Andrew Roberts's Life of Napoleon is witty, humane and unapologetically admiring
By Dan Jones
6 October 2014
Napoleon Crossing the Alps, May 20, 1800, by Jacques-Louis David, 1803 (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images)
Which historical figures deserve to be nicknamed "the Great"? Tradition has granted it only to a few: Alexander of Macedon, Rameses of Egypt, Darius of Persia, Charlemagne, Alfred of Wessex, Llywelyn of Wales, Peter and Catherine of Russia, Frederick of Prussia, and so on. Others have missed out. We Brits don’t speak of Queen Victoria the Great. Likewise, Frederick Barbarossa, Charles V of Spain and Louis XIV of France all remain unanointed, as does every American President – even George Washington and FDR.
Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France and by many people’s reckoning the most brilliant general of modern times, is one of those who has most conspicuously failed to have greatness thrust upon him. This was not for want of trying on his part. From his youth Napoleon studied the careers of history’s titans with a view to mimicking them. His dazzling rise and spectacular rule – he was a general at the age of 24, an emperor at 34 – was an object lesson in one man bending the world to his will. But Napoleon the Great? The title of Andrew Roberts’s masterly new biography will have many scratching their chins. It is worth considering why.
Napoleon was born in Corsica in 1769 into a family that was wealthy only by local standards. He was a bookish but not a scholarly child, whose written French was lousy and whose funny accent earned him plenty of teasing at school. But he found his way in the army, graduating from the Ecole Militaire in Paris and finding a commission as an artillery officer. He spent several years fighting in Corsica, then in 1793 played a prominent role in ejecting the British from the port of Toulon and captured the city for republican forces: this earned him his generalship.
When revolution engulfed France, Napoleon’s genius as a soldier and his reputation as a writer of political essays and pamphlets ensured that his rise continued. Infamously, he cleared the streets of Paris by firing grapeshot at rebels. He led armies into Italy and Egypt, emerging with a string of spectacular successes and a personal reputation for unequalled military genius. He was dictator of France by 1799. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor, with his wife, Josephine, alongside him as Empress. The cult of Napoleon was born while the man himself was barely out of his twenties.
In researching all this – and Napoleon’s subsequent career, which took him to Spain, Russia and, of course, Waterloo – Roberts walked almost every one of his subject’s 60 battlefields. He also makes full use of the new scholarly edition of Napoleon’s 33,000 letters. The effect is a huge, rich, deep, witty, humane and unapologetically admiring biography of 900 pages, each of them a pleasure to read. The Napoleon painted here is a whirlwind of a man – not only a vigorous and supremely confident commander, but an astonishingly busy governor, correspondent and lover, too. "For myself, I have but one requirement, that of success," he wrote in 1805. But to achieve success in the field that Napoleon chose – rebuilding France and conquering the world – required personal qualities that no other human being of his age possessed. He never stopped. As Roberts notes, when Napoleon moved at top speed, water had to be poured on the wheels of his carriage to stop them from overheating.
But to what end? For every writer who would lionize Napoleon, there is another who would point out that he was responsible for wars which killed between four million and six million people; that his Iberian war was a disaster; that the catastrophic 1812 invasion of Russia and retreat from Moscow was the ultimate example of hundreds of thousands of lives lost in unutterable misery, for the sake of one man’s monstrous ego.
And maybe all this is so. But to dive into Roberts’s new book is to understand – indeed, to feel – why this peculiarly brilliant Corsican managed for so long to dazzle the world. The historical appellation "Great" is not a measure of peace-loving goodness, but of the rare ability of one person to stamp their personality on to their times.
Read in this way, Roberts's book is not just another brilliant narrative biography of Napoleon – although it is certainly this. It is also an essay on statesmanship and a meditation on history itself: a defence of the whole idea of the "great man" against what the author calls in his conclusion "determinist analyses of history, which explain events in terms of vast impersonal forces and minimise the part played by individuals".
Throughout his life, Napoleon wrote and spoke of himself as though he were already an immortal: his worldview was moulded by the concepts of duty, glory and genius; his law code, he thought, would "live forever". He would therefore be delighted to know that he is the subject of historical obsession nearly two centuries after his death (there are more than 13,000 items in the British Library catalogue under the term "Napoleon"). It goes without saying that he would also be delighted with the title and the content of Roberts’s gloriously enjoyable new book.
Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts is published by Allen Lane at £30. Order it at a discounted price through the Telegraph