Review of “Napoleon: A Life” by Andrew Roberts

Most people have no impression of Napoleon other than one of his being short, pompous, exiled, and apt to keep one hand inside his coat. This magnificent biography by Roberts helps to dispel the myths and misinformation, and to edify readers about Napoleon’s brilliance, achievements, and innovations.

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Many of the previous biographies about Napoleon were written either by French authors who wished to ingratiate themselves with the restored Bourbon monarchy and so were unfailingly critical (even when the authors’ own private papers said otherwise), or by English authors who had a stake in portraying their enemy as negatively as possible. In addition, many of Napoleon’s letters were only recently published, and they, as the author avers, “radically transform our understanding of his character and motivation.” (Since 2004, the Foundation Napoleon in Paris has been publishing every one of the more than 33,000 (!!) letters that Napoleon signed.)

In this book of almost one thousand pages, Roberts tries to set the record straight, and in my opinion, does an outstanding job. Not only did he review all the recently released Napoleon correspondence, but he consulted eighty archives in sixteen countries, and visited most of the battlefields on which Napoleon fought, so as to get a better sense of his strategies and tactics.

Painting of Napoleon Bonaparte, 1798 when he was First Counsel of France by Andrea Appiani (1754-1817).

Painting of Napoleon Bonaparte, 1798 when he was First Counsel of France by Andrea Appiani (1754-1817).

While this is by no means a hagiography, one comes away with an enormously positive view of Napoleon at the end, or at least, I did. There are of course, many facts and insights one derives from this extensive history, but I will just list some of the salient points of Roberts’ account:

Napoleon, especially when he was younger, was both brilliant and courageous on the battlefield. He repeatedly faced enemies who greatly outnumbered his own forces, yet he achieved victories nonetheless, sometimes through sheer chutzpah, as with his takeover of Vienna before Austerlitz by a ruse de guerre – simply telling the populace the city had been surrendered already!

He had a phenomenal memory; never underestimated the value of speed for strategic advantage; and also was rarely loathe to follow up on victories by pursuing the defeated army to make sure he did not meet them again later on (a notable difference from the approach of so many generals in the American Civil War).

Napoleon had excellent skills in managing logistics, great organizational abilities, an incessant curiosity, and a wide and deep knowledge of the history and culture of other countries, which gave him an edge in understanding how and where the armies and citizens would conduct themselves. He worked tirelessly and seemed to think of everything: he even had guns designed according to the specifications of the country he was invading, so that his soldiers would know how to use any captured guns. He also took great care with creating and maintaining a strong esprit de corps in his troops, because he believed such a spirit could counter deficits, and repeatedly, he was right.

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He was able to instill pride and fellowship in his army through speeches, a system of rewards for bravery, and a great deal of personal interaction with his troops, but in addition, Napoleon was extremely solicitous of the health and comfort of his soldiers. He lobbied constantly, and often successfully, to get them medical care, shoes, warm coats, wine, and other amenities.

Perhaps most importantly, he revolutionized military strategy by arranging his armies in detachable parts that could engage the army alone or in separate offensive maneuvers. His early successes from the use of divisional formations inspired other armies to adopt these procedures, which of course worked to his disadvantage as they did so.

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But, as Roberts argues, Napoleon’s greatest and most lasting victories were political rather than military. He was not only greatly influenced by Enlightenment scholars but was also a child of the French Revolution, and so wherever and whenever he could, he ended feudal practices and insisted on institutions that supported modern ideas of meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, support for the arts and public works, an end to banditry on the roads, and a codification of the laws.

Roberts also defends Napoleon as being not at all the quintessential warmonger he is commonly accused of being. Not only was war was declared on him far more often than he declared it on others, but it was clear there were many times Napoleon tried his best to abide in peace, only to have other leaders unwilling to tolerate his presence in Europe. Perhaps the saddest part of his story, to me, was his relationship with Czar of Alexander of Russia. Napoleon truly seemed to like Alexander, but the Czar was notoriously influenced by whoever was in front of him at the time. When he was no longer with Napoleon (the two rulers spent a great deal of time together at one point), Alexander was convinced (by others, including his mother) that he should hate Napoleon, and make war upon him. The government of Britain, too, had no intention ever of letting Napoleon rule in peace.

Alexander I of Russia in 1826

Alexander I of Russia in 1826

Napoleon had some weaknesses, of course, but I don’t necessarily agree with Roberts on what they were. Looking back from the perspective of the 21st Century and in isolation from other leaders at the same time period, many of his attributes seem objectionable rather than progressive. But I think they should be placed in context. For example, Napoleon was rather obsessed with a dynastic rule for his family, but this wasn’t unusual in Europe. It was admittedly, however, something that violated even Napoleon’s own principles.

Roberts accuses Napoleon of misogyny, and yet what evidence he provides suggests his attitude toward women was common to his time, and sometimes, even better. I was particularly impressed that throughout his life Napoleon was more adamant than on almost any other point that the commission of rape by his soldiers was anathema.

Joséphine, first wife of Napoleon I, and thus the first Empress of the French.

Joséphine, first wife of Napoleon I, and thus the first Empress of the French.

Napoleon did have racist attitudes in his early years, but was open-minded enough to learn from experience and adjusted his assessments of blacks as time passed.

The author contends that Napoleon, who was very well-educated and widely-read, erred in claiming that no contemporaries wrote about Jesus, writing, “He was clearly unfamiliar with Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews which does indeed mention Jesus.” But it is the author who is incorrect. Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews was written around 93–94 AD, and the only authenticated reference to a “Jesus” is actually about James, further identifying him as “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” Moreover, even that passage has been contested, since the book was subjected to alterations by Christians.

The author convinced me (but not himself, I don’t think) that many of Napoleon’s mistakes in the Russian campaign had to do with being hurt over Alexander’s rejection, and thus letting his emotions overrule the military maxims he previously had followed so faithfully. In any event, the Russia experience was horrific, and this part of the book is worth reading on its own if you are unfamiliar with one of the most gruesome campaigns in military history.

Napoleon's withdrawal from Russia, a painting by Adolph Northen

Napoleon’s withdrawal from Russia, a painting by Adolph Northen

Napoleon’s conviction that other powerful men would like him also led him to make grave miscalculations regarding Talleyrand, who betrayed Napoleon’s trust over and over.

In the year of Waterloo, Napoleon had additional problems. He was older, and neither as healthy nor as energetic as he used to be. Most of his best generals were dead. His recruits were raw. He had spent his career fighting armies led mostly by elderly men employing superannuated strategies, and was used to more of a “walk in the park” than he would encounter with the supremely adept Wellington. In any event, Napoleon and his senior generals made a plethora of “unforced errors” as the author calls them, and he did not deserve to win the battle.

Discussion: In this huge and well-written book, I only noticed a couple of things I thought were incorrect, and only a few grammatical problems, including a reluctance to use the subjunctive mood (which is not always used nowadays in any event); a couple of misused terms (for example, “cognitive dissonance” instead of “procrustean thinking”), and one uproariously funny misplaced modifier. Truly all of that is not a lot at all in a book of this length.

Evaluation: This book provides not only a corrective to many myths about who Napoleon was and what he did, or did not, accomplish, but an excellent history of this important time period in European history. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5/5

Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrator, John Lee, is just amazing. Not only does he keep you interested for all [almost 33] hours of the production, but his pronunciation is mind-blowingly good. In fact, it took me longer than it might have to listen to the book, because I tended to use the CDs like “Rosetta Stone” lessons – I would stop the audio and try to practice saying the names and places like the author did. My French pronunciation approved enormously as a result!

Run time: 32 hrs, 54 mins. Available as an unabridged digital download from Penguin Audio (2014).

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