Why the fascination with Napoleon 200 years after his time? Why focus on a complex, extraordinary period of history through one person?
Napoleon Bonaparte, who became Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, is the most famous self-made man in history. The other great men with whom Napoleon is compared, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, began their careers with tremendous advantages. Alexander was already king of Macedonia when he conquered the Persian Empire and earned the title “the Great.” Caesar was born into the aristocratic patrician class, and was governor of Spain before he conquered Gaul and became dictator of Rome.
Napoleon was born in Corsica, a backwater province of France, and through his father's efforts attended military schools in France. At any other time, he might have simply served as a career officer in the king's army, perhaps with some distinction. Instead of this fate, the chaos and violence of the French Revolution provided opportunities for ambitious men. Like hundreds of other French military men and politicians, Napoleon was literally the right age, at the right time in history, in exactly the right place to exploit fortune.
Through a combination of talent, ability, patronage, boundless energy, and great luck, Napoleon circumvented potential rivals and rose rapidly to prominence and power. By 1807, fourteen years after his first success at Toulon in 1793, Napoleon had created an empire unlike anything Europe had seen since Ancient Rome. He was 38 years old.
From the siege of Toulon to the battle of Waterloo twenty-two years later, Napoleon fought more battles than Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar combined. However, this era was far more than just the sum of his military exploits. The transition period between the 18th and 19th centuries was the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. People listened to the new, powerful sounds of Beethoven's music, were inspired by the Rights of Man to overthrow the rule of kings by divine right, were appalled by the beheading of thousands during the Reign of Terror, were awed by the discovery of an ancient civilization in Egypt, and read the first works of the Romantics like Byron, Kant, and Goethe.
Gifted military commander, innovative administrator, and ruler of an empire, Napoleon seemed to influence everything and everyone. His enemies were so impressed with his genius and abilities that Prince Metternich, Austrian Minister and Chancellor, named the period the “Age of Napoleon” shortly after the French Emperor's death.
Napoleon Bonaparte rose from obscurity on a small island to become the most powerful man in Europe, then lost it all to die in exile on another small island. It is one of the most incredible stories in history.
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Detail of Jacques-Louis David’s The Emperor Napoleon in His study at the Tuileries (1812). Samuel H. Kress collection. Photograph © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.