Napoleon Bonaparte was born to a modest family in Corsica but rose to become the Emperor of almost all of Europe. As Emperor of France, Napoleon dominated European history for more than a decade, leading the Napoleonic Wars, which reached as far west as Russia and as far south as Egypt. Though certainly a tyrant and a dictator, Napoleon’s reign spread public education, the rule of law, and civic organization throughout his empire; he oversaw innovations like canned food and braille writing; he spoke against torture and Anti-Semitism. There are many fascinating and thorough books written about the man, his military prowess, and his legacy, so here are 42 fascinating and bigger-than-life facts about Napoleon Bonaparte!
Perhaps the best known “fact” about Napoleon Bonaparte was that he was short—but it’s likely not a fact at all. Napoleon was reported to stand 5’2” at the time of his death (the average height of a French male at that time), but the yardstick used to measure was in French units, which were smaller than today's units. It’s likely he was as tall as 5’6” or 5’7”, which would actually make him above average height.
Napoleon was known to surround himself with tall bodyguards, and was affectionately known as le petit caporal (the little corporal). However, this nickname didn’t refer to his height, but was intended to reflect his affection and camaraderie with his subordinates.
At his likely height of 5’6”, Napoleon would have been taller than both Lenin and Stalin (both 5’5”), and Nicolas Sarkozy (also 5’5”). He’d be the same height as Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini (both 5’6”) and only one inch shorter than Vladimir Putin (5’7”).
Between 1801 and 1857, Napoleon built a fort on the Atlantic ocean named Fort Boyard. The 68 by 31 metre fortification rises straight out of the Atlantic ocean, standing 20 metres tall. Its original purpose was for defense, though it later housed a prison. Building Boyard was a feat of engineering—the idea was proposed in 1692, but Louis XIV was told, “Your Majesty, it would be easier to seize the moon with your teeth than to attempt such an undertaking in such a place.” More recently, the fort was the shooting location for the French game show, Fort Boyard (1990), in which contestants performed feats of strength and endurance in order to win cash prizes.
Napoleon is famous as a dictator who sought to conquer Europe, including Russia. But, as it turns out, Russia could maybe have avoided the war: In 1789, a young French soldier applied to the Russian military and navy, but was rejected both times. That young man? You got it: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Another oft-repeated Napoleon “fact” is that he suffered from ailurophobia, a fear of cats. And we’re sorry to report that this one probably isn’t true either. There are stories that Napoleon was attacked by a bobcat as a child, and that he was discovered one night, in his nightclothes, furiously swinging a sword at a kitten, but both stories are unsubstantiated. In fact, his wife Josephine often kept cats in the home. The misinformation can be partly forgiven, however, as there actually was a Napoleon who was a dreadful ailurophobe—Napoleon III, the Emperor's nephew. Napoleon III could not bear to be around felines and would jump on a chair if one entered the room. Napoleon I was by far the better-known Napoleon, and it’s possible this anecdote is commonly misattributed to him.
One of the most commonly cited facts highlighting Napoleon's military prowess is that he won more victories in battle than Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Julius Caesar combined, which is true. Of course, Napoleon fought far more battles than any of these other military men, so of course his numbers would be higher. Kind of like how Brett Favre has the most touchdown passes and the most interceptions.
American General George S. Patton, who is known for his leadership in Normandy during World War II, staunchly believed in reincarnation. Patton believed himself to have been a military leader killed in action in Napoleon's army during a previous lifetime, or barring that, perhaps a Roman centurion.
The American Revolution would not have been possible without support from France, who funnelled money and arms to American revolutionaries (i.e. the Founding Fathers) in order to support what was then called the Continental Congress against France’s own enemy, the United Kingdom. When George Washington died in 1799, Napoleon ordered ten days of nationwide mourning in France.
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Napoleon had a reputation as a wit and a wordsmith, as well as a military man. Supposedly, when Napoleon was asked by Anne Jean Marie René Savary, a French general and diplomat, whether he wanted to be God, he thought it over and replied, “No, it’s a dead-end job.”
After defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington remained obsessed with his rival. The Duke seduced not one, but two of Napoleon’s former mistresses, one of whom was later quoted as saying she preferred the Duke in bed. The Duke also befriended Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s sister, for whom he bought a house, and who gave him a saucy painting of herself with her nipples clearly showing, which he hung on his bedroom wall. In addition, Wellington collected several of Napoleon’s swords, paintings of Napoleon, and even hired his cook!
The Duke of Wellington’s obsession with Napoleon was well-known. In 1816, the year after defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke was given a gift from the British government—an eleven foot statue that Napoleon had commissioned of himself as the Roman god Mars, naked except for a strategically placed fig leaf. Wellington placed the statue at the bottom of a staircase in his home in London, where it stands to this day.
While in exile, Napoleon published his memoirs and wrote a book about the life of Julius Caesar. But long before his military career began, and before he met and married his wife Josephine in 1795, he was also a romance novelist. Napoleon’s novel, titled Clisson et Eugénie, told a fictionalized version of his affair with Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary, whose sister married Napoleon’s brother. The book was never published during his lifetime, though after his death was serialized and sold as souvenirs. It was translated to English in 2009, and you can purchase it today as e-book on Amazon.
Napoleon’s stepson, Napoleon II, was the King of Rome, Prince of Parma, and Duke of Reichstadt under his stepfather. When Napoleon I was defeated and forced to abdicate the French throne, he named Napoleon II his successor. However, none of the coalition that defeated Napoleon I accepted this, so Napoleon II was also forced to abdicate. He ended up living out his days in exile in Vienna. In 1940, after Germany conquered Austria in World War II, the ashes of Napoleon II were sent to France by Hitler as a gift.
In 1807, Napoleon’s army was advancing on Russian territory and Napoleon met with Russian Tsar Alexander I to discuss a peace treaty. After meeting (and after bonding over their mutual dislike of the English), Napoleon was charmed by the Tsar and said he was “especially handsome, like a hero with all the graces of an amiable Parisian.” He wrote to his wife Josephine, “If [Alexander] was a woman I'd make him my mistress.”
Napoleon’s military campaign across Europe cost an untold number of Europeans their lives, and disrupted countless others. Still, the Emperor could not be described as heartless. According to his own account, he was once moved to tears by finding the dog of a dead soldier crouched on a battlefield, trying to revive its deceased master.
During his army’s excursions to far-flung places like Russia and Egypt, Napoleon offered a reward to someone who could make food last longer. In 1809, Nicolas Appert discovered that food cooked inside a sealed glass jar didn’t spoil unless the jar leaked—he’d invented canning! Appert was paid $12,000 francs in reward by the French government. At the time, the reason for the lack of spoilage was unknown—it would be another 50 years before Louis Pasteur explained the role of microbes in food preservation.
Napoleon achieved impressive feats for a man with humble beginnings. He grew up in French-occupied Corsica, and Corsican and Italian were his first and second languages. While he did learn to speak French fluently, he spoke with a distinct Corsican accent and never learned to spell properly in French.
In his bid to win power over Egypt, Napoleon considered converting himself and his army to Islam. He decided against it because he believed the French troops wouldn’t stand for abstinence from alcohol.
In 1798, Napoleon captured the island nation of Malta for France while on his way to Egypt. During the six days he spent in Malta, he reformed the national administration, created a public finance administration, abolished feudal privileges, framed a family code of law, nominated twelve judges, established a system of public education (both primary and secondary), and abolished slavery.
Ever wonder why we drive on the right hand of the road, but the British drive on the left? You have Napoleon to thank! Right hand-traffic was thought to deter fighting while on horseback, as most people are right-handed. Mandatory right-hand traffic was enforced throughout Europe (and all French-dominated territories) after the Napoleonic wars, but since Napoleon never conquered Britain, left-hand driving would remain there.
Under Napoleon’s rule, he emancipated Jews from laws which restricted them to ghettos, and he expanded their rights to property, worship, and careers. In an 1806 Assembly with Jewish notables, he said "I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France, because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country.”
In 1810, Napoleon divorced his wife of 14 years, Josephine, so that he might produce an heir with another wife. He never did, and Josephine's son from a previous marriage became Napoleon II. Today, Josephine is the ancestor by blood of five of the current royal houses of Europe. Napoleon is the ancestor of none.
Napoleon was known for prioritizing that which needed to be done, and for his need to win at everything he attempted, any way he could. To that end, he was also known for cheating at cards!
Napoleon’s older brother Joseph Bonaparte didn’t share Napoleon’s moxie, though he was named by Napoleon as King of Spain and King of Sicily and Naples. After the Napoleonic Wars, in 1817, he moved to the United States and settled in New Jersey, where he made his living selling the jewelry he had taken with him from Spain. He moved back to Europe at the end of his life, and was buried near his brother upon his death in 1844.
Many of Napoleon’s policies and inventions remain highly influential today. While in power, Napoleon demanded a method of communication that would not require light or sound. "Night Writing" was developed by Charles Barbier as a tactile military code, but proved too difficult for Napoleon’s troops to learn, so was rejected. In 1821, Barbier met someone who was interested in his tactile code—during a visit to the Royal Institute for the Blind, he met Louis Braille. Together, the two adapted his idea and created braille writing, the same that is still used today.
When the Duke of Wellington attended a party in Vienna, some French officers turned away from him, the conqueror of their Emperor Napoleon. When a woman apologized for their rudeness, Wellington replied: “I have seen their backs before, madam.”
In 1977, Napoleon indirectly became a source of controversy. The New York Times Sunday Review published an excerpt of the book Words & Wisdom by William and Mary Morris, a book on etymology and the history of well-known words and phrases. In the excerpt, they traced the origin of the word pumpernickel back to a quip Napoleon once made: upon being given the dark, hearty bread, he criticized it as “pain for Nicole!”—that is, it was bread fit only for Nicole, who was his horse. Unfortunately for the New York Times, the story was completely made up. The newspaper was deluged with letters, and William and Mary Morris were outed as charlatans.
In North America, only two areas base their legal systems on French law crafted by Napoleon. In Louisiana, law students choose to study either American law or Louisiana Civil Code. Likewise, the Canadian province of Quebec is governed both by the Canadian Criminal Code, and Quebec Civil Code. Both latter systems are based on the French Civil Code established by Napoleon in 1804.
By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Rothschild family had established such an efficient system of couriers in Europe that they knew Napoleon had lost at Waterloo a day before the government did. Nathan Rothschild did the noble thing and immediately reported it to the government, but after the news was made public, he bought up the government bond market. He then sold the bonds for an enormous 40% profit two years later, and established his family’s lasting fortune.
Napoleon Bonaparte thought torture should be abolished because the information obtained from it is worthless. He wrote to Louis Alexandre Berthier in 1816: “The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to know.”
Princess Marie Bonaparte, great-grandniece to Napoleon, became a psychoanalyst and was closely linked with Sigmund Freud. In her research on sexual dysfunction, she discovered that the closer a woman’s clitoris is to her vagina, the easier she will orgasm. She later had her clitoris surgically moved, though the operation did not produce the desired result.
Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony was originally named “Bonaparte” and was dedicated to Napoleon, then a French general. But in 1804, when Beethoven learned that Napoleon crowned himself “Emperor”—a title which Beethoven associated with tyrany—the composer was so furious that he scratched the name off the title page with such vehemence that it tore a hole in the paper.
Charles Joseph Bonaparte, great-nephew to Napoleon, became an American lawyer and politician, and activist for progressive and liberal social causes. He served in the cabinet of President Theodore Roosevelt, and later served as Secretary of the Navy and later Attorney General. As Attorney General, he oversaw the creation of the FBI in 1920.
Napoleon managed to conquer a large part of Europe for the French Empire, but he didn’t have any control over the rabbit kingdom. In 1807, after signing the Peace Treaty of Tilsit, he staged a rabbit hunt with the help of his friend, Marshal Alexandre Berthier, to entertain and impress the Russians. Berthier acquired domesticated rabbits, thinking that would ensure an easy hunt. However, when the friendly rabbits were released, they mistook Napoleon for their caretaker bringing them food. Napoleon was swarmed by hundreds of rabbits, and fled in his carriage, flinging bunnies out the window as he went.
The imperial House of Bonaparte has continued to keep track of Napoleon’s bloodline, just in case France ever restores power to the hands of the dynasty. While astronomically unlikely, the Emperor would be Jean-Christophe, Prince Napoleon, born in 1986. He completed his MBA at Harvard in 2017 and is presently working as an investment banker in London.
Napoleon lost many battles over his military career, but one of his most amusing defeats was at a game of chess played with “The Turk,” an automatic chess-playing machine. In 1809, Napoleon played three games against The Turk, and lost all of them. Contradictory stories declare that Napoleon was either delighted or infuriated by losing to a “machine,” but one fact that is for sure: The Turk was a hoax! A human chess master was hidden inside the machinery of the “automaton,” directing all the moves.
Being the ruler of Europe comes with certain perks, including some fancy decorations for your home. While Napoleon was in power, the Mona Lisa was hung in his bedroom.
Napoleon was in total exile when he met enemy soldiers, yet he convinced them to fight for him with just six words.
Even after his defeat, abdication, and exile, would-be emperor Napoleon never gave up his goal of gaining control of France and eventually all of Europe. Exiled to Elba after his defeat at Leipzig, Napoleon escaped the island and landed on the French mainland. There he met a regiment who had been sent to prevent him from reaching Paris. Napoleon looked at the soldiers and declared “Here I am. Kill your Emperor, if you wish.” Impressed with his audacity, the soldiers joined Napoleon on his march to Paris and helped him reclaim the throne of France.
Napoleon considered himself not only a military leader but a man of culture and lover of science. During his military campaign to seize Egypt (and to cut off British supply routes), he brought along 150 scientists, engineers, and scholars to survey the topography, environment, culture, and history of Egypt. They published a 23-volume study of Egypt, titled Description de l’Égypte, which contained important and yet unknown knowledge of Egypt and its history. They also discovered the Rosetta Stone, a stone slab inscribed with a passage in Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic, and Greek. This translated inscription became the key to decoding hieroglyphics, which until then had been completely mystifying.
When Napoleon died, the official verdict was stomach cancer, but his body was eerily well-preserved after death, leading to whispers of arsenic poisoning; preservation of remains is one of the symptoms of the lethal substance. In 1961, researchers did indeed find a high level of arsenic in his hair, but an even more detailed 2008 study found that while Napoleon had insanely high levels of arsenic in his tresses, these levels didn't increase throughout his life. Most likely, Napoleon (along with wife Josephine) had just been exposed to lead-based paints and other products that were popular at the time, and this wasn't what killed him.
After Napoleon’s death, his doctor famously severed his penis and gave it to a priest in Corsica, whereupon it was stored, but not preserved. Over time, the body part has deteriorated, and has been compared to “a piece of leather, a shriveled eel and to beef jerky,” and, when it was displayed at a museum in New York, was called “maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace” by TIME Magazine.
In 1977, Napoleon’s penis was bought at auction by a urologist from New Jersey. He stored the item, for which he had paid $3000, under his bed until his death 30 years later. His daughter inherited the body part, and has been offered $100,000 for it, though as of 2015 is still in possession of the unusual souvenir.
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Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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