The mechanics of French domination

The Napoleonic Empire lasted only 10 years, but the shockwaves sent throughout Europe and the rest of the world were felt for centuries after. The European conquests of Napoleon are legendary in status, and it could be argued that no other single individual has transformed the world as much as he, with the rise of the modern state. Sweeping away all resistance, Napoleon passed over Europe with ruthless efficiency, establishing order and obedience atop the ruins of the conquered states crushed beneath him. But how exactly did a single man not only conquer, but maintain an iron-clad grip over the most powerful countries in the entire world? This question can be answered in a variety of ways; however, they can be categorized under three primary topics. Quite simply, Napoleon Bonaparte was able to conquer and maintain his European Empire through Civil Reform, skilled diplomacy, and military genius.

S1: Civil Reform

Following the brutal aftershocks of the French revolution, the Peace of Amiens provided napoleon with the ability to establish a series of civil reforms that would prove crucial to both living up to the aims of the Revolution, but also allowing him to maintain his empire.[1] The Napoleonic code as it came to be established was the most advanced legal system in Europe, and by relation, the world in its entirety. Even today, society still clings to the values that the Napoleonic Code swore to uphold for the good of its citizens. Following the reorganization of society in consequence of the French Revolution, Napoleon initiated a swift series of reforms regarding the current French legal system, and implemented the first modern set of laws. Hostile towards the feudal inequalities of the Old Regime, the French Civil code was established on March 21, 1804, and was consistently updated to ensure procedures were handled fairly, and properly. One of the best examples of this was the Code of Criminal Instruction, allowing trial by jury, right to counsel, and the right to be innocent until proven guilty. Drawing much from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as well as Roman Law, the code first concluded that all laws must be published, ensuring that no 'secret' laws could be implemented and thus unjustly harm the populace.

The Napoleonic code addressed much of what we would consider normal in modern society, preventing judges from legislating from the bench, secularizing religion, as well as preventing imprisonment without trial. There are many civil reforms specified within the depths of the Napoleonic code, but it is the modernity of such reforms that gives this system its modernity. It clearly emphasized difference between criminal and civil issues, and provided France with the most specific and democratic of legal systems in all of Europe. The Napoleonic code was essential in maintaining the empire, and Napoleon understood that a legal system based on absolute equality within the nation was needed to realize the promises of the Revolution. Consequently, the Napoleonic Code gave French citizens a sense of belonging, equality, and the ability have faith in the society on which they could rely. As Napoleons forces swept over Europe like a relentless tide, the Napoleonic code that he installed made it so that the citizens of the former nations he conquered could be treated as equals, each sheltered from discrimination based on their nationality. This code was in fact so important, that the former conquered nations still uphold the values of the French Civil code even today.

Apart from the Napoleonic Code, the Emperor also spent much of his time establishing infrastructure. In times of peace, Napoleon had reorganized the quays of the Seine, built canals and reservoirs (which still remain to this day), renumbered Parisian streets, Christened the Louvre, and created the Bourse (foundation of stone),. He also created a variety of military monuments such as the Vendome Column (celebrating victory at Austerlitz), as well as the Arc De Triomphe.[2] Through this process of reconstruction, Napoleon made Paris a city of unparalleled cultural significance, with magnificent monuments, flawless infrastructure, and the site of the foremost wine trading centre in all of Europe. Enthralled by the new additions of the Emperor, people flocked to Paris, giving the French a sense of pride, and national superiority.

Napoleon also instituted education reforms, which prior to 1872, was left to village priests and various religious orders. Inspired by the new education system of 1795 brought by the Revolution, Napoleon instituted one of his most famous reforms, the Lyces which were state secondary schools.[3] As a result, Napoleon was granted the ability to recruit a wide variety of military and administrative individuals who would prove crucial to maintaining his iron clad grip over Europe.

Furthermore, Napoelon established the Banque de France in 1800, designed to handle national debt and the problem posed by paper money.[4]

S2: Diplomacy

  • The Treaty of Bale, signed by Francois Barthelemy of France and Hardenburg of Prussia was used by Bonaparte to detach Prussia from the Coalition against him. It provided for cessation of hostilities, peace and friendship, and French evacuation of Prussian territories on the left bank of the Rhine.[5]
  • This treaty gave Bonaparte two distinct advantages. One, the cession of Prussian provinces on the left of the Rhine, and two, it forced smaller Germanic states to accept the peace or face being ravaged by the French army once the three month suspension of arms was over.[6]
  • It was clear that Napoleonic diplomacy was influenced by economics from the beginning.[7]
  • Over time, it became increasingly evident that Napoleon was taking diplomacy of the Directory into his own hands. This is especially evident in the French invasion of Piedmont where he forced an armistice from the sea to the river Stura. He also inserted a line into the treaty allowing France to cross the Po at Valenza, meant to intentionally mislead the Austrians who were defending it.Therefore, his diplomacy and strategy served eachother.[8]
  • At the end of the Italian campaign, Austria alone remained standing to face Napoleon. Napoleon asked for peace, and received two envoys from Austria to Leoben. The Treaty of Leoben was signed on April 18,1797, and forced an indefinite peace between France and Prussia, renounced Austrian rights over Belgian provinces, and removed all French armies from pre-existing Austrian territories.[9]
  • Another significant diplomatic action taken by Napoleon was the Treaty of Campo Formio, which realized the French dream of occupying the Rhine Frontier, and forced Europe to submit to its terms.[10]
  • However, Napoleons patience with the directory grew thin, and returned from his disastrous Egyptian campaign to overthrow the directory and replaced the directory with the establishment of the French Consulate, with himself as First Consul.[11]
  • One of the most impressive diplomatic achievements of Napoleon was the Concordat. Previous to Napoleonic rule, Revolutionary France had severed most ties with the Catholic Church. Privileged classes renounced their feudal rights, all property of the Church was confiscated by the French government, and an oath of fidelity to the political and civil constitution of France was forced upon the priests.[12]
  • To renew relations between the Catholic Church and the French people, Napoleon met with the Pope in Rome, and ended up regularizing international status of the Republic, restored a simplified ecclesiastical system of the Old Regime, and used the Pope to heighten the grandeur of France.[13]
  • Treaty of Amiens declared a state of peace, friendship, and good intelligence between contracting parties, negotiated exchange of prisoners, restored French, Spanish, and Batavian colonies taken by the British, and discussed evacuation of foreign forces on both sides.[14]
  • Redrawing of Germany on the political map, Napoleon utilized secularization to unify the crumbling Holy Roman Empire into a single state, destroying religions divisions between Catholics and Protestants through a non-religious state policy.[15]
  • Following the rupture of the Peace of Amiens (due to grievances on both sides), Napoleon intended to shock Europe into submission. On May 18, 1804, a decree by the Senate gave him the title Emperor of the French, and Napoleon crowned himself after being anointed by the Pope, and subsequently crafted his empire into a family dynasty.[16]
  • To solidify his power, Napoleon increasingly used the populace of conquered Spain to suit his needs, forever eradicating the possibility of a Spanish colonial empire and powerful navy.[17]
  • Napoleon unified Germany under the Confederation of the Rhine, then proceeded to eliminate smaller principalities through annexation by Confederate states.[18]
  • Napoelons consquests had a three step process: Annexation, protection-alliance, family settlement. He used this process to conquer the natural frontiers of France, and sudmit outlaying former states to his direct will.

S3: Military Genius

  • Young Napoleon learned much during his apprenticeship. A new method of military tactics was beginning to emerge, splitting armies into 'divisions', allowing artillery to be moved more effectively. Another important advance was the regularization by Marshal de Broglie of 'light troops' and 'sharpshooters' , making independent firing very effective and enabling new group formations.[19]
  • He attended many classes on military tactics, where he studied in particular The New Artillery in Practice which taught him the military tactics he would uphold during his campaigns: the importance of numerical superiority, concentration of efforts, and demoralization of the enemy through rapidity of movement and surprise.[20]
  • Napoleon was also greatly inspired by the works of Machiavelli, who stated that it is possible to win with inferior numbers, there must be mutual confidence between the Chief and the army, a leaders greatest achievement is to discover the enemy's intentions, and to let one give the orders as the army is weakened if several demand obedience.[21]
  • Through education, Bonaparte's main military ideas evolved into concentrating thoughts, efforts and gunfire to frighten the enemy by threatening communications. These ideas would prove essential in his later campaigns.[22]
  • Italy
  • One of the first most prominent displays of Napoleon's military genius occurred on his Italian campaigns (1796-1797). Initially, the officers of the Army of Italy were unimpressed by this new general, as he was short in stature, and only twenty six years of age. However, Napoleon soon demanded attention, chatter ceased, and a 'torrent of questions' began to pour from his mouth, requiring immediate and precise response.[23].
  • Facing the combined forces of the Piedmontese and the Austrians, Napoleon sought to drive a wedge between both forces, thereby exploiting the political hostility between their military alliance. The best opportunity for which existed on his right flank between Carcare and Ceva.[24]
  • Eventually, Napoleon defeated his opponants through superior tactics and manoeuvring. Strategically speaking, his success in the Italian campaigns was his ability to retain the initiative, and keep the Austrians on the defensive, using rapid movement, political tension, topographical features, and a string of victories to obliterate the enemy.[25]
  • Napoleons domination over Europe also drew from the Battle of Lodi, on 10 May 1796. This tactical defeat of the Austrian forces, although of limited physical significance, had an immense psychological impact on Napoleon's later career. At a critical point in the battle, he took direct command of the troops, provided flawless artillery support, and sent a cavalry force to outflank the enemy[26].This battle subsequently established his identity with the common soldier and raised him to a 'higher pedestal of renown', ultimately aiding in his eventual ability to become Emperor of the French.[27]
  • Artillery
  • The Napoleonic army consisted of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, which was the smallest section of the three branches. However, Napoleon constantly attempted to increase the size of his artillery force.[28]
  • Horse artillery consisted of lighter pieces made to provide greater mobility. They were used to support cavalry with firepower, who were vulnerable to even small groups of cohesive infantry units. All artillery was organized into batteries, categorized by the size variation of the ammunition they carried. Using the 'roundshot' (solid ball of steel), heavier artillery made greater noise, frightened horses, could kill multiple people, and even the wind of the ball as it passed could kill or stun an enemy.[29]
  • Using his artillery, Napoleon would utilize a tactic by which he concentrated his artillery batteries on a selected part of the enemy's line. This, aside from the obvious physical effects, would have a brutal psychological impact upon the troops in the target area, who would be bruised by the constancy of the fire, and demoralized because they could provide no adequate response.[30]
  • Infantry
  • Infantry was organized into battalions usually between 500 and 700 men strong. Napoleon organized these infantry into companies, nine per battalion.[31]
  • Infantry combat was typically a test of nerve. If defenders were previously shaken or battered by artillery for example, they were more likely to prematurely fire, wasting their ammunition, and improving the morale of French forces who would be virtually unaffected. However, if the defending troops held their initial fire, advancing troops would become increasingly apprehensive, fearful of the impending musket volley that was to come. Fire from long ranged skirmisher light infantry (heavily utilized by Napoleon) was used to unsettle defending troops and force such a premature firing.[32]
  • All infantry was armed with a bayonet, providing Napoleons troops with a crudly improvised spear for close combat. Most often however, one side would break before contact was made.[33]
  • Cavalry
  • French Cavalry was divided into distinctive types, with heavy cavalry (Cuirassiers) functioning as shock troops primed to charge at the enemy when instructed. Heavy cavalry armour (steel plates, leather gauntlets, high boots) provided them with ample protection from infantry forces. This provided the wearer with both physical and psychological advantages. Other types of cavalry Napoleon utilized were known as Carabineers, a swifter cavalry unit with more manoeuvrability on the battlefield and able to provide reconnaissance.[34]
  • In general, it is evident that Napoleon drew his main military strength from the social revolution that opened careers to talent.[35]
  • Napoleon's victories were dependent upon the speed and boldness of his actions, followed by an impulsive yet precise implementation of troop movements.[36]
  • Napoleon used tactics and strategy to outwit his numerically superior opponents. His army was always covered by cavalry, and used natural geographical features such as rivers and mountains to screen his movements. He used his cavalry to discover enemy locations, aided by an intelligence system of diplomat's agents, and spies.[37]
  • On the battlefield, Napoleon was a tactical genius. He would compel the foe to exhaust their reserves, break morale with infantry/artillery fire, threaten the army along his flank and retreat, then hurl forth fresh troops to break enemy lines and slaughter all routing units without mercy.[38]
  • His main strategic battles were the Battle of Austerlitz (1805), the Battle of Freidland (1807), and the Battle of Aspern-Lessing (1809)



Civil reform allowed Napoleon to appease, and subdue the populace over which he ruled. Skilled diplomacy allowed Napoleon to annex states, form alliances, and place the frontiers of his empire under direct control through family dynasty. Military genius allowed him to defend the French Republic against invasion, and systematically eradicate the combined forces of Europe.

  1. Napoleon, Master of Europe (Horne, 23)
  2. Horne, 26
  3. Horne, 27
  4. Horne, 28
  5. The Diplomacy of Napoleon (R.B. Mowat, 15)
  6. R.B. Mowat, 15
  7. R.B. Mowat, 17
  8. R.B. Mowat, 25
  9. R.B. Mowat, 35
  10. R.B. Mowat, 48
  11. R.B. Mowat, 59
  12. R.B. Mowat, 78
  13. R.B. Mowat, 86
  14. R.B. Mowat, 101
  15. R.B. Mowat, 112
  16. R.B. Mowat, 131
  17. R.B. Mowat, 135
  18. R.B. Mowat, 158
  19. Napoleon's battles; a history of his campaigns, (Lachoque, Henry, 22-23)
  20. (Lachoque, Henry, 23)
  21. (Lachoque, Henry, 24)
  22. (Lachoque, Henry, 26-27)
  23. Napoleon in Victory and Defeat, (Hunter, 41)
  24. (Hunter, 47)
  25. (Hunter, 57)
  26. (Hunter, 60)
  27. (Hunter, 60)
  28. Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon, (Muir, 28)
  29. (Muir, 30)
  30. (Muir, 34)
  31. (Muir, 68)
  32. (Muir, 80)
  33. (Muir, 86)
  34. (Muir, 106)
  35. Napoleon (Lefebvre, 219)
  36. (Lefebvre, 229)
  37. (Lefebvre, 229)
  38. (Lefebvre, 230)

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