Napoleon: More hero or villain? Ample evidence for either judgment in new biography

This Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ 1804 portrait of Napoleon shows him as a civilian officer instead of an invading hero.
This Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ 1804 portrait of Napoleon shows him as a civilian officer instead of an invading hero. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Liège, France

“Ah, if it were only to be done over again!” said Napoleon Bonaparte about the Battle of Waterloo as he sailed into exile and imprisonment. He would have six years on the island of St. Helena to ponder his battles, his imperial reign in France and his improbable rise from Corsican obscurity.

Napoleon was a whirling dynamo whose ceaseless energy led Talleyrand, that wily old cynic, to laconically lament, “What a pity the man wasn’t lazy.” And the breathtaking arc of his career has attracted countless chroniclers since his death in 1821, at just 51.

He may be among the most written-about human beings in history. But perhaps none has taken to the task with greater zeal than Andrew Roberts, the much-garlanded British historian, whose admiration for his subject infuses and enlivens this brilliant new biography.

And no charge of laziness would stick to Roberts, who devoted more time to research than Napoleon spent on Elba and St. Helena combined. Roberts immersed himself in his subject’s 33,000 letters, visited 53 of the 60 Napoleonic battlefields and even sailed to that lonely south Atlantic rock where he ended his days.

Roberts begins by observing that much of the source material for previous biographies is suspect. The supposed memoirs of many in Napoleon’s entourage were often ghostwritten in an attempt to impugn his memory.

These accounts, Roberts says, have served as ammunition for those who would portray Napoleon as a “proto-Hitler” whose rule laid the moral and intellectual groundwork for more terrible tyrannies to come.

Roberts will have none of that; to him, Napoleon was “the Enlightenment on horseback,” swiftly bestowing the blessings of law and liberty upon the lands he conquered.

Of course, as Roberts concedes, Napoleon used authoritarian means to achieve liberal ends. Religious toleration came at the point of a bayonet. And freedom of expression was, to put it mildly, curtailed. But to Roberts, Napoleon’s replacement of the chaotic political and legal patchwork of Europe with uniformity and rationalism was a benign and civilizing act.

And despite his ruthlessness, Napoleon had a surprising streak of magnanimity. Cuckolded by his wife, Josephine, as he campaigned in Egypt, the rising general forgave her and made her his empress. He pursued no vendetta against her somewhat hapless lover, perhaps slaking his thirst for vengeance by himself engaging in multiple affairs.

It’s good stuff, all that political and romantic intrigue, but most readers will likely be drawn by the whiff of grapeshot. For it was on the field of battle that Napoleon truly made his reputation, and here Roberts shines.

Having visited nearly all the places where le petit caporal fought his enemies, Roberts vividly depicts the dispositions and movements of armies. One can almost hear the sounds of marching feet and booming cannon. And the dominant force in every “near-flawlessly executed battle” was the inspired leadership of Napoleon, who combined tremendous instincts with an almost superhuman capacity for hard work.

But like his subject, Roberts never slights the importance of luck, or as Napoleon often called it, “the goddess Fortune.” All history is fluid and contingent, perhaps military history most of all. Tides of battle shift constantly; at Jena and Austerlitz and almost everywhere the Napoleonic hosts contended, the initiative could have been won or lost in an instant.

For all his admiration, Roberts gives us his subject warts and all. Indeed, he can hardly contain his exasperation with Napoleon’s compulsion to exaggerate in dispatches and to stuff ballot boxes. Such chicanery bred public cynicism and undermined his very real achievements.

The atrocities that often attended Napoleon’s campaigns are presented matter-of-factly, though put into context (many people also suffered brutal treatment at the hands of Wellington’s armies).

And at times his martial instincts failed him. “Napoleon’s understanding of naval affairs was dismal,” Roberts says, and because of “torpor” and tactical errors he “very much deserved to lose” Waterloo.

And look at the butcher’s bill: Napoleon’s campaigns cost the lives of millions; his failed invasion of Russia alone left hundreds of thousands of French corpses strewn across the blood-soaked winter landscape.

It is ultimately for the reader to decide whether Napoleon was more hero or villain, and Roberts is scrupulous enough to present ample evidence for either judgment.

Roberts is an uncommonly gifted writer, capable of synthesizing vast amounts of material and rendering it in clear, elegant prose. The result is a thrilling tale of military and political genius, and easily the finest one-volume biography of Napoleon in English.

Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts (926 pages; Viking; $45)