Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

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Napoleon Bonaparte was a famous general who rose from the minor Corsican nobility to become Emperor of France and the most powerful man in Europe. From an early age, it was clear that Napoleon had huge potential talent as a soldier, and it was no surprise when he became a commissioned officer at the tender age of 16.

Napoleon quickly rose through the ranks, establishing himself as one of the brightest young soldiers in France. He first came to national prominence at the Battle of Toulon in 1793, when he lead the successful capture of the sea-port from a combined force of British and French Royalist troops.

The early years of Napoleon's military career coincided with the French Revolution, and the young army officer willingly involved himself with politics, seeing the new order as providing him with a great opportunity to fulfill his destiny—not just as a general but as a political leader. During the Revolutionary Wars, Napoleon racked up an impressive string of victories, turning him into a national hero. When he returned home to widespread acclaim, he was seen by many as the only man who could bring order and stability to a country deeply immersed in economic and political chaos.

Sure enough, Napoleon seized his opportunity, and after overthrowing the Directory— the government of France—he was made First Consul. At first, Napoleon didn't enjoy absolute power, but it was only a matter of time before this intensely ambitious man, convinced of his own military and political genius, would attempt to become the sole ruler of France. In due course, still riding high on an impressive series of military victories, Napoleon had himself elected First Consul for life. Later on, in 1804, he crowned himself—literally—as Emperor in an elaborate ceremony that left no one in any doubt that he was now the undisputed ruler of France.

At home, the new emperor embarked upon a series of radical reforms, most notably the codification of French law, the modestly-named Napoleonic Code, which still exists to this day. Abroad meanwhile, Napoleon's genius as a general ensured that France expanded its territory, changing the whole face of Europe as a consequence. The crowned heads of Europe were terrified at the speed and extent with which Napoleon extended the French Empire, making deep incursions into their own territory and even replacing some of them on the throne by his cronies and relatives.

Napoleon was clearly a serious danger to the whole stability of Europe, but for a time, his opponents were unable to mount a serious challenge to his mastery of Europe, so the victories continued, and the French Empire expanded. It seemed that Napoleon couldn't be stopped.

However, Napoleon overreached himself by invading Russia. Despite assembling what was at that time the largest armed force in history, Napoleon was unable to conquer Russia, not least because of its vast size and the harshness of the notorious Russian winter. When Napoleon arrived in Moscow, he found that the Tsar has resorted to a scorched-earth policy, burning the city to the ground and abandoning it completely. Under the circumstances, he had no choice but to retreat and embark upon the long, hard road back to France.

During the return journey, Napoleon's Grande Armée was decimated by cold, hunger, and regular attacks from Russian troops. By the time they arrived back in Paris, the French Army presented a sorry spectacle, numbering only 27,000 men out of the original invasion force of almost 700,000. Such an epic disaster convinced Napoleon's many enemies that he was no longer infallible; he could be beaten.

However, this wouldn't happen for another year, when Napoleon was decisively defeated at the Battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of the Nations. Though Napoleon would continue to win more battles, the coalition against him was getting stronger and more confident and was rapidly making its way towards France. It seemed that for Napoleon, the end was nigh. Sure enough, after losing the Battle of Paris, Napoleon abdicated as emperor and was sent into exile on the remote island of Elba.

He wasn't finished yet. Napoleon escaped from his island captivity, returned to France, and during the so-called Hundred Days, he tried to stage a dramatic comeback. However, the members of the Seventh Coalition—Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia—were ready for him and pledged to defeat the Corsican general once and for all, which they did at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. This time Napoleon was exiled to the South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he was kept under closer watch than on Elba. Napoleon's long, illustrious career was over. For the remaining six years of his life, he spent most of his time writing his memoirs and complaining about the conditions of his confinement.

When Napoleon finally passed away on the 5th of May, 1821, many throughout Europe breathed a collective sigh of relief, but many others mourned the death of what they saw not just as a great military genius but as a kind of Romantic hero—an inspired individual who'd used his god-given talents to write himself and his exploits into the pages of history as few others had done before. Whatever assessment we choose to make of this extraordinary individual, there can be no doubt that he was one of the most important figures of world history, continuing to fascinate to this day.

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