At the height of his power, he had 70 million subjects across the continent of Europe. "Not since the ancient Caesars had one man held so much power" (Napoleon, PBS).
He was the emperor of France, but "not a drop of French blood flowed through his veins" (The Book of Knowledge, Vol. V, The Rise and Fall of Napoleon, 1955, p. 318). His wife, the empress, wasn't French either. But 25 years after he died in exile thousands of miles away from France, the French wanted his remains returned to Paris where he was finally laid to rest in a grand mausoleum, Les Invalides.
Two centuries after his reign, Napoleon Bonaparte is remembered as one of the most significant men in history. More books have been written about him than almost any other historical figure.
Born in August 1769 on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Napoleon as a young man was very anti-French. His home island had been conquered by France only one year before his birth, and he held nothing but contempt for France and its people.
However, his father was employed in French government service and adopted French manners and ways. Consequently, Napoleon was given a free military education in France. He was commissioned second lieutenant of artillery in 1785, just four years before the start of the French Revolution.
On the outbreak of the revolution in July 1789, Napoleon returned to his native Corsica to attempt to organize revolution there. "Coming into conflict with the monarchist faction on the island, he was forced to escape to France, with the rest of his family, in 1793" (ibid).
Napoleon came to prominence when he defended the republican government against a serious royalist uprising in Paris in October 1795. The government rewarded him by appointing him commander of the French army in Italy against the Austrians and their allies.
Two days before his departure for Italy he married Josephine, widow of a French general who had been executed during the terror that followed the revolution. Josephine originally came from the French Caribbean island of Martinique.
Italy brought out Napoleon's great military genius and stirred a deep ambition in him. In 1796 he defeated the Sardinians five times in 11 days, forcing a peace on them. He followed this with battles against the Austrians. "He defeated them at Lodi on May 10th, and his bravery was shown when he forced his way across the bridge at Lodi—an exploit that won from his troops the affectionate nickname of 'Little Corporal'" (ibid.).
Following a number of victories over the Austrians, the Habsburgs sued for peace when Napoleon advanced to within 80 miles of the Austrian capital, Vienna.
Next, Bonaparte persuaded the French government to let him invade Egypt, thereby striking a devastating blow against France's traditional enemy, Great Britain, by opening a route to India.
Having taken control of Alexandria, Napoleon then fought the Battle of the Pyramids near Cairo, defeating the elite forces of the Ottoman Empire. The British hit back by sinking the French fleet, and Napoleon was stranded in Egypt, cut off from reinforcements.
After further conflict in Palestine and Egypt, bad news from France reached him, and he secretly left, evading British frigates, and landed in France on Oct. 9, 1799. It wasn't until 1802 that the last French troops in Egypt were defeated by British forces.
Napoleon's short period in Egypt left a lasting legacy throughout the Middle East, where many educated people still choose to speak French and embrace French culture. He also reorganized the legal and administrative systems, a prelude to what he would do later in France itself.
Meanwhile Austria, Russia and England had formed an alliance against France, inflicting a number of serious defeats on French forces. By the time Napoleon arrived, coalition forces had suffered some setbacks.
The main problem confronting him was instability in France itself. On Nov. 9 he joined a plot that overthrew the discredited government and replaced it with a government called the Consulate. Napoleon was the first of three consuls who held the real power. In 1802 he became first consul for life.
"He had now grasped political power and become master of France. His old ambition was realized; but already new ones were forming. He had failed to build up an eastern empire, but now aspired to restore the western one of Charlemagne" (ibid., p. 319).
With Rome and Charlemagne as his inspiration, Napoleon set about restoring the unity of Europe and beyond. He rapidly annexed Piedmont, Parma and the island of Elba and planned the partition of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire and the foundation of a colonial empire that was to include parts of America, India, Egypt and Australia. He entered into a concordat with the Roman Catholic Church, reestablishing relations that had been broken at the time of the revolution. The concordat gave the French leader the power to nominate bishops.
Once again, the church of Rome was involved in the politics of Europe. The prophecy of Revelation 17:9 was once again proving true with "the woman" (the church) sitting on one of the "seven mountains" (seven great empires) that have been revivals of the Roman Empire.
Justinian was the first revival in the sixth century. Charlemagne was the second, crowned by the pope in 800. Otto the Great and the Holy Roman Empire in the 10th century were the third, and Charles V in the 16th made four. Napoleon was the fifth revival, a thousand years after his role model Charlemagne, showing a continuation of the desire to fulfill the dream of European unity.
On Dec. 2, 1804, following in Charlemagne's footsteps, Napoleon was crowned by the pope. The coronation took place in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Napoleon famously grabbed the crown from the pope and placed it on his own head, either from impatience or to make a point that the state was now over the papacy, reversing the respective roles of the Middle Ages.
At war again
The year before Napoleon's coronation, Great Britain declared war again, ending a one-year peace. Napoleon spent the years 1804 and 1805 planning an invasion of the British Isles that never took place. After suffering a serious naval defeat by the Royal Navy under Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon knew that he could never again think of invading England. His future conquests would be confined to the continent of Europe.
Several months before Trafalgar, the British, Russians and Austrians had formed an alliance against Napoleon. The French emperor did not wait for them to attack but marched his armies across France into Germany, rapidly conquering territory. He forced one Austrian army to surrender at Ulm, driving the Russians to the east.
In December 1805 he routed the bigger Austrian-Russian forces at Austerlitz. This was one of his greatest victories, and Austria made peace with Napoleon before the month was out.
After the Battle of Austerlitz, the British Prime Minister William Pitt exclaimed: "Roll up that map [of Europe]; it will not be wanted these ten years!" (ibid., p. 322).
"And for almost that period Napoleon changed the map at his will. His stepson Eugene was made viceroy of Italy. His brother Louis received the kingdom of Holland, and another, Joseph, became king first of Naples and then of Spain. General Murat, who had married Napoleon's sister, succeeded to the vacant throne of Naples. The shadowy Holy Roman Empire, an anachronism for many centuries, was dissolved in 1806" (ibid., p. 322).
A new alliance, formed in August 1806 between Britain, Prussia and Russia, led fairly quickly to the defeat of the Prussians and Napoleon's victorious entry into Berlin. Only Britain and Russia remained beyond his control. It wasn't until July 1809 that Napoleon was able to defeat the Russians.
Czar Alexander I sought peace with Napoleon. When they met, his first words to the French leader were: "Sir, I hate the English as much as you do!" Napoleon's reply was: "Then we have made peace!" He took no territory from the czar, but did insist that he join the continental trade blockade of Great Britain.
"At one time or another every state of continental Europe, except Turkey and Portugal, was forced into this commercial system. But all in vain" (ibid.).
At the end of the year, having defeated Austria yet again and entered Vienna, Napoleon focused on his desire for an heir to ensure stability in France and the continuity of his empire. He divorced Josephine, who had been unable to bear him an heir, and married the Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, who gave him a son on March 20, 1811. The son was given the title "king of Rome."
"Paris was the glittering capital, and Rome the second city" (ibid.).
There had been no greater empire since the days of Rome—but it was not to last.
Napoleon's big mistakes
After repeated military successes, Napoleon made two major military blunders during this period as emperor.
Seeing himself as a liberator, Napoleon invaded Spain, but instead aroused nationalist patriotic feelings that led to vicious guerrilla war. When the British came to the aid of the Spanish, the six-year Peninsular War followed (1808-1814). "Napoleon lost interest in this war, and left it to his marshals. For the rest of his career it drained away men and materials, and little by little the French forces were pushed back beyond the Pyrenees" (ibid.).
The year 1812 marked the beginning of the end for Napoleon. Relations with Russia had deteriorated due to popular clamor for the czar to end the blockade against Great Britain. On June 22, Napoleon led an army of 610,000 men into Russia. Only 95,000 returned. Most of those who died were killed by the Russian winter.
Napoleon was unable to force the retreating Russians into a major battle. When he arrived on the outskirts of Moscow, the Russians set fire to the city, reducing 90 percent of it to ashes. One month later, on Oct. 19, his disastrous retreat from Moscow began. Three days later, the French "suffered a sharp defeat at Malo Yaroslavetz. Panic set in and the retreat soon became a disorderly flight, in which Napoleon lost his army. The crossing of the River Beresina was especially disastrous" (ibid.).
Napoleon's great military career was largely over. Although he had a few more minor victories, he also suffered great defeats as the various nations of Europe regrouped and formed an effective alliance against him. "Russians, Prussians, Austrians and Swedes closed on Napoleon, and in the four-day 'Battle of the Nations' at Leipzig (October 16-19, 1813) he was decisively defeated. He withdrew his remaining forces to France" (ibid.).
On the first day of the new year, allied forces entered France. Battles ensued all over the country. Allied forces entered Paris on March 31 and Napoleon was forced to abdicate 11 days later. He was allowed to retain the title emperor, reigning over the small island of Elba. The French restored the Bourbon monarchy, which remained largely unpopular until its final overthrow in 1830.
Napoleon wasn't finished, though. Many Frenchmen wanted his return. In March 1815 he slipped quietly away from Elba and landed in France. An army rallied to his support and for "One Hundred Days" he enjoyed the return of his former glory. He was finally defeated in Belgium at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Exiled to the British island colony of St. Helena, 1,200 miles off the west coast of Africa, Napoleon died six years later.
Napoleon's attempt at reviving the Roman Empire was not nearly as long-lasting as some of the other revivals. There would be a century of "Pax Britannica" before any further attempt would be made to unify Europe. WNP