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Welcome to Dan Snow's History Hit to listen to all of our episodes ad-free, get bonus content, and watch hundreds of history documentaries. Download the History Hit app or go to historyhit. Com/subscribe. If you're an Apple listener, you can subscribe for new ad-free episodes within the Apple app. December the second, 1805. A cold winter wind sweeps the rolling landscape between the town of Renaud and the village of Austinitz in what is today the Czech Republic. There's a blanket of morning fog that shrouds 68,000 men of Napoleon's Grand Army. A bit of luck, perhaps a little by design. It provides the perfect cover for his troops who wait quietly in disciplined formations. Behind them lies the frozen ponds and the waters of the Goldbach Stream. On a ridge to the east, the combined forces of the Russian and Austrian empires, a coalition of nearly 90,000 men determined to crush France's Nuvaut emperor. They're an intimidating adversary. By this point, Napoleon's already made his name as a formidable commander, a great strategist. He's humiliated the Austrians Italy. He's invaded and occupied Egypt. Today, the second of December, is the anniversary of his coronation, the day on which he crowned himself in Paris, Emperor of the French.


The battle that unfolded that day at Australia's, saw Napoleon play his enemies like a game of chess. They attacked him right where he had intended, and he struck back with a devastating, deliberation, and overwhelming local superiority. By the end of the day, his enemies were in disarray, the field carpeted with the dead and dying, a mound of captured enemy standards thrown at the French Emperor's feet. His outnumbered, footsaw, hungry army, a long way from home had won, and it's often thought to be his finest victory. This clash of empires on the fields of Astolet has etched Napoleon's name into the pantheon of military greats. I often find it hard to imagine great military commanders as children. But Napoleon was once a child, obviously. He was born on the French island of Corsica. He'd been bullied mercilessly at school by his peers, mostly for his poor French. His first language was Corsican and then Italian. But somehow that instilled in him a desire to be better, to outsmart, to win, to outthink and outfight his contemporaries. He clawed his way to the zenith of power with a relentless determination and self-belief that few could fathom. You may have heard that there's a little movie coming out this week starring Joachime Phoenix and Napoleon, directed by one ridley scart.


We know that either before you go and see that or after, you're going to go to Wikipedia and dig further into Napoleon's life. Was he a genius or a tyrant? Did he really come from nothing and conquer everything? Did his love for Josephine emboldom him or destroy him? Here on Dan Snow's history, we've done the hard work for you. Over the next four episodes, I'll be gathering some of the leading experts on Napoleon from his biographer, Andrew Roberts, military historian, Dr. Zach White, to sex historian Dr. Cate Lister to unravel Napoleon, Bonaparte, the man, the myth, the commander.




Accounts of Napoleon's life begin with the Siege of Toulouse in 1793, when Napoleon was just 24. But if you think about it, by Waterloo, he was 46 and he was dead at 51. The first 24 years before too long account for half of his entire existence on this planet. In this first episode, we're going to go back to the beginning. We're going to look into those years. I'm joined by the brilliant historian, the biographer, Andrew Roberts, Lord Andrew Roberts, author of Napoleon the Great to go back to the early years of Napoleon. Andrew, great to have you back on the podcast.


Thank you. Great to be back on.


Now, in the commercial, the advertisement for the Napoleon film, it said he came from nothing and conquered everything. Let's just park the conquering everything aside for a second. Where did Napoleon come from? How obscure was his birth, actually?


He was an actual aristocrat. He wouldn't have had the education at the expense of the king had he not been an aristocrat, had what was called 16 quarterings. So you were able to show your aristocracy back at least 250 years, which the Bonaparte family could. There was a little bit of eliding once or twice. It strikes me the Bonaparte essentially, of course, doesn't really have an aristocracy at the time of his birth. But nonetheless, if anyone's an aristocrat, he comes from an impoverished aristocratic family. So it's not true to say that he came from nothing.


What is it to be Corsican in the French world of the 18th century?


Extremely dangerous because Corsica doesn't become part of France until 1768, when they essentially buy it from Genua. The year before Napoleon was born, Corsica wasn't even French. The identity, the national identity of Coursica is a very complex one. It's one that can be seen in Napoleon himself who is very conflicted about it. He doesn't really truly think of himself as French until he's in his early 20s, until the French Revolution.


Because he flirts with Corsican nationalism, doesn't he? He's rather proud of being Corsican.


With his father was the secretary to Pascali Pauli, the great Corsican leader, the person who's considered the father of the Corsican nation, the person who gives the constitution to Corsica. And so, yes, he's a fierce Corsican nationalist to the point that he writes short stories when he's in his teens about killing Frenchmen. The idea that he eventually becomes emperor of the French is a grand irony.


How would he have been referred to as a child? He would have been more Italian than the French.


Yes, Nabuolio, and of course, Buonaparte. It's a far cry from the Napoleon Buonaparte that we think of today. He spoke Italian as well as French and, of course, can dialect too. So all in all, he was very much a multinational figure.


Is there something? I did a little flight of fancy here. Is there something interesting, and I know he's not a 20th century dictator, but it's curious, isn't it? Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon, they all came from places very much outside the traditional imperial center of the countries or the empires they went on to dominate. Is there something going on there or am I being a bit too clever?


No, I think so. You can go back. I mean, one thinks of Alexander the Great as a Greek, but of course, he was Macedonia. There are lots of examples in the ancient world as well of this happening. Really, nationalism is so much a 19th century concept that we tend to push it back and to equate people in the past as having been one thing or another. Whereas somebody like Napoleon would have thought of himself as several things until, of course, he becomes French at the time of the Revolution and then never sees himself as anything other than French and gets angry with people who call him Courseacon.


So his early life, many brothers and sisters, an important local family, no overabundance of cash. Any sign of genius at this point? What's going on in his childhood?


Yes, there are lots of children. His father is a rather down-at-heel barrister, essentially, and charming, good-tempered, good-looking, but not really much of a go-getter. Unlike his mother, Madam Mare, who does push her husband and later Napoleon on in life. The family have boasted that they never had to buy their own olive oil or bread, so they had enough olive trees and so on to be able to survive. You go around their house in Ajaxio in Corsca, which actually nowadays has an extra floor on it. It's a bit grander than it was when Napoleon was born. But they were well to do. They had a house near the Cathedral, which is where Napoleon's uncle, Cardinal Feis, was archbishop. They were a well to do family, but there was no sign at all that the young Napoleon was ever going to become an emperor.


In the 1755, Coursca declared themselves republic. Now, fascinating, I was reading Linda Colley's book the other day about written constitutions. Korske actually had one of the first written constitutions in the world. It was at the forefront of the 18th century enlightenment, thinking around setting out the principles of government. It didn't last, though, did it? But his family were quite intimately connected with that moment of independence and sovereignty.


They were. Actually the best historian of all of this is Boswil, James Boswil, who was a friend of Pasquale Pauley, who wrote this great enlightenment constitution that you mentioned, went around Corsica and writes a rather wonderful book about it that was published in 1768, the year before Napoleon was born. We do have a good sense of what Coursica was like before Napoleon was born. Yes, it was a place of great pride in its constitution and its people. Of course, there was a dark side to it all. The Vendetta was a very powerful aspect of Coursican politics in the mid 18th century. It was a place that was almost impossible to govern because of the small villages in the mountainous regions that couldn't be got to. The French found it tremendously difficult to actually impose their control and will on Coursica. They could only really do it in the ports. But Ajaxio, where the Bonaparte grew up, was a port, and so that helped.


On that note, I think it's so interesting how we, with our idea of the modern state and we look at big maps, the Roman Empire and the French Empire and the British Empire, and we see these big, great swathes of blue and pink and red, there would have been great chunks of the planet still largely living beyond the state, I think, until quite recently.


I think they probably still are. I mean, China being another example, up until 1949, it was very much regionally locally governed and there are lots of areas where the central state doesn't rule very far.


You're listening to Dan Snow's history here. There's more to come.


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But they feel French presence. They would experience taxation and things like that. In the end, Napoleon leaves his family, when you think about it, his brothers and sisters, my goodness, the future crowned heads of Europe among them, Napoleon put them all on various thrones, but he ends up heading off to France to pursue a career as a military officer. How does that come about?


Yes, because of his aristocratic background, he's allowed to have free education at the expense to the French state. That is really the thing that makes Napoleon. He is a huge autodidact. He goes to these French military academies, really from the age of about nine to, I think, 17. In that long period away from his parents, and they didn't come to visit him either, his character was built. He was a huge reader. He loved reading history, ancient history, biography, and so on. He started to see himself as potentially at least one of the great men and women who changed history.


Yeah. Well, listen, that's very relatable. I felt that at age 13 as well. But in some cases I was wrong, Napoleon was right. He's there, he's studying, he's reading ferociously, Alexander, Great, Caesar, a lot of classical authors, I take it.


That's right. Exactly all of them. Actually some more modern authors because, of course, these military academies are, especially at the time that he was there, still smarting from the French defeat in the Seven Years' War. They have to try to inculcate in their students a sense of French greatness. They are also taught French history, or at least the most positive sides of French history. Also, of course, they read military books. He has got, for the time at least, a fairly wide education. It's not just Greek and Latin and so on. He also does mathematics, very important for an artillery officer, as you can imagine, and some of the natural sciences too.


Speaking of artillery, artillery was a branch of the 18th of the trimilitary where you had to know what you were doing. I was in the British Army, you couldn't purchase rank. It was a technical scientific, more like being in the Navy, I suppose. Was he drawn to the artillery because of this learning he was doing? Or is it because he wasn't posh enough to go into one of the grand cavalry or infantry units?


A bit of both. He wasn't posh enough, or at least he was posh enough, but they didn't have the money for it. You had to live a certain lifestyle that his father simply couldn't afford. That and his capacity for mathematics, which edged him towards the artillery anyway, because, as you can imagine, the whole process of positioning a gun, firing it, and then most importantly, firing the next round and to actually hit what you were originally attempting to, required a good deal of knowledge of trigonometry and so on. He had that. He turned out to be an extremely good artillery officer as, of course, he discovered later in so many battles.


But he's also a romantic, as you've referred to. He's writing short stories and he goes on to write novels and things. He's got an interesting mix. These are rather capacious in his interest because he's writing novels about Corsca's killing Frenchman, Corsca's Place on His Own Within the Great World historical outlook. How do you think he would have come across to his fellow students?


Perhaps a little bit weird the way in which he would totally compartmentalize his thoughts and life. You see this all the way through his life. It's extraordinary how he was able to concentrate entirely on whatever he was doing and then turn immediately to something completely different. As I say, you get it later on where he's in the burning ashes of the Moscow and he's writing the rules and regulations of a girl's school for Saint-Denis in 1812. There are so many examples of that. On the Eve of the Battle of Astolitz, he wrote the rules for the comedy, Francis. To be able to stop thinking about one thing and think about something completely different was something that you see in Napoleon all through his life. He had that in his education and childhood as well. The stuff he's writing is very strange. Some of it is, as you say, blood and thunder. Then, of course, there's a love story, a rather erotic semi-thriller he brings out. He writes about losing his virginity at one point to a prostitute in the Palais Royale. He's a very, very strange man, really, when he's in his 20s.


How does French Revolution make him French, as you referred to earlier? He's still thinking about course can nationalism quite a lot in his teens. Then, well, the French Revolution happens when he's about 20.


Exactly, when he's 20. He later said that if you can see what a 20-year-old thinks about the world, you'll understand his views for the rest of his life. What Napoleon was thinking about was essentially dumping his Corsican background and his political beliefs, his nationalistic political beliefs. Totally understandable, after a decade in France, being educated in the French system, he thought of himself as a Frenchman. He thought of France as being at the forefront of the progressive views that the Enlightenment showed, and he wanted to be involved in that, especially... Although he despised the mob, always despised the mob. One of the things about his success really was that he took the mob out of French politics from about 1795 through to the end of his career 20 years later. He was still in favor of the idea of the nation, the people. It's just that he actually despised the people when they acted in a chaotic fashion.


Speaking of chaotic, he's involved in the thermal to the French Revolution from the beginning. He goes back to Korsky, seems to take a lot of bit of time off. He's got plenty of time to travel. There is this bizarre moment in the world, isn't it, where people are deciding between a vision of independence from France or embracing the ideals of the French Revolution and joining France. Napoleon is in the middle of that. He's into politics already.


That's right. Of course, one of the things about the French Revolution in terms of the French Army, when he's by now an officer in the French Army, is that it essentially decapitates, in many cases literally, the whole Upper Officer Corps of the French Army. Suddenly, people who are in their 20s have an opportunity to leapfrog their senior officers and get into really important positions. He was a Lieutenant Colonel of, it was only a volunteer's regiment, but nonetheless, he was still only in his early 20s when he was made a Lieutenant Colonel, which would have been very difficult for anyone outside the actual French aristocracy to have achieved unless you have this entire wiping out of the senior part of the French Officer Corps by the revolution.


We think his first battle is in Coursca and it's a bit of a flop, is it? So he's playing street politics in Coursca.


That's right. In Bonifacey, where he's stationed, there's an attack on an island called Madelena and it fails. It's not his fault. He's not in charge. He's not in overall charge. But he does learn a few things about what not to do. I think it's a very important aspect in early years. You see it with Wellington, of course, as well, don't you, with that?


He said that's a quote from him, isn't it? In Holland, he said, I learnt what not to do, which is something.


Yes, absolutely. And it really is. He starts off in this position where he is essentially trying to impose the will of France on his home island, which certainly doesn't want it and which has the strength because of the weakness of France during the revolution to throw the French off the island. That's what happens to him and his family. They're literally given 24 hours to get off the island before and go to France, and then the house is attacked by the mob and gutted and so on. So it's a very nerve-wrecking situation for him in the summer of 1793.


Does being thrown off Coursca end his dalliance with Corsca, full stop? I mean, he hardly ever goes back, I think. Did he go back once or twice in his life?


Goes back once on the way back from the Egyptian campaign, but just spends a couple of nights, doesn't stay long. Of course, with the rest of the family, however, hes that. When Coursica is retaken by the French in 1796, he orders his elder brother, Joseph, to rebuild the house and generally to smarten the place up. In his will in 1826 and'81, he said that if his body was not going to be taken back to the side of the Seine, essentially, Le Zambolid, he'd like it to go to the Ajaxio Cathedral. But other than that, he doesn't spend any time thinking about Coursica really at all. He set his sight on far grand visions by then.


The decision is made for him. His family, Benthrane and Korsco, he is fully committed to the French Revolution at this point. Let's take it up to Toulouse, I suppose. He's back in France. He's in the south of France. The geography of that is quite important because he is on hand, therefore, when there's the great crisis, when the Royalists, the French resistance, Royal assistants with foreign allies, sees France's leading naval base at too long, and Napoleon's nearby. He's in.


Exactly the right place at the right time. This also, of course, is very useful for great historical figures, isn't it? You see it again and again to be at the key place at the right time. There's a great deal of luck involved, and he is put in charge of the artillery, not least because the last person who was in charge of the artillery at Toulouse wasn't very good. He immediately spots the key place called Ligolet, which has to be captured because if it is, it commands the inner harbor at Toulouse. It means that the French will be able to fire heated cannonballs down on the Royal Navy and the Neapolitan fleet and the rest of the coalition vessels and force them out into the outer harbor and ultimately into the Mediterranean. There's this coup d'alloy that he has at a key moment in December 1793, and it allows him to essentially win the struggle for too long, which is absolutely vital because it's the great naval base for the French Navy. It was before and still is today.


That's fascinating. Only a few months after he's kicked out of Coursca. As you say, luck and timing and geographical positioning essential.


And also his politics can be trusted. You see, this is the whole thing about why the Allies are in too long in the first places, because they're trying to encourage the Royalists in Southern France to rise up against the revolution. And Napoleon has proved that he's a sound revolutionary. He can be trusted politically because there's a lot of deep-seated worry. It's not parano because it's genuine worry that the people fighting for the French Army might change sides.


Whereas this is a guy, he's lost everything. He's been kicked out of Coursica for his revolutionary ideals. I guess that's how it appears.


His best friend is Augustine Robespierre, who is the brother of Maximilian Robespierre. He's writing pro-Jakobin stuff as well, including a book called The Supper at Bowcare.


Yes. He writes this funny pimp this book doesn't he, where he talks. It's a conversation here, but he was trying to win people over to the revolutionary cause and it gets published in Paris.


Precisely. They know in Paris they can trust this chap. Even though he has got aristocratic background, he can be trusted. All they need to do is to check out whether or not he's a very good artilleryman. At too long, he proves that he is.


It's fascinating. I think this about Cromwell all the time. It's like gardening. You turn over the soil dramatically or the gardening slash the First World War, and suddenly you get this amazing bloom of wildflowers and seeds that have been exposed to the air. There are Napoleon's and Cromwell's lurking around in every society, and 99.99% of them don't get their chance to turn into dictators. But given the right tumult, the right conditions, one will emerge. It's fascinating.


Yes, it is, isn't it? And it seems so often in history that the key thing is that what we should somehow manage to do is to find in democratic societies how we can find, not dictators clearly, but people who have capacity and genius and somehow bring them out without having to turn over all the earth.


Well, I don't know what you're talking about lots of people with capacity and genius, evidently in public life at the moment, particularly in the second chamber of our legislature. That's right.


Thank you, Dan.


I agree. We're going to do another podcast where we talk about the myth and reality of Napoleon, how great should we call him? But thank you very much for coming on this one and talking about the background of this remarkable figure.


Thank you.


By the summer of 1793, amidst the chaos of war and revolution, the young, audacious artillery officer, Napoleon, stood ready on the cusp of greatness. That cusp of greatness bit is the thing I find so fascinating. What really strikes me listening to Andrew was the remarkable sense of self-belief that drove Napoleon, that self-belief that allowed him to embrace the opportunities that were about to come his way as if they were preordained. Perhaps many of us feel that we were destined for greatness, but few of us get the breaks, and even fewer of us have the talent to make good on those breaks when they do come our way. There's also one other thing that I keep thinking about with the young Bonaparte. He was clearly an isolated, troubled young man. He wasn't popular and charismatic. Yet when he came to command men, they loved him. He discovered a charisma. They hurled themselves to enemy bayonets for him. It's a paradox, and perhaps we see it with other leaders now I think of it, the private awkwardness, but the public strength, charisma, confidence. In the next episode of this podcast, we're going to look at Napoleon, the commander.


We're going to delve into the battles that made his name from his glorious victories in Italy, Astoliz, and other places to his crushing defeat in the Eastern Mediterranean, and of course, final one on those Belgian fields outside Waterloo. Get the next episode tomorrow, folks, by following Dan Snow's history wherever you get your podcasts. Goodbye.


Did you see Fran's letter to Santa? No.


Dear Santa.


I want a dolphin. Reel one, please, and.


A doughnut.


As big as.




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