5 things you didn't know about Napoleon

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5 things you didn't know about Napoleon
Napoleon never ran a micro-brewery. Photo by Pascal POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP

After the release of the Hollywood blockbuster about the most famous Frenchman ever, here are some things you might not know about Napoleon.


The new film from blockbuster director Ridley Scott about the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the French emperor, has met with a mixed reaction in France, in part because of historical inaccuracies in the film.


So here are some things you might now know about probably the most famous Frenchman ever.

He nearly wasn't French 

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in 1769 on the island of Corsica, which had only the previous year been ceded to France by the Republic of Genoa.


The family name was originally Buonaparte, they were descended from a line of minor Italian aristocrats and Napoleon's parents were staunch opponents of the French and fought for independence for Corsica.

Young Napoleon spoke Italian and Corsican as his first languages, only learning French at the age of around 10 when he was sent to school in France. He retained a strong accent - which caused his French classmates to bully him - and had great difficulty in mastering French spelling. 

He wasn't that short

Let's get this one out of the way - Napoleon was of average height for a man of his time.

His enduring linguistic legacy is the Napoleon complex - someone (usually a man) behaving aggressively because of feelings of inadequacy over their short stature.

Napoleon was around 5 ft 7 ins tall (170cm) average for a European man of that period. The 'short man' myth was created by English cartoonists as part of wartime propaganda as the two nations faced off on various battlefields.

His French nickname Le petit caporal (the little corporal) does not indicate that he was physically small, it was originally an affectionate nickname bestowed by his troops during his earliest successful campaigns. These days, the phrase in French means an authoritarian within the workplace.  

READ MORE: 6 myths about Napoleon

He might be the father of 'Egyptology'

Best known as a soldier, Napoleon was also a keen propagandist who realised early the value of creating his own legend.

As such, he sponsored pamphlets and newspapers and when he set off on his military campaign to Egypt in 1798 he took with him 167 scientists to research ancient Egyptian artefacts. Among their discoveries was the Rosetta Stone and thanks to extensive chronicling of their work by Napoleon's in-house news teams, they sparked the interest in ancient Egypt that would continue for another two centuries.


'Not tonight, Josephine'

The other enduring legend about Napoleon is that he was sexually inadequate with his wife Josephine.

First things first, Josephine was not her name. Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie was known by friends as family as Rose until Napoleon decided that he didn't like the name and so re-christened her Josephine before their wedding. Massive red flag, in our opinion.

As a young man, Napoleon's awkward social manners, especially with women, were widely commented upon in Paris society, and their marriage was complicated.

Both had affairs and he had several illegitimate children (not particularly unusual during this period).

The reason that Josephine's affairs are so widely known is that a letter from Napoleon to her complaining about her infidelity was intercepted by the British and published in order to embarrass him - making this the second thing that 'everyone knows' about Napoleon which was in fact invented by the English.

He was far from a perfect husband, however. Having installed himself as emperor, Napoleon decided that he needed an heir and so divorced the childless Josephine in order to marry Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria.

It's said that Napoleon, by this time in exile on the island of Elba, was devastated to learn of her death and that several years later 'Josephine' would be his final word as he lay on his deathbed. Which would have been a lot cuter if he could have called her by her actual name.

A lot of the French really don't like him 

Despite his fame, Napoleon is very far from being a well-loved figure in France and there was great debate about whether the recent 200th anniversary of his death would even be marked in an official capacity.

Hero or villain: Why the French are divided over Napoleon

His decision to re-introduce slavery (abolished at the time of the Revolution) makes him problematic for many, alongside his usurping the title of emperor, indulging in some pretty shameless nepotism (including making his brother king of Spain) and waging enormously costly and destructive wars across Europe with widespread looting.

If you're looking for a widely popular military figure from French history, Charles de Gaulle is a lot more beloved (although not without issues for many). 


Comments (3)

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Mike Meehan 2023/07/14 12:50
I understand that he originated the 'Napoleonic Code', which replaced the former feudal law early in the 19th century, and it still exists today with amendments. It made a significant difference, especially as regards inheritance, which required that property should be equally divided between the offspring, which meant that with time, properties, could become progressively smaller.
David Liff 2023/07/14 01:05
Excellent article with well placed and humorous asides!
Mary Jane Wilkie 2023/07/11 17:52
Readers might be interested in the Maison d'Education de la Legion d'Honneur in Paris. It's the school he founded for girls orphaned by wars and daughters of military heroes.

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