On This Day in Napoleonic History – 15 May 1779

15Napoleon starts school at Brienne-le-ChΓ’teau

Despite being a military academy, Brienne was administered by the monks. Conditions were Spartan, with students sleeping on straw mattresses and being instructed for eight hours a day in mathematics, Latin, history, French, German, geography, physics, fortification, weaponry, fencing, dancing and music.

Napoleon was one of 50 scholarship students. His prodigious memory helped in his studies and he excelled at mathematics and geography. ‘To be a good general, you must know mathematics. It serves to direct your thinking in a thousand circumstances,’ he later observed. His weakest subject was German.

While his contemporaries played sports outside, the young Napoleon would devour works by Plutarch, Cicero, Voltaire, Erasmus and Virgil, among others, and could recite in French whole passages from his favourite books. One of his school nicknames, the Spartan, might have originated from his pronounced admiration of that city-state.

He didn’t make many friends and was teased mercilessly for his heavy Corsican accent and his poverty. ‘I was the poorest of my classmates,’ he reminisced. ‘I didn’t know how to play and smile like the others.’ His years at Brienne were a good foundation for the future Emperor. The school turned out a number of very distinguished generals besides Napoleon, including Louis-Nicolas Davout. General Jean-Charles Pichegru, who was later to conspire against Napoleon, was one of the school’s instructor.

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