An engraving of Napoleon, 1820

Trustees of the British Museum

An engraving of Napoleon based on a drawing by a British army captain stationed on Saint Helena, 1820

Napoleon didn’t think much of his father. He recalled him as a good man but also as “a man of pleasure” who dissipated the family fortune and played the grand seigneur in Paris. He shed only passing tears when Carlo Maria Buonaparte died in 1785 at the age of thirty-eight, of the same stomach cancer that was to kill Napoleon himself in 1821, at fifty-one. When the town council of Montpellier asked his permission to build a monument to Carlo, Napoleon, normally eager for any opportunity to elevate his family, vetoed the request. By contrast, he worshipped his mother, Letizia, to whom he said he owed “my fortune and all I’ve done that’s worthwhile” and for whom he devised the stately title Madame Mère.

Posterity has meekly accepted this assessment of Carlo. But is it true? He was all the things that Napoleon was not—tall, handsome, and a fine horseman. (The emperor rolled around in the saddle like a ship in a high sea, which made the thousands of miles he rode in his campaigns all the more impressive.) But Carlo was no mere playboy. He worked hard to advance his family’s fortunes, scrabbling a few extra acres of dusty Corsican uplands to add to Letizia’s modest inheritance and fighting off squabbling cousins for more elbow room in the run-down tenement they occupied in Ajaccio. In 1772, through the favor of the French governor, the Comte de Marbeuf, Carlo secured a seat for himself in the new Corsican assembly. It remained a persistent rumor that Letizia’s son Louis was Marbeuf’s child. Through this patronage and diligent lobbying in Paris, Carlo managed to convince Versailles of the family’s vestigial claim to noble status and extracted a royal scholarship for Napoleon to study, first at the military academy of Brienne and then at the École Militaire in Paris.

It is hard to exaggerate the physical and cultural jump from the smelly lanes of Ajaccio to the Baroque grandeur of the École Militaire. Hard too to think of a more rigorous education to be had anywhere in Europe: the classics and the Catholic catechism, but also mathematics and physics, geography and music, philosophy and fortifications. Napoleon, a shy, surly, solitary boy with a ghastly Corsican accent and floppy spaniel’s sidelocks, was unhappy among the self-confident aristocratic cadets, who teased him about his humble origins. But he was as ferocious a reader as he was a fighter, and he lapped up the culture of the Enlightenment, being as much an addict of the lachrymose rhapsodies of La Nouvelle Héloïse as of the intoxicating vision of Le Contrat Social. All his life he was to have a taste for the sentimental as well as the brutal: his copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther, now in the Morgan Library, had been read so often that the pages are falling out.

All the trademarks of Napoleon’s war-making he learned in school: the formation in squares, smashing through the center, enfilading around the back, the corps system that made huge armies quick off the mark and adaptable. He read the Comte de Guibert’s revolutionary General Essay on Tactics, which emphasized the importance of speed, surprise, esprit de corps, and living off the land rather than relying on supply depots in walled cities that had to be defended. To this training he brought his own genius for improvisation, his intense concentration, his brilliant reading of maps and terrains, and his ability to deploy troops and commandeer supplies at unbelievable speed. As early as 1794, when he was with the Army of Italy, General Pierre Jadart Dumerbion wrote to him, “My child, draw me up a campaign plan as only you know how.” By the age of twenty-four he was a general.

Napoleon was hugely in favor of the French Revolution, and in Corsica in September 1789 he had distributed tricolor cockades and hung a banner on the Buonaparte house inscribed “Vive la Nation! Vive Paoli! Vive Mirabeau!” But which nation? At first he supported Pasquale Paoli, the champion of Corsican independence, and wrote an appeal demanding that all Frenchmen be expelled from the island. Soon, though, he came to the conclusion that Paoli was too soft and placed too much trust in democracy. Already his instinct for settling matters by force was evident. In the election for the colonelcy of the Ajaccio volunteers in 1792, he hired a bunch of bandits to kidnap one of the election commissioners, Giovanni Peraldi, who was assumed to favor a rival candidate. Peraldi’s brother afterward claimed that Napoleon’s family had “never, under whatever regime, had any merit other than spying, treachery, vice, impudence and prostitution.” As a colonel, Napoleon lost no time in ordering his troops to fire on a mob of their fellow citizens.


In 1793 the thousand-member assembly in the island’s new capital of Corte issued a proclamation denouncing the Buonapartes as collaborators “born in despotism, nourished and brought up at the expense of a lustful pasha who ruled the island” (Marbeuf), and “condemned them to eternal execration and infamy.” Letizia and her brood fled to France, destitute. Soon Napoleon was declaring indignantly that he was and always had been French and slapped down anyone who called him a Corsican. His brother Lucien had denounced him the year before to their eldest brother, Joseph, as a potential turncoat and worse: “He seems to me to be well suited to being a tyrant and I think he would be one if he were a king, and that his name would be one of horror for posterity and for the sensitive patriot.”

It is the outstanding merit of Adam Zamoyski’s fine new biography, Napoleon: A Life, that he insists on treating his subject as neither a superman nor a monster, but as a creature of his troubled age:

Although he did exhibit some extraordinary qualities, he was in many ways a very ordinary man. I find it difficult to credit genius to someone who, for all his many triumphs, presided over the worst (and entirely self-inflicted) disaster in military history and single-handedly destroyed the great enterprise he and others had toiled so hard to construct.

Accordingly, Zamoyski gives more space to Napoleon’s formative years than to his time in power, and much less to his military campaigns than other biographers have. Blink and you miss the battle of Jena, Wagram is over before you know it, and even Waterloo is done with in a couple of pages. What Zamoyski gives us instead is a vivid sense of Napoleon as a protean chancer, outwardly as self-confident as any man who ever lived, inwardly always wondering when his “star” would finally set. Comte Louis-Mathieu Molé, his minister of justice, who became prime minister under Louis-Philippe twenty years later, said of him:

The fact is that for him human life was a game of chess, and people, religion, morality, affections, interests were so many pawns or pieces which needed to be moved about and used as the occasion demanded.

Being as indifferent to people as to principles, he could work with anyone: with honest men like Molé and his long-serving chief of staff Alexandre Berthier, or with devious shysters like Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand and Joseph Fouché, repeatedly forgiving them for their treacherous intrigues with England and the Royalists. He wasn’t vindictive, merely instrumental. When Talleyrand suggested that he might be nicer to his critic Madame de Staël, exiled during his reign, he retorted, “I do not know how to show benevolence to my enemies. Weakness has never led anywhere. One can only govern with strength.”

As first consul Napoleon was not a king who had inherited his title by the grace of God; his laurels would wither if he rested on them. He needed continuous war and a never-ending string of victories to prove his brilliance. Conspicuous concessions were always dangerous. In June 1813, when all his advisers were imploring him to make a generous peace with the armies arrayed against him, he told Metternich, the Austrian chief negotiator, that he could not give up an inch of territory: “Your sovereigns, born on the throne, can afford to let themselves be beaten twenty times and still return to their capitals; I cannot, because I am a parvenu soldier.”

He had inherited this attitude from the Directory, the committee that had governed France from 1795 to 1799 and had kept the country more or less solvent by waging war and exacting huge reparations from its defeated enemies. Napoleon was to turn the screw even tighter. After the 1807 Treaty of Tilsit, for example, Prussia not only lost large chunks of territory but was also forced to pay a “contribution” of 600 million francs a year and to support a 150,000-strong French army of occupation. After each victory, masterpieces of Western art were lugged back to Paris to adorn what was to be the capital of a united Europe.

At home, the expense of dazzling the people grew all the time. The national budget rose from 859 million francs in 1810 to over a billion the following year, the cost of the army from 377 million to 500 million. Napoleon’s court was taking a larger share of government income than Louis XVI’s—and Marie-Antoinette had been called “Madame Déficit.”

Napoleon’s champions give him the credit for the Empire style; after all, he insisted on micromanaging everything from the wallpaper at Malmaison to the costumes at the Comédie-Française. But the Classical revival, of which the Empire style, like the Directoire style before it, was only an inflection, had been in full swing all over Europe for half a century. Some scholars argue that French Neoclassicism had passed its peak before Napoleon’s arrival on the scene.


Still, the catalog of the exhibition “Napoleon: The Imperial Household” is as sumptuous as the subject deserves. On Sèvres plates, on clocks, carriages, and canvases, we see the increasingly pudgy figure of the emperor swathed in ermine and velvet, his robes buzzing with embroidered imperial bees. In attendance are the old sweats who have seen him through many a midnight coup and headlong march, dolled up and scarcely recognizable under their fresh-minted Napoleonic titles, always linked to foreign duchies or victories—Wagram, Vicenza, Montebello—for Napoleon was wary of seeming to resurrect the nobility of the ancien régime, just as the only palace he shied away from was Versailles. But the enthusiasm of the catalog’s essays cannot obscure the impression that, apart from a few portraits by Ingres and Isabey, the quality of the work on display is mediocre, the décor overloaded. There is an inescapable sense of an artistic tradition in decline. One begins to sicken of the scarlet and gold.

A more interesting claim to Napoleon’s greatness, eloquently argued by Andrew Roberts in Napoleon: A Life (2014) but not made much of by Zamoyski, is that “the masses of granite” he boasted of throwing down to anchor French society—the much admired legal code, the administrative centralization, the Court of Auditors, the lycées, the public works—survive to this day. Fair enough, though it has been said, ever since De Gaulle’s day, that this overcentralization is a clog on progress. Many of Napoleon’s achievements, too, find their origins not in the Revolution but in the ancien régime: the grandes écoles, for example (think of the superb education he received).

The real myth of Napoleon resurfaced rather mysteriously in the mid-nineteenth century. Zamoyski stops short with his death, but Philip Dwyer, in Napoleon: Passion, Death and Resurrection, 1815–1840, the latest volume of his superb biography, recounts the later history of his reputation: first, the publication of Emmanuel de Las Cases’s Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, based on his almost daily conversations with Napoleon in his second exile on Saint Helena, one of the remotest islands in the world. It was among the great best sellers of the nineteenth century. Then there was the transplanting of Napoleon’s body to Paris at the instigation of Prime Minister Adolphe Thiers in 1840, for which nearly a million Parisians turned out; and finally the erection of the sarcophagus under the dome of the Invalides church in 1861. All this was made palatable by the invention—or reinvention—of the Alternative Napoleon. Instead of Boney the Ogre, the warmongering dictator, we met the peace-loving liberator who had wanted nothing better than to bring democracy to all Europe, England included, and had been martyred for his pains on that desolate rock in the South Atlantic.

One can only marvel as Napoleon spins his past to Las Cases, a minor courtier who had followed him to Saint Helena and acted as his secretary there. The ex-emperor explained that he had returned from his first exile on Elba a new man; if his invasion of England had gone ahead, it would all have gone so swimmingly:

I had the best army in the world; I need only say, it was the army of Austerlitz. In four days I should have been in London; I should have entered the English capital, not as a conqueror but as a liberator…. The discipline of my army was perfect. My troops would have behaved in London just as they would in Paris. No sacrifices, not even contributions would have been exacted from the English. We should have presented ourselves to them not as conquerors, but as brothers who came to restore to them their rights and liberties.

Really? When Napoleon was on Elba, he gave no sign of any such dramatic conversion to democracy and the rule of law. He chatted amiably to curious English visitors and to his lackadaisical jailer Sir Neil Campbell (who spent half his time in Florence with his mistress), he refurbished farmhouses, collected a decent library, took salt baths, played cards with Madame Mère (who could always spot his cheating), and gave himself a forty-fifth birthday party with fireworks.

Mark Braude’s The Invisible Emperor paints a charming picture of that brief first exile, and points to the stray indications that Napoleon remained on the lookout for a chance to escape and make a comeback. Only the cynical Fouché perceived that Napoleon on Elba was like “Vesuvius next to Naples” and accurately predicted that “the following spring would ‘bring Bonaparte back to us, with the swallows and the violets.’”

Nowhere, though, does Braude offer any indication that Napoleon was rethinking his political philosophy. If he admitted mistakes, they were mistakes of military tactics. Even after Waterloo, when he got back to the Elysée, he was ranting about imposing martial law and a temporary dictatorship. Any suggestion of a sincere conversion to liberal democracy was for the birds.

He had, after all, violated the constitution so many times. On 13 Vendémiaire (October 5, 1795), he had helped the Directory fix the elections and dispelled the angry mob with a “whiff of grapeshot,” for which he became known as “General Vendémiaire.” In 1797 he helped to engineer the Directory’s coup of 18 Fructidor. Two years later, he seized power for himself on the more famous 18 Brumaire. Then in 1804 came the assumption of the imperial crown. As late as 1813, when the normally toothless legislative body voted to protest Napoleon’s disastrous war policy, he sent them packing. And then there was the final coup after his return from Elba that ushered in the Hundred Days.

If Napoleon has a single indisputable legacy, this is surely it: the coup as kneejerk reflex as soon as the cry of “la patrie en danger” goes up. Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon, launched three coups, scoring with the third; De Gaulle another two or three (depending on whether you count his abortive maneuvers after the French defeat in Indochina). The effect has been to diminish the authority of the French parliament and the law and to boost the prestige, size, and power of the French army. Napoleon did not invent mass conscription, but like the Directory he built on the initiative of the Revolution to gobble up each year’s intake of recruits, managing to send off droves of raw cannon fodder on each campaign, despite huge casualties and widespread desertion and evasion of the draft. He also exported conscription to the regions he conquered, such as northern Italy.

Every self-respecting nation had to be a nation in arms, every war a people’s war, and hence an all-out war, a guerre à l’outrance. For De Gaulle, the remaking of the nation had to start with the army, for “the military is the most complete expression of the spirit of a society.” By contrast, Wellington never ceased to be deeply skeptical about the place of a standing army in Britain:

It is an exotic in England, unknown to the old constitution of the country; required or supposed to be required, only for the defence of its foreign possessions, disliked by the inhabitants…. It is a necessary evil…and we should be mad were we to make a pet of it.

How was it that half the intelligentsia of Europe—Byron, Shelley, Goethe, Heine, Hazlitt, Manzoni, Nietzsche—were passionate Napoleonists? When the emperor rode through Jena the day before the battle in 1806 that crushed the Prussian army, Hegel caught sight of him through his study window and wrote to a friend that he had just seen “the Emperor, this World-soul ride out of town…. Truly it is a remarkable sensation to see such an individual on horseback, raising his arm over the world and ruling it.” What intoxicated the Napoleonists was the sense of free-floating power that their hero exuded. Very few of his intellectual admirers turned against him as the full extent of his callous egoism became apparent and the casualty figures came in—three million dead across Europe, or was it five million? Many British Napoleonists mourned Waterloo as a personal bereavement. They seemed oblivious to the fact that those idealistic little republics founded in the wake of the Grande Armée had become, as Anna Scherer says in the opening lines of War and Peace, “now just family estates of the Bonapartes.”

Napoleon Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole, 1796 by Antoine-Jean Gros

State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Antoine-Jean Gros: Napoleon Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole, 1796

Presentation was crucial to Napoleon’s long-lasting success. The stream of bulletins and orders of the day that he issued formed a running narrative, unquenchably bullish and boastful, shamelessly exaggerating the enemy’s losses and minimizing his own. These bulletins are intrinsic to the Napoleonic legend and frequently republished by enthusiasts who seem blithely indifferent to their mendacity.

By contrast, Dwyer kicked off his three-volume biography by exposing a particularly ripe embellishment of Napoleon’s victory at Arcola in his Italian campaign. According to the legend, he seized the flag from the standard-bearer and stormed the narrow bridge under a hail of Austrian bullets. The scene was immortalized not only in the bulletin but in countless engravings and paintings, notably Antoine-Jean Gros’s Napoleon Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole. In reality, Napoleon started across the bridge with the flag, but his troops refused to follow him and were driven back by Austrian fire. In the chaos of the retreat, he was shoved into a ditch up to his neck in water and nearly drowned. Two other generals had to be sent to take Arcola from the rear. Nobody crossed the bridge. In private, French commanders denounced the cowardice of their men and praised the fighting spirit of the Austrians. The untruthfulness of the bulletins became so notorious that the phrase “to lie like a bulletin” crept into popular parlance.

All politicians try to manage the news, but Napoleon was a pioneer of the around-the-clock approach. This sprang from his impatience, which was both his dominant virtue and his fatal flaw. He took five minutes for breakfast, fifteen minutes or less for dinner, allegedly five minutes for sex. In war, his watchword was “Activité, activité, vitesse!” He always wanted to move on to the next big battle, not to hesitate before charging: “on s’engage, et puis on voit”—you engage, and then you see. He was baffled, most fatally in Russia, by opponents who retreated or bided their time. And yet the tsar had given his envoy full warning of the tactics he intended to use: “Space is a barrier. If after a few defeats I retreat, sweeping along the population, if I leave it to time, to the wilderness, to the climate to defend me, I may yet have the last word.”

Napoleon didn’t listen and was shocked to find that the Russians had torched their own villages and cities in his path and that his troops had to forage wider and wider to find anything to eat. He blamed the weather, as sympathetic historians have done ever since, but the Grande Armée had already lost hundreds of thousands of troops and horses before the first snowfall. Guibert’s principle of living off the countryside simply didn’t work in the poor and thinly populated terrain. But then this was not Napoleon’s first failure in the commissariat department. In Italy his troops had no boots, in Syria no water.

Nor did he pause to consider that the nature of warfare might be changing. As the armies on both sides grew larger and larger, from tens of thousands in the Italian campaigns to hundreds of thousands at Leipzig and Waterloo, smash-and-grab tactics no longer worked. And the opposing generals were getting better all the time, many of them having learned much from Napoleon himself. Battles were no longer a matter of a glorious afternoon but spread over several days of attrition, withdrawal, and slow, terrible slaughter. His lack of reflectiveness applied particularly to the decision to invade Spain and Portugal and then, four years later, Poland and Russia. Both decisions sprang from the same misguided imperative: to enforce his Continent-wide blockade and starve Britain into submission.

The blockade—or the Continental System—was, like so much else in Napoleon’s mental furniture, inherited from the Convention, which governed France from 1792 until 1795, and from the Directory that succeeded it. The last achievement of the fragile cause of free trade had been the Anglo-French Eden Treaty of 1786, at William Pitt’s earnest instigation (he was a devoted follower of Adam Smith). But most leading Frenchmen were convinced mercantilists and were persuaded that the subsequent inrush of British goods had helped to bankrupt the country and spark the Revolution. A blockade was the only answer. Bertrand Barère, a firebrand on the Committee of Public Safety, bellowed: “Let us decree a solemn Navigation Act and the isle of shopkeepers will be ruined.” It may have been from Barère that Napoleon first heard the phrase “a nation of shopkeepers,” usually attributed to Adam Smith. He had a copy of The Wealth of Nations, but if he ever read it, he certainly didn’t take it in.

In 1796 the Directory tightened the blockade, so when Napoleon formally set up his Continental System ten years later, he was only entrenching an established policy. The Peace of Amiens between France and Britain in 1802 was destined not to last because neither side considered turning it into a commercial treaty. To tweak Clausewitz, Napoleon’s wars were always a continuation of trade wars by others means. He could never afford to offend his prime constituency: the hard-faced men who had snapped up the property of Church and aristocracy that had been confiscated in the Revolution. His coronation oath included the promise of “the irreversibility of the sale of the biens nationaux.” Similarly, the 1799 constitution of the Consulate had been founded “on the sacred rights of property, equality and liberty.” Goodbye to fraternity in the new bourgeois supremacy.

France had no practical means of enforcing the blockade. Even before Trafalgar, Britain’s better-equipped navy ruled the waves. As Lord Chancellor Erskine chortled in the House of Lords, “Napoleon might just as well have declared the moon in a state of blockade.” The Continental System could only be a self-blockade, which had all the usual consequences that protectionism brings with it: smuggling on a heroic scale, a booming black market with friends in high places (not least Napoleon’s own court, Josephine included), and a desperate search for import substitutes—the emperor greeted the sugar beet as a savior. Inevitably France’s customs revenues collapsed, from 51 million francs in 1806 to 11.5 million in 1809. Desperate for cash, Napoleon proclaimed Le Nouveau Système, a complex system of licenses such as England already had.

Zamoyski does his best to give credit for Napoleon’s good intentions, while detailing the swathe of damage he inflicted on a whole continent over two decades. Yet ultimately I find the same sensation in reading his Life as I do in reading Andrew Roberts’s much more admiring blockbuster or Philip Dwyer’s relentlessly caustic trilogy. One suddenly perceives a strange emptiness at Napoleon’s core, a lack of any real purpose beyond gaining and retaining power. What exactly are his armies plowing through the sands of Syria and the snows of Russia for? Never has the term “ego trip” seemed more fitting.