He was the son of a minor merchant and was born in Nice. Initially Massena intended to pursue a career in the merchant navy. He instead joined the army in 1775 as an ordinary soldier in the Royal-Italien and had risen to the rank of sergeant when he left in 1789. After a brief stint as a smuggler he re-joined the army in 1791 and was voted an officer, rising to the rank of colonel by 1792.
He distinguished himself in the revolutionary wars and within two years he was a general. His first victory was at Saorgio(?) in August 1794, his first major success was at Lonato in August 1795 against an Austrian army under Peter Quasdanovich. He had fought with Napoleon at Lonato and they remained in the same command into 1796 with a stunning series of French victories in Italy. In 1799 Massena was granted an command in Switzerland and his victory over the Russians under Alexander Suvarov and Alexander Korsakov at the 2nd Battle of Zurich in September, forcing Russia from the Second Coalition. This was the peak of his reputation.
Massena then returned to Italy and led his forces into the unfortunate debacle at Genoa before commanding in the tough Battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800) and was then made commander of the French forces in Italy, but he was soon dismissed for looting. It was not until 1804 that he regained trust, being promoted to the rank of marshal in May and leading forces to capture Verona and later losing to the Austrians at Caldiero (November 12, 1796). He was given control of operations against Naples but his avarice led to him being dismissed for excessive looting again. Despite this he was made a duke in 1808
He did not soldier again until 1809 against the forces of the Fifth Coalition, fighting the Austrians. When the French vanguard in the Danube was cut off and isolated, Massena was part of the command, leading IV Corps, of the defense centred around Aspern and Essling, before they were rescued after a bloody struggle. He was rewarded with the title of Prince d'Essling for his efforts there and at Wagram.
During the Peninsular War he led the invasion of Portugal in 1810. He commanded the first clash with the Allies at Buçaco (September 27) and forced the Allies to retreat to the Lines of Torres Vedras where a stalemate perpetuated until the arrival of British reinforcements in 1811. When Massena was forced to retreat after the battles of Barrosa and Fuentes de Oñoro from Portugal he was replaced by Auguste Marmont and did not serve again, being made a local commander at Marseilles.
He retained his command after the restoration and on the return of Naopleon from Elba he refused to commit to either side and kept his area quiet. He was disinclined to prove his royalist loyalties after the defeat of Napoleon and died under a cloud.