Who's Buried in Napoleon's Tomb?

By Rick Steves

In Paris, I march the broad front yard where Napoleon's soldiers once marched. A sign announces simply, Tombeau de l'Empereur...Tomb of the Emperor. Napoleon was the first great leader of the first great modern nation with the first great modern army. For any history buff, his tomb is more than just another sight. It's a pilgrimage. Inside, it's simple. You walk to a marble banister that circles the room and look down. Directly under the dome, under rays of sunlight that seem to clash like heavenly swords, sits what looks like a giant loaf of homemade bread, about the size of a UPS truck: the final resting place of France's beloved "Little Corporal."

Napoleon is dead and so it seems is everything else that matters. Jesus leans out from His cross in mourning. Twelve angels stand shell-shocked around the mortal remains of Napoleon, who lies majestically dead — probably with a hand tucked under a rib. Lesser generals, all French and five-star, fill ignored chapels, as if to decorate the emperor's grave. The vast dome, like the gilded lid on a fancy room-service meal, keeps his memories warm. To some Europeans, Napoleon was a genius, a hero, a friend of the common people, and an enemy of oppression. (Beethoven had originally planned to dedicate his third "Heroic" Symphony to him.) To others, he was the tyrant of his century — pompous, vain, and egotistical, suppressing a desire to be like the royalty he opposed.

Born of humble Italian heritage on the Mediterranean isle of Corsica (the year after it became French), Napoleon was educated in French military schools. He quickly rose through the ranks of the army during the chaotic French Revolution. Napoleon's personality was as complex as his place in history. He was actually of average height and thin (until age and high living put on the pounds), with a classic, intense profile. He was well read, a good writer, and a charming conversationalist. Above all, he was convinced of his inherent right to rule others.

During his rule (1799–1814), Napoleon carried the revolution by war to the rest of Europe. His arsenal was France, Europe's richest, most populous, and best-educated state. With the barriers of class and privilege smashed, he opened positions to talent. The French army had grown strong and tough during the wars of the revolution, and Napoleon had no trouble conquering Europe. A grand Napoleonic Empire covered the entire Continent, and many people spoke of Paris as the "New Rome."Napoleon's empire didn't last long. In 1812, he led half a million soldiers into Russia. The vastness of Russia, Russia's "scorched earth" policy, and its special ally, the horribly cold winter, spelled disaster for Napoleon's Grand Army. Only 60,000 Frenchmen returned to France.

With Napoleon reeling, all of Europe called for a pigpile on France, vowing to fight for 20 years, if necessary, until France was defeated. The French people took the hint, toppled Napoleon's government, and exiled the emperor to the Mediterranean island of Elba. As evidence of his charisma, he bounced back, talking the French into giving him another chance. It was only after the crushing defeat at Waterloo in 1815 (in modern-day Belgium) that Napoleon was finished, and exiled permanently to the small South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821. His tomb now rests beneath the golden dome of Paris' Les Invalides, part of Europe's greatest military museum.