From a position relative obscurity as the scion of petty Corsican nobility, Napoleon rose to become Emperor of most of Europe, and a primary symbol of his time. All over Europe, monarchies were weakening, but it was still unclear what forms of government would replace the old order. One possible form was that of "enlightened despotism," which Napoleon represented: he was a dictator, but he initiated beneficial reforms and had a very liberal outlook, maintaining socially progressive views. Yet Napoleon did not retain his power through his domestic policies alone: a master strategist on the battlefield, and a master at international negotiations, Napoleon repeatedly won both military and diplomatic triumphs, and, though nonreligious, succeeded in reconciling France and the Catholic Church in the Concordat of 1801.

A child of the Enlightenment and a son of the French Revolution, Napoleon was simultaneously a traditional monarch, embracing all the pomp and formalities of the monarchic customs, and a revolutionary, bringing sweeping–and lasting– changes to the regions under his rule. In becoming Emperor, Napoleon made all French citizens equal under the law, and initiated lasting reforms such as the Napoleonic Code, which remains the basis for many of the world's legal systems. The educational network of lycees (high schools) and universities that he fostered remains the cornerstone of the French educational system, and the French financial system still centers on the Bank of France that he established. Moreover, his central project of creating a single, unified Europe was itself a revolutionary one: no one before him had seriously considered the idea, much less gone so far toward realizing it. Although he never did rule over a united continent, Napoleon left an eradicable mark on European geography: in the end, despite the efforts of the coalition of nations allied against Napoleon, Europe was only partially restored to its pre- Napoleonic state.

Napoleon's legacy as a personality is just as great. Few leaders from the eighteenth century remain as well known among the public today. Although the first authors to write about Napoleon tended to vilify the man–indeed, he had kept Europe in a nearly constant state of war for two decades–his heroic reputation hardly suffered. Napoleon's life of adventures, from his battles in Egypt to his Russian campaign to his escape from exile in 1815 to raise another French army, were the perfect material for novels, as Napoleon himself once noted. Painters, too, upheld his heroic image, even polishing it a bit: Jacques-Louis David created numerous paintings of him, one of which famously shows Napoleon on the back of a rearing charger as he leads his men across Alps via the Great Saint Bernard's pass. (In reality, he rode a mule.) So, too, did popular accounts romanticize his relations with Josephine de Beauharnais, often depicting it as a passionate love affair, when, in reality, both of them had lovers and Napoleon had their marriage annulled in order to marry a younger woman. The Napoleon we think of today is the result of so many portrayals in books and movies that despite being a real historical figure, he is also partially a fictional character, leading a vibrant existence not only in textbooks, but in imaginations.

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