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Napoleon the Great

How Napoleon Conquered Europe and Changed the World

By Andrew Roberts
  • Read in 24 minutes
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  • Contains 15 key ideas
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Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts

Napoleon the Great (2014) is an in-depth look into the life and times of the infamous French conqueror, Napoleon Bonaparte. These blinks detail how Napoleon, once a penniless young man, became a general at the age of 24 before going on to revolutionize the French military and government, and leaving an indelible mark on European and world history.

Key idea 1 of 15

Despite being born into a lower-class family, Napoleon rose to become one of the French army’s youngest officers.

If there’s one thing we all know about Napoleon, it’s that he was as French as they come, right? Well, the truth is he wasn't even born in mainland France; rather, the life of this great conqueror began on August 15, 1769, on the island of Corsica, a Mediterranean island freed from Italian control in 1755 – and which only became part of France in 1768.

In other words, Napoleone di Buonaparte, as he was named at birth, came from Italian roots. And although his family had a respectable position in Corsican society, his father had to apply for nobility to ensure his son’s prosperity.

Napoleon’s parents were Carlo and Letizia Buonaparte and, although Carlo was a proud Corsican, he jumped at an opportunity to obtain a secure government job. Around 1769, Carlo pledged his loyalty to Louis XV of France.

The Buonaparte family was large and Letizia bore 13 children, eight of whom survived childhood. So, in 1771, to provide for his family, Carlo applied for the Buonapartes to be recognized as Corsican nobility, in order to open up all the benefits that would afford his children. This application was successful and among those benefits was that Napoleon was able to attend the Royal Military School of Brienne-le-Château.

Once there, he studied hard and was soon excelling in his classes. He was often teased by his classmates for being one of the first Corsicans to attend the school, and considered as fake nobility, but that only made Napoleon work harder to prove himself. He studied eight hours a day, learning all he could about math, Latin, history, weaponry and the arts. It was during this time that he also learned to speak French, though he would speak it with a Corsican accent his entire life.

In the end, his hard work paid off; at the age of just 16, he became one of the youngest French army officers, and the only Corsican at that time to hold a prestigious artillery commission.

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