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Napoleon: The World’s Greatest Conqueror?

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The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.


Napoleon’s Beginnings

Napoleon Bonaparte came from an aristocratic family in Corsica, an Italian island which was a province of France. As a result of Napoleon’s families position he was able to attend military school in the French kingdom before the fall of the Bourbon monarchy. Napoleon was still a young man during the French Revolution that overthrew the monarchy and this helped him to survive and to quickly rise through the ranks of the army.

Napoleon did not have a well-developed army when he reached the position of general. The other great conquerors of the world all had armies that had been developed by their predecessors and had employed them skillfully, but Napoleon was placed in charge of the weakest of France’s armies. The army he was first given command of was the Army of Italy.

The Army of Italy was the worst of Revolutionary France’s armies. It was merely supposed to hold the Austrian army and her allies in Italy while France’s armies advanced in Germany. Napoleon believed he could do more with the Army of Italy, and he did. Napoleon reformed the Army of Italy, and he trained and drilled the soldiers personally. Instead of fighting a defensive action, the Army of Italy advanced into the Italian peninsula and defeated Austria’s allied kingdoms. As a result of Napoleon’s advance the Austrian Empire was taken out of the war, and Italy was reformed into a sister republic of France.

Napoleon’s early victory was followed by another. France invaded Egypt, then a part of the Ottoman Empire, with the intention of disrupting trade from India to Great Britain. The French army was able to land but the navy was destroyed by the British fleets. The naval defeat left Napoleon in charge of an army without a supply line, but he succeeded in overthrowing the Mamluk’s who ruled in the name of the Ottoman Empire. The Egyptian Campaign was a great success, but without a navy to bring supplies and internal discontent with European domination, Napoleon was forced to withdraw from Egypt, but not before he secured cultural knowledge and artifacts from Egypt.

Upon Napoleons return to France, a new period began in French history. The last of the revolutionary governments was overthrown and Napoleon became the leader of France in practice, but not yet in name. Napoleons considerable time as a general and later ruler of France matches the active period of rule for the other great conquerors and he had greater control over his empire then any of the other conquerors.


Overthrow of old Europe

The development of the French Empire under Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is the main reason that Napoleon outstrips all competitors for the title of greatest conqueror. Napoleonic France was not the only major power at the onset of the Napoleonic Wars. The Holy Roman Empire was well developed and a powerful central European state. The Russian Empire dominated the world east of the Holy Roman Empire almost to the Pacific Ocean, while the United Kingdom dominated the sea. The Ottoman Empire had seen better years, but it was still a strong power. Napoleonic France defeated all of these empires and seized territory from three of them.

The Holy Roman Empire was the nominal ruler of all of Germany, as well as having parts of Poland, all of Hungary, part of Italy, and parts of various Balkan states. The Hapsburg family had ruled many of these territories since the 14th century. The Napoleonic Wars left the Hapsburg kingdom a shell of its former self, it was no longer a major power beyond Eastern Europe, and its demise after WWI could be traced to a series of defeats inflicted by Napoleon. After Napoleon seized Vienna, the Hapsburg capital, the Austrian monarch would never again be Holy Roman Empire, or unopposed leader of the German states. The Hapsburgs would lead a series of political unions until their fall in 1917.

The Ottoman Empire lost Egypt to Napoleon. Egypt would never be under full Ottoman control again. The Ottoman Empire also fought a number of battles against Napoleon in the Levant, but these battles were inconclusive. The damage that Napoleon caused to the Ottoman Empire territorially was small, but it inflicted huge psychological wounds. In the larger story, Napoleon probably helped the Ottoman Empire more then it harmed them. This was because Napoleons wars weakened the Russians and Austrians far more then it weakened the Ottoman Empire. The Napoleonic Wars also changed Western European political views. After the wars Western Europe would to seek to balance power in Europe rather than to dominate the other European powers.

The Russian Empire was the largest state in Europe. Napoleon destroyed the Russian Empire in battle. Napoleon seized Russian territory all the way to Moscow, the Russian capital. Russia would have been completely annihilated if France’s wars had not caught up with them. Napoleon had been fighting wars for almost two decades at the time of his seizure of Moscow, and France had suffered hundreds of thousands of death. The empire was reeling from the cost of continued victories, in both blood and territory.


Napoleons Defeat

Europe was tired of Napoleons wars and domestic policies outside of France were not met with applause. Southern Italy was in full revolt and fighting a guerrilla war against Napoleon’s soldiers. Spain was a battleground between the United Kingdom, Portugal and Spain on one side, and France on the other. Switzerland and the Netherlands had their governments deposed by Napoleons soldiers to prevent them from enacting anti-Napoleonic policies. By 1815 seven different coalitions had been formed against Napoleon, and after Napoleons retreat from Moscow they successfully overthrew the Emperor of the French.

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Napoleon is the greatest conqueror the world has ever seen. He defeated all the major powers of Europe, and utterly destroyed the Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon had a long and glorious reign in which he lost no major battles until he was deposed. The dynasty that Napoleon developed outlived him in some places in Europe, such as Westphalia, and it returned to dominated France in the latter half of the 19th century. Napoleon radically changed the political landscape in Europe, and his policies continued to affect the world even into the 20th century.

© 2011 A Anders


Robert Sacchi on February 02, 2018:

Thank you. This explains much. I know often times history is approached with a simplistic explanation of why things happened. You give a more detailed explanation of how and why things happened.

A Anders (author) from Buffalo, New York. on February 02, 2018:

Robert, I would argue that once Napoleon crossed the Ukraine he had no choice but to march on Moscow. Turning back at that point would have exposed his army to the same dangers with nothing to show for it.

Kenna, thanks for stopping by!

Napoleon may have conquered Europe, but he had hardly settled the issue, and Russia was a danger to his conquests. Britain could harass and interrupt Napoleon, but only Russia could raise the men to go toe to toe with the Emperor of the French. As long as the tsar was able to gather the entirety of the east France was in danger of a Russian blitz rallying Napoleons enemies across Europe. That was the real danger for Napoleon, and the reason for the sudden collapse of the empire. The German states, the Italian states, the Nordic states, they were all satellites that largely resented foreign domination, and easily turned on the emperor as soon as Russian troops came on the scene.

Kenna McHugh from Northern California on February 01, 2018:

On War by Carl von Clausewitz was written mostly after Napoleon wars. I read the translated version of the book. Clausewitz describes exactly why Napoleon failed. Napoleon had conquered the world. He didn't need to go to Russia and bring death to his army. In my opinion, Napoleon was on a self-destruct mission. How else can one explain such a horrible mistake by going to Russia?

Robert Sacchi on February 01, 2018:

Do I understand that in Russia past a certain point his only real choice was to press on to victory because if he didn't his defeat would be a certainty?

A Anders (author) from Buffalo, New York. on February 01, 2018:

Hubris and the constraints of his time.

Napoleon was indefeatable, and he knew it. He also had to be unbreakable. Multiple coalition armies constantly attacked, reducing the veteran soldiers that gave him his edge. For almost twenty years it was Napoleon vs the world.

Not only was he dominate on the battlefield, his political creation was dominate as well. The French Empire was not uniformly seen as a conqueror across Europe. In many places the French were liberators, breaking the chains of monarchy and building sister republics.

Within the era he fought there was also the issue of communication. As he marched on Moscow he could not have known the full details of what was transpiring in Spain, and the bleeding ulcer of the Spanish rebellion left Napoleon without a leg to stand on when he returned home.

Napoleon was sure he’d win, he was sure of his men, and he couldn’t stop with enemies abound. This tenacity is the reason Napoleon is a household name to begin with.

Robert Sacchi on January 31, 2018:

You make a good case for Napoleon being the world's greatest conqueror. Any idea of what made him continue trying to expand his empire when it seemed his empire was being overstretched?

A Anders (author) from Buffalo, New York. on March 22, 2012:

Thanks for the comment and the vote up. Glad I could help!

Barbara Radisavljevic from Templeton, CA on March 22, 2012:

You've helped me review my history. I have forgotten an awful lot of it. Voted up.

A Anders (author) from Buffalo, New York. on July 03, 2011:


That book looks great, I will try to pick it up. Thanks for the tip!

Lilith Eden from Hanau, Germany on July 03, 2011:

What an informative post! Thank you for sharing.

I believe that you would truly enjoy "Napoleon's Egypt" by Juan Cole. It is a very fun and unique account of Napoleon's venture into Northern Africa.


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