Who Was Napoleon Bonaparte?

The Emperor Napoleon / David

Charismatic, commanding, and always in motion, Napoleon Bonaparte (1748-1821) made France the master of Europe at the price of military rule and unceasing war.

Napoleon was a master military strategist and soldier's soldier who dazzled most of those he met. He possessed an enormous curiosity, energy, and capacity for work. He was also cynical, opportunistic, and convinced of his own greatness. Throughout his career he used art as a tool to craft his legend.

Napoleon got his start as a soldier in France's revolutionary armies. Like David, he was imprisoned following Robespierre's fall in 1794. After his release he soldiered for the government with zeal, ordering fire on a Parisian mob that marched on the National Convention.

Appointed to head the army of Italy in 1796, Napoleon disregarded orders, annexing parts of Italy and single-handedly negotiating a peace treaty with Austria. The Egyptian campaign that followed (1798-1799) was a military disaster, but a publicity triumph. When conflict with Austria flared up in 1800, Napoleon wowed Europe by charging across the Alps in record time to defeat the enemy.

Napoleon became ruler of France in 1799 through a bloodless coup organized by crafty high-placed politicians. Most French citizens, tired of revolutionary chaos, gratefully accepted stability in exchange for military rule.

Napoleon's greatest domestic achievements were as First Consul of France (1799-1804). He established a brief peace with Britain, signed an accord with the Catholic Church, and reorganized France's chaotic legal and educational systems.

Napoleon's ambitions were wider, however. An assassination scare in late 1803 provided the perfect excuse to satisfy his desire for imperial power. Most of Napoleon's time as emperor (1804-1814), especially after 1808, was consumed by war against Russia, Germany, and England. He was also embroiled in the schemes of courtiers and greedy family members.

Napoleon's militarism eventually caused Europe's squabbling nations to rally together against him. Forced to abdicate in 1814, he was exiled to the 86-square-mile island of Elba in the Mediterranean and given the humiliating title Emperor of Elba.

Less than a year later he escaped back to France and seized power, but a disastrous rout at Waterloo (now in Belgium), the Netherlands, led to his second and final abdication. Napoleon was sent into exile on Saint Helena, a British-held island in the Atlantic Ocean 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa.

"Everyone has loved me and hated me; everyone has been for me and against me by turns." So dictated the deposed emperor to his historian shortly before his death in 1821.

Napoleon had one child, a son who died at age 21.