Napoleon: Is there any one name from history that's so maligned? But for good reason—this supposedly small tyrant had enormous scandals.
1. He’s More Than His Reputation
Napoleon Bonaparte was a tactical genius whose renown has now extended across centuries. Yet despite this, so few people know his real story—and even fewer know his dark secrets. Behind the glory of his bloody battles and the familiarity of his iconic portraits, there was an obsessive, vengeful, complicated man. Let’s dive into Napoleon’s hidden history.
2. He Started As A Revolutionary
Born in 1769, even Napoleon’s origins are surprising. Most know he was Corsican, but few understand just how important that was. The island mostly hated their French masters, and Napoleon—even after moving to mainland France at the age of nine—devoutly wanted the island to topple the French monarchy. Oh, the irony.
As it happened, his early years in France would be extremely formative…just in a horrific way.
3. The Secret to His Success Was Intimidation
Because Napoleon’s first languages were Corsican and Italian, he spoke with a heavy Corsican accent all his life and never learned to spell in French. This had heartbreaking consequences for the boy. His new classmates relentlessly teased him due to his slow French, creating the inferiority complex that would push him towards his notable achievements and significant setbacks.
In fact, that drive was about to make him infamous.
4. He Was A Genius In One Way
By 1793, the French Revolution was in full swing and the young Napoleon, as opposed to monarchy as he would ever be and freshly graduated from a defense tactical academy, leaped into the conflict to put an end to absolute rule. That’s when something became extremely clear. Napoleon was a tactical genius with an exceptionally organized mind.
He saw the battlefield like a chess match and could relay complex commands with lightning quickness and intense clarity. But that wasn’t the only thing he had going for him.
5. He Had A Strange Power
Since his days as the schoolyard target, Napoleon had developed an intense need to dominate people—and he became very good at it. He had an incredible willpower, a “furious temper," and people found him almost hypnotically persuasive. His age-old enemy the Duke of Wellington once even commented that his presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 men.
After years building up this prowess, it all came to fruition one bloody day in 1795.
6. He Made A Fateful Decision
That October, royalists attempting to reclaim the Revolution mounted an offensive, and Napoleon—showcasing his soon-to-be trademark flexible and quick thinking—directed an officer to deploy enormous cannons against them. The damage was colossal, with 1,400 royalists perishing in the fray and the rest fleeing. It was also a turning point in Napoleon’s life.
7. Girls Didn’t Like Him
In the aftermath, Napoleon gained immense fame all over France, not to mention wealth, and quickly found himself promoted to Commander of the Interior. But one side effect pleased him more than anything else. Before this point, Napoleon was, uh, a bit of a loser when it came to women.
Although he was desperate to find a lover, most girls thought him “boorish” and brash. Now that he was famous though, that finally started to change…and it got him into a huge mess.
8. He Wrote An Embarrassing Novel
Probably not coincidentally, the same year he routed the royalists, Napoleon got engaged to Desiree Clary, a well-connected Frenchwoman whose sister had already married Napoleon’s brother. Napoleon’s reaction to this was not chill at all.
Showing a passionate side that would one day overtake him, he wrote the romantic novella Clisson et Eugenie in homage to his relationship with Clary. Then he promptly ruined everything.
9. He Met The Love Of His Life
As soon as Napoleon was engaged to Desiree, things became intricate - and he subjected her to humiliating treatment. Just weeks after his engagement, Napoleon met and became obsessed with Josephine de Beauharnais, a woman now infamous to history as his doomed Empress.
Yep, definitely the move of a man who hasn’t met enough women. But Napoleon started to exert control immediately.
10. He Controlled His Girlfriend
The “Empress Josephine” we think of today was utterly unrecognizable when Napoleon met her. For one, her name wasn’t Josephine. At the time, she went by “Rose,” but Napoleon decided he hated that name and chose to christen her as “Josephine," based on one of her other names, because he liked it more.
Then again, perhaps he was trying to distance “Rose” from her scandalous history.
11. He Liked Older Women
At the time that Napoleon met Josephine, she was the regular good-time gal of many powerful men within the Revolution. Indeed, she'd just been the mistress of one of Napoleon’s bosses when the two of them bumped into each other. Josephine was also six years older than Napoleon’s trim 26 years…and that wasn’t all.
12. His Love Hid A Dark Past
Josephine had been married before, to Alexandre de Beauharnais, and her husband’s downfall was chilling. Alexandre met Madame de Guillotine during the Reign of Terror, and Josephine herself had spent three months behind bars for her association with him, only gaining her release five days after his execution.
In short, Josephine was one shrewd survivor, and she did what a survivor had to.
13. He Confessed Everything
Napoleon was, one more, very not laid-back in his new relationship. He immediately began sending her impassioned, TMI letters around this time exclaiming, "I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses”.
Josephine must have known she was on a new precipice—but there was just one thing.
14. He Betrayed His Promise
In Napoleon’s absolute ardor for Josephine, he perhaps temporarily forgot about the little promise he had made to Desiree Clary. You know, the one where he was going to be her husband. So in September, just months after his engagement, he broke it off with Clary and poured all his attention on Josephine. It caused an uproar.
15. His Family Hated Her
Napoleon’s family were outraged that he had decided to break off the engagement to Clary—and for a woman like Josephine at that. His mother and teenaged sister Pauline took issue with everything from Josephine’s “senior” status, her widowhood, and the fact that her Parisian charms made them feel like country bumpkins. Oh, but they got their revenge.
16. His Sister Was Nasty
No one can cut you down to size like a teenage girl, and Napoleon’s sister Pauline took direct aim at Josephine. She not only named her “la veille” or “the old woman,” she took great pains to humiliate the new girl, commissioning extravagant dresses to outdo Josephine at balls.
Getting in on the fun, Napoleon’s ex-fiancee Desiree Clary was also overheard calling Josephine an “aged courtesan”. Napoleon, however, was about to show just how stubborn and rash he could be.
17. He Was Late To His Own Wedding
Utterly heedless of his family’s protestations, Napoleon proposed to Josephine within weeks of their meeting, and married her in March of 1796. It was a total disaster. Napoleon, despite his obsession, was two hours late for the ceremony—contributing to a miasma of bad mood throughout the whole procedure. Then, he just outright lied.
18. He Lied At The Altar
Later in life, Napoleon would ignore a bunch of laws, and he now ignored the whole “lawfully wedded” part of his own ceremony. When filling out the marriage certificate, Josephine smudged her age to be four years younger and bumped up Napoleon’s by 18 months, so that they were basically the same age on paper.
Oh, and did I mention a witness at the ceremony was too young to be a witness? Good job guys, great marriage. But the wedding night was even worse.
19. His Wedding Night Was Humiliating
Hate to burst any romantic bubbles here, but Josephine and Napoleon had definitely done the deed before marriage. So, not really caring about her “special” night, Josephine refused to move her adored pug dog Fortune off the marriage bed so that Napoleon could cuddle up beside her. Then, when he tried to shift the pup, Fortune bit him.
Was this all an omen for things to come? You bet it was.
20. He Had A Creepy Obsession
Despite this shambles of a wedding, Napoleon was still in deep with Josephine. His love would only get more unhinged. Even though he left Paris two days after his marriage on campaign, he wrote her a constant stream of letters with confessions like, “You…alone can move and rule my heart”.
As if that weren’t enough, he kept a portrait of her in his pocket while he was away, and took it out every hour to kiss it tenderly. Napoleon had it bad, and the betrayal to come would shake him to his core.
21. His Love Was Unrequited
Napoleon was head over heels for Josephine, no doubt about that. But Josephine? I think you can tell by now: Not so much. She had an affection for him, true, but the promising young commander was more a meal ticket to her than a dream lover. Besides that, his undying devotion to her creeped her out, and she wrote nervously to a friend, “My husband doesn’t love me, he worships me”.
But Josephine was about to plunge the blade in deeply.
22. He Got Cheated On
No sooner than Napoleon had left on his campaign than Josephine turned into a naughty girl. Not only did she start wracking up gambling debts, she also dealt Napoleon an ice-cold betrayal. The same year of her marriage, she began an affair with the dashing lieutenant Hippolyte Charles.
Even worse, they weren't too discreet about it, and flaunted their steamy liaisons around town. This backfired terribly.
23. He Took Bitter Revenge
Inevitably, the gossip about Josephine’s affair reached Napoleon, who was currently in Egypt. His retaliation was Old Testament revenge: In an “eye for an eye” way, Napoleon started up his own affair with Pauline Foures, the wife of one of his officers. People even took to calling Pauline “Napoleon’s Cleopatra”.
But if Josephine thought his vengeance would stop there, she was very wrong.
24. He Never Forgave Her
Napoleon’s affair with Pauline, of course, didn’t last forever. But his other punishment was eternal. Never again could he see Josephine with stars in his eyes. Although he certainly still loved her, she was no longer the absolute center of his universe, and his letters became more subdued and infrequent. That wasn't the only consequence, either.
25. His Ego Couldn't Take It
When Josephine’s betrayal reached Napoleon, it shattered his ego to smithereens. On campaign, he had been winning battle after battle with his cool head, common sense, and ability to see all angles of a problem. Now, he suddenly felt more insecure and desperate than ever.
So the absolute humiliation that happened next nearly destroyed him.
26. His letters served as tools of attack.
In the wake of Josephine’s infidelity, Napoleon wrote to his family, bitterly complaining about his wife as a form of free therapy. But then the worst happened. The British captured a mail ship, and on that mail ship was a letter Napoleon penned to his brother detailing the affair in all its gory detail. The British knew just what to do with it.
27. He Got Royally Embarrassed In Public
The British, lifelong enemies of France, knew this letter was too good not to use against Napoleon They published it widely, airing his dirty laundry for all to see and turning him into a laughingstock not only in his native France, but also throughout the British isles.
But Napoleon found a way to cut that laughter right off—in an unprecedented way.
28. His Opportunity Came
Not long after LetterGate, Napoleon soothed his ego in spectacular fashion: By seizing control of a whole country. While Napoleon had been on his very successful campaigns, France’s government had devolved into infighting.
So when he got back to the continent, he knew this was the moment he’d been waiting for. The moment to get all the power.
29. He Was A Snake In The Grass
In short order, Napoleon teamed up with politician Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes to overthrow the various factions—and then, finally, betrayed Sieyes so that he alone was the one on top. When all was said and done, Napoleon turned himself into the First Consul of France in the blink of an eye. Real infamy followed.
30. He Had A Strategic Coup
In short order, Napoleon teamed up with another politician to overthrow the various factions—and then betrayed that ally so that he alone was the one on top. When all was said and done, Napoleon turned himself into the First Consul of France in the blink of an eye.
Let’s keep in mind here, Napoleon started out as a revolutionary soldier trying to abolish absolute power. But this was a turning point he never looked back from.
31. He Set Himself Up Like Marie Antoinette
Before long, Napoleon was telling on himself. He set up his residence in none other than the Tuileries, the palace Catherine de’ Medici built in the 16th century, and where Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI stayed at the beginning of the Revolution. But he was about to suffer the first recoil on his ambitions.
32. He Barely Avoided Peril
In December of 1800, Josephine and Napoleon were headed with a group to the Paris Opera. Out of nowhere, chaos struck. Although Napoleon had fortuitously moved forward, an explosive device concealed within a stationary wagon detonated as Josephine's carriage passed by. It claimed the lives of several nearby citizens and just narrowly allowed Josephine to escape unscathed. It was a clear message: We see what you’re doing, and we object.
If anything, however, escaping with his life only made Napoleon more arrogant than ever—he even continued to the Opera that night. But by now, that arrogance also extended to the bedroom.
33. He Was A Monster In Bed
Although Josephine seems to have only taken Hippolyte as a lover, Napoleon wasn’t so…selective. He began taking a succession of lovers, and made creepy demands of them to boot: Napoleon liked them to be waiting for him bed, where he would stride in, do his business in minutes, and then leave.
It was yet another ugly manifestation of his desire for power, and he further wielded it to hurt his wife.
34. He Was The King Of TMI
Over the years, Josephine had warmed to Napoleon, and she certainly liked the upward career trajectory his life was taking. So watching her husband flaunt and then discard these mistresses cut her to the core. But Napoleon went one step further. He liked to regale Josephine, in detail, about his conquests, and insisted she congratulate him.
When she didn’t, he somehow got worse.
35. He treated his wife harshly.
After telling Josephine about his latest romp, Napoleon’s wife would sometimes, quite naturally, get upset. At that point, Napoleon would go from crowing to cruel, telling her that she had strayed first—and humiliated him in the process—so she deserved what she got.
But Napoleon might have been compensating for something else.
36. There Was One Thing Missing
As Napoleon's dysfunctional marriage progressed, a single concern began to infiltrate his thoughts: Josephine had yet to bear him a child, and he desired an heir. Although she had two children by her first marriage and was still young enough, no baby was appearing.
Josephine, indignant and snappish, tried to blame Napoleon for this…but the truth is heartbreaking. Most likely, the stresses from Josephine's incarceration period during the Reign of Terror, coupled with the hazardous chemical contraceptives she used throughout her life, had made her infertile.
Still, Napoleon kept trying—and came up with a backup plan to boot.
37. He Played Matchmaker
With Josephine still not pregnant, the pair came up with a chilling idea. Josephine’s daughter from her first marriage, Hortense, could marry one of Napoleon’s brothers, Louis. Since the product of that marriage would make a child who had both Josephine and Napoleon’s blood, they would be the perfect replacement heir.
Never mind the fact that Hortense didn’t want to do it and Louis despised Josephine; the couple were quickly married. Then, just as Napoleon had wanted, Hortense soon gave birth to a son, Napoleon Louis Charles. But this only fed Napoleon's ambitions more.
38. He Took One Horrible Step Closer To The Throne
Around this time, Napoleon got himself made “Consul for Life”. It was another step closer to absolute power, and he acted accordingly. Besides regressing many of the revolutionary laws enacted at the beginning of the Revolution—most infamously, he reinstated slavery, thanks bud—he now began fully trying to recreate the monarchy in his residences.
His staff wore red velvet, and his homes were gilded to the gills. He even ordered a gown for Josephine made of real rose petals, and consulted with Marie Antoinette’s former lady-in-waiting to understand what customs had been like at the defunct French court. And then came his lethal strike—literally.
39. He Came Up With A Disturbing Plot
In 1804, Napoleon’s ambition culminated in a bloody triumph. He had been coping with numerous attempts on his life for years, but that January, Napoleon supposedly received news that the Duke of Enghien—a member from the old royal Bourbon family—also sought to bring about his end. Now, was there real evidence for this? Well, no. Did Napoleon possibly orchestrate the rumor himself? Uh, yes.
In any case, the truth didn’t matter. Napoleon entered the neutral territory of Baden and executed the Duke after a top-secret trial, much to the horror of Europe. Then his real game emerged.
40. He Stooped So Low
In the aftermath of this “plot,” Napoleon massaged and manipulated public opinion in France like the true Machiavellian master he was turning into. He positioned himself as France’s protector against the horrors of the Bourbon dynasty, which the Duke of Enghien had obviously represented.
With his crowd whipped into a frenzy, he then launched an infamous referendum. One that would change history forever.
41. He Asked France A Deranged Question
Napoleon’s referendum was utterly bizarre. Claiming to use Ancient Rome as his inspiration, he basically asked, “Hey, as your hero and everything, should I be Emperor of France, or not?” Incredibly, the people who had just helped foment a revolution said “yes”. Although, in Napoleon’s “defense,” an Emperor wasn’t a King, right?
As one Frenchwoman put it at the time, “men worn out by the turmoil of the Revolution […] looked for the domination of an able ruler". Well, before long they would deeply regret it.
42. His Coronation Wasn’t What You Think
Napoleon’s unprecedented coronation took place on December 2, 1804. It was a strange omen of things to come. Although taking place in Notre Dame de Paris and gilded to the hilt, the ceremony was also dull and hollow. Its three-hour runtime frequently sent bored witnesses wandering the surrounding halls for fresh air in the middle of the proceedings.
However, when Napoleon crowned himself—because of course he did—the men stood up and waved around their hats. For good measure, Napoleon also crowned Josephine as Empress himself, doing so with her kneeling at his feet. And he was just getting started.
43. He Crushed Europe
By 1807, Napoleon's prowess was never more prominent, and his strategic genius was never more on display. At Austerlitz, he routed Austria. Then, his conflicts with the Prussians demonstrated the pinnacle of Napoleonic strategy as he managed to seize thousands of adversaries and their armaments in a relentless chase.
As one historian put it, “Never has the morale of an army been more completely shattered”. Except Napoleon was about to meet his match, even if he didn’t know it yet.
44. He Faced The Russians
In the summer of 1807, Napoleon—still very much on a roll—took on the feared Russian army of Tsar Alexander I. The ensuing Battle of Friedland was a bloody victory again for Napoleon, with the Russians losing so many men that they knelt and made a temporary peace with the French dynamo.
Later, this would very much not be the case…but for now, Napoleon had a much different problem to deal with.
45. He Lost His One And Only
While Napoleon was racking up these wins, a tragedy came to his household. In the spring of 1807, Napoleon’s nephew—and his only heir—Napoleon Louis perished. His wife Josephine and her daughter were beside themselves with grief, but Napoleon at the time mostly viewed it as an annoyance, and hinted that Josephine should stop mourning and congratulate him more on his victories.
Then again, he was also probably setting the scene for his diabolical betrayal.
46. He Came To An Ice-Cold Conclusion
During the course of his dalliances with other women, Napoleon had gotten multiple of his mistresses pregnant, which answered once and for all that he was fertile, even though Josephine evidently wasn’t. And though he didn’t mourn his nephew, he did still want an heir.
It compelled him to make perhaps his hardest choice ever: He had to end his unhealthy relationship once and for all. The aftermath was incredibly harsh.
47. He Had Awful Timing
Napoleon decided to break the news to Josephine at one of the worst times ever: Over dinner right around the 5th anniversary of their joint coronation. Her response was unhinged. She fell into a screaming and crying fit that Napoleon couldn’t witness without crying himself. Yet that didn’t stop him from his next harrowing step.
48. He Had A Public Breakup
On December 14, 1809, Napoleon and Josephine announced their divorce in an enormous and formal sort of “de-coronation” ceremony. Yeah, very narcissistic, and thus so very “Napoleon”. In it, the pair of them declared vows of devotion to each other even as they formally ended their union.
In many ways, it was the most tender they’d been to each other for good long while. Then, of course, Napoleon proceeded to betray Josephine in a significant way.
49. He Had Designs On A Teenage Girl
In truth, before he’d even announced to Josephine that he wanted a divorce, Napoleon had already probably already scoped out his next bride: Marie Antoinette’s teenaged great-niece Marie Louise, the Duchess of Parma. In any case, just weeks after their “I don’t” ceremony, Napoleon was in marriage negotiations with her, and sealed the paperwork that coming February.
And if you thought his marriage to Josephine was rough, you haven’t seen anything yet.
50. His Insulted His New Wife
Marie Louise was only 19 when she and Napoleon tied the knot in March 1810, and unlike her predecessor, she had very little fire in her. When informed of her upcoming nuptials, she replied “I wish only what my duty commands me to wish”. For Napoleon, though, this docility was exactly what he wanted. His intentions were cruel. As he commented to an aide, “It is a womb I am marrying”.
The next development was a kick right in Josephine’s gut.
51. He Finally Got His Wish
Napoleon had married Marie Louise for her fertility, and that’s exactly what he got. While Josephine had toiled for years to get pregnant, Marie Louise’s belly was growing by that summer, and year after their marriage she had given the French Emperor his long-awaited male heir, Napoleon Francois.
On the surface, it looked like Napoleon finally had everything he wanted. But the cracks were beginning to show.
52. He Couldn’t Let Go
Despite his comment about marrying a “womb,” Napoleon doted on Marie Louise, and loudly proclaimed to everyone how much better she was than his ex-wife Josephine. With his new wife, he claimed, there was "Never a lie, never a debt," while Josephine had secret lovers and gambling IOUs aplenty.
But Napoleon couldn’t hide the truth: He’d never really get over Josephine. The old pair continued to see each other, even though Marie Louise was in anguish about it—especially when Napoleon presented his new son to Josephine and let her coddle the boy.
In the end though, these personal troubles were nothing to the disaster heading Napoleon’s way.
53. He Made An Age-Old Mistake
Despite his marital issues, Napoleon had been lining up victories on the battlefield for quite some time. Then it all went horribly, horribly wrong. Why? Because in 1812, Napoleon infamously decided he was hot stuff and could invade Russia, taking its lands for the glory of his empire.
Surprise! Like so many before and after him, he couldn’t. In the end, guerilla attacks, the merciless Russian winter, and other twists of fate whittled his army down to almost nothing, and he ran back to France at the end of the year with his tail between his legs. He didn’t think so then, but it was the beginning of the end.
54. His Men Mutinied
Napoleon was in such bad shape, the government in Paris passed the “Emperor’s Demise Act,” something that Napoleon wilfully ignored, and tried instead to get his army to march on the capital in defiance. It didn’t work: While Napoleon still had many of his rank-and-file men behind him, his officers mutinied—and Napoleon crumbled.
55. He Clung To His Power
With no other option before him, Napoleon at last conceded defeat. Of a kind, anyway. He abdicated in favor of his son, leaving his wife Marie Louise as regent—not much of a sacrifice at all really. So, seeing that Napoleon probably hadn’t learned a single lesson and was still ready to fight, his enemies came up with a chilling solution.
56. His Enemies Ridiculed Him In An Ingenious Way
With his stance fatally weakened, Napoleon’s coalition of enemies pounced. Like some kind of Marvel supervillain, the Allies exiled him to the tiny, remote, and sparsely populated island of Elba. To sweeten the deal and albeit to make him the target of humor, they permitted him rulership over the tiny island, allowing him to continue referring to himself as Emperor.
When Napoleon heard his punishment, he performed a jaw-dropping act.
57. He Tried To Off Himself
Napoleon couldn’t take this shame on his legacy, and he unveiled a dark secret. He had been keeping a cyanide pill by him at all times since his defeat in Russia, and he now used it, hoping to perish. Unfortunately, it was old and ineffective, and the Allies carried him over to the Elba anyway in May 1814.
Thankfully, his wife and child were allowed to take refuge in Austria rather than join him. But fate had another cruel twist in store.
58. He Lost The One Thing That Mattered To Him
As far and as quickly as Napoleon had fallen, he still had a long way down. Just months into his exile on Elba, he received the most devastating news of his life: Josephine had succumbed to pneumonia in France at the age of 50. Even more heartbreakingly, she had reportedly begged to join Napoleon in exile just before her passing.
For all that he claimed to be over and done with Josephine, the tidings broke Napoleon.
59. His Reaction Was Heartbreaking
After finding out about Josephine, Napoleon locked himself in his room for two entire days to mourn her in private, refusing to see anyone. Still, this is when his enemies should have been most aware of him. Because when the chips were down, Napoleon always upped the ante.
60. He Made A Great Escape
Shortly after Josephine perished, Napoleon put another diabolical plan into action. In a feat of daring, he escaped Elba in a ship, landed on the French coast, and began going North to Paris.
By this time, the government had restored the Bourbon line under King Louis VIII, and when they found out about his escape, the king’s lackeys swore they would take Napoleon to him in chains. Er, that’s not what happened.
61. He Faced His Own Army
We know Napoleon was extremely persuasive when he wanted to be. So when France's 5th battalion intercepted their former ruler on his march north, they didn't stand a chance against Napoleon's charisma. All he had to do was utter two sentences, and they went over to his side.
62. One Sentence Changed His Life
Upon his initial encounter with the battalion, Napoleon stepped off his mount, approached within their attack diameter, and declared, "Here I am. End your Emperor's life, if you so desire." The display of bravery was sufficient to convince the unit, who began to exclaim, "Vive L’Empereur!"
Napoleon was officially back…and worse than ever.
63. He Made An Unbelievable Comeback
Somehow, Napoleon had pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in history—if only very briefly. He was soon installed in Paris with a massive army and plans to keep on invading Europe, just like the old days. He even pushed right into modern-day Belgium by the spring of 1815.
Yet this was precisely when a betrayal came from inside his own house.
64. His Second Wife Double-Crossed Him
There was at least one person in Napoleon's family who was unhappy about his escape: His docile wife, Marie Louise. During her time away, she had gone and fallen in love with someone else—one of his enemies, Count Adam von Neipperg. When he reinstated himself, Marie Louise knew she had to come clean, and her confession was merciless.
She wrote Napoleon’s secretary a letter saying, “I shall never assent to a divorce, but I flatter myself that he will not oppose an amicable separation…This separation has become imperative”. Napoleon never wrote to her personally again. But Marie Louise was just the canary in a coal mine.
65. He Met His Fate
Separation or not, Napoleon was still on top and still invading Europe. Then came the moment that redefined downfalls forever after. The word “Waterloo” nowadays means failure, and that’s because of the massive one Napoleon experienced on the Waterloo battlefield in Belgium that fateful June.
The British Duke of Wellington and his Prussian allies notoriously crushed Napoleon’s forces, fracturing his power once and for all. Suddenly, the rats began fleeing from the ship.
66. His Empire Crumbled Around Him
Even when Napoleon retreated to Paris, he realized he had lost all his influence, and had no choice but to abdicate once more in favor of his son. Napoleon’s fleeting, bloody renaissance is now called “The Hundred Days," and his antics earned him yet another exile, this time on the island of Saint Helena. Unfortunately, this go-round of captivity was much darker than the first.
67. He Lived In Denial
On Saint Helena, Napoleon tried once more to cling to the vestiges of his power. If he hosted a dinner party with any of his still faithful supporters, he insisted that men donned uniforms akin to those in armed service, and women were to wear evening gowns and gems. Meanwhile, he dictated his memoirs and began writing a book about his hero, Julius Caesar.
In other words, he was in total denial. Yet behind this glamorous façade was one ugly truth.
68. His Surroundings Were Dangerous
Napoleon’s living conditions during this time were deplorable, and his attendants often complained of “colds, catarrhs, damp floors and poor provisions”. Over the next years, thanks in part to these surroundings, Napoleon’s health declined rapidly. By 1821, the 51-year old was at the brink of life's end.
69. His Last Words Were Legendary
That May, after an illness confined him to his bed, the great Napoleon took his last breath—and uttered his heartbreaking final words. "France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine," Napoleon half-raved. Ultimately, his thoughts were focused on his armed strength and his beloved Josephine.
But since this was Napoleon, his end wasn’t even the end.
70. His Autopsy Was Gruesome
Soon after Napoleon passed, the doctor Francois Antommarchi performed an autopsy —and committed utterly gruesome acts. For reasons that are best summed up as “The 19th century was wild,” Antommarchi cut off Napoleon’s you-know-what for his “research”.
He also, a la Egyptian Pharaohs, removed Napoleon’s heart and guts, and put them in jars inside his coffin. For all this dissection, however, disturbing questions still lingered.
71. His Body Turned On Him
In his autopsy, Antommarchi appears to have listed stomach cancer as the cause of Napoleon’s swift decline and passing, although he didn’t actually sign the report (Yep, this guy was great at being a doctor). Since Napoleon’s own father perished from stomach cancer, the Allies were happy to accept this and wrap it up in a tidy bow.
But years later, documents came out that put forward a much more disturbing explanation.
72. Historians Believed He’d Been Poisoned
In 1955, the diary of one of Napoleon’s valets saw the light of day, and in it he described Napoleon’s final months in great detail. It led historians to an unsettling suggestion. They suspected that Napoleon showed signs of being affected by arsenic, possibly due to its presence in the walls of his Saint Helena residence, his diet there...or perhaps because the Allies had deliberately harmed him.
Creepily enough, Napoleon’s body was also eerily well-preserved—another red flag for arsenic. But in this case, the probable answer is even grosser than all that.
73. The Truth Of His End Is A Plot Twist
Today, most historians believe the original cancer diagnosis rather than the theory that Napoleon was poisoned. Why? Because Napoleon was constantly poisoned, apparently. In the 18th and 19th centuries, arsenic was a common ingredient in many products, and Napoleon showed signs of arsenic exposure all the way back to his childhood. Well, ok then.
74. He Was Frighteningly Average
For all his outsized reputation and indomitable charisma, the common line of thought on Napoleon is that he was surprisingly short. It’s actually worse than all that. At five foot two, he was about average for a Frenchman, though certainly some contemporaries found him shorter than they were expecting.
The truth is, he was pretty much average in all physical aspects, excepting his “piercing and scrutinising glance”. Overall, he wasn’t extremely short, extremely handsome, or extremely anything. As one commenter put it, "his general aspect was milder than I had before thought it”. No wonder he wanted to be remembered.
75. Josephine Couldn’t Understand Him
There’s another part of Napoleon’s legacy that isn’t what you might think: His star-crossed marriage with Josephine. Even beyond all the dysfunctional aspects of their relationship, there was also the fact that Josephine couldn’t even read all those frenzied love letters he was sending her.
See, Napoleon usually dictated official letters to secretaries, because his handwriting wasn’t the greatest. But when he wrote love letters, he paid Josephine the compliment of doing it by his own impassioned hand. As a result, Josephine simply could not understand much of what her beau wrote. When people asked her about Napoleon's well being, she would resort to saying that Napoleon was “fine”.