One of history’s greatest military leaders, Napoleon Bonaparte used his extraordinary abilities to completely upset the European status quo some 200 years ago. In doing so, he created a sprawling empire that changed the lives of millions. Tall tales about this complex man proliferated during his life and have done ever since. But we’ve trawled through the archives to uncover the truth about Napoleon and to explode some of the many myths about him. Read on to find out why Napoleon was such a fascinating and enigmatic character.
1. An unlikely romantic novelist
By 1795 Napoleon had been in the French Army for a decade and had risen to the giddy heights of regional artillery commander. So you’d be forgiven for thinking that at the age of 26 and with all that hands-on military experience, Napoleon would have left boyish romantic fancies behind. But not quite.
In fact, 1795 was the year that Napoleon actually found time to write a love story, Clisson et Eugénie. It was only 17 pages long and by most accounts is of no great literary merit. There’s little doubt that he made a better general than an author.
2. Joséphine hangs on to her head
Napoleon married Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in 1796. He was 26 and Joséphine, as she was universally known, was 32, although she mislaid four years on her marriage certificate. She’d already been married to a French noble, Alexander de Beauharnais, whom she had wed when she was just 16.
In 1794 the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror rumbled on and her aristocratic standing meant that she was flung into a Parisian prison. Her husband was guillotined, but a month later she was spared by an abrupt change of government. The new regime suspended executions for a time, so she escaped with her neck intact, meeting Napoleon a year later.
3. Keep away kitty?
It’s a strange truth that various towering world leaders and warriors have suffered from the condition called ailurophobia: a fear of cats. Alexander the Great was one. Julius Caesar was another, and he was joined by Genghis Khan. The 20th century saw two ruthless dictators who were ailurophobic: Hitler and Mussolini.
And there is a widely held belief that Napoleon was terrified of felines. But is that true? Someone who has researched the matter is historian Katharine MacDonogh. In her 1999 book Reigning Cats And Dogs: A History Of Pets At Court Since The Renaissance, she wrote “No record exists of Napoleon either liking or hating cats.” So there you have it.
4. The Rosetta Stone
If you want to see the Rosetta Stone’s intriguing hieroglyphics, you’ll need to visit London’s British Museum. But it wasn’t the British who discovered the storied rock in Egypt, it was the French. Bonaparte landed in Egypt with a 35,000-strong invading army in 1798 and quickly seized the country.
The following year some of Napoleon’s men came across the Rosetta Stone as they were building defense works. But the French didn’t hang on to it for long. The British defeated their old enemy at the Battle of the Nile. The terms of the 1801 armistice gave possession of the Rosetta Stone to the British. And they’ve hung on to it ever since.