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What Napoleon Was Really Like, According To The People Who Knew Him

Updated August 27, 2020 5.8k votes 728 voters 27.9k views13 items

List RulesVote up the most surprising details that people who met Napoleon observed.

Few historical figures are more recognizable than Napoleon; there are plenty of superb paintings showing us what he looked like. But these images - many of them part of a deliberate attempt to create a legend - give us little sense of what it would have been like to be standing in the same room as l'Empereur, or having a conversation with him.

To find this out, written recollections from Napoleon's contemporaries can be more powerful than the most faithful painted portrait. Read on to find out some surprising details about Napoleon the man and how he behaved, from the battlefield to the ballroom.

  • Photo: Louis Ducis / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Was Great With Kids

    “I never met with anyone who bore childish liberties so well as Napoleon. He seemed to enter into every sort of mirth or fun with the glee of a child; and though I have often tried his patience severely, I never knew him lose his temper or fall back upon his rank or age…” (Betsy Balcombe)

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  • Photo: Antoine-Jean Gros / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Constantly Ate Liquorice

    “His teeth were even, but rather dark, and I afterwards found that this arose from his constant habit of eating licorice, of which he always kept a supply in his waistcoat pocket.” (Betsy Balcombe)

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  • Photo: Édouard de Detaille / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Personally Rode Out To Help The Wounded After A Battle

    “Napoleon rode over the field of battle to have the wounded removed and attended to, which was a duty he entrusted to nobody but himself. From time to time he would halt and order silence so that he might hear the groans of the wounded. He would ride in the direction of these groans, when he was not detained by having to attend to soldiers on the spot where he happened to be, or else he would send people with help. With this object in view he used to spread the men of his escort out in different directions.” (Claude-Francois de Meneval)

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  • Photo: Joseph Boze, Robert Lefèvre, Carle Vernet / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Met You On Your Wavelength

    "I had been [at the ball for] hardly a few minutes when Napoleon came over to me from the other side of the ballroom; the Duchess herself presented me to him, and he made the usual remarks to me, very affably, but gazing intently into my face. Probably there is scarcely a human being who has the gift of fathoming a man almost at first glance, and 'seeing through him', as one says, in a higher degree than Napoleon. He saw that I, for all my pitiful celebrity, was only a simple and unassuming old man, and since he apparently wished to leave me with a good impression of him for ever, he changed himself for the moment into the form in which he could be sure of doing so. Never in my life have I seen a man more simple, quiet, mild and unpretentious." (Christoph Martin Wieland)

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