When you think of the greatest conquerors and statesmen history has ever produced, it’s hard not to think of Napoleon Bonaparte. This got me thinking, what are some interesting facts about Napoleon Bonaparte we should all know?
Upon assuming power, Napoleon’s people were bitterly divided. By appealing to both the conservatives and liberals in the country, Napoleon became one of the most beloved world leaders history has ever seen, with his historical significance still playing out today!
15. Born Into an Influential Family
The man history remembers as Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15 1769 on the island of Corsica (which had recently French territory only months before Napoleon’s birth), being born to lawyer Carlo Bonaparte and his wife, Letizia.
Although the family was by no means rich, the family were descended from minor Genoese nobility, with the family being able to trace their lineage all the way back to Gianfaldo Bonaparte in 1300.
Following France’s conquest of Corsica, Napoleon’s father, Carlo (Charles), would gain a patent of nobility from Louis XVI in 1771, before becoming Corsica’s representative to Louis XVI’s court in 1777.
Yet, at this time most people in France having never heard of the Bonapartes. That being said, many had heard of the famed Swiss cardinal Joseph Fesch, who was Napoleon’s uncle (through his mother).
Indeed, many of Napoleon’s great-uncles and great-great-uncles and great-great-great-uncles (and so on so forth), were high-ranking members of the church, or acted as senior advisors to popes, dukes and princes now long gone.
14. Origins of “Bonaparte”
Despite making the name incredibly famous, “Bonaparte” technically wasn’t Napoleon’s last name. In fact, Napoleon wasn’t even his first name!
Born on the Italian-speaking, French-owned island of Corsica, Napoleon would be born with an Italian name, Napoleone di Buonaparte. The name “Napoleon Bonaparte” would only arise once the future emperor came to France.
You see, whilst at the military academy at Brienne-le-Château, most of Napoleon’s fellow cadets were the sons of wealthy French noblemen, who had been tutored by the finest governors and governesses their fathers’ could afford.
Napoleon, however, did not have such an education, with him having taught himself French.
Due to this, Napoleon was routinely bullied at the academy due to his thick Corsican accent, low social standing and inability to speak French quickly.
In an attempt to fit in, a young Napoleon would gallicize his name (eg. make it more French), turning “Napoleone di Buonaparte” into “Napoleon Bonaparte”, a name he’d use until his death in 1821.
Ironically, the name “Buonaparte” actually means “Part good” in Italian, which is ironic given the fact that Napoleon is arguably one of the greatest generals history has ever produced!
13. A Devourer of Books
Due to being bullied for his thick Corsican accent, and inability to speak French quickly, the future emperor would retreat into the world of books, spending most of his free time in his room, reading.
However, since his father’s death in 1785, whilst Napoleon was only 16, most of his wages from the military went home to support his mother and siblings.
So he could continue to read, as well as support his mother and siblings back in Corsica, a young Napoleon would often skip meals in order to save money, thus giving him enough money to buy his next book.
Although mocked by his fellow cadets for doing this, his examiners took notice of him, with one even going as far to say that if his career in the army didn’t pan out as he’d hoped, he’d make a great sailor.
In fact, his love of books initially made a young Napoleon want to leave the army and become a writer, even going as far to write a French-language book on Corsican history and a romantic novella, both of which are prized by book collectors today!
12. His Favorite Subject
Despite his less than average scores in French, Napoleon excelled academically in every subject.
Whilst Napoleon liked every subject, by far his favorite was history. Indeed, most of the books he read whilst a cadet were military history books, especially those focusing on the likes of Julius Caesar, Hannibal and Alexander the Great.
Reading accounts of their triumphs and conquests, a young Napoleon would begin wondering how he could apply their tactics to a modern army, in the hopes of making the French military even stronger than it already was!
Napoleon was also excel at mathematics, having a particular knack for being able to make huge calculations in his head, at a rate much faster than any of his classmates could keep up with.
Combined with his love of history and mathematics, Napoleon would have a third favorite subject: Geography. This latter love would see him memorize the map of Europe (at the time), which would serve him greatly during his later conquests.
11. Always Feared The Royal Navy
Although history books were his favorite, Napoleon would devour books about contemporary history too. In particular, he would focus on the British, given France and Britain’s age-old rivalry, that would surely show itself once again in Napoleon’s lifetime.
Napoleon would read about how the main tool Britain had, was the Royal Navy, which was both the largest and most advanced navy on the planet.
Reading about this, Napoleon wrote in his journal that if France ever wanted to beat Britain, it would have to build up its navy, whilst also diminishing the size of Britain’s incredible navy.
Upon becoming the ruler of France, Napoleon would enact a series of naval reforms, expanding naval training, the number of ships the French Navy had, growing the French Navy immensely.
Yet, despite Napoleon’s best efforts, a combined French and Spanish navy was unable to defeat the Royal Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar, resulting in the British Navy still being the world’s dominant navy in WWII, over 100 years later!
10. First Mass-Vaccination in History
In 1796, English physician Edward Jenner developed the first smallpox vaccine by deliberately infecting people with the harmless cowpox pathogen (which was closely related to smallpox and thus gave the people who had cowpox and immunity to the much deadlier smallpox).
Whilst the English community initially didn’t take Jenner’s vaccine seriously, Napoleon did. Over the preceding century, smallpox had become endemic to France, with over 100,000 people in Paris alone succumbing to outbreaks of the disease.
Hoping to prevent the jewel of his empire from ever having another smallpox outbreak, Napoleon ordered the creation of the Comité central de la vaccine (Central Vaccination Committee) which encouraged members of the public and the military to get the smallpox vaccine.
Yet, this vaccine wasn’t free and many simply couldn’t afford to have it. To get around this, Napoleon ordered his government to foot the bill, as well as to expand the Comité’s reach into other major French cities, thus allowing most of France’s population, regardless of wealth, to be vaccinated.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon’s enemies would be bedridden due to smallpox, whilst all of Napoleon’s troops were physically unable to get it, thus allowing them to conquer most of Europe.
Although France would continue to have minor smallpox outbreaks well into the 20th century, these outbreaks were isolated, and often affected rural communities who’d never been given the vaccine!
Following in Napoleon’s footsteps, France would make the smallpox vaccine mandatory in 1902, before the disease became eradicated in 1980.
9. He Sold Louisiana
By 1803, Napoleon had not only risen to the upper echelons of French society, but his armies had begun to expand French territory in Europe to points not seen since Charlemagne and his Frankish Empire.
Whilst much of this was funding through tax income and the spoils of war, Napoleon soon found himself running out of money. Needing to raise some money, quickly, Napoleon began to look at his empire.
Here, he noticed the French colony of Louisiana, which produced relatively little for his empire. Wanting to get rid of this, Napoleon and US president Thomas Jefferson soon began to negotiate for the sale of Louisiana to the Americans.
Despite the onset of the War of the Third Coalition happening right at the time of the sale in early 1804, Britain didn’t mind that France had sold the colony to the neutral American.
Instead, they argued that it would better for British colonies in Canada to not be drawn into yet another one of Britain’s wars.
The sale of Louisiana was heralded both in the US and in Europe, with future presidents like Martin Van Buren and European monarchs quipping that the sale was what was best for everyone involved!
8. The Assassination Attempts
Having overthrown the democratically elected French government, Napoleon would declare himself Consul of France via a rigged election. As Consul, many in France began to view Napoleon as acting like a king.
Seeing this, many royalists in France began to point out that Napoleon was essentially an illegitimate monarch (owing to his lack of royal blood, and the fact that several members of the old Bourbon royal family were still alive, living in exile).
Whilst most just point this fact out, some acted upon it, with a few even going as far to try and assassinate the Consul in the hopes of restoring the old Bourbon monarchy.
Rather than locking himself away as most rulers would, Napoleon chose to capitalize on it, using the assassination attempts to justify the creation of the First French Empire, based on the model of Ancient Rome.
Another rigged election in 1804, saw 99% of the population vote for Napoleon to become the First Emperor of the French, with the coronation being held on December 2 1804, with Pope Pius VII officiating the ceremony.
7. Napoleon II
In 1809, dissatisfied with the Empress’s failure to produce a male heir, Napoleon I chose to divorce her, and search for a younger woman who could produce him a male heir.
To begin with, Napoleon contacted Tsar Alexander I of Russia, in the hopes of securing one of the tsar’s sister’s hand in marriage (which would’ve also secured an alliance between France and Russia). Not wanting one of his sisters to marry someone he viewed as an illegitimate royal, the Tsar refused.
With this, Napoleon turned to Francis I, Emperor of the newly formed Austrian Empire. Here, the two emperors arranged for Napoleon to marry Francis I’s eldest daughter, Marie Louise. Following this, the pair would marry on March 11 1810, with Marie-Louise being proclaimed Empress of the French the same day.
Soon after the wedding, Empress Marie-Louise would fall pregnant, giving birth to a son on March 20 1811. Almost immediately, Napoleon would designate his son as his heir apparent, giving him the ancient title of King of Rome.
When his father abdicated in 1815, Napoleon had hoped that his four year-old son would be his successor, however, the victors decided to restore the old Bourbon monarchy, under the rule of Louis XVII instead.
Despite this, there would be a two-week period where Napoleon II would be Emperor of the French. Although, due to his age (and not doing anything whilst in “office”) his reign is disputed by historians.
Following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Napoleon II would live in exile in his mother’s home country of Austria, where his grandfather, Francis I, would give him the title of Duke of Reichstadt, which he’d use until his death in 1832.
6. He Didn’t Shoot The Sphinx
Looking at a modern photo of the Sphinx in Egypt, you’ll notice that its nose seems to be missing. As the famed legend goes, it was Napoleon who did this, having his troops shot the Sphinx’s nose off with a canon.
Yet, there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that this is 100% nonsense.
Indeed, there are several theories suggesting the real reason why the Sphinx has no nose, with not a single one placing blame on Napoleon.
By the most famous of these theories is that in 1378, a fanatical Egyptian sheikh became angry when Egyptian peasants offered food to the Sphinx in exchange for a good harvest.
Seeing this as a massive insult to his religion, the Egyptian sheikh had the nose removed to prove that to the locals that the Sphinx was a false god. In an act of retribution, the local Egyptians had the sheikh sentenced to death for vandalism (a serious crime in Egypt at the time).
Another theory suggests that Egypt’s Mamluk soldiers would use the nose for target practice, with centuries of being shot at finally wearing away the nose, causing the damage that we see today.
However, without a time machine, we’ll probably never know if Napoleon truly is innocent!
5. A Family Man
Conquering most of Europe, Napoleon would add many of these lands to the French Empire. Understanding that the cultures of Europe were some of the most diverse in the world, Napoleon would show some restraint, by reorganizing these conquered into their own countries, which acted as French satellite states.
As monarchy was the most common form of government in Europe at the time, most of the countries Napoleon conquered displaced numerous monarchs.
Not trusting them to rule on his behalf, Napoleon entrusted his own family members to rule on his behalf.
In 1806, Napoleon made his older brother, Joseph, King of Naples, thus displacing Bourbon King of Naples, Ferdinand IV. However, in 1808, King Joseph Bonaparte would be replaced as King of Naples by his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat (who’d married Napoleon’s sister, Caroline).
Joseph would then be made King of Spain in 1808, replacing former king of Spain, Ferdinand VII.
Also in 1806, Napoleon would another one of his brothers, Louis (born Luigi), the King of Holland. Louis I would reign as King of Holland until 1810, when he abdicated in favor of his son, who reigned as Louis II from July 1 until July 9 1810.
In 1807, Napoleon would exclude an area he called Westphalia (which didn’t include the former Duchy of Westphalia) from the Confederation of the Rhine. In turn, he’d place his brother, Jerome, in charge, ruling as Jerome Napoleon I, ruling until he was ousted in 1813.
Beyond making his brothers kings, he would also make many of his cousins and other relatives into hereditary princes, dukes and grand-dukes, a few of which are still used today (albeit as ceremonial titles).
4. He Created Germany (Sort of)
For 1000 years, the Holy Roman Empire (a loose configuration of princedoms, duchies, counties, bishoprics and Free Imperial Cities) had filled the vast lands between France to west, Russia to the east, and the Papal kingdoms to the south.
However, in 1806, Napoleon would invade the Holy Roman Empire, making short work of a combined Russian and Holy Roman Empire army at the Battle of Austerlitz.
Following the battle, Napoleon would force the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, to abdicate his throne, before reorganizing much of the old HRE into the Confederation of the Rhine, a French satellite state.
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Confederation of the Rhine would replaced with the much larger German Confederation, which encompassed almost all of the former HRE (which the Confederation of the Rhine didn’t).
In turn, Prussian statesman, Otto von Bismarck, would eventually use the German Confederation to form Imperial Germany, under Prussian kingship. This in turn led to both WWI and WWII (and thus the rise of people like Stalin and Hitler).
Without Napoleon invading the HRE, the world as we know it would’ve been really different!
3. The Rise of The Rothschilds
One of the first places Napoleon would invade during his invasion of the Holy Roman Empire was the Grand Duchy of Hesse, under the control of Grand Duke Wilhelm IX.
Upon invading Hesse, Napoleon had hoped to cut down the grand duke’s armies quickly, before ceasing the monarch’s great wealth, which he could then use to pay his soldiers with.
Yet, Napoleon under-estimated Wilhelm IX’s Hoffaktor (or “Court Jew“), Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who discreetly moved the grand duke’s wealth to London, where he invested it, making the grand duke even more money, even whilst in exile in the Duchy of Holstein.
In 1814, the grand duke would be restored by the Allies, with his wealth having been quadrupled in the eight years Napoleon controlled his grand duchy, thus giving the Rothschilds a reputation for being great money managers.
The Battle of Waterloo would similarly help in the rise of the Rothschilds, owing to Mayer’s son, Nathan, who managed to trick the entire London stock market into thinking that Britain had lost the battle, even when it had won.
This tactic caused the stock market to crash, with Nathan buying up these depressed stocks at a huge discount. When victory was announced, the price of these stocks skyrocketed, netting Nathan billions of dollars in today’s money!
2. He Helped Popularize The Metric System
Unless you live in the United States (or Liberia or Myanmar), chances are that you use the metric system – kilometers instead of miles, liters instead of gallons and grams instead of ounces.
Yet, what you probably didn’t know, was that Napoleon actually helped to popularize it!
Prior to becoming Consul, France (just like every other country in Europe) used the imperial system for measurement. Yet, the new Consul sought to standardize measurement in a way that made sense to him.
To that end, he introduced the metric system across France and its foreign holdings in September 1799. With the expansion of the French empire, the metric system would become standard there too, with it remaining long after Napoleon went.
However, this transition from imperial to metric wasn’t a peaceful one, with many merchants and traders disliking the new system. To keep them on side, Napoleon made it legal to use the imperial system for trade only, something that other countries also did.
Today, the metric system is the near-universal standard of measurement for the world, something that’s mostly thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte!
1. Prince Napoleon
As with many European royal houses who lost their kingdoms, the Bonapartes still act as the pretenders to the now-defunct imperial throne of France.
Following Napoleon’s death in 1821 (and Napoleon II’s death the same year), the head of the family became Napoleon’s nephew, Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who later became Napoleon III in 1851.
After the end of Napoleon III’s reign in September 1870, France abolished the monarchy indefinitely, becoming a republic, which it remains to this day.
Despite losing much of their power and influence, the Bonapartes remain determined to get their throne back. Unlike other pretenders to the French throne, however, they don’t style themselves as king or emperor…
Instead, the head of the family styles themselves as Prince Napoleon, rather than “Prince Bonaparte” or “Prince of France”, in an allusion to their most famous ancestor – Napoleon Bonaparte.
Today, there are actually two Prince Napoleons, with the headship of the family being disputed between a father and his son (due to the grandfather, and former head of the family, disowning his son due to his republican sentiments).
Which are your favorite facts about Napoleon? Tell me in the comments!