The most consequential figure of what historians dub Europe’s “long nineteenth century” (1789-1914)—from the start of the French Revolution to the outbreak of World War I—came to virtually define the first part of that era while setting forces into motion that shaped all that was to follow. Over the course of a single decade, Napoleon Bonaparte controlled not only much of the territory on the continent, but the entirety of its destiny. When he fell from power, the peace that was crafted in his wake largely held for a full century. The Europe that was obliterated by the catastrophe of the Great War that followed was the Europe both made and unmade by Napoleon. And even well beyond that, in the nearly two centuries since he walked the earth, no other individual—not Bismarck, not Stalin, not Churchill, not even Hitler—has emerged in the West, for ill or for good, to rival his significance or challenge his legacy. Yet for most, these days Napoleon is, if not exactly a forgotten character, a much overlooked one, a rarely referenced ghost of a distant past whose specter though perhaps unnoticed nevertheless still haunts the twenty-first century capitals of Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow.
An outstanding remedy to our collective negligence is Napoleon: A Life, by Adam Zamoyski, a noted historian and author with a long resume who masterfully resurrects the outsize character that was the living man and places him in the context of his times. At nearly seven hundred pages, at first glance this hefty tome might seem intimidating, but Zamoyski writes so well that there are few sluggish spots in a fast-moving, highly accessible narrative that will likely take its place in the historiography as the definitive single-volume biography. And this is surely the treatment his subject deserves.
There could perhaps not have been a more unlikely individual to command the world stage and change the course of history than Napoleon Bonaparte, born to a family of minor Italian nobility of quite modest means on Corsica in 1769, somewhat ironically in the same year that the Republic of Genoa ceded the island to France. It may be a minor point but it certainly adds to that irony that the future Emperor of France apparently ever spoke French with an atrocious accent, which—knowing the conceit of those native to the language—could only have rankled those in his orbit, both friend and foe. Yet, this is just one of the many, many contradictions that cling to Napoleon’s person. As a child, he was sent to a religious school in France, and later attended a military academy, which led to his commission as a second lieutenant in the artillery.
It was the outbreak of the French Revolution a few short years later that catapulted him onto the world stage in a bizarre trajectory that saw him first as a fervent Corsican nationalist seeking the island’s independence from France, then a pro-republican pamphleteer allied with Robespierre, and then artillery commander at the Siege of Toulon, where he first demonstrated his military genius. He was wounded but survived to be promoted to brigadier general at the age of twenty-four and later placed in command in Italy, where he led the army to victory in virtually every battle, while taking time out to crush a Royalist rebellion in Paris. He also survived his association with Robespierre. Proving himself as gifted in the partisan arena as he was on the battlefield, he adroitly commandeered the dangerous and ever-shifting political ground of revolutionary France to engineer a coup and make himself dictator, euphemistically styled as First Consul of what was now a republic in little more than name only. He was just thirty years old. Within five years, he was Emperor of France in a retooled monarchy that both resembled and served as counterpoint to the ancien régime that revolution had swept away.
The rare general with talents equally exceptional in the tactical and the strategic, Napoleon managed both on and off the battlefield to defeat a succession of great power coalitions aligned against him until he commanded much of Europe directly or through his proxies, while crippling British trade through his “continental system” that controlled key ports. Like Alexander two millennia before him, Napoleon was brilliant, courageous, opportunistic and lucky—all the ingredients necessary for unparalleled triumph on such a grand scale. Unlike Alexander, he outlived his conquests to try to remake his realm, in his case by spreading liberal reforms, stamping out feudalism, promoting meritocracy and codifying laws. But he also lived to fall from power and to fall hard. At the risk of stretching the metaphor, the ancient Greeks invented the term hubris to describe the tragedy in the excessive pride personified by men just such as Napoleon. Whereas Alexander looked to Achilles and the Olympic pantheon, Napoleon looked only to his own “star,” which he fully relied upon to guarantee his success in every endeavor. And one day that star dimmed. He famously overreached with the ill-conceived invasion of Russia that turned to debacle, but it was more than that. For all his genius, he ruled the French Empire like a medieval lord—or a crime boss—placing on the thrones of puppet states that served him members of his extended family or his cronies, most of whom lacked competence or even loyalty. His dramatic rise was met with an equally dramatic fall, and he ended his days in exile on a remote island in the South Atlantic, slowly succumbing to what was likely stomach cancer at the age of fifty-one.
Of course, you could learn all of this from the prevailing literature—there are literally thousands of books that chronicle Napoleon—but Zamoyski’s rare achievement is to capture the essential nature of his subject, something that too often eludes biographers. The Napoleon he conjures for us is a basket of contradictions: at once kind, despotic, magnanimous, ruthless, noble, petty, confident, insecure, charismatic, and socially awkward. Zamoyski does not stoop to play psychoanalyst, but the Napoleon that emerges from the narrative often smacks of a narcissist and depressive who frequently rode waves of highs and lows. If nothing else, he was certainly a very peculiar man who was repellent to some just as others were somehow drawn to him irresistibly, a paradox perhaps captured best in this passage recounting the recollections of those who knew him as a young man:
He was out of his depth, not so much socially as in terms of simple human communication: he showed a curious lack of empathy which meant that he did not know what to say to people, and therefore either said nothing or something inappropriate. His gracelessness, unkempt appearance, and poor French … did not help … He could sit through a comedy … and remain impassive while the whole house laughed, and then laugh raucously at odd moments … [He once told] a tasteless joke about one of his men having his testicles shot off at Toulon, and laughing uproariously while all around sat horrified. Yet there was something about his manner that some found unaccountably attractive. [p92]
Zomoyski does not pass judgment on Napoleon, but deftly brings color, form and substance to his sketches of him so that the reader is rewarded with a genuine sense of familiarity with the living man, an accomplishment that cannot be overstated. If there is a flaw, it is that the work is skimpy on the historical backdrop, on the prequel to Napoleon; those not already well-schooled with the milieu of late eighteenth century Europe may be at a disadvantage. But this is perhaps a quibble, for to do so competently would have further swelled the size of the book and risked an unwieldy text. On the other hand, there is a welcome supply of many fine maps, as well as copious notes.
Napoleon’s ambition left thousands of dead in his wake, and he left his mark far beyond the Europe he transformed. Modern Egyptology was born out of Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt; the famous “Rosetta Stone” was among the spoils of war, although it ultimately ended up in British rather than French hands. Napoleon was the force behind the Louisiana Purchase, which effectively doubled the size of the nascent United States. It was the impressment of American seamen during the Napoleonic Wars that was a leading Casus belli in the War of 1812, and it was British exhaustion at the conclusion of that conflict that spared the young republic a harsher price for peace. Look closely and you will find Napoleon’s fingerprints nearly everywhere—and you will see them in far greater detail if you treat yourself to Zamoyski’s magnificent biography, which surely does justice to his legacy.
[CORRECTION: the podcast version of this review misidentifies the location of Napoleon’s death as on an island in the Pacific rather than in the South Atlantic, which has been corrected in the written text above.]