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Good battle, good business: "The Battle of Austerlitz" (1805) by François Gerard

In the spring of 1815 the liberal writer Benjamin Constant made a speech comparing Napoleon to Genghis Khan and Attila. Yet, only a matter of weeks later and following Napoleon's triumphant return to Paris from his exile on the island of Elba, Constant accepted Napoleon's invitation to write a new constitution for France. Napoleon clearly knew how to deal with a man with Constant's tastes: he gave him 30,000 francs to pay off his recent gambling debts.

But Constant also seems to have had a genuine change of heart. For many years he had castigated Napoleon as a usurper, as the creator of a regime founded upon illegality, treachery and violence. The Napoleonic Empire, he wrote, counterfeited and parodied liberty, demanding assent and approbation from all its subjects, pursuing them, as Constant put it, even into the inner sanctuary of their consciences. For want of legitimacy Napoleon had sought refuge in imperial splendour and incessant battles. He had debased and insulted all those around him. Napoleon was guiltier than the barbarous conquerors of the past because he, unlike them, had chosen barbarism. 

Several years later Constant went to considerable lengths to explain why he had rallied to the cause of a man he had for so long and so forcefully attacked and why, with typical elegance, he had written the constitution still known today as the "Benjamine". Napoleon alone, he had believed, could have saved France from the terrible fate of foreign invasion and counter-revolution. Not only this, but Napoleon appeared a changed man. No longer was he attracted to what Constant termed "the caprice of despotism and the power of the sword". He was now prepared to endorse the principles of parliamentary and representative government. To silence the press, he told Constant, was absurd.

Of course, Constant was to be deceived. Defeat at Waterloo brought Napoleon's brief second reign to an abrupt end and this time the Empire was finished for good. But the picture painted by Constant remained. If Napoleon was the archetypal tragic hero, betrayed by his erstwhile supporters and thwarted by fate, he was also the patriot who had sacrificed himself for France and who defended the principles of the Revolution of 1789. Above all, Napoleon came to be seen as the embodiment of national glory.

It is this paradox of the despot and military conqueror as law-giver and liberator that provides the backdrop to Andrew Roberts's magisterial and beautifully written account of the life of someone he does not hesitate to describe as Napoleon the Great.

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