Born at Ajaccio in Corsica in 1769, from the start he was lucky. The island had been given to France by Genoa the previous year, so Napoleon was born a French subject. For a time, his father opposed the French, but then switched sides and became a prominent administrator.
Early yearsClaiming a Corsican noble heritage, his father sent Napoleon to the exclusive royal military academies in France. In 1778, the nine-year-old Napoleon enrolled at Brienne, where fellow pupils mocked him because of his pride and poor French. His first language was Italian, he spoke French with a heavy accent and never learned to write it properly.
Thanks to a scholarship from Louis XVI, he completed his education at the Ecole Militaire in Paris, where his sharp mind and remarkable powers of concentration meant that he passed the highly competitive exam to become an artillery officer in one year rather than the usual two or three. He graduated in 1785, aged 16, to join the artillery as a second lieutenant. Since royal officers had generous leave, Napoleon had plenty of time to read history and literature as well as studying mathematics, chemistry, physics and engineering.
When the Revolution broke out in 1789, he approved of its rational ideals but, like most professional soldiers, disliked its crowd violence. The sight of market women mutilating the corpses of guardsmen in an attack on the Tuileries in 1792 sickened him. French prejudice against Corsicans worked in his favour, and he was not denounced as an 'aristo'. Although suspicious of democracy, he had dreams of personal glory.
First triumphsIn the winter of 1792/3, the 'little corporal' joined the French revolutionary army in Italy. On the way, he passed Toulon, which was occupied by the British. With the aid of a Corsican patron, he got command of the siege artillery and, with his tactical and organisational skills, forced the enemy to evacuate. Promoted to brigadier-general at the age of 24, he was appointed chief planner in the Army of Italy.
Napoleon came under suspicion of being a terrorist with the fall, in 1794, of Robespierre, who had been largely responsible for the revolutionary Terror of executions and imprisonments. However, unlike his friend, Napoleon survived, through the intervention of another Corsican patron. The following year, he dispersed a rioting crowd in Paris with a 'whiff of grapeshot' and was promoted again. Soon after, he married Joséphine de Beauharnais, a fashionable 32-year-old Creole widow and former mistress of a leading politician.
Sent to Italy as leader of the Army of Italy, his victories at Lodi, Arcola and Mantua in 1796-7 proved how daring and innovative a soldier he was. His dispatches home showed his naked ambition and self-promotion.
Setbacks and the imperial crownAfter Italy came Egypt, where Napoleon – realising the folly of invading Britain while its fleet reigned supreme – hoped to damage British trade with India. He defeated the Mameluke and Turkish armies at the battles of the Pyramids and Aboukir. Although his own propaganda depicted the expedition as an epic victory, important setbacks could not be ignored. Nelson destroyed the French navy at the , and Napoleon finally decided to return to France.
Dissatisfied with the regime, Napoleon seized power in Paris on 9–10 November 1799 in a coup d'état, although his nervousness as a public speaker almost led to public humiliation. His political allies rescued him and he was made first consul with a term of 10 years (an appointment supported by three million votes in favour, 1,500 against, in a plebiscite that took place in 1800). The constitution was revised in 1802 to make him consul for life (after a further plebiscite with similar results), and in 1804, he became emperor. On 18 May, in Notre Dame cathedral, he crowned himself Napoleon I.
The Napoleonic state and empireMeanwhile, Napoleon had been restructuring the French state. He set up a national bank, introduced a simplified court system, centralised state schools and opened many careers to talent. He established new laws, later called the Napoleonic Code. Rights and liberties won in the Revolution, including equality before the law and freedom of religion, were guaranteed. Jews were released from ghettos. At the same time, Napoleon quashed all political dissent.
From 1803, Napoleon fought a series of land wars against all the monarchies of Europe, defeating Prussia, Austria and Russia (alone or collectively) in successive battles at Ulm and Austerlitz (1805), Jena (1806), Friedland (1807) and Wagram (1809). By 1810, as his empire stretched from Cadiz to Warsaw, and from Hamburg to Naples, Napoleon gathered other laurels – for example, he was crowned king of Italy in 1805.
Greater than Caesar?As well as being a military genius, Napoleon had a multitude of skills. He was a crafty politician, and was equally capable of talking to leading scientists and writers. He once wrote a romantic novel. He was able to work an 18-hour day and astonished subordinates by his energy, memory and range of knowledge. Every topic, from school curriculum to grand strategy, interested him. In the 15 years of his reign, he wrote some 18,000 letters, sometimes dictating to six secretaries simultaneously.
But although Napoleon believed he was greater than Caesar or Charlemagne, his tendency to live on his nerves led to crises, in which he would have spasms of rage or hysteria. Outwardly cool, he would sometimes whip servants with a riding crop or tweak the ears of favourites. With an incredible memory for names and faces, he inspired loyalty and fear, and was adored by his soldiers. Even in bad times, they were less mutinous than Wellington's men.
Despite his smallish stature (5ft 2in), Napoleon's stiff pose, with one arm tucked into his coat, and plain hat became icons. While surrounded by the splendours of the imperial court, he ate and dressed simply. On the other hand, he did allow himself some luxuries: in 1810, he ordered 162 bottles of cologne water. Compared to the heroic official portraits of him, the reality was very different, especially during sleepless campaigns. In one letter to Joséphine, he begged her not to bathe for two weeks so that he could enjoy her natural aroma on his return.
Always a Corsican, Napoleon was loyal to family and friends – his childhood nurse came to his coronation, and members of his family ruled in Holland, Spain, Italy and Haiti. Yet he could also be cruel and vindictive – enemies were punished with the zeal of a vendetta. Nor was he faithful. For instance, in 1807, while on campaign, he took the 17-year-old Polish countess Marie Walewska as his mistress; she bore him a son. In 1809, he divorced Joséphine, and married Marie-Louise, the daughter of Francis I of Austria, two months later.
Downfall and legacyMilitarily, Napoleon never appreciated the difficulties of subduing Spain, and, unable to invade England because of Nelson's naval supremacy, he turned to Russia. The tensions of his amazing career had led to a premature ageing, and by now he was much less flexible and sharp, corrupted by his absolute power and fatalistic about his future. The incredibly ambitious and ultimately disastrous 1812 campaign – with the battle of Borodino and the retreat from Moscow – led to his downfall, and he was forced to abdicate in 1814 after defeat at the battle of Leipzig.
Exiled to Elba, an island six miles off the west coast of Italy, Napoleon escaped in February 1815 for the Hundred Days campaign. On 18 June, Wellington and the German general Blücher defeated him at the battle . Napoleon was once again exiled, this time to St Helena in the Atlantic, where he died on 5 May 1821. One of the greatest and most fascinating figures of European history, Napoleon left an astonishing legacy of reforms and a well-deserved reputation as a military genius.