Napoleon Bonaparte

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Napoleon Bonaparte was a Corsican-born military tactician, politician and arguably the first modern dictator who betrayed his Republic to shape and found the First French Empire. He rose to power in 1799 after a coup d'état (the "Coup of 18 Brumaire") and ruled France for five years before the French Senate declared him Emperor. This spawned many bad "can he do it? Of Corsi-can" jokes. He was also Arnold Rimmer's favorite fascist dictator.

Despite popular stereotypes, Napoleon was not particularly short, standing at about 5'6" (1.68m), which was a perfectly average height for the time. The widely-cited "short Napoleon" caricature is derived from anti-French propaganda published in Britain that intentionally conflated the size of the French inch (2.71 cm) and the British inch (2.54 cm), and the fact his personal guards were often more then 6 feet tall, making Napoleon seem smaller then he was. Furthermore many of the political and military leaders of Napoleon's time were taller than he was, so there is at least a kernel of truth to the myth. Nevertheless, a Napoleon complex refers to a short person compensating for their stature in other ways.

Rise and fall of an emperor[edit]

Napoleon was born in Corsica in 1769, a year after the French took it over[1] to Carlo Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino; he was a turbulent child. In January 1779 he was enrolled by his father at a religious school in mainland France where he learned French.[note 1] He then he went to a military academy at Brienne-le-Château, and finally to the elite École Militaire in Paris where he became an artillery officer.

He gained his reputation as a tactician during the French Revolution; after being promoted to general, he led the famous Italian campaign, defeating a coalition of Austria, Russia, Piedmont-Sardinia, and some Italian states.

Subsequently, Napoleon was sent by the Senate to invade Egypt where he defeated the Mamelukes in the "Battle of the Pyramids." After a massive defeat of the French Navy by the British, Napoleon abandoned the campaign and returned to France, overthrowing the ruling French Directory and making himself the first French Consul.[2] In 1804, he removed all pretense of democracy and declared himself Emperor and then King of Italy. However, his civil code from the same year, the Code Napoléon, organized the principles of the French Revolution into a coherent legal system, officially making Rule of Law and equality of all citizens[note 2] its basis. The Code Napoléon is still used in France in modified form today. Later it formed the basis of the private law of the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Spain, and was quite influential throughout the rest of Europe. Some "descendants" of the Code Napoléon were later "exported" to other countries trying to come up with a new code of civil law, e.g. Japan. Since Louisiana was a French colony until Napoleon himself sold it to the US in 1803, and the purchase wasn't finalized until 1804, the Code Napoléon is also the basis of civil law in Louisiana.[3] The funny thing is is that Thomas Jefferson approached Napoleon asking to buy the city of New Orleans, but his jaw dropped when Napoleon gave a counter-offer, the entire Louisiana Territory, for dirt cheap too, and Napoleon needed the money to finance his wars against the British anyways.[4]

Napoleon was primarily a military leader, and becoming emperor did not change that. He changed the nature of warfare from an elaborate series of geometric maneuvers punctuated by non-decisive battles to blitzkrieg-like exercises in envelopment and combined arms, resulting in a victory in a massive, decisive battle. During a series of wars against shifting coalitions of various other European countries, mainly Austria, Prussia and Russia, he consistently defeated them using these tactics, even when badly outnumbered. Unfortunately, when he invaded his former ally Spain during the Peninsular War, citizens rose up against him in the first major guerrilla war, rendering his tactics useless. Oops. Britain, while technically at war with France almost continually since the French Revolution, mostly contented herself to dominate the seas with her massive navy (which caused a minor side war with the US), assist the Spanish and Portuguese in the Peninsular War, and bankroll the war efforts of other countries. Napoleon also more or less ended the Holy Roman Empire and reorganized it, sowing the seeds that would later create a unified country of Germany. Eventually his opponents started to learn from their mistakes, and started copying Napoleon's strategies, causing the battles to become larger and bloodier.

Finally, in 1812 he launched an ill-advised, massive invasion of Russia, resulting from the Tsar's refusal to take part in Napoleon's already-futile blockade against Britain, known as the Continental System. The Russians cleverly chose to mostly avoid fighting battles against him, and to destroy their villages and farms rather than leave them for Napoleon's army to use, a strategy referred to as "scorched earth." After a long march and the Battle of Borodino, which was the largest artillery battle ever seen up to that point, Napoleon entered Moscow only to find it was empty and burning. With a winter brewing that he was unprepared for, his army starving and tired, and the Russians refusing to give the decisive battle he wanted, Napoleon was forced to leave Russia in defeat. His army suffered horrendous casualties from starvation, disease and the cold — only about 1 in 5 men survived. Napoleon's mistake in invading Russia would be repeated in the 20th century by another man who wanted to conquer Europe but who didn't have access to RationalWiki.

With Napoleon's primary army almost completely destroyed, his opponents jumped at the opportunity and created a sixth coalition to defeat him, which was finally successful. He was sent into exile on the island of Elba, off the west coast of Italy. He was able to escape about a year later, gathered a new army, and was defeated once and for all by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, in Belgium. Not wanting a repeat of the escape from exile, the British sent him (and a small army to guard him) to the island of St. Helena, thousands of miles away from Europe in the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean.

Resolution of the wars[edit]

After Napoleon was defeated by the Sixth Coalition, a great conference called the Congress of Vienna was held by representatives of the victorious kings and emperors of Europe and ran for almost a year (including during Napoleon's brief escape from Elba). This conference sought to largely undo most of what Napoleon had put into place, and tried to revert European politics back to how they were in the good old days before the French Revolution, to include restoring the old French royal family to their throne. Additionally, the conference set up the informal "Concert of Europe" system, whereby the major European countries would seek to avoid another large-scale, devastating war by using a complicated system of alliances and diplomatic conferences. It mostly worked for a while[5], until about a hundred years later when the complicated system of alliances backfired.[6]

Trying to revert back to the "good old days" also backfired a bit - the lower classes of people eventually had enough of the reactionary results of the Congress, and this exploded into a wave of revolutions and rebellions across Europe about thirty years later in 1848, an event known as the Spring of Nations. Most of these revolts eventually failed, except notably in France, which apparently didn't get the lesson from its own history and thus repeated it — the king was overthrown, a shaky republic was formed, which was eventually overthrown by a guy named Napoleon who became emperor. No joke, one of Napoleon's nephews became Emperor Napoleon III.[note 3] The Spring of Nations did give some steam to newer political movements, such as nationalism, socialism and communism, as well as unification movements in places like Germany and Italy.

Public opinion[edit]

Like many conquerors and generals, Napoleon is both loved and hated: as an enlightened despot he tends to be loved for his enlightenment and hated for his despotism.

Many scholars argue that the Napoleonic Wars brought France to ruin, but others claim that Napoleon did not actively seek those wars. The blithering stupidity of attacking Russia suggests otherwise; but that's what you get for starting a land war in Asia.[note 4] (But to be fair, Asians frequently warred among themselves throughout history.)

External links[edit]


  1. Though he never quite got rid of his Corsican accent.
  2. Except blacks and women, of course.
  3. He was "third" because Napoleon's son was considered "second", despite never having actually reigned and being a toddler when Napoleon I's empire ended. Napoleon II died of an illness in 1832, so he missed out on his chance at actually becoming emperor. One Karl Marx wrote a book on Napoleon III's coup. In it he makes the astute observation that history always repeats, the first time things happen as a tragedy, the second time as a farce; given the way Napoleon III's reign ended in humiliating defeat at the hands of Prussia, this observation was astute indeed.
  4. Unless you are the Mongols!


  1. Napoleon Bonaparte: The Little Corporal who built an Empire "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."
  2. "The Coup D'etat of 18 Brumaire"
  3. "Is Louisiana Under Napoleonic Law?" - Slate Magazine
  4. "The Luoisiana Purchase"
  5. While there were many wars in Europe in the 1800s, they tended to be much smaller and more localized. These wars never came close to the massive scale and widespread destruction of Napoleonic Wars.
  6. "The Congress of Vienna 1814-1815" - Oxford Public International Law