One of the great ironies about Napoleon, the man who rose to be Emperor of France, is that he wasn’t actually French. He was born on the island of Corsica, in 1769, and since the island had been sold to France just 13 years earlier, it arguably had stronger ties to its previous Genoese oweners, although in reality there had always been a strong sentiment of independence on the island.
Napoleon did not quite rise from nothing. He was the son of a noble family on the island of Corsica, and his family spent much of its time associating with prominent advocates of Corsican independence, who he idolised early in his life.
Napoleon’s status as the son of a nobleman entitled him to education at France's military academy, which he attended from the age of ten. Shortly after joining military academy, his father died, but Napoleon seemingly did not mourn his father’s passing, since his father had turned his back on the Corsican independence movement in order to advance his own career.
Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole
By Antoine-Jean Gros
At school, Napoleon seems to have been extremely studious, and devoted himself to the study of classical heroes such as Caesar. The claims that he had an inferiority complex due to being short are not particularly well-founded, since, at 5 foot, 6 inches, he was only slightly below average height for the time, which was 3 inches taller. What is clear however, is that he was derided by his aristocratic school mates. Although Napoleon considered himself to be an aristocrat, and came from a minor noble family, being from Corsica meant that he was considered to be virtually irrelevant in the hierarchy of French nobility. Napoleon was equally dismissive of his contemporaries, describing them as ‘imbeciles’.
By 1789, the year of the Revolution, Napoleon had graduated as an artillery officer, and although he showed some promise, as a junior officer he was posted to Auxonne. It is very hard to determine whether Napoleon aligned himself with a particular ideology during the Revolution. He seems to have admired the teaching of Rousseau which suggested that the existence of monarchy could only be justified with a ‘social contract’, but Napoleon can be described as a political chameleon, adopting and discarding certain ideals depending on the situation that he found themselves in.
Napoleon spent the early years of the Revolution either in his native Corsica, or in Paris, and failed to make a significant impression in either place. Nationalists in Corsica, particularly his childhood hero Paoli, turned against him. When Corsica rose in revolt, the Bonapartes were forced to flee to Toulon, abandoning their wealth. Toulon would not prove to be a safe haven for the Bonapartes, but it did become one of the most important locations in Napoleon’s life.
Up Next: The siege of Toulon
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Robert Harvey, The War of Wars (London: Constable, 2006)
Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great (London: Penguin, 2015)