Many of Napoleon's generals were trained at the finest French and European military academies, but Masséna was among those who achieved greatness without the benefit of formal education. While those of noble rank acquired their education and promotions as a matter of privilege, Masséna rose from humble origins to such prominence that Napoleon referred to him as "the greatest name of my military Empire." His military career is equaled by few commanders in European history.
In addition to his battlefield successes, Masséna's leadership aided the careers of many. A majority of the French marshals of the time served under his command at some point.
André Masséna was born in Nice, which was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia at the time, on 16 May 1758. He was the son of shopkeeper Jules Masséna (Giulio Massena) and Marguerite Fabre. His father died in 1764, and after his mother remarried, he was sent to live with relatives.
At the age of thirteen, Masséna became a cabin boy aboard a merchant ship; while aboard, he sailed in the Mediterranean Sea and on two extended voyages to French Guiana. In 1775, after four years at sea, he returned to Nice and enlisted in the French Army as a private in the Royal Italian regiment. By the time he left in 1789, he had risen to the rank of warrant officer, the top rank achievable by non-noblemen. On August 10 of that year, he married Anne Marie Rosalie Lamare, daughter of a surgeon in Antibes, and lived with her in her home town. After a brief stint as a smuggler in Northern Italy, he rejoined the army in 1791 and was made an officer, rising to the rank of colonel by 1792.
When the French Revolutionary Wars broke out in April 1792, Masséna and his battalion were deployed along the border to Piedmont. Masséna prepared his battalion for battle in the hope that it would be incorporated into the regular army. That October, a month after the occupation of Nice, the battalion was one of four volunteer battalions that became part of the French Armée d'Italie.
Masséna distinguished himself in battle and was quickly promoted, attaining the rank of general of brigade in August 1793 and general of division that December. He was prominent in every campaign on the Italian Riviera over the next two years, including the attack on Saorgio in 1794 and the battle of Loano in 1795. When Napoleon Bonaparte took command in March 1796, Masséna was commanding the two divisions of the army's advance guard.
During the campaign in Italy in 1796-1797, Masséna became one of Bonaparte's most important subordinates. He played a significant role in engagements at Montenotte and Dego in the spring, and took a leading role at the battles of Lonato, Castiglione, Bassano, Caldiero and Arcola in the summer and fall, as well as the Battle of Rivoli and the fall of Mantua that winter.