Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the key figures in European history. Consummate general, gifted administrator and ruthless seeker of power, Napoleon inspired devotion and loathing in equal measure. His relentless self-promotion meant that he had already achieved legendary status by the time of his death. So, who was the real Napoleon?
The future Emperor of France was born Napoleon Buonaparte, the son of a minor Italian noble. The family lived on Corsica and Napoleon's birth came shortly after Genoa had ceded the island to France. Napoleon was educated at military schools on the French mainland, where his Corsican roots initially made him feel like a foreigner.
The French Revolution of 1789 gave him an increased sense of belonging to France and he returned to Corsica as a revolutionary. But, in 1793, he fell out with Corsican nationalists and the Buonaparte family was forced to flee the island.
Napoleon threw himself into his military career. In December 1793, he won recognition after leading the charge to capture Toulon from Royalist and British forces. In 1796, he was appointed commander of the army in Italy, where he won a series of dazzling victories against the Austrians. Around this time, he dropped the Italian spelling of his name for the more Gallic Bonaparte.
Napoleon was now a force to be reckoned with. A campaign begun in 1798 against British interests in Egypt foundered but Napoleon's personal reputation was soaring, partly thanks to his flair for self-promotion. When he wasn't campaigning, he was politicking in Paris. In November 1799, a coup resulted in his appointment at the head of a three-man Consulate charged with ruling France. In 1804, he was crowned emperor.
France was still surrounded by enemies and Napoleon spent the first years of the century overhauling the army and securing the nation's frontiers. A short-lived peace with Britain broke down in 1803. Two years later, naval defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar forced Napoleon to abandon plans to invade Britain. Instead, the emperor turned east. A drive against Russo-Austrian forces resulted in decisive victory at the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805. The French empire gained much new territory. Napoleon installed loyalists and relatives as rulers in several states, including Italy, Spain, Sweden and Holland. The soldier from Corsica wasn't yet 40 but he dominated western Europe.
Defeat in Spain
From 1808 onwards, France suffered several defeats on the Iberian peninsula as the British allied themselves with Spanish dissenters. Nevertheless, Napoleon was still at the top of his game. In 1810, he had his childless marriage to Josephine Tascher de La Pagerie (whom he'd married in 1796) annulled. The same year he married Marie-Louise, the daughter of the Austrian emperor, Francis I. The couple had a son the following year.
Napoleon's fortunes changed when a disastrous campaign against Russia in 1812 reduced the fighting strength of his Grand Army from 600,000 to less than 10,000. After this calamity, several states and territories rose against the French. In the spring of 1814, Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was exiled to the island of Elba.
A year later, he was back in Paris, after profiting from popular resentment at the restoration of the monarchy. But enthusiasm for his new regime quickly waned and, when a joint British and Prussia force defeated his army at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, the game was up. He abdicated a second time and went into exile on the British-held island of St Helena in the south Atlantic. He died in frustrated isolation, on May 5, 1821.
Napoleon's life became obscured by myth almost as soon as he died. Much of that myth was created by the great man himself, who dictated his memoirs during the years on St Helena. He wasn't above tweaking the truth for the sake of a good yarn but one element of the myth stands up. Napoleon was a truly great general. He had a big brain and loads of energy. These are useful qualities when planning military campaigns but they're essential attributes when executing – and adapting – those plans during the heat of battle, when a general has to process large amounts of information simultaneously. He also had considerable charisma, another huge advantage for a general.
But how did he rate as a national leader? Was he the revolutionary hero of the Napoleon myth? Or was he just another power-hungry despot? He was certainly no democrat. Above all, he was a soldier who ruled France in much the same way as he ran his army. Dissent was not an option. He crushed all opposition ruthlessly.
But the revolutionary in him did introduce wide-ranging administrative, legal and fiscal reforms to France. At their heart was the Napoleonic Code, which still underpins the rights of French citizens today. Introduced in 1804, the code wiped away class privilege and made all male citizens equal before the law.
Other Napoleonic myths are now being laid to rest. It's no longer believed, for example, that he was excessively short by the standards of the day. Modern estimates suggest he was around five foot six – not far off average height for the time. He is thought never to have uttered the words, "Not tonight, Josephine." And, in February 2008, a long-standing theory that the British poisoned Napoleon on St Helena was scotched by Italian scientists who analysed samples of his hair.