperor.

Historian Andrew Roberts on Napoleon's coronation


The Battle of the Three Emperors

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Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon's greatest victory

Napoleon visits his soldiers on the eve of the Battle of Austerlitz.

At Austerlitz, in the modern day Czech Republic, Napoleon won the greatest victory of his career.

Facing a force of Austrian and Russian troops that heavily outnumbered his own, Napoleon laid a trap for his enemies. When all was said and done, 26,000 of the enemy troops had been killed, wounded or captured. By contrast, Napoleon lost only 9,000 men. His resounding success not only forced Austria to make peace again, it also cemented his reputation as the greatest military leader of the age. The upstart emperor had defeated two of the most established imperial dynasties of Europe.


The blockade and the peninsula

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The Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley

From 1809, British forces in the Iberian Peninsula were led by Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington

After the Battle of Trafalgar, any hopes Napoleon had harboured of launching a full-scale invasion and forcing peace with Britain were extinguished.

Again, he tried to strangle Britain's economy. Trade with Britain was forbidden, and every ship bound to or from there declared a fair prize. He hoped the blockade would spark unrest in Britain and force her to sue for peace. The Portuguese could not comply – it would have meant economic ruin. Napoleon forced the point and occupied the Iberian Peninsula. Spain and Portugal revolted, enabling British troops led by Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, to gain a foothold in Europe.

Arthur Wellesley: The 'Iron Duke' of WellingtonFind out more on the Battle of Trafalgar, 1805


Charlemagne's heir

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Napoleon's wife, Marie-Louise, with their son

New wife Marie-Louise gave Napoleon what Josephine could not, a son to inherit the empire he'd built.

Despite failures in Spain and Portugal, Napoleon was at his zenith – his empire swelled to include Holland, parts of Germany and almost all of Italy.

Napoleon considered himself Charlemagne's heir, but it was an heir of his own he needed most, a son to inherit his empire. He reluctantly divorced Josephine in 1810 and married Marie-Louise, daughter of the Austrian emperor, Francis I, recently defeated once more at Napoleon's hands. In March, he had a son. His legacy appeared to have been secured. The 'King of Rome', as his son was titled, was named after his father.

Who was Charlemagne?


Winter is coming

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Napoleon retreats from Russia

Napoleon retreats from Moscow. The Grand Army suffered catastrophic losses in the invasion of Russia.

In an effort to force Russia to comply with the blockade, Napoleon massed the Grand Army of 600,000 men on the Russian border. In June he invaded.

Meanwhile, French troops were routed by Wellington at Salamanca in July. Back in Russia, his army was making slow progress. Two engagements with the Russians failed to produce a clear winner, the Russians retreating into the interior to minimise casualties. In September, Napoleon's troops took Moscow. Yet Alexander refused to make peace. Winter was coming, and supplies were running out. It was Napoleon's turn to retreat. By November, fewer than 10,000 of his men remained fit for combat.

Slate: Did typhus defeat Napoleon's army in Russia?


Prison break

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French troops welcome Napoleon Bonaparte back to France after his return from exile

When Napeolon arrived in France, troops sent to arrest him defected and joined him.

Broken in the east, Austrian and Prussian re-entry into the war drove Napoleon from central Europe. His empire was crumbling around him.

On 30 March, allied armies advanced on Paris. Napoleon abdicated a week later. Once sovereign of a continent, Napoleon was confined to the island of Elba. Louis XVIII was placed on the French throne. All seemed lost. Yet Napoleon observed with interest the growing discontent in France restoration had prompted. Less than a year after his exile, Napoleon launched a daring bid for escape. By 20 March 1815 he was back in Paris once again.


The 100 days

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Napoleon Bonaparte retreating from the Battle of Waterloo

At Waterloo, Napoleon was defeated by Wellington and his allies.

Napoleon moved quickly to broaden his support. Liberal changes to the constitution brought a number of former opponents to his side.

By 25 March, the European powers had allied against Napoleon again. In June, he invaded Belgium, hoping to capture Brussels and drive a wedge between the advancing British and Prussian forces gathering on his borders. On 18 June, Napoleon was defeated in the field by Wellington and his allies at Waterloo. It was the end for him. Three days later he abdicated for a second time. There would be no second great escape.

Battle of Waterloo: The day that decided Europe's fateIn Our Time: Napoleon and Wellington


Death in exile

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Napoleon Bonaparte on his deathbed

Napoleon on his deathbed in exile on St Helena.

Napoleon lived out his days on the small British territory of St Helena in the South Atlantic, banished from the continent he had once ruled.

News of his family was scarce. Of his son, now living in Vienna, he heard nothing. His life was now one of monotonous tedium. He ate, he played cards, he wrote. He also dictated the memoirs that would help re-forge his legacy after his death from suspected stomach cancer in 1821. He was 51. Few men change the world, but the little corporal from Corsica left an indelible stamp on the future of Europe.

What was Napoleon's impact during his lifetime?Napoleon: The man and the myths

I die before my time, killed by the English oligarchy and its hired assassins.

Napoleon Bonaparte, last will and testament