The Enlightenment on Horseback

Andrew Roberts’s account of the life ‘Napoleon the Great’ is magisterial and beautifully written

Books History
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.

Napoleon could have had few biographers more dedicated to their subject. Not only has Roberts worked his way through Napoleon’s 33,000 extant letters but he also walked the ground of 53 of Napoleon’s 60 battlefields. One wonders what the missing seven did to deserve his neglect! What is more, he made the long and still arduous journey to St Helena. In Napoleon’s day, his residence at Longwood had infestations of termites, rats, midges, mosquitoes and cockroaches. Today, Roberts tells us, the last three still remain.

The result of these labours is a richly detailed and sure-footed reappraisal of the man, his achievements — and failures — and the extraordinary times in which he lived. As might be imagined, it is largely Napoleon’s military campaigns that take centre stage. Apart from the vivid descriptions of many flanks turned and cavalry charges repulsed, we learn that, by the end of Napoleon’s reign, battles were lasting longer (two to three days), that armies were much larger (often more than half a million men) and that casualty rates were much higher (at Waterloo reaching 45 per cent of combatants). The latter was largely due to the huge increase in the number of cannon deployed.

Some of these campaigns were particularly brutal. Thousands of the defenders of Jaffa were massacred in cold blood. In Spain, where the French army suffered more than a quarter of a million casualties, captured  banditti were summarily hanged. After the long retreat from Moscow, many units were down to 5 per cent of their original strength: only 2,000 of 51,000 Imperial Guards remained. But winning battles could also be good business. France made a profit of 50 million francs from its victory at Austerlitz.

Military victory also invariably meant constitutional and administrative reform for the defeated. If this was true of Italy, where Napoleon established the Cisalpine Republic in 1797, and Spain, where he ratified the first written constitution of the Spanish-speaking world, it was also true of little Malta. As Roberts recounts, in his six days on the island Napoleon abolished slavery, all titles of nobility and the arms of the Order of the Knights. He reformed taxation, the judiciary, the navy, policing arrangements and the administrative structure. As if this was not enough in less than a week, Napoleon also dissolved the monasteries, introduced street lighting and paving, freed all political prisoners, and reformed the hospitals. Jews were allowed to build a hitherto banned synagogue.

Given this emphasis on the military and international dimensions of Napoleon’s life, relatively little space is devoted to internal French affairs. This, it could be argued, has been covered by others. It also makes for less compelling reading. But given that Roberts wishes to talk up Napoleon as a bone fide intellectual, some attention to the way in which he set about silencing all hostile opinion, forcing many writers into foreign or internal exile, would have been welcome. So too would have been a fuller discussion of the many dimensions of the fostering of a culte impérial and the complicated etiquette of the luxurious royal court.

We do however catch a flavour of the mores of Napoleon’s regime. The loathsome and duplicitous duo of Fouché and Talleyrand make their entrances and exits. Self-interested — and often mediocre — members of Napoleon’s extended family enrich themselves in their newly-created kingdoms, rarely displaying either loyalty or gratitude. What remains of the old aristocracy is welcomed back. Hundreds, if not thousands, of new princes, dukes, barons and chevaliers are created. The Empress Joséphine’s expenditure on clothes is exorbitant.

In contrast, and despite his many mistresses, Napoleon appears almost as a model of rectitude and abstemiousness. His tumultuous relationship with Joséphine de Beauharnais was undoubtedly one of both affection and passion. How one would love to know what the “zigzags” were that Joséphine reputedly performed in bed. But it was to his second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria, and their son, the King of Rome, that Napoleon displayed the greatest devotion. No sooner was he on Elba than Marie-Louise started an affair with the one-eyed Count von Neipperg. His son, who never saw his father again after Napoleon’s first abdication, died of tuberculosis aged only 21.

But does Napoleon deserve to be called Great? As Roberts concedes, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars cost a total of around three million military and one million civilian deaths. Of these, 1.4 million were French. For this Napoleon must share much of the responsibility. Roberts also accepts that naval warfare was an almost total blind spot for Napoleon. Even after Trafalgar, he remained convinced that he could build a fleet capable of invading Britain, wasting men, money and material on a doomed enterprise. To this we might add Napoleon’s abandonment of his army in Egypt, the abduction and execution of the Duc d’Enghien, the reintroduction of slavery in French colonies in 1802, catastrophic defeat in Russia, and other similar blemishes to his reputation. And, of course, Napoleon ultimately brought France to her knees.

Roberts however is in no doubt that the epithet is deserved. A general at 24, Napoleon lost only seven of 60 battles fought. In 1814 he won four separate battles in five days. His capacity for decision-making and daring on the battlefield was extraordinary. If he did not invent new military strategies, he perfected them, using new formations and artillery to maximum effect. Like Napoleon himself, his superbly trained and disciplined armies moved fast, in one case covering 400 miles in 20 marching days. None of this would have been possible without the creation of a new military culture based on honour, patriotism and devotion to Napoleon’s person. 

Napoleon’s military achievements, Roberts further contends, were matched and have been outlasted by his civil achievements. Having put an end to the violence of the Terror and the disorder of the Directory, Napoleon built upon and protected the best achievements of the 1789 Revolution: meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, secular education, sound finances, and efficient administration. Napoleon, Roberts writes, was no totalitarian dictator but rather “the Enlightenment on horseback”. Despite this rather disconcerting image, there is little here with which even the most stern of Napoleon’s critics would disagree. For good or ill, he can justifiably lay claim to being the founder of modern France.

Finally, there is the fascination aroused by the man himself. “For sheer intellectual capacity and its persistent application in government,” Roberts concludes, “there has probably never been another ruler in history to match him.” Watch the crowds pouring into Les Invalides to see Napoleon’s tomb and you can see what Roberts is getting at.