History, Reviews.


Book Briefly Noted, Title Napoleon: A Life, Author Andrew Roberts, Rating 4.0,

Napoleon: A Life

Andrew Roberts

Briefly Noted

Among the many biographies of Napoleon, this one ably provides a thorough albeit reasonably compact account of Napoleon’s impact on the modern Western world.

-CC-BY-SA 3.0, Willtron

Napoleon's Tomb, Les Invalides, Paris. Attrib: Willtron, CC-BY-SA 3.0.

My early view of Napoleon was as a cartoon figure: A megalomaniac who tried to take over the world. I recall looking down at Napoleon’s tomb in Paris in the company of my brother Craig, the two of us mocking his massive sarcophagus and elaborate surroundings, wondering aloud why the French would semi-deify such a bloody tyrant. The typical American republican conceits aside, we were woefully uninformed about much of the life of Napoleon.

Napoleon indeed became a man who over-reached, fatefully so in his attempt to conquer Russia. Yet Napoleon, perhaps more than any other European leader, built the foundations of modern Europe. As a child of the Revolution, he focused the violent, chaotic and beset-upon Revolutionary France, and organized it both to protect France from the equally violent European royal reaction, and to extend the individual freedoms sought by the Revolution. One of the results of this was the Code Napoléon, officially Code civil des Français, which survives as the basis for modern French republican law. Another was massive armies of conscripted soldiers, which Napoleon, with his superior generalship, led to victory throughout Europe.

-PD-US, Le Louvre

Coronation of Napoleon, Jaques-Louis David, 1806. Attrib: Le Louvre, PD-US. Click to view enlarged picture

David’s painting of the coronation of the Emperor Napoleon, right, whispers of megalomania and immense self-confidence: Napoleon crowns himself. With that self-belief, Napoleon occupied Europe, and spread the radical ideas of the Revolution and the Code Napoléon throughout the Continent. Yet Napoleon’s France was ultimately defeated in the 26 year European battle to subdue France in the name of the old order; Napoleon’s worst traits produced colossal defeats and much loss of life.

But the final peace at the Congress of Vienna wrought a future Europe with diminished monarchies and enhanced individual liberties for the average citizen: during the short period Europe was administered by Napoleonic France, the new ideas had taken root, pushing Europe inexorably towards representative democracies.

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