Napoleon Bonaparte


It has been two centuries since Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.  Join Active Minds as we review the life and legacy of this important leader.  We will seek both to understand the man and his impact in his time, as well as how his leadership changed the world in ways that still have an impact today.

Key Lecture Points

  • Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica in 1769.  From humble beginnings, he rose through the ranks of the French Army during the French Revolution, seized control of the French government in 1799 and became emperor in 1804, conquering much of continental Europe.
  • The Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) were a series of wars between France and shifting alliances between other European powers, principally Austria, Prussia, Russia and Britain.  For a brief time France was the most powerful country in Europe, spreading the ideals of the French Revolution to the countries Napoleon conquered in western and central Europe.  As long as he continued to win victories, he was able to hold his empire together.  Led by ambition and his belief in his own invincibility, he invaded Russia in 1812.  This Russian invasion turned into a debacle and led to Napoleon’s swift downfall.
  • Defeated by the allies, Napoleon was forced to abdicate in 1814 and sent into exile on Elba.  He escaped and returned to France in 1815 to once more lead France.  Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia allied again and defeated Napoeon’s forces at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.  Napoleon was exiled again, this time to St. Helena where he died in 1821.
  • Napoleon’s military exploits changed the course of world history and created a legend that continues to fascinate today.  To the countries he conquered, he brought constitutions; the Napoleonic Civil Code; abolished feudalism; fostered efficient government, education and the arts; and stirred nationalism.  At home, Napoleon created stability after the upheaval of the Revolution yet he was a dictator who put in place a network of secret police and spies and a censorship of the press that tolerated no criticism of his regime.

Exploration Questions

  • What were Napoleon’s major achievements?
  • How did Napoleon change the history of Europe?

Reflective Questions

  • Did Napoleon change Europe for the better or for the worse?
  • What do you think about Napoleon?  Was he a hero or a tyrant?  Why do we continue to be fascinated by him?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon: A Life. Viking Adult, 2014. 976 pages. This sweeping biography of Napoleon makes use of 33,000 letters written by Napoleon, dispelling some myths and adding new insights.
    Click here to order
  • Rapport, Mike, Michael Rapport. The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, USA, 2013. 144 pages.  A concise overview of the Napoleonic Wars.
    Click here to order