At the height of his power, Napoleon Bonaparte controlled a huge chunk of Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to present-day Poland in the east. But on April 11, 1814, after a series of military setbacks culminating in the fall of Paris, he abdicated as emperor of France and was ordered into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. Depressed, he swallowed poison in an unsuccessful suicide attempt and then narrowly escaped an angry mob on the guarded journey to France’s southern coast. From there, he boarded a British frigate and set sail into what was supposed to be obscurity. Get the facts on the polarizing conqueror.
Napoleon’s family was more Italian than French.
Napoleone di Buonaparte was born on Corsica on August 15, 1769, just 15 months after France had purchased the island from the Italian city-state of Genoa. Like many Corsicans, his parents, Carlo Maria di Buonaparte and Letizia Ramolino, opposed both Genoese and French rule. But when the French quickly overwhelmed local resistance fighters, Carlo began collaborating with them. At age 9, Napoleone, nicknamed Nabulio, was sent to school in mainland France, where he learned to speak fluent French. He never lost his Corsican accent, however, and was purportedly mocked for it by his classmates and, later on, by the soldiers under his command. As a teenager, Napoleone dreamed of an independent Corsica, writing of “unjust French domination” and of his “fellow countrymen bound in chains.” He gradually changed his thinking following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, and a final break occurred when political infighting forced his family to hastily flee Corsica in 1793. Three years later, after his first marriage to Josephine de Beauharnais, he made himself sound more French by dropping the second “e” in his first name and the “u” in his last name.
Napoleon was arrested for treason following the “Reign of Terror.”
In the early stages of the French Revolution, Napoleon associated with the Jacobins, a political group that in 1793 and 1794 implemented a violent “Reign of Terror” against perceived opponents—a move motivated more by opportunism than ideology. In late 1793 he played a key role in capturing the city of Toulon from British and royalist forces, after which Augustin Robespierre—the brother of Maximilien Robespierre, de facto leader of France during the “Reign of Terror”—described him as having “transcendent merit.” Though briefly beneficial for career advancement, such ties to the Robespierres proved costly once they were overthrown in July 1794 and sent to the guillotine. Napoleon, for one, was arrested on suspicion of treason upon returning from a diplomatic mission to Genoa. Luckily for him, he was released within two weeks and soon after regained his position in the army. He then helped repel a royalist attack on Paris prior to leading a successful conquest of northern Italy that turned him into one of the most prominent figures in France.
Napoleon came to power in a coup.
Coups d’état were commonplace during the French Revolution, the last of which occurred courtesy of Napoleon, who returned from an Egyptian military campaign in October 1799 determined to take power. A plot soon arose involving a number of high-level co-conspirators, who provided a façade of legality when, on November 9, Napoleon engineered the collapse of the five-member Directory that headed the country. “What have you done with the France that I left in such a brilliant state?” he shouted outside the seat of government. “I left you peace, I found war! I left you victories, I find defeat!” A day later, a brawl broke out in the legislature between Napoleon’s supporters and opponents until troops moved in and cleared out the building. A new government was then set up with three consuls: Napoleon, who as first consul was by far the most powerful, and two former directors who were in on the coup plot. In 1802 Napoleon became first consul for life, and in 1804, at age 35, he crowned himself emperor.
Napoleon and the pope had a bitter falling out.
In 1791 Pope Pius VI publicly condemned the revolutionary government of France for, among other things, guaranteeing its citizens freedom of religion and seizing church property. This mutual enmity remained during Napoleon’s incursion into northern Italy in 1796 and 1797. As part of that campaign, Napoleon attacked the pope’s territories, known as the Papal States, which stretched across a sizeable portion of the Italian peninsula. In exchange for peace, Pius VI agreed to hand over land, money and a treasure trove of art. Nonetheless, the French went ahead and occupied Rome anyway in 1798 following the assassination of a general there. Pius VI was deposed and taken back to France a prisoner, where he died in August 1799. The next pope, Pius VII, originally got off to a good start with Napoleon. They signed a concordat in 1801 that partially restored the Catholic Church’s status, while keeping in place religious freedom. Three years later, Napoleon invited Pius VII to Paris for his coronation. Legend holds that at the last instant he snatched the crown from the surprised pope (who had intended to crown Napoleon emperor) and placed it on his head himself. Whether strictly true or not, their relationship deteriorated from that point forward, particularly after Napoleon annexed the Papal States in 1809. Pius VII responded by excommunicating Napoleon, after which the emperor had him abducted and placed under house arrest.
Napoleon’s army was decimated in Russia without losing a battle.
After taking power, Napoleon piled up one military victory after another against Austria, Prussia and other enemies. But his good fortune ran out during an 1812 invasion of Russia, which he initiated to punish Czar Alexander I for not complying with his embargo of British trade. For the campaign, Napoleon raised an estimated 450,000 to 650,000 troops, likely the largest European army ever seen to that date. Rather than stand their ground in the face of such overwhelming force, the Russians retreated, torching the cities, crops and bridges in their path. The first major battle, a bloody draw, finally occurred over two months after the start of the invasion. The Russians then withdrew again and allowed the French to occupy Moscow—but not before setting it on fire. Napoleon thought he had won until realizing that his army, already greatly reduced by desertions and a typhus epidemic, would not be able to survive the winter there. He ordered a retreat, which eventually turned into a rout due to the severe weather and constant assaults on his flanks and rear. By the time his army made it out of Russia, it was down to perhaps a few tens of thousands of men. Emboldened, Napoleon’s opponents immediately went on the offensive, winning the October 1813 Battle of Leipzig and rolling into Paris a few months later.
Elba would not be the last word from him.
The terms of Napoleon’s exile to Elba were hardly draconian. He retained the title of emperor and was given full sovereignty over the island, which included the right to build up a small navy and hold lavish parties for visiting dignitaries. “I want from now on to live like a justice of the peace,” Napoleon said. Yet in March 1815, he disembarked on the French coast with about 1,000 men and began marching to Paris. Many of his former troops joined him along the way, and King Louis XVIII fled. Now back in charge, Napoleon prepared to preemptively strike against Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia, only to suffer a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. In June 1815, he abdicated once again and was exiled to Saint Helena, a remote British-held island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. He died there six years later of what was probably stomach cancer.