Roberts’ account centres on a romantic account of Napoleon, from modest backgrounds to Emperor, who represented the Enlightenment ideals of rationality, progress and meritocracy. Whilst remarkably realist in painting Napoleon as the socially conservative, middle class, army man that he was, it also takes a positive view of the individual genius that possessed him which briefly awed all of Europe. Another of Roberts’ central points throughout is that many of the legal, cultural and administrative policies of Napoleon, particularly the Napoleonic Code, have endured and long outlived him.
Whilst Roberts’ account of Napoleon as the embodiment of enlightenment ideals is what you would expect from this book’s title, it is often at it’s best when demonstrating the Machiavellian flexibilities Napoleon was capable of.
This is first visible in his acceptance and embracing of the power of France over his native Corsica. His family’s connections to the native Corsican insurgency, from his upbringing in Ajaccio, briefly appears as the most obvious avenue to him, but eventually pales into insignificance against the opportunity afforded to his ambitions by the meritocratic atmosphere of the French Revolution & the chaos of the revolutionary wars.
The book largely centres on Roberts’ painstakingly meticulous analysis of the vast archives of letters that Napoleon produced during his career; and there is also plenty for military buffs with in-depth military studies of each of Napoleons battles and campaigns, something you’d expect from a grand history project such as this. Roberts gives engaging accounts of the near constant wars of the Napoleonic era, demonstrating Napoleons’ often-genuine reluctance for war, but ultimately his own firm belief in his abilities to pull off increasingly audacious victories.
Roberts also excellently captures the many personal relationships Napoleon enjoyed and endured through his life. The most interesting is that between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I of Russia, which verges on looking like a 19th century blueprint for the ruthless games between US President Frank Underwood and his Russian counterpart in series three of House of Cards.
Immediately taken in by the Tsar’s first words of “I shall be your second against England,” Napoleon forever clung to the idea of a possible truce with Russia through out his many battles with her. After a brief friendship forged from the grand summit of Tilsit, and a later attempt by Napoleon to marry into the Romanov bloodline, the Tsar’s appetite for alliance soured dramatically. Roberts pinpoints this largely to Napoleon’s trade-strangling Continental system and his Machiavellian tactics of fostering local support in the East by encouraging a nascent Polish nationalism.
Tsar Alexander I’s biding of time to destroy Napoleon hangs over much of the book and early glimpses of the hubris upon which most popular interpretations on Napoleon are built upon begin to appear. The most obvious comes with the French Emperor’s statement in a letter that French armies could surely overcome any climate or arduous environment, noted during an early pursuit of the Duke of Wellington in the mountains of northern Spain.
Although what is most interesting about Roberts’ account is it’s definitive break with the common mode of interpreting Napoleon as an absolutist ruler with a hubristic ego.
The infamous 1812 Russian campaign is the best example as it receives analysis that goes much further than merely painting the Emperor as hell bent on invading the known world, but is presented as a logical reaction to a long chain of events and influences, many of which were beyond Napoleons’ control. The horrific nature of the campaign, through its never ending marches, murderous weather, ravaging diseases are also masterly captured, culminating in the grand spectacle of the burning of Moscow by it’s inhabitants to snatch it from Napoleon’s grasp, from which his fortunes do not really recover.
Ultimately then this book is a traditional addition to the ‘great man’ canon of history but manages to achieve a remarkable amount of balance. Whilst clearly having a positive view of Napoleon’s un-doubtable achievements and legacy, Roberts’ is obviously not blind to his massive shortcomings. The most central are a lack of appreciation of naval power, particularly after the destruction of the French fleet at Trafalgar, fed by a self-centred belief in the prestige of land armies and battles. This, coupled with the continental system he constructed from the Baltic States around the European Continent’s coastlines to the border of the Ottoman Empire, formed the master plan for a French dominated Europe which strangely ignored the naval, commercial and economic might of his gravest foe against the channel.
It is this balance that makes this book a must, although very long, read for anyone interested in moving their understanding of such an important historical figure like Napoleon beyond the understandably popular bias of him merely as a crazed dictator as well the central point of Roberts’ admiration for Napoleon: that his dramatic rise, fall and legacy demonstrate the ability one individual can have upon history.