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Napoleonic Empire


the legacy of the revolutionary wars
restoring french hegemony, 1799–1805
the "great empire," 1805–1814

The first Napoleonic empire was the largest, most institutionally uniform European state in modern times. Its existence preceded Napoleon Bonaparte's coronation as "emperor of the French" in 1804, and its influence on European public institutions and political culture far outlasted his fall from power in 1814/1815. Despite the transient nature and short duration of Napoleon's personal rule—as first consul of France (1799–1804) and as emperor (1804–1815)—his empire laid the foundations of modern Europe.

the legacy of the revolutionary wars

When Napoleon took power in 1799, the French Republic had already been at war with most of the great European powers since 1792. Indeed, a major provocation behind the outbreak of war had been the revolutionaries' avowed "doctrine of natural frontiers." Specifically, this meant France laid claim to all territories west of the Rhine, lands hitherto within the Holy Roman Empire, comprising much of western Germany and all of present-day Belgium; the French now defined the Rhine as France's eastern frontier by right. Effectively, Revolutionary France had committed itself to a project of genuine, if limited, imperial expansion.

With the French victories of 1793 to 1795, these assertions became political realities. Between 1795 and 1799, French military advances ensured that the front lines were transformed into zones of occupation. However, French interests, unlike specific territorial claims, did not end at the nation's "natural frontiers." Ideological principles, based on the universalist claims of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, served to justify the creation of "buffer states"—the "sister republics"—beyond the "natural frontiers." In 1795 the United Provinces, the modern-day Netherlands, was renamed the Batavian Republic, under a puppet government. In 1796 Napoleon created the Cispadane (later the Cisalpine) Republic in northern Italy, with himself as its president. Creation of the Helvetic Republic in present-day Switzerland followed one year later. In 1798 and 1799 in southern Italy, occupying French armies set up the Roman and Parthenopean republics over the Papal States and the mainland parts of the Kingdom of Naples, respectively. This amounted to a state system controlled by the French Republic, the resources of the system ruthlessly plundered for the war effort.

A series of military reversals in 1798 and 1799 shattered this proto-empire. By spring 1799 all of Italy and most of Germany and the Low Countries had been lost, and the French were momentarily thrown back to their own borders. Napoleon was brought to power by a clique of republican politicians in 1799, in no small part to reestablish French hegemony beyond the pre-1792 borders. Thus, Napoleon began his own career as an imperialist in the service of the French Republic and the radical ideology that had fostered expansionist ambitions.

restoring french hegemony, 1799–1805

From the outset, Napoleon's political survival depended on the reestablishment of the republic's empire. He achieved this in a series of well-coordinated military campaigns in 1799 and 1800. By 1801, a general peace had been concluded with all the major powers, culminating in the Treaty of Amiens with Britain in March 1802. Although Britain and France were at war by 1803, Napoleon did not attack the Continental powers until 1805, allowing him to consolidate his rule not just in France itself, but in northern and central Italy and the Low Countries as well. At this stage, Napoleon did not attempt to stretch French satellite states as far afield as previous regimes. The Kingdom of Naples was returned to the Bourbons and most of the Papal States to the pope. Venice lost her independence not to the Cisalpine sister republic, but to Austria, in a piece of diplomacy that, however treacherous to the Venetians, seemed to spell a halt to French expansion driven by Revolutionary ideology.

Napoleon's ambitions lay elsewhere, however. The results of his policy of expansion by diplomacy, rather than military aggression, proved among his most seminal schemes, if also rare for their reciprocity. In a series of maneuvers, begun at the Congress of Rastatt as early as 1797, and concluded in 1803, Napoleon engineered a fundamental territorial reorganization of Germany. He achieved this in partnership with the rulers of the middle-sized states of western and southern Germany, giving French backing to their own territorial ambitions. Together, they forced Francis II, the Holy Roman emperor and ruler of Austria, to let them absorb a myriad of tiny polities into their states, whose only protection had been the emperor. In this way, Napoleon both aggrandized and bound to him the rulers of the southwestern German states of Bavaria, Baden, Würtemberg, Hesse-Darmstadt, and Nassau. This relationship was consolidated formally after his defeat of Austria and Russia in 1805, when Napoleon bound these states together into the Confederation of the Rhine, with himself as its protector.

The Napoleonic Empire was now a complex power bloc engulfing most of western and southern Europe, as much as an imperial mass, in the conventional sense. It was a hegemony, exercised through three different methods. The Revolutionary conquests were restored: the left bank of the Rhine, modern Belgium, and northwestern Italy were reannexed directly to France; satellite states were recreated in the Netherlands and north-central Italy; and western Germany east of the Rhine was now composed of the expanded, closely allied states of the Confederation of the Rhine. Beneath this complex grouping of territories, a deeper uniformity emerged, however, that belied the variegated bonds that tied them to Napoleon. All the states within the Napoleonic orbit by 1805 became deeply imbued with core French institutions, either by their direct imposition in the annexed departments, by imposed if indirect control in the newly created satellite states, or through free but conscious imitation in the Confederation of the Rhine. In the period from 1800 to 1805, all these territories saw the emergence and embedding of the key, defining institutions of the modern European state: the Napoleonic Code, which guaranteed open trials and equality before the law, and the centralized state based on prefects—civil servants appointed by the central government—and departments, the units they administered. Everywhere, local laws, weights and measures, currency, and administrative structures were replaced by those developed in France after 1789. This also entailed the abolition of the vestiges of feudalism, and of provincial and noble privileges, and the confiscation of the properties of the church. To be part of the Napoleonic hegemony meant absorbing a uniform, standardized political system; the foundations of the old order were swept away in every area the French took under their definitive control. These diversely controlled states and regions became an "inner empire," the true core of Napoleonic power. Here, French public institutions and legal and administrative practices took root; the local elites saw their advantages and found they reflected earlier, indigenous currents of reform, especially in the German states and northern Italy, those areas most influenced by the dynamic Holy Roman emperor Joseph II, in the 1780s. The importance of this process is that this political culture and its institutions endured after Napoleon's military eclipse and fall, in 1814/1815. This was a crucial phase for the future development of western Europe.

The net result of these reforms was to increase state power, the need for which became pressing when war resumed on the continent after 1805. The satellite states and those within the Confederation of the Rhine now had to pay for Napoleonic protection from the interests of the old order, which threatened to unseat the rulers of the former and undo the territorial gains of the latter. Napoleon imposed heavy conscription and taxation on all the lands of the inner empire, inside and outside France, from 1805 onward. Indeed, the contemporary test of the effectiveness of French rule, within the imperial departments, and of French-inspired reforms, in the allied states, became the ability to raise troops and revenue. If these material demands could be met, the state was viable and efficient. This process was enforced by the creation of the gendarmerie, a paramilitary police force mainly devoted to patrolling the countryside. Through it, mass conscription and heavy taxation were imposed on peasantries for whom central authority had been a mere shadow before Napoleonic rule.

Even in the more stable period of peace, 1800 to 1805, the arrival of the new state came as a traumatic shock. If institutions such as the prefectoral administrative system and the Napoleonic Code marked the importance of the new regime for the elites and propertied classes, conscription—"the blood tax"—and the presence of a police force were its clearest signs for the popular classes in the countryside. Napoleonic hegemony was punctuated by rural revolt everywhere, even in its supposed heartland, but the effectiveness of the state, its new and highly evolved coercive power, ensured that such recalcitrance remained atomized and short lived, if persistent. Northern and central Italy saw widespread, if localized, peasant revolts; rural parts of the Rhineland were plunged from very traditional forms of local justice and government, based on arbitration, for example. Independently, the German princes met similar opposition within their own borders. Some aspects of Napoleonic rule, such as the religious settlement, were never really accepted outside France, where the Concordat of 1801 was regarded as an assault upon a vibrant, popular Catholic faith. Whereas in France the Concordat was seen, initially at least, as a restoration of normalcy after the rabid anticlericalism of the 1790s, even sectors of the non-French elite saw it as an assault on their culture. The inner empire was never a popular, or populist, construct. Nor did the western European experience of the new Napoleonic state include meaningful, representative, parliamentary government. This was an aspect of the Revolution Napoleon did not export. Nevertheless, the propertied classes, which also included much of the peasantry, benefited from improved policing, particularly the extirpation of brigandage. Justice proved fair and efficient under the Napoleonic Code and was administered by an honest, professional magistracy. The equitable reparation and administration of property taxes was achieved by the compilation of accurate land registers, the cadastres, although indirect taxes soared under Napoleon. The prefects proved able and honest local administrators, all of which impressed even those politically opposed to Napoleon.

The inner empire, however, was not synonymous with the pre-Revolutionary Kingdom of France. Just as Napoleon inherited the expansionist ambitions of the Revolution, so he inherited its divisions. Although he achieved much in healing political wounds within the French elites, the demands of war ensured that his regime remained detested in those regions that had opposed the incursions of the Revolution in the 1790s. Much of southern and western France remained under virtual martial law throughout his rule. The departments that had been the theater of the great western revolt of the 1790s—known collectively as the Vendée militaire, after the Vendée region at its epicenter—were assigned lower conscription quotas than most of the departments of northern Italy, Belgium, or the Rhineland, while a virtual "garrison town" was built at La Roche-sur-Yon, renamed Napoleon-Vendée. Much of southwestern France virtually went over the invading British armies in 1814. Within France, the true heartland of the regime was in the more urbanized, secularized north and east. The recalcitrant traits still alive in the south and west would be magnified in the new territories acquired after the wars of 1805 to 1808.

the "great empire," 1805–1814

This round of victories altered the shape of the empire, and of Europe as a whole, in dramatic, unexpected ways. The victories of 1805 led to the seizure of the southern Italian Kingdom of Naples, where Napoleon replaced the Bourbons with his brother Joseph; the Bourbons of Parma were also deposed, and their small state annexed to France along with the sister republic of Liguria, centered on Genoa. The defeat of Prussia and Russia, in 1806 and 1807, saw territory seized from Prussia, and Hesse-Kassel in north-central Germany became a new Kingdom of Westphalia, under Napoleon's youngest brother, Jérôme. Further east, the Treaties of Tilsit, with Russia, led to the creation of a new state, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, from Prussian Poland. In 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain and overthrew the Bourbons, transferring Joseph to Madrid, while his brother-in-law, Marshal Joachim Murat, now ruled Naples. After his defeat of Austria in 1809, Napoleon annexed Tuscany, the Papal States, and the German states bordering the North Sea in 1811. After 1805, the Napoleonic Empire was no longer a purely west European state system, but a pan-European empire. Territorially, it reached its height in 1811. There were 130 imperial departments, ruled directly from Paris, embracing forty-four million inhabitants; together with the satellite kingdoms and the Confederation of the Rhine, the "Napoleonic hegemony" contained over eighty million people.

The territories acquired in this second phase of expansion were not properly integrated into the Napoleonic legal and administrative system. They were "occupied," rather than absorbed. Spain, the largest single polity Napoleon ever tried to acquire in one step, was never properly under his control, and it became a theater of determined resistance to him. Elsewhere, resistance was less violent or overt, but equally tangible. Feudalism was widespread in northern Germany, southern Italy, and, especially, Poland, thus making the Napoleonic Code inoperable there. Westphalia and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw became important sources of conscripts, but were an "outer empire" where the "new regime" did not take root. Most of these annexations were driven by military expediency or, in the case of the Illyrian Provinces—modern Slovenia and Croatia—by diplomacy, in the hope of using them as bargaining tools with the other powers. Above all, Napoleon's annexations hugged the coastlines of Europe, as he tried to defeat Britain by a massive economic blockade. The blockade was accompanied by the Continental System, which sought to reorient European trade and industry away from British influence. The system, as distinct from the blockade, eventually denatured the imperial core. It did not mirror the empire's administrative and legal uniformity, amounting to a series of treaties protecting France, proper, from all European competition, creating a "one-way common market." Napoleon erected customs barriers that denied easy access to French markets, even to the satellite kingdoms and the departments annexed after 1797, thus alienating vast tracks of the inner empire. The system proved unworkable and instigated the catastrophic invasion of Russia, in 1812, that spelled the end of Napoleon's regime; his state system crumbled in a matter of months. Significantly, the German states deserted him only when assured that the territorial settlement of 1803 and their internal reforms would be respected. A succession of military defeats led to Napoleon's abdication in April 1814. His attempt to regain power in the "Hundred Days" of the following year was confined to France.

Napoleon's hegemony was brief, but his reforms exerted a lasting, seminal influence on western Europe. Napoleonic administrative institutions and the Napoleonic Code reemerged as the basis for civil government in the states comprising the former inner empire, the future core of the modern European Union. The centralized, culturally uniform Napoleonic model of the state shaped French overseas imperialism, first in Algeria in 1829, and then across Africa and Indochina in the late nineteenth century. The legacy of the Napoleonic Empire in European and imperial history is not Napoleon's transient military exploits, but the durability of his political reforms.

See alsoAustria-Hungary; Concordat of 1801; Congress of Vienna; Continental System; French Revolution; French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Great Britain; Napoleon; Napoleonic Code; Prussia; Russia; Sister Republics.


Broers, Michael. Europe under Napoleon, 1799–1815. London, 1996.

Ellis, Geoffrey. Napoleon. London, 1996. Destined to become the standard work in English.

——. The Napoleonic Empire. 2nd ed. Houndmills, Basing-stoke, U.K., 2003. A good shortcut to the subject.

Lefebvre, Georges. Napoleon. 2 vols. Translated by Henry F. Stockhold (vol. 1) and J. E. Anderson (vol. 2). London, 1969–1974. Pathbreaking, classic Marxist account.

Lyons, Martyn. Napoleon and the Legacy of the French Revolution. Basingstoke, U.K., 1994. Strong on France and the early period.

Tulard, Jean. Napoleon: The Myth of the Saviour. Translated by Teresa Waugh. London, 1984. Seminal French biography, marred by a poor English translation.

Woloch, Isser. The New Regime: Transformations of the French Civic Order, 1789–1820s. New York, 1994. Essential for the internal reforms.

Woolf, Stuart. Napoleon's Integration of Europe. London, 1991. The classic "Euro-centered" study.

Michael Broers

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