To some he’s the greatest leader France ever had; to others he’s a warmongering tyrant. Very few figures from history polarize opinion like Napoleon Bonaparte. He can be credited with upholding some of the best ideals of the French Revolution (preserved in his Napoleonic Code which still forms the backbone of many legal codes worldwide) and he offered the perfect example of meritocracy outperforming aristocracy in the modern age. Yet his name is also associated with brutality; his wars resulting in hundreds of thousands of death. To further tarnish his reputation there’s the small fact that he earned the admiration of a far more notorious 20th century figure with whom comparisons have been made—Adolf Hitler. As regards his character, there’s surprisingly little consensus across the 3,000 biographies that have been written about him. But where historians do agree is that his rise to power was as unlikely as it was incredible.
Napoleon’s Early Life
Napoleon was born in Corsica’s capital of Ajaccio on August 15 1769. He was racially Italian, but Corsica’s recent capitulation to France made him nationally—and reluctantly—French. Later critics would ridicule the low birth of this “coarse Corsican”: in 1800 the British journalist William Cobbett labeling him as “a low-bred upstart from the contemptible Island of Corsica.” But this assessment was completely untrue. Napoleon was in fact born to recent minor nobility. His father, Carlo Bonaparte, was Corsica’s representative at the court of Louis XVI. But it was his mother, Letizia Ramolino (who he later credited as having “the head of a man on the body of a woman”) who exerted greater influence on the young Napoleon.
In May 1779 he took advantage of a military bursary to study at the academy at Brienne-le-Château. His heavy Corsican accent earned him the enmity of his overwhelmingly French aristocratic cohort. And, feeling isolated yet also driven to prove himself as being better than them, he devoted himself to his studies. He excelled in some of the more practical subjects: mathematics in particular, but also geography and history—counting among his heroes figures of antiquity like Alexander, Hannibal and Julius Caesar. Five years later, aged just 15, he would graduate with distinction and become the first Corsican ever to be awarded a place at Paris’s École Militaire.
It was during his time at the École Militaire that France had its Revolution: an event that would prove crucial in Napoleon’s career, replacing aristocratic privilege with meritocratic possibility and, for men like Napoleon, opening up the way to the upper echelons of politics and the military. The tumultuous times following the French Revolution also radically shifted the young Napoleon’s political allegiances. As second lieutenant of an artillery regiment, he would take the (lack of) opportunity while on garrison duty to return to Corsica in 1789. There he became involved in the complex politics of the island, taking command of a battalion of volunteers and alienating the separatist leader Pasquale Paoli.
Remarkably, despite leading a riot against French forces on the island, he was made a captain of the French regular army in 1792; a role he would take up upon his return (or rather exile at the hands of Paoli) in June 1793. Back in France, among the bloody carnage of the Reign of Terror, it became clear he had backed the right political horse in aligning himself with Revolutionary Jacobinism rather than Corsican nationalism. It was the Jacobins—under the fearsome leadership of such figures as Maximilien Robespierre— who held the reigns of power in the French National Convention. He further ingratiated himself by publishing a pro-republican political pamphlet “Le Souper de Beaucaire”. Robespierre’s brother, Augustine, approved of its pro-revolutionary content. And he would reward the political aspirations of the man who wrote it by dispatching him to Toulon.