On this day, 216 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed himself the Emperor of France and began revolutionising the country’s military, legal and educational institutions.
The French military leader’s rise to the top and his subsequent fall from grace is one of the most spectacular recorded in history.
Born to an elite yet poor family on the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea, Napoleon quickly climbed the ranks of the military during the French Revolution from 1789 to 1799.
Though intelligent and driven, Napoleon struggled socially – especially with women.
His attitude toward sex was fiercely puritan, and he viewed women as seductive temptresses that would ruin his ambitions.
As a young boy, Napoleon’s social anxieties worsened when he was bullied at the military academy at Brienne, in northern France.
Determined to prove his worth, he read widely and worked hard to climb the ranks of society.
When the French Revolution broke out in July 1789, Napoleon welcomed it with open arms – he saw his chance to seize new opportunities personally and politically without class barriers.
Within three years, revolutionaries had overthrown the monarchy.
From 1792, the new revolutionary government set about waging war with other European nations, giving Napoleon the chance to make a name for himself as a brilliant military strategist.
He led the French army to win several battles.
On May 18, 1804, Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor and his wife Josephine de Beauharnais empress.
His lavish coronation ceremony took place on December 2 in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.
Napoleon next moved to recreate an aristocracy, a long-held French tradition that had been eliminated by the Revolution.
In 1808, Napoleon started granting titles of nobility to people who served him particularly well.
His most famous work, the Napoleonic Code, was a legal framework that strengthened the authority of men over their families, deprived women of any individual rights and reduced the rights of illegitimate children, of which he had many.
The laws were applied to all territories under Napoleon’s control and were influential in several other European countries and in South America.
Ultimately, Napoleon’s undoing was his overwhelming fear of being perceived as weak, and an inability to accept criticism.
He had to prove his strength at all costs, and this attitude led him to take on battles that he had no way of winning.
Napoleon was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo against the joint Anglo-allied army and a Prussian army in 1815.
Later that year, he was exiled to the remote British-held island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821 of a presumed stomach cancer at 51 years old.