From an early age, Napoleon Bonaparte showed the ambition and intelligence that would eventually make him the emperor of half of Europe. As a child, he admired and sought to learn from many great men, figures who would influence his later life.
King of Sparta from 489 to 480 BC, Leonidas was the warrior ruler of a warrior nation. Coming from a country with a proud military tradition, he was chosen by a coalition of Greek states to lead their armies against the Persian invaders coming from the east. Leonidas’s death at the Battle of Thermopylae, where he died in a strategically crucial last stand action against vastly overwhelming forces, made him a legend – the leader of the famed 300.
Alexander the Great
Few men could match Napoleon for ambition as well as Alexander III, the 4th century BC king of Macedonia. A general of unrestrained skill and ambition, Alexander conquered half the known world, his empire stretching all the way from the Mediterranean to India.
Alexander’s youth was doubtless part of his appeal to the schoolboy Napoleon. Inheriting the throne at the age of 20, Alexander achieved all of his spectacular successes before dying at the age of 32.
In the Roman leader Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, we see the most ancient precedent Napoleon found for his later seizure of power, and his willingness to overthrow a government in the supposed interest of the nation.
A general and statesman of the late 2nd and early 1st centuries BC, Sulla was famous for never losing a single battle. Faced with political opposition and schemes against him in Rome, Sulla broke the Roman constitution by marching troops into the city. He defeated his opponents and made himself dictator, an official but seldom used position.
Sulla’s behavior destabilized the Roman republic and created the setting for the careers of some of Napoleon’s other heroes.
Gaius Julius Caesar was perhaps the most admired figure of antiquity during the 18th century. Famed both as a general and as a politician, Caesar led the Romans to victory against opponents such as the Gauls and left writings recording his own exploits, which ensured his fame among later generations.
Caesar went on to win a civil war against his opponents in Rome, becoming dictator and asserting order. He began a line of Roman emperors who would bear his name, an action Napoleon later sought to imitate.
Cato the Younger
Napoleon was not partisan in his admiration for ancient Roman leaders and was as admiring of Caesar’s opponents as of the man himself.
Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis was a politician famed for oratory skill and his tenacious adherence to what he considered right. Both came into play during the late days of the Roman republic, when he was a leading opponent of Caesar, and eventually committed suicide rather than let the victorious Caesar decide his fate.
While Cato was arguably a great opponent to Caesar, Marcus Junius Brutus is now more famous. Another Roman senator, Brutus began his political career as an assistant to Cato, and like him, he was part of the conservative faction that opposed Caesar and his allies. He fought against Caesar in the civil war, but accepted Caesar’s dominance afterwards.
As Caesar behaved more and more like a king – a position abhorred by the Roman republicans – Brutus joined a conspiracy against him and was one of those who assassinated Caesar on the senate floor on the Ides of March.
Forced to leave Rome after the assassination, Brutus continued to be a figure of opposition. He led an army against Caesar’s heir, Octavian, in 42 BC, but was defeated at the Battle of Philippi. Defeated, Brutus killed himself with his own sword.
A member of England’s lower gentry who went on to rule his country, Oliver Cromwell was the leading parliamentary general during the Civil Wars of the 17th century. A military reformer, he created the famed New Model Army, was involved in the overthrow and execution of Charles I, and when Parliament failed was one of the men who took decisive action to save the government, in the process making himself Lord Protector – king in all but name.
It’s easy to see Cromwell’s influence in Napoleon’s career. Both were military innovators who gained great status despite their origins, men of decisive action with a pragmatic attitude towards the political structures needed to run a nation.
The King of Sweden from 1697 to 1718, Charles XII was a remarkably capable ruler for one who took the throne at the age of fifteen. Politically neutral and with a young ruler, Sweden was invaded by three opponents in the Great Northern War, starting in 1700. A gifted politician and general, Charles drove back the invaders and by 1706 all but Russia had surrendered.
What followed was an example from which Napoleon should have learned. Charles attempted to invade Russia, but his army was destroyed and he became an exile. Though he later returned to lead Sweden in war again, he died at the Siege of Fredriksten in 1718, leaving most of the Swedish empire occupied by foreign powers.
Swiss philosopher Rousseau was one of the great shapers of the Enlightenment, the wave of 18th-century European thought that influenced Napoleon and the French Revolution. The ideas he laid down in works such as The Social Contract were a huge influence on the French republicans whose work Napoleon initially defended and later undermined.
For the child Napoleon, the very existence of thinkers such as Rousseau must have been a cause for great excitement, proving that he was living in an age of innovation.
Voltaire – real name François-Marie Arouet – was another of the great Enlightenment writers and a Frenchman like Napoleon. Reading him and Rousseau marked the young Napoleon out as intellectually fashionable. Rousseau’s support for freedom of religion was reflected in the policies Napoleon adopted as First Consul and emperor.