The Apian Emperor

In honor of Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of the French (not Emperor of France, an important distinction and consequence of the French Revolution) on this day in 1804 I thought I would explore his adoption of bee symbolism in greater detail than my first attempt a few years ago. Napoleon had to pay tribute to tradition in order to legitimize what was essentially a military coup d’etat–and bees go way back, not as far back as the Roman laurels and eagles which he also adopted, but way back in French history. In my previous post, I identified Charlemagne as the source of Napoleon’s bees, but actually it was Childeric, a Frankish king who was the father of Clovis, who converted to Christianity and unified all the Frankish tribes under his sacred kingship after 496, the first of the Merovingian line. Childeric’s grave was accidentally discovered in Tournai in 1653, and inside his tomb was a treasure of coins, jewelry, iron, and 300 bees (sometimes referred to as “fleurons” or cicadas but they look like bees to me, and apparently also to Napoleon). The governor of the Spanish Netherlands commissioned his personal physician, Jean-Jacques Chifflet, to catalog and study the finds, which were published in one of the first archeological works in European history, Anastasis Childerici I Francorum regis, sive thesaurus sepulchralis Tornaci Neviorum effossus et commentario illustratus (1655). One hundred and fifty years later, when Napoleon was looking for a “French” symbol that was not a Bourbon Fleur-de-lis, the bee seemed to fit the bill, and it was lavishly utilized in his coronation–and after–essentially becoming the “Napoleonic bee”.

Napoleon and Childeric

Napoleon Bee Childerics Tomb

Napoleon Bee detail

Napoleon Tapestry Portrait

Napoleon Tapestry detail bees

Bonaparte Sisters

Napoleonic Plate Sevres

King Childeric in British Library MS. Royal 16 G VI f. 9; Childeric’s bees in Chifflet (1655); a Napoleonic bee from his 1804 coronation robe; tapestry portrait and detail of the coronation robe after a painting by Baron François Gérard, 1805, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Napoleon’s half-American nieces, “The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte”, sitting on a bee-upholstered couch, Jacques-Louis David, 1821, Getty Museum; the full Napoleonic regalia, bees and all, Sèvres plate, 19th century, Victoria & Albert Museum.


15 responses to “The Apian Emperor

  • informationforager

    Very, very good. Today you showed me something new and I thank you for that Knowledge. I am an amateur beekeeper and this the first time I have ever heard about Napoleon and bees. The historical pictures are great. I looked at your other bee post also and that were very good too. Thanks.

  • markd60

    I found this every interesting. Bees are incredibly important to the earth. Apparently it was realized more back then than it is now.

  • Kat

    Great post. Whether bee (diligence and hard work) or cicada (resurrection), both make sense for Napoleon’s goals and thus his coat of arms.

  • Brian Bixby

    It was only upon reading Anthony Everitt’s biography “Augustus” a few years ago that I realized Augustus had done the same thing as Napoleon: started out using populist-revolutionary language and symbolism, and then gradually shifting to traditional images and language. Hence the reason Augustus resigned all his extraordinary offices after the Civil Wars, to allow the Senate to in effect give him the same powers but through traditional means.

  • Matt

    Surprised to see the word honor used in the same sentence with Napoleon. Was the use unitentional, or am I misinformed about how horrible he was?

    • daseger

      Maybe I could have used a more neutral word or phrase, Matt–“to mark”?–but Napoleon is one those incredibly divisive historical characters who seems to inspire either love or hate—no one is neutral. Did he “save” the French Revolution or did he end it? Did he pave the way for European unification or provoke intense nationalism? Was he a hero or a villain? I’m not sure these questions ever go away with him.

      • Matt

        That’s why I characterized it as such – what I know is based on pieces I read, which themselves may be biased. But I also know that time has a way of softening views, so I tend to look to people who lived during his time (or at least “closer” to his time than we are). What we might characterize as “the free world” nearly collapsed trying to get rid of the guy, so I assume that they viewed his determinents as outweighing any benefits. And I do recall reading that Hitler considered Napoleon a hero, which gives me the greatest pause. Sorry if this come across as critical. Really just interested in the view from someone who studies history more directly than I (and who I respect for same). Cheers!

      • daseger

        Not at all, Matt–you’ve highlighted all the major reasons why Napoleon is such a divisive (and interesting) character. For men anyway: I’m not sure women are as captivated by him.

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    This is very interesting. Napoleon, for all his success on the battlefield, still felt the need to latch on to important symbols from the past to legitimize his reign. Doing so seems odd in some ways now, but it would appear that he wasn’t fully confident in his ability to retain power, or it could have simply been superstition.

  • informationforager

    One last reply/joke.

    My wife and are discussing the bees and she’s finally decided that she’s just about had enough of this “bee stuff.” She rants and raves and carries on with how bad bees are for everyone. “They sting, they swarm, they are messy and smelly and on and on……..

    I in turn make my best arguments for the bees. They provide sweet honey and wax for candles. The wax can be used as a lip balm and a whole bunch of other uses but I can see that my pleas are falling on deaf ears.

    She says either the bees go or I go!!!!

    I sit dejected and make my final plea… that what our marriage has come to after 15 wonderful years. Our fate is be t decided by this..,,,

    “To BEE or not to BEE. That is the question”” to which she replies, “So sayeth Shakespeare.”

    It was such a tragedy but the honey tastes great!

  • Merkwaardig (week 50) |

    […] Napoleon en de bijtjes. […]

  • Helena Worth

    It’s somewhat pleasing to know that Napoleon pilfered the bees from an older more legitimate source. Are you sure Zenaide and Charlotte Bonaparte are half-American though? I understand them to be the daughters of Joseph Bonaparte and Julie Clary, who was originally from Marseilles.

    • daseger

      Good catch, Helena, thanks! Obviously I’ve mixed up Joseph and Jerome….. I had been reading a book on the latter’s first wife and had her in/on my brain.

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