The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte

The First Emperor of France

Small in stature, Napoléon left behind a huge legacy.

Napoléon Buonaparte was a military general who became the first emperor of France. To this day he is one of the most celebrated personages of the West.

Napoléon was born in 1769 in Ajaccio, Corsica. He was the second son of Carlo Buonaparte and Letizia Romalino, who had 8 children that survived child birth, Joseph being the oldest.

The Buonaparte family was well respected in Corsica and enjoyed a status close to being considered nobility. Napoléon’s father Carlo, a lawyer of comfortable means, was of Italian origins but at the same time an ardent Corsican Nationalist and a close confidant to Pascal Paoli during the years of the revolution. Carlo was not one to forego political opportunism, and when the tide turned in favour of the French, he was quick in committing himself politically to France, winning the favour of the governor of Corsica Marbeuf. It was this allegiance which provided the opportunity and bursary for Napoleon to go to military school in Brienne, France, where his career began.

Napoleon square in Ajaccio, Corsica
Place Foch, Ajaccio with Napoleon statue


Shortly after graduating and being appointed as second lieutenant, Napoléon returned to Corsica where he spent most of the following years fixing his family affairs and taking part in the political life of the island. During his youth Napoléon had been an ardent believer in Corsican Nationalism and during the Corsican insurrection in the early 1790s he sided with his father’s former ally Paoli. This spell of nationalism was short lived, and the young general returned to France with his family in 1793, where he re-joined his regiment in Nice.

By this time the French Revolution, which had started in 1789, was in full throttle, offering military opportunities to ambitious young generals such as Napoléon. Through his association with the Jacobin movement, Napoléon quickly gained the friendship of Augustin Robespierre, younger brother of the revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre. He thus rapidly worked his way up to artillery general of the French army of Italy. After the fall of the Robespierres he was briefly put in house arrest and was only reinstated into service after he successfully saved the government from counter-revolutionary and monarchic forces marching on Paris in 1795.

painting of the young general Napoleon Bonaparte
Young Napoleon Bonaparte during the Italian Campaigns

In 1796, Napoléon became the leader of the Army of Italy and married Joséphine Tascher de La Pagerie, the widow of General Alexandre de Beauharnais, the mother of two children, and a woman of many love affairs. After a number of victories in Italy and Austria, Napoleon decided to set sail with his army for Egypt to undermine British trade routes to India. His campaign was initially successful, resulting in the conquest of Malta and Alexandria. However, his fortunes in the Middle East were soon disrupted by Horatio Nelson who decimated the French Fleet at the battle of the Nile in 1798. In the meantime, the political situation in France was degrading and Napoléon soon decided to abandon the Egyptian quest and return to Paris, where he was received by the people as an invincible general. In November 1799 Napoléon was part of a group who executed a coup d’état, which resulted in his appointment as first consul.

Napoléon gave stability to a post-revolution France and rapidly executed a number of institutional reforms, culminating in the famous Napoleonic Code, parts of which are still used around the world today. He also successfully restored relationships with the papacy with what was known as the Concordat. In 1802 through a popular referendum he was voted consul for life, and two years later, in 1804, following a failed British assassination attempt he crowned himself Emperor in a lavish ceremony in the Notre-Dame de Paris.

coronation of Napoleon
The Coronation of Napoleon, Jacques Louis David, 1801


At this stage Napoléon attempted through an allegiance with Spain to defeat the British and land an army on English soil. The invasion however failed when the British won a decisive victory over the French and Spanish navy off Cape Trafalgar, a battle which cost Nelson his life. Napoléon on the other hand successfully defied the combined Austrian and Russian armies in the east, culminating in a treaty signed between himself and the Russian emperor Alexandre I, where they effectively divided the control of Europe between themselves.

In 1810 Napoléon’s empire was at its zenith, and at the same time he repudiated Joséphine, who had not given him a child and married Marie-Louise, daughter of the Austrian emperor. A year later his first son was born and titled King of Rome. Known today as Napoleon the second, his son never actually ruled.

In 1812 fearing a Russian invasion of Poland, Napoléon mustered an army of 450,000 men and marched on Moscow. The campaign was both a success and a failure, resulting in enormous losses on both sides. Despite defeating the Russians in Moscow, Napoleon was unable to get Alexandre I to surrender. In his own words:


“The most terrible of all my battles was the one before Moscow. The French showed themselves to be worthy of victory, but the Russians showed themselves worthy of being invincible”.


Napoleon lost many thousands of men on his return back to France.

The failed Russian quest heartened his enemies who rallied in an allegiance against him. The joint alliance of Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, Austria, Sweden, Spain and Portugal ultimately defeated the French Emperor, with the most iconic battle being that of Leipzig in 1813.

Battle of Leipzig 1813, Carle Vernet, hand-colored lithograph


In 1814, with himself being the only obstacle to a peace treaty, in the name of his mother land, Napoleon abdicated, and was exiled to rule the small island of Elba. The same year his wife Josephine died.

In France, the return of the Bourbon king Luis XVIII was not well received and the spirit of the Revolution was still heartfelt. Napoléon, unable to give up so easily, returned to the continent in early 1815 and the army sent to arrest him quickly renounced the King and once again swore allegiance to their former emperor. Napoléon entered Paris on March 20th 1815, and ruled for what is known as the Hundred Days.

He was ultimately defeated by Wellington in the battle of Waterloo in June of that year, and was soon exiled by the British to St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The books say he died on the island on 5 May 1821 or it was just a brilliant creation of his genius?


Discover Corsica & Napoléon with Caspin Journeys! 

If you are fascinated by the history of Napoléon and curious to learn more about his origins and homeland then why not join us on our next Caspin Walking Tour to Corsica?

Corsica is a magical island of wild, untouched and sensational natural beauty. Its high peaks, rugged coastline, crystalline waters, endless forests and unspoilt landscape are a rare jewel. Blend that in with its unique culture and charming coastal towns and you have the recipe for a perfect walking tour.

Click on the picture bellow and discover everything about our small group tour to Corsica: