Napoleon the Great
‘…many of his civil reforms stayed in place for decades, even centuries. The Napoleonic Code forms the basis of much of European law today, while various aspects of it have been adopted by forty countries on all five inhabited continents. His bridges span the Seine and his reservoirs, canals and sewers are still in use.’
The epithet ‘great’ is not comfortably affixed to any person, nor is it always easy to examine why someone might meet the criteria of such a description. Napoleon Bonaparte, for all his victories, all of his quirks, his prejudices and his faults, indisputably deserves it. Not only is he responsible for much of the legal and cultural infrastructure of modern France, he still exerts an almost mystical pull on the imagination of modern-day history students.
At 800-plus pages, this is as comprehensive a biography of Bonaparte as a layman like me is likely to require. It explores the seeming juxtaposition between a family-focussed younger son from a middling Corsican family, and the emperor who bestrode Europe for decades and whose genius still informs military strategy to this day. I would say that Roberts is inclined to look favourably on Bonaparte, but this is perhaps inevitable of someone who has studied a central figure in European history for an extended period of time.
Antoine-Jean Gros – ‘Bonaparte at the Pont d’Arcole’
Not that Roberts skirts around the less savoury aspects of Napoleon’s character. Bonaparte described himself unequivocally as ‘…for the whites…’ as opposed to being an advocate for black rights, sanctioned slavery before eventually passing emancipation laws, and was chronically dismissive of women. These are not excused, but rather put into the historical context in which they belong. Although repellent to us, these attitudes were typical of the time, and indeed Napoleon was considered liberal and forward-thinking in these fields.
Roberts is indeed complimentary of Bonaparte on many occasions, and particularly when discussing the sheer energy of the man. A prolific writer, Napoleon dictated approximately 33,000 letters during his life. The breadth of his influence is visible through this correspondence; he at once berates generals on their performance whilst shortly afterwards giving advice on who members of the minor aristocracy should be consorting with. This attention to detail often occurs on the eve of battle or when the weight of history would be smothering a lesser being.
Adolph Northen – ‘Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow’
One question the book never really addresses is that of why? Why did Napoleon fight across Europe and Africa, from the pyramids of Egypt to the smouldering ruins of Moscow for over two decades? Roberts argues that ‘He believed, as many Frenchmen did, that modern ideas of governance could be spread across Europe through the agency of the Grand Armee’, but still cannot define the drive that compelled Napoleon to put himself through so much hardship and risk to lead such a revolution. We travel from the Pyramids to Moscow, from Paris to Waterloo, from Austerlitz to Acre, compelled by phrases such as ‘the glory of France’.
Perhaps a book should never seek to answer questions such as why Napoleon chose to accumulate power at such an extraordinary rate. How could it? Dreams like these are and should be inexplicable to the general populace, because inevitably there must be a cold and ugly calculation of just how many lives and how much misery an empire is truly worth. This is a fantastic biography and well worth the time commitment it demands.
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