On December 2, 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor of France–the first Frenchman to hold the title in a thousand years. His epic rise to power and subsequent downfall are the stuff of legend.

Early life

Bonarparte was born Napoleon Buonaparte on August 15,1769, in the Coriscan city of Ajaccio. At the age of ten, he entered a French military school for aristocrats and later went on to the College of Brienne, another military establishment. While away at school, he was made fun of by other students for his small stature and his inability to speak proper French. Despite the teasing, Napoleon took his studies seriously and excelled as a student.

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By 1785, Bonaparte was a second lieutenant in the French Army, and in 1792 he took part in his first major military campaign in the struggle for Corsican independence.

Military successes and royal life

Almost immediately, Napoleon returned to France and quickly gained rank in the Revolutionary Army. By 1799, France was at war with most of Europe. Napoleon took over the reins of his struggling government to save it from collapse. After becoming first consul in 1800, he reorganized the armies and defeated Austria. In 1802, he established the Napoleonic Code and in 1804 he proclaimed himself emperor.

His coronation ceremony took place on December 2, 1804, in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. He paid for Pope Pius VII to attend the ceremony, but rather than allowing the pontiff to crown him, he crowned himself emperor and his wife Josephine Empress. Many historians regard this as a power play meant to demonstrate that no one, not even Rome, was more powerful that Bonaparte himself.

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He went on to create a new French aristocracy, granting titles of nobility to those most loyal to him. His court became a spectacle of pomp and extravagance and, though he enjoyed the power, he found life in the public eye rather uncomfortable.

The defeat of Napoleon

It’s almost impossible to determine every single factor that led to the downfall of Bonaparte, but his demise began around 1812 when he encountered the first significant defeats of his military career. One of the biggest factors in his unraveling was the relative weakness of the French Navy–and being unable to defeat the British forces at sea left his continental campaign compromised as well.

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Eventually exiled to the island of Elba, he escaped in 1815 and raised a new army that enjoyed some temporary success before a crushing defeat at Waterloo on June 18th of that same year. He died in 1821 while in exile on the African island of Saint Helena.