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Napoleon: A Life

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The definitive biography of the great soldier-statesman by the New York Times bestselling author of The Storm of War—winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography and the Grand Prix of the Fondation Napoleon  

Austerlitz, Borodino, Waterloo: his battles are among the greatest in history, but Napoleon Bonaparte was far more than a military genius and astute leader of men. Like George Washington and his own hero Julius Caesar, he was one of the greatest soldier-statesmen of all times.

Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon is the first one-volume biography to take advantage of the recent publication of Napoleon’s thirty-three thousand letters, which radically transform our understanding of his character and motivation. At last we see him as he was: protean multitasker, decisive, surprisingly willing to forgive his enemies and his errant wife Josephine. Like Churchill, he understood the strategic importance of telling his own story, and his memoirs, dictated from exile on St. Helena, became the single bestselling book of the nineteenth century.

An award-winning historian, Roberts traveled to fifty-three of Napoleon’s sixty battle sites, discovered crucial new documents in archives, and even made the long trip by boat to St. Helena. He is as acute in his understanding of politics as he is of military history. Here at last is a biography worthy of its subject: magisterial, insightful, beautifully written, by one of our foremost historians.

976 pages, Hardcover

First published October 2, 2014

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About the author

Andrew Roberts

176 books1,025 followers
Dr Andrew Roberts, who was born in 1963, took a first class honours degree in Modern History at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, from where he is an honorary senior scholar and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). He has written or edited twelve books, and appears regularly on radio and television around the world. Based in New York, he is an accomplished public speaker, and is represented by HarperCollins Speakers’ Bureau (See Speaking Engagements and Speaking Testimonials). He has recently lectured at Yale, Princeton and Stanford Universities and at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

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Profile Image for Matt.
906 reviews28.1k followers
March 13, 2020
“Napoleon Bonaparte was the founder of modern France and one of the great conquerors of history. He came to power through a military coup only six years after entering the country as a penniless political refugee. As First Consul and later Emperor, he almost won hegemony in Europe, but for a series of coalitions specifically designed to bring him down. Although his conquests ended in defeat and ignominious imprisonment, over the course of his short but eventful life he fought sixty battles and lost only seven. For any general, of any age, this was an extraordinary record. Yet his greatest and most lasting victories were those of his institutions, which put an end to the chaos of the French Revolution and cemented its guiding principle of equality before the law. Today the Napoleonic Code forms the basis of law in Europe and aspects of it have been adopted by forty countries…Napoleon’s bridges, reservoirs, canals and sewers remain in use throughout France. The French foreign ministry sits above the stone quays he built along the Seine…The Legion d’Honneur, an honor he introduced to take the place of feudal privilege, is highly coveted; France’s top secondary schools, many of them founded by Napoleon, provide excellent education and his Conseil d’Etat still meets every Wednesday to vet laws. Even if Napoleon hadn’t been one of the great military geniuses of history, he would still be a giant of the modern era…”
- Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life

“Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow…”
- Conleth Hill, as Lord Varys, Game of Thrones

Few men or women have towered so completely over their age as the diminutive Napoleon Bonaparte. For untold millions he was a trusted leader, the man who brought order, stability, and glory to a France that had been riven by the anarchy of revolution. For other untold millions, he was a terrifying figure, an irrepressible warmonger, and quite possibly the antichrist (or the first of three antichrists, for you Nostradamus fans out there).

There were times when Napoleon seemed to bend the arc of history to his will. He pulled off dazzling military victories that captured the imagination of generations of military leaders. He seeded the thrones of Europe with his family members. He appeared a man of unmatched ability and intellect.

And yet, he is interesting because he also made mistakes. Huge mistakes. Huge, obvious, never-start-a-land-war-in-Asia type mistakes. As far as he rose, he fell in an instant, and died in lonely exile on a South Atlantic volcano.

The type of man who could do these things – who could dazzle at Austerlitz, yet fail to recognize the manifest shortcomings of his siblings; who could believe deeply in the law, yet also slaughter thousands of captured Ottomans – is exceptionally complex indeed. To attempt to understand this man, this Napoleon, is a very tall task.

So tall a task, in fact, that Andrew Roberts barely tries.

Roberts’s Napoleon: A Life, is incredibly entertaining and overstuffed with events. At eight-hundred pages of text, it is a veritable literary behemoth, yet it is briskly paced and reads effortlessly. The prose is not fancy, but clear, and Roberts does a good job narrating the many set pieces of Napoleon’s life. It also gamely tries to touch on every aspect of Napoleon’s multi-faceted being. Ultimately, however, in attempting to encompass so much, there is very little space for breath, and almost none for reflection. This is an artful recounting of facts and chronology, with little by way of judgment.

Roberts is very much an old fashioned “great man” biographer, and Napoleon is very much an old fashioned biography. As he did in Churchill: Walking With Destiny, Roberts presents an epic, cradle-to-grave retelling of a polymath genius with autocratic tendencies, and he does so with unconcealed relish that borders on boyish zeal. It is not that he hides Napoleon’s warts, because he does not. Those warts are there, whether we’re talking about the atrocities he perpetrated in Egypt, his racist beliefs regarding Haitians, or his apparent awfulness at sex (the phrase “Three-Minute Monsieur” springs to mind). Nevertheless, Roberts never hesitates in brushing past these deficits, en route to more glorious destinations.

Napoleon is one of history’s greatest military figures. Thus, it is not surprising that Roberts devotes the largest amount of space to the martial aspects of his subject’s existence. There are a lot of battles here, many of them receiving an entire chapter in the telling. Roberts describes each conflict from on-high, with a focus on tactical maneuvering that comes at the expense of visceral, you-are-there-in-the-ranks details. It can get a bit tedious at times, though the maps are a helpful aid in visualizing the parry and thrust. One of the things I appreciated was Roberts’s attempt to capture the lay of the land, commenting on how Napoleon used topography to complement his skillful use of combined arms.

(Roberts points out that he visited many Napoleonic locations, and throughout the book, he drops little footnotes that act as a sort of travel guide. He tells you how places look today, where to get the best view, and the specific artifacts you might find in a certain museum).

It’s not really fair to criticize the topical imbalance in a single-volume biography of Napoleon. Whole tomes have been devoted to the smallest details of his life. (In the introduction, Roberts points out that there have been more books with “Napoleon” in the title than there have been days since his death). As such, even though I would have appreciated more time spent on Napoleon’s bawdy letters – much more time – and less time on the Battle of Jena, that’s not really appropriate.

What this really lacks, in my opinion, is some statement as to what Napoleon means today. What is his place in history, beyond his extremely high Q Score? Obviously, he was the dominant figure in his day, affecting the lives of millions of people, ending the lives of countless thousands. How, then, should we view him two-hundred years after his death?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. I don’t have a clue. I have barely dipped my toes into the Napoleonic Wars – and I’m still on the fence about whether I’m going to jump in – and it is hard, based solely on Napoleon, to gauge the extent of his legacy. It felt – reading these pages – that he burned meteorically and then went dark; that the France he constructed did not last long beyond his exile. This book might have profited from a concluding chapter where this issue was discussed with more depth than Roberts’s passing references to the legacy of Napoleonic laws and sewers.

While Napoleon left me unconvinced about the place of the Little Corporal in history’s firmament, there is no doubt he is worth studying, if only to gaze in awe at the way his reach exceeded his grasp.

I finished reading Napoleon while sitting on my porch. Winter had broken, the sun was shining, and I was drinking cheap wine while surveying my modest front-yard, which I had conquered with a thirty-year mortgage. It was hard not to reflect on Napoleon’s mighty achievements, how he parlayed ambition, drive, skill, and an exquisite sense of timing – to see the opportunity in the world’s convulsions – into a dizzying rise from anonymous artillery officer to emperor. It was humbling, to be sure. Yet, I also smiled to see how we had ended up in the same place, the both of us on a porch on the continuum of time, drinking wine and reading books, the masters of not-much-at-all.

That’s what makes this such a spectacular tale. Napoleon’s rise was tremendous, but his fall even more precipitous. Napoleon’s genius was unsurpassed, except by his dimwitted miscalculations. He only lost a handful of battles, but one of them happened to be the Battle of Waterloo, the textbook definition of decisive.

Napoleon once remarked, upon his retreat from Moscow, “that from the sublime to the ridiculous is but one step.”

Importantly for later readers, it was a spectacular step.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 2 books247k followers
August 18, 2019
"The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire".

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Napoleon Bonaparte may never have stalked so largely through the pages of early 19th century history if not for the French Revolution. He almost didn’t survive it. He was even arrested at one point by the counter-revolutionists as a collaborator with Robespierre, which even for a man of Napoleon’s self-assurance must have been a moment of uncertainty. The trials of this period were mere shams, so regardless of your level of guilt or innocence, it was hard to gauge what would be your fate. I was not surprised, of course, that he did reassure his captors and was liberated. In the military he benefited from the mass retirements of many overaged commanders that helped clear the way for his ascension. Timing is everything, as they say, and certainly, Napoleon picked a good time for a man to be alive who had aspirations to be the next Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great.

Napoleon proved himself more than adept on the battlefield, even as a second lieutenant, and rose quickly through the ranks. Being successful in the military was not enough for him. With the annihilation of most of the powerful men in France, who lost their heads to the guillotine, yet again another power vacuum created an audacious opportunity for the young Napoleon. Fresh off recent military victories, he used that success to propel himself to the forefront of an audacious coup d'etat that put him in the First Consul’s chair at the tender age of 30.

Obviously, he was a man who, by the force of his personality, convinced everyone around him of his capabilities. The consulship was supposed to be a single term, but when the time came for the position to switch to someone else, Napoleon remained. The administration was disguised as a republican government, but in reality, it was a dictatorship. The men around him, forming this new government, were older and more experienced than he was, but they ended up deferring to Napoleon’s wants and desires, and by doing so let the last line of defense against his attainment of complete power crumble without a fight. I don’t know if I was more amazed or baffled at this revelation.

Napoleon declared himself emperor for life in 1804.

He certainly did not win all of his battles, but he won many of them in spectacular fashion. His tactics and the outcomes of his battles still continue to be studied today. When people run simulations of his final defeat at Waterloo, they show the French winning. So why did he lose? The better question to ask is, Why did he win all those other battles? Yes, there were brilliant military decisions made, but what really made the difference was the speed with which he implemented those tactics. At Waterloo, his brilliantly developed battle plan was circumvented by sluggish responses to his commands. The command structure was not as well oiled as it had been before his abdication. It seems to me that Napoleon might have lost some of his edge as well. Long before the Prussians arrived to break his flank, he had ample opportunity to rout the Austrians and the British.

So, did Wellington defeat Napoleon, or did Napoleon defeat himself? I’d say both, which is usually the case of most battles. One side makes critical errors, and the other side capitalizes on those mistakes. The Duke of Wellington on hearing about the death of Napoleon said: ”Now I may say I am the most successful general alive.” Long before Waterloo, Wellington had proven himself one of the greatest generals of that age, or really any age. Was he being modest, or was he quite possibly one of the best qualified men who faced Napoleon to recognize his genius?

An odd little tidbit about Wellington that I found amusing was that he slept with two of Napoleon’s mistresses.

As close as one can come to sleeping with the man himself. *shiver*

In my opinion, the Russian campaign should have been the end of his rule as Emperor, and in many ways it was. The constant wars had weakened not only his army but France as well. In 1812, he decided to invade Russia with a massive army. He pushed the Russians back at the heavy cost of men and supplies and captured Moscow, only to watch the Russians burn their own city. There were lots of tactical decisions for burning Moscow to keep the French from using the city to supply their army, but when I thought about the long term cost to the Russian people, it left me shaking my head.

The one thing the Russians could count on was that the winter would prove to be their best defense. They could lose all the battles, and they generally historically did, but the cold would destroy their enemies.

By the time Napoleon extracted his men from Russia, he had left over 500,000 of them as frozen corpses behind him. France was weary of war, and this defeat truly showed his vulnerabilities. He was no longer seen as invincible. In his conquests for the edification of France Bonaparte, he was a burden France was not able or willing to bear any longer.

Sensing correctly that the timing was right, a massive coalition of European powers attacked, and despite a series of losses inflicted upon them, due to sheer numbers, they steadily pushed Napoleon’s dwindling forces back to Paris. Now as defeat seemed eminent, French generals started defecting to the Coalition, but this might have been Napoleon at his best. He was outnumbered and outgunned and was still managing to find ways to win battles. Strictly from a historical perspective, I do wonder, if France hadn’t turned against against him, what would have happened if he had managed to keep finding ways to win?

Napoleon abdicated and accepted exile to Elba, but it was a short lived stay. Most men would have been content with their place in history. They would write a few books, enjoy the company of fawning women, drink too much wine, tell outrageous stories of their conquests to groups of adoring fans, become corpulent, and dream about how close they came to world domination.

But then few men were Napoleon.

Napoleon escaped, raised an army, and made one more attempt to win back all that he had lost. The fascinating thing was that he was even able to make a comeback at all. Given the mental state of the French at this stage, they would have to be insane to let this “madman” have another army.

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So certainly, my view of Napoleon had changed. I have a deeper understanding of the man beyond just his characteristics that created the term Napoleon Complex. I liked some of the humane innovations that he introduced to French law, such as getting rid of torture. Introducing meritocity was seen as dangerously progressive by all of Europe, and obviously, one close to his own heart. Under the aristocracy, he would have never seen the success he saw under a fractured republic, but he seized the opportunity that was there. Part of his success in war was also due to how draconian he was at replacing generals who proved incompetent. He didn’t give a fig about who their ancestors were or how accomplished their family line. He was certainly more cultured than I expected. He was an ardent bibliophile and assembled many libraries over his lifetime. He amassed an art collection that gave the world the Louvre. He changed warfare which still has influence on its application today.

Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln are two of the most written about men in history. So how does one decide which biography to read? One of the reasons I was attracted to Andrew Roberts’s biography was the access he had to 33,000 recently published letters written by Napoleon. Needless to say, an archive like this will reveal the inner man often hidden beneath the public man. Roberts also visited 53 battlefields, 16 countries, and pillaged 80 archives to bring a comprehensive, refreshing view of one of the most controversial figures in history.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading a chapter every morning with my first cup of tea, until I became so gripped by the narrative that I set all other books aside to finish the last 200 pages in one epic reading bout. Especially if you are planning to read only one Napoleon biography,...in my opinion, this is the one.

Highly recommended!

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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Profile Image for Louise.
1,628 reviews283 followers
February 4, 2023
This is a life so big that 800+ pages can hardly contain it. Full books have been written about single weeks in his life. Philip Dwyer started a more feasible "series" format in: Napoleon Vol I: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799: Path to Power 1769 - 1799 v. 1 several years ago. For this book, Andrew Roberts is to be saluted for his ability to condense the outsized story of Napoleon Bonaparte into one book as well as for his research.

Roberts brings out the best in his subject. He shows Napoleon's acts of empathy, his ability to converse with the distinguished thinkers of his day, his Code and its long lasting effects, his connection with his troops and brilliance on the battlefield. He abbreviates the bad, for instance writing that he left his troops in Egypt "without orders" rather than say he abandoned them.

I was struck on how well Napoleon fits Malcolm Gladwell's theory expressed in Outliers: The Story of Success: The Story of Success. In revolutionary France, standing with one side meant persecution when the other side came to power. Napoleon was from Corsica so earlier positions and loyalties were not known. His family was of dubious noble status which could be played either way: he could promote his nobility when it was a requirement of generalship and show that he wasn't noble in times such status was questioned. He may have been the only one with the education, ambition and determination to fit the new requirements for positions that could be obtained by (or created by) commoners in Europe in this sliver of time.

While the actual battles are the least of my historical interests the story can't be told without them. Roberts does a good job with context, logistics (although he along with everyone else leaves to the imagination what is done with 20,000 POWs) and strategy. There are clear maps of campaign routes and battle positions. The discussion culminates with Waterloo, where, after you understand the brilliance of Napoleon's previous career you understand, logistically what went wrong. This leaves you to guess about Napoleon's health (you learn of his weight gain on Elba and perhaps a hemorrhoid problem that interferes with his horsemanship) and mental state - he has only 3 remaining marshals, all the others have died or betrayed him.

I learned a lot from small things (Napoleon wrote novels in his youth and Josephine's teeth were black from sugar cane) to large (the unusual "friendship" of Napoleon and Alexander I and the "unforced errors" of Waterloo). While the section on the Louisiana Purchase in only 2-3 pages, I know more clearly his motives which show the far reach of his thinking (distant colonies will only rebel, better to let the Americans drain the British with them). The treatment of Spain and Portugal is the best I've read. The Moscow episode and retreat is so heart-wrenching, you forget that Napoleon was the aggressor. The cast is so large that in the Epilogue, there were so many whose names I'd forgotten, I stopped checking the index.

While the character of Napoleon remains cryptic, the excerpts from his letters and diaries are helpful. From the preface you learn that newly available primary sources were used. The layout of the "Notes" makes it difficult to find which ones the new ones are and/or to use the "Notes" in general.

There are many color plates including portraits of the principals and renditions of the battles, treaty signings, buildings, caricatures, possessions. The Index got me everywhere I needed to go.

I could spend a year finding sources and reading biographies of the colorful people of this era. Of the French, the most intriguing are Talleyrand and Marshalls Nye and Bernadotte; of the Corsicans any member of Napoleon's family; and of the opponents, the Duke of Wellington and Alexander I.

This is a notable assemblage of the life of Napoleon. I am uncertain if its positive spin is the result of weeding out a lot of previously covered material or the weeding out of previous bias. Writers of these "big" biographies have to make decisions on how to present facts to make them readable. In this bio, sometimes the facts won making many areas a cumbersome read; nevertheless, I stayed with it and I am glad I did.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,988 reviews15 followers
September 24, 2019
Read by John Lee. ~33hours

Description: Austerlitz, Borodino, Waterloo: his battles are among the greatest in history, but Napoleon Bonaparte was far more than a military genius and astute leader of men. Like George Washington and his own hero Julius Caesar, he was one of the greatest soldier-statesmen of all times.

Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon is the first one-volume biography to take advantage of the recent publication of Napoleon’s thirty-three thousand letters, which radically transform our understanding of his character and motivation. At last we see him as he was: protean multitasker, decisive, surprisingly willing to forgive his enemies and his errant wife Josephine. Like Churchill, he understood the strategic importance of telling his own story, and his memoirs, dictated from exile on St. Helena, became the single bestselling book of the nineteenth century.

An award-winning historian, Roberts traveled to fifty-three of Napoleon’s sixty battle sites, discovered crucial new documents in archives, and even made the long trip by boat to St. Helena. He is as acute in his understanding of politics as he is of military history. Here at last is a biography worthy of its subject: magisterial, insightful, beautifully written, by one of our foremost historians.

Picked this one up to coincide with the 200 anniversary of Waterloo.

Fantastic. The most comprehensive biography of Bonaparte that I have had the pleasure to encounter. Fully recommended.

The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815, near Waterloo in present-day Belgium, then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. A French army under the command of Napoleon was defeated by the armies of the Seventh Coalition, comprising an Anglo-allied army under the command of the Duke of Wellington combined with a Prussian army under the command of Gebhard von Blücher. (wiki sourced)
Profile Image for Gonzo.
55 reviews93 followers
June 30, 2015
Confession off the bat: This is a great biography. Well written, well researched. Hagiographic perhaps, but not in a way that makes your teeth chatter. Maps are a little shaky at the beginning, but become better throughout. All in all, head and shoulders above almost all modern biographies.

But this is Andrew Roberts here, writing about Napoleon, his hero! As such, let's hold him to a higher standard and see if he succeeds. Roberts openly admits that Napoleon is a hero of his. The book, as such, is five parts biography, one part advocacy. Roberts wants to save Napoleon from the likes of Alan Schom, whose 1998 biography painted the Little Corporal as the predecessor to the Nazis, Fascists, and Stalinists who did so much to paint the last century in blood. No! Roberts tells us. Napoleon was not Hitler! Napoleon was a combination of Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton in one man! He is the quintessential self-made man! The slayer of the Old Regime! Certainly he deserves our respect!

It's a credit to Roberts's ability as biographer (as opposed to hagiographer) that I dislike Napoleon more after reading this book than before (though my sympathies are aroused for the Young Werther-wannabe that Bonaparte sometimes inhabited). First off, Roberts's emphasis on Napoleon being "self-made" are overrated. The dictators of Nazi Germany and the USSR had equal claims on being self-made (more than Messers Churchill and Roosevelt ever could claim!). Who cares about being self-made if one's accomplishments are treacherous?

So what were Napoleon's accomplishments? Those of the military variety scarcely need be mentioned; he was a genius on par with Caesar and Alexander. But military genius is not inherently good or bad; how can we deny that the men running the Wehrmacht were geniuses, if not only for our moral revulsion? Thus, I found it very interesting to read about NB's behavior in Egypt and Palestine: As Roberts tells us, Bonaparte was actually considering converting to Islam and joining the Ottomans in order to fulfill his dream of conquering India and fully imitating Alexander. This is astounding. Napoleon, the paragon of rationality, the guardian of the French, the expounder of the Enlightenment, was ready to join one of the most backwards empires in Europe in order to quench his desire for glory. Forget Caesar--Napoleon could have very easily reenacted the tragedy of Coriolanus.

Roberts's writing about the Levant also gets tedious in a modern fashion. With respect to the slaughter of Turks at Jaffa, there was "of course, a racial element to this; Napoleon would not have executed European prisoners-of-war." (190). Of course, the fact that the French opponent Jezzar was in the habit of sewing Christians into sacks (described on page 191 for goodness' sake!) probably has as much explanatory power as the "racial element." The fact that NB treated his "non-white, non-Christian enemies" (201) with greater cruelty is more owing to the barbarity of the Turks than anything else.

I bring up this scene because the book is, thankfully, free of most of the ugly bugaboos of modern academia. Roberts, here, dabs his toe into race-as-everything explanations, but elsewhere they are absent. Absent, too, are the sub-Freudian explanations which at times characterize other biographies.(Wouldn't Napoleon have been better if he hadn't suffered from a Napoleon Complex?) Roberts lets Napoleon be a man, and not a symptom of a nagging disease or aggregation of a million social variables. This is much appreciated.

The problem with Roberts is that he is still a modern, through and through--a man born of the world Napoleon created, if you will. Napoleon's most important contribution, after all, was the creation of the technocratic, liberal state. Roberts never passes up the chance to laud Napoleon's belief in the meritocracy and equal political rights. The politics of the Revolution are forcibly applied across Italy and Germany, and Roberts never questions the rightness of this once. After all, who can argue with the equality of man? Then again, what was the difference between the terror practiced by the French army and that practiced by the rolling Soviets in 1948? What is the difference between ISIS now? It would be nice if Roberts considered the perspective of, well, the rest of the whole of Europe at the time. France was a revolutionary, terrorist state with no little respect for national sovereignty and none for kings. Perhaps the Czar of Russia is not the best representative of the Old Regime, but certainly there were civilized Prussians and Austrians who might have stood in as a counterpoise to French terror? Certainly Edmund Burke!

This is the main problem with the book. Roberts is a great author of military battles and lifetimes, but he is lousy as an author of ideas. Roberts seems to consider himself above ideology, a man so certain in progress that he need not consider alternatives. At times his political analysis is so inept and unctuous you'd think you were reading The Economist. Roberts lauds the fact that Napoleon instituted meritocratic reforms throughout his rule; he also notes that these reforms were in part to resemble NB's modern military. Napoleon modernized and made efficient the French state--again, like the military. Does anyone else see a pattern here? One has to wonder if the "liberated" peasant or Jew would not have preferred his former servitude to freezing to death outside Moscow. But!--progress...progress...

Naturally, Roberts hates the Church above all things. NB's cruel and stupid invasion of Iberia is justified by Roberts as an act of--you guessed it--modernization. The backwards Spaniards were lagging on the long arc of history, still adhering to the Inquisition (fatalities of which couldn't hold a flame to Wagram, Borodino, etc.). In all the 800 pages, I don't think I can remember Roberts criticizing Napoleon's Spanish policy but for the fact that he should have been more severe and gone to the peninsula himself. This is astounding. From 1795 onward, Spain was an acquiescent, weak power, and posed no serious threat to French interests. Beyond raw lust for power and cruelty, there was no reason to subject Spain to the lawless treatment she received at the hands of the French. Why is there no voice condemning this tyrannical, despicable course or action? Roberts provides us with no countervailing voice, and becomes sycophantic in his praise (or, more accurately, lame criticism) of NB. But the Iberian policy was a failure at every level: Morally, militarily, and politically (let us remember that the illegal and unscrupulous Louisiana Purchase did about as much for European decline as any other one act).

The reason Roberts can't come to criticize Napoleon for his mass slaughter of men is that he doesn't seem to realize the possibility for another side, i.e. that the Old Regime had a right to defend itself (or at least to not be destroyed at the price paid). It's hard to read this and think that Roberts has not been struck by the worst of revolutionary impulses, i.e. that the ends justify the means. Hundreds of thousands killed--but isn't the Code Napoleon nice? States destroyed, cultures ruined--but the Jews! They're free! There are even some homosexuals working in Provence! How can you argue with Progress?

Beyond political naivitee, Roberts contradicts himself in his descriptions of his hero. However much he may like to twist it, the Peace of Amiens was broken by Napoleon. Yes, the later coalitions formed and waged war on him, but only after his tyrannical decrees made war all but inevitable. Napoleon was a bully, and this trait served neither him nor the citizens of Europe well. There is something of the swash-buckler in such behavior which is intriguing and captivating--but again, is such decadence worth the hundreds of thousands rotting across Europe?

And so, while Roberts has saved Napoleon from the pathetic over-analyzers and the postmodernists, he has not moved on to perform the greatest task of the historian: To make us understand Napoleon's time and context. Without an understanding of the appeal and fault of the Old Regime, we can never be sure what NB is really up against, or if the wars he waged to defeat its tenets were really worth it. Perhaps such consideration is not necessary. Napoleon was intriguing enough without such considerations, perhaps. But Roberts cannot succeed in his larger project--convincing us that Napoleon was of another league than Hitler, Stalin, etc.--without convincing us that his wars were worthwhile. And he simply hasn't done this. He's only succeeded in forgetting the dead.

These considerations aside, Roberts does a nice job of letting us inside the mind of this great genius. Most interesting are Napoleon's letters to Josephine, and his other ruminations on the romance. The image of NB waiting on Elba, rooms reserved for his son and empress, is incredibly moving, no matter who the tyrant. His letters are funny, his personality is affable, his heartache is sincere. Proust said that falling in love is the only poetic thing most men ever achieve. Greater than his faux-royal processions and bloody military feats, his success and failure in romance stuck with me the most throughout reading.

Nonetheless, I still can't help but think that Roberts has not achieved his goals. Yes, Napoleon was a "great man" in the Carlyle sense, but by creating the modern state he ruined the conditions whereby later men might become great. He modernized his country, but so did Jefferson and Hamilton, without the bloodshed. He led an army, but led it to endless war, unlike General Washington who led his to peace and prosperity. Even America's murderer-tyrant, Abe Lincoln, attempted no coup and wouldn't even disallow the 1864 election which may have ruined his war. These are acts of true character; acts of true moral courage. Napoleon, as one men, may have bettered this group, but his faults and crimes loom much larger. His hubris alone killed more than his weak principles. Roberts never captures Napoleon's strange contradictions, the mix of the squalid and the grand in the man. For now, it does us readers well to remember how many of the great patriots we dote upon might have just as well become our oppressors, lashing us alongside of the Turks.
Profile Image for Andrew.
655 reviews182 followers
August 3, 2016
Napoleon: A Life, written by Andrew Roberts, is an absolutely astounding biography on one of modern history's greatest conquerors, Napoleon Bonaparte. Born in Corsica and resentful of French rule over the island, he eventually gave up his nationalist views and joined the French army as an artillery officer. Rising through the ranks during France's bloody Revolutionary period, Napoleon eventually become the centre of a coup d'etat attempt by a number of conspirators to overthrow the ineffective and chaotic French revolutionary system. Napoleon outfoxed his co-conspirators, and took full military control of France, eventually proclaiming himself an Emperor. What followed was a whirlwind of political reform, French expansion and military victory. Italian, German and Austrian states were all defeated by Napoleons armies, and the geopolitical situation of Europe was drastically changed. Multiple coalitions consisting of almost every European power were allayed and defeated 5 times, until the disastrous Russian campaign and Napoleon's Hundred Days out of political exile. He ended his life in captivity on British owned St. Helena, far away from the political gambit of Europe.

Napoleon was an energetic, meticulous and rebellious figure. He did away with most established conventions, dismissed most religious traditions (at times dabbling in Islam, and considering marrying a Russian Orthodox princess). He took personal control over much of the facets of his Empire, simultaneously fighting major campaign battles while engaging in reforms at home, offering advice to his subordinates and involving himself in minute disputes and issues. He married for love, and was with his wife, Empress Josephine, for 13 years before divorcing and marrying an Austrian princess in a political move to try and end Austria's stringent opposition of French power.

Napoleon was also Machiavellian to his core. Nothing was done if not for political gain. Every victory became a grandiose tale, and every defeat (what few there were) was played down or exaggerated. He arranged spectacles with his soldiers, awarded them for bravery on the battlefield (once quipping about how men would live or die for a bit of metal) and eating and sleeping in their camps on the battlefield. His long memory served him well, as he would remember details about individuals he had crossed briefly years before. He stacked the European states with his own family (much to his detriment) and espoused his liberal/revolutionary ideals only as long as it served. He quickly disposed of them after he became Emperor.

Roberts biography is similarly glowing. Was Napoleon perfect? Obviously not. If he was, he would not have ended his days on St. Helena. He often insulted others behind their backs, had a long memory for slights, took meticulous control of everything around him, and of course, lost it all due to his grandiose ambitions. Even so, his large number of military victories, his complete reform of the European system with liberal ideals (surpassing even Britain and the United States of the time in some respects) and the lasting impact of these changes cannot be renounced. Roberts does a fantastic job showcasing the life of an Enlightened Despot, or a cheeky Corsican Jacobite, depending on how you see it.

This book is well researched and brimming with detail, right down to some of Napoleon's odd quirks, such as his poor French, his feverish disregard for sleeping, his poor ways with the women in his life or his incessant need to involve himself in the love affairs of his family members. The book also gives detailed blow-by-blow accounts of the famous battles he fought, such as Austerlitz, with troop movements, battle maps and casualty figures. The political system Napoleon set up is examined in detail, and its successes and flaws noted.

I could write more, suffice to say that Napoleon: A Life stands out as a fantastically detailed account of the life of one of Europe's most influential historic figures. Napoleon left an impact on the European state system which was felt for years after his death. His Napoleonic code was in force until early in the 20th century in some parts of Germany. His political reorginizations of Italy, Germany and Poland helped stoke nationalistic movements in each of the countries that would have drastic impacts on Europe's political borders. His defeat marked the hegemonic achievements of the British Empire, which would last right up till 1945. His charismatic charm and leadership capabilities became legendary, and continue to influence people to this day. Napoleon's grand ambitions to be Europe's modern Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great were almost achieved, save for the fact that he eventually lost, and Napoleon will surely be remembered as one of histories greats. Roberts biography is a fantastic and detailed look into the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. It should not be missed.
Profile Image for Abeselom Habtemariam.
45 reviews41 followers
July 17, 2022
‘’The ambition he had conceived as a schoolboy at Brienne, and from which he had never wavered, had been achieved. He had transformed the art of leadership, built an empire, handed down laws for the ages, and joined the ancients’’

Napoleon’s life is famously difficult to encapsulate in a single book or in a series of volumes. One of the sixty famous battlefields he led such as Borodino or Waterloo, can yield volumes worth of content. However, I think Andrew Roberts’s book does an almost perfect job of presenting Napoleon’s life that is useful for any history enthusiast or an academic historian. I will try to elaborate why I say ‘’almost perfect’’ later in the review. This book is by no means a light read. The writing style is very academic at times and Andrew’s use of the English language is astounding. And at 900+ pages, it certainly is a big book. All in all, this is an absolutely remarkable biography on one of history's most iconic figures. Napoleon’s significance can be seen in such classics as Les Misérables, War and Peace and The Count of Monte Cristo.

The book is rich with references from letters written by Napoleon himself as well as from his family, his generals, his rivals, his friends and his close companions. The added anecdotes, factual corrections and personal notes of the author make it so easy to put everything into a historical context. Of course, like many historical figures Napoleon was not perfect. As he himself put it,

‘’The hero of a tragedy, in order to interest us, should be neither wholly guilty nor wholly innocent…. All weakness and all contradictions are unhappily in the heart of man, and present a coloring eminently tragic’’

Napoleon spoke Corsican as a native tongue and was taught Italian at school (Corsica was of course part of the Italian speaking Genoa republic for over 500 years before the birth of Napoleon). He was nearly ten years old before he learned French and throughout his life, he spoke it with a thick accent. The Corsican independence movement had a massive effect in his early political and military career. For all his education at The Military College Brienne and The Military Academy of Paris, he credits his love of books for his superior knowledge of history, military strategy, the arts, philosophy and many more. He also possessed a phenomenal memory. While in his final exile in St. Helena when a visitor asked him how he could recall the details of units that fought in each engagement, he quipped

‘’Madam, this is a lover’s recollection of his former mistress’’.

Many people, including the author accredit the love that Napoleon received from his soldiers to

‘’ [His understanding] of the psychology of the ordinary soldier and the power of regimental pride. Napoleon instinctively understood what soldiers wanted, and he gave it to them. And at least until the battle of Aspern-Essling in 1809 he gave them what they wanted most of all: victory.’’

This affection from his soldiers followed him from his Egypt campaign to his final campaign at Waterloo. Famously when boarding The HMS Bellerophon for his final departure from France in July 1815, French officers and sailors cried in the most heartrending manner ‘’Vive l’Empereur’’ one last time.

However, for all his understanding of soldiers’ morale, his administrative abilities, his genius for understanding his enemy’s weaknesses and his sheer work ethic, he was met with good luck throughout his career (which he was supremely superstitious about). He had an undeniable charisma and aptitude in the presence of intellectuals of his time. Upon meeting Napoleon after Erfurt, Goethe said of him

‘’ He made observations at a very high intellectual level, as a man who has studied the tragical scene with the attention of a criminal judge. Meeting him was the most gratifying experience of my life’’

Where this book thrives is at the spectacular description of Napoleon’s greatest battles. The vivid and magnificent portrayal of the battles of Jena, Austerlitz, Friedland and Borodino was first class. I found it to be much better than documentaries I have seen on them. Especially the chapter on Austerlitz is a masterpiece in historical writing. The details were simply magnificent. It makes owning the expensive hardcopy of this book absolutely worth it. But the one disappointment I have with the book is in the chapter on waterloo. It didn’t feel as detailed and enticing as the other famous battles that Napoleon commanded. I can’t say it’s because of the outcome of the battle. For me, it takes a tiny bit of quality away from the book.


Napoleon was one of the most consequential leaders the world has ever seen. He instituted the metric system, made French a standardized official language of the people and the government (Breton, German, Flemish, Basque and Celtic were spoken by different sections of the French society along with French before that), he set the strictly disciplined lycées (Secondary schools where Greek, Latin, Mathematics, physics and others were taught), built an extensive library system, reformed the military hierarchical structure, reformed and codified the French law system, laid the great architectural blue print of Paris including the bridges on the Seine and the sewer system that serves the city to this day. He built institutions that will be, as he puts them, masses of granite in the soul of France.

Overall, the book is engaging, detailed and highly researched. It’s everything that you would want in a history book. Principally, if you are someone who enjoys military history, this is a must-read. Another motivation to pick up this book might be the fact that understanding the Napoleonic wars comes in handy when reading classic works of literature written or based upon of this era of French and European history. To sum up, this book is a 4.5 for me.
Profile Image for Steven Fisher.
48 reviews34 followers
November 17, 2021
The Code Napoleon was based on the idea that laws must be based on common sense and equality rather than on custom, societal division and the rule of kings.
The Napoleonic Code was used by many nations who wanted to move towards modernization through legal reforms. It has been called one of the few documents to have influenced the whole world.
In 1797 Napoleon launched an expedition to seize Egypt with the aim to cut off British trade routes to India. Perhaps knowing of the countries rich heritage Napoleon brought along scientists, engineers and scholars popularly known as savants in his campaign. The resultant work would later lead to the publication of a 23 volume Description de l’Égypte (Description of Egypt) published between 1809 and 1829. But eclipsing this was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Captain Pierre François Bouchard during demolition of a wall in Rosetta. Written in hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek, Rosetta Stone eventually proved to be the cipher that cracked ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs leading to understanding of ancient Egyptian history and birth of the entire field of modern Egyptology.

This is what made Napoleon Bonaparte Great.
Profile Image for Laura Noggle.
670 reviews382 followers
April 11, 2021
Excellent coverage of Napoleon. You think you know—but do you really?

An epic beast of a book about the man who only lost 7 of the 60 lifetime battles waged.

“I lived like a bear, in a little room, with books for my only friends
. . . These were the joys and debaucheries of my youth.”

Profile Image for Steven Peterson.
Author 21 books269 followers
December 16, 2014
A magnificent biography. The author notes that he has access to thousands of previously unavailable letters of Napoleon. These letters add a great richness to this volume, and provides a somewhat different picture of Napoleon than I had had before. One of the strengths, too, is that Andrew Roberts has a cool eye toward Napoleon. He speaks highly of his major accomplishments, such as a massive change in the legal system, and he criticizes him for his weaknesses--such as the Russian campaign, his lethargic performance at Leipzig (leaving his best field commander, Davout, on garrison duty with a large force when he was badly outnumbered), and his subpar performance at Waterloo. Hence, a nuanced biography.

The book takes a chronological perspective on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. We follow the trajectory of his life--from his youth on Corsica to his developing military career to his first experiences in battle to his rapid rise in the military hierarchy to his leading of armies to his accession to leadership of France to his reforms to his leadership in wars. Over time, his victories became more labored (think Wagram) and then he suffered reverses as he began to forget some of his own maxims of war and battle. The arc from the Russian campaign to Leipzig to Waterloo shows him performing with little brilliance (as he had, for instance, at Austerlitz). His best generalship in the late period, in fact, was his fighting retreat from Waterloo. The book discusses his short exile on Elba and his return to France as well as his longer (and more miserable) exile to St. Helena.

On a personal level, we see the tensions within his own family, his relationship with Josephine, his children, the varying relationships with his top commanders (Davout, Oudinot, Ney, Murat, Bernadotte, Kellerman, and so on). And so on. The book also details his reforms in administration, his interest in science and literature, his intellectual curiosity. We see a complex and intriguing human being--flawed but also a major force within France.

Some pluses: numerous maps, to provide perspective on campaigns and battles (although some are not as useful as others); nice slick pages of paintings of key actors of the era.

Overall, a major look at Napoleon and well worth reading.
Profile Image for Nooilforpacifists.
856 reviews34 followers
November 21, 2015
Gushing bio--unusual for an Englishman. Roberts claims that newly available letters present a vastly more favorable portrait than previously available to scholars. "All too often historians have taken at face value the biographies written by people around Napoleon, whereas many of them were deeply compromised, to the point of being worthless unless co firmed by as second source." The problem is that although Roberts tries to be balanced, and points out the warts, his over-the-top admiration for his subject distorts the lens of otherwise excellent research.

One example--Roberts extols Napoleon's re-created nobility: "Unlike anywhere else in Europe, a French family's noble simply lapsed if the next generation hadn't done enough to deserve its passing on." A paragraph later, however, he describes the new hierarchy -- "a complete reordering of the system" -- from top to bottom without placing the new peers. Instead, he digresses into a discussion of the exact mix of liberty, equality and fraternity the new scheme supplied.

Similarly, Roberts's discussion on Napoleon and the Jews is muddled. On one page, he touts (reasonably enough) the Decree on Jews and Usury. A page later, Napoleon is upholding prosecutions of Jewish moneylenders, and the best Roberts can manage is that "Napoleon was personally prejudiced against Jews to much the same degree as the rest of his class and background."

While the book is readable, the writing is not page turning. Lots of facts; snippets of stirring writing (the best of which is when Roberts called something "yet another example of the luck that [Napoleon] was starting to mistake for Fate."). So far, most interesting thing I've learned is that Napoleon's autobiography "Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène" was the bestseller of the 19th Century, topping "Uncle Tom's Cabin".

In sum, Roberts is unparalleled as a researcher. But he doesn't provide the reader reasons why any particular piece of previously accepted Napoleonic legend should be rejected in favor of his new interpretation. And, although is writing is good enough, he's hardly a compelling read like a Ian Toll, Corrigan, Nicolson, Stephen Taylor or Donald Thomas; better than N.A.M. Rodger, however.

Born in quasi-obscurity on Corsica, Napoleon (a native Italian and Corsican speaker) was trucked off to learn French, then to a military academy. Napoleon not only was an excellent student but -- ill-dressed and awkward, with plenty of time on his hands-- he read of heroes and conquerors past: Caesar, Alexander the Great, etc. Napoleon's fascination (for the non-French) is in part because he may have been history's most successful autodidact. For that reason alone, more bios, and more reading, are justified.

"Napoleon represented the Enlightenment on horseback."… The ideas that underpin our modern world--meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances and so on--were championed by Napoleon."

"An astonishing number of his letters throughout his career refer to providing footwear for his troops."

"One of the reasons why he maintained such a fluid campaign [in Italy] was that he had no resources for anything else."

"'The strength of the army', he stated, 'like power in mechanics, is the product of multiplying the mass by the velocity."

"Napoleon was capable of compartmentalizing his life, so that one set of concerns never spilled over into another -- probably a necessary attribute for any great statesman, but one he possessed to an extraordinary degree."

"'Severe to the officers,' was his his stated mantra, 'kindly to the men.'"

"'I have no doubt there will be lively criticism of the treaty I've just signed,' Napoleon wrote to Talleyrand the [day after signing the treaty of Campo Formio], but he argued that he only way to get a better deal was by going to war again and conquering 'two or three times more provinces than Austria. Was that possible? Yes. Probable? No' He sent Berthier and Monge to Paris with the treaty to expound its merits. They did such a good job, and so enthusiastic was the public enthusiasm [sic] for peace, that the Directory ratified it swiftly despite several of its members privately regretting the lack of republican solidarity shown to Venice. (It is said that when asked about the Venetian clauses, Napoleon explained 'I was playing vingt-et-un, and stopped at twenty.')"

Napoleon's general orders for army behavior in Egypt: "'Every soldier who shall enter into the houses of the inhabitants to steal horses or camels shall be punished,' he instructed. He was particularly careful to give no cause for jihad. 'Do not contradict them,' he ordered his men with regard to Muslims. 'Deal with them as we dealt with the Jews and the Italians. Respect their muftis and imams as you respected rabbis and bishops. . .The Roman legions protected all religions. . . The people here treat their wives differently from us, but in all countries the man who commits rape is a monster.'"

"Soldiers! You came to this country to save the inhabitants from barbarism, to bring civilization to the Orient and subtract this beautiful part of the world from the domination of England [sic--England was not running Egypt at the time]. From the top of those pyramids, forty centuries are contemplating you."

The closest Napoleon came to being killed was in Israel, while crossing the Red Sea, as the tide came in: "[T]hey got lost as night fell, and wandered through the low lying marshy sea-shore as the tide rose: 'Soon we were bogged down to the bellies of our mounts, who were struggling and having great difficulty in pulling themselves free. . . It was nine at night and the tide had already risen three feet. We were in a terrible situation, when it was announced that a ford had been found. General Bonaparte was among the first to cross; guides were situated at various points to direct the rest. . . We were happy not to have to have shared the fate of the Pharaoh's soldiers.'"

"Even if Acre had fallen, and the Druze Christians and Jews had all joined him, the logistics and demographics would not have permitted an invasion of either Turkey or India"

"Long accused afterwards of deserting his men, in fact he was marching to the sound of the guns, for it was absurd to have France's best general stuck in a strategic sideshow in the Orient when France itself was under threat of invasion."

"The greatest long-term achievements of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign were not military or strategic, but intellectual, cultural and artistic. The first volume of Vivant Denon's l'Égypte was published in 1809, it's title pag proclaiming that it was 'published by the order of His Majesty Emperor Napoleon the Great'. . .although not politically triumphalist, the multiple volumes of the Description de l'Égypte represent an apogee of French, indeed Napoleonic, civilization, and had a profound effect on the artistic, architectural, aesthetic and design sensibilities of Europe. . . Tragically, the Institut near Trahir Square in Cairo was burned down during the Arab Spring uprising on December 17, 2011, and almost all 192,000 books, journals, and other manuscripts -- including the only handwritten manuscript of Denon's Description de l'Égypt -- were destroyed.

"he forgave Josephine totally, and never made allusion to her infidelity again, either to her or anyone else."

"only two letters of his survive for the twenty-three days between his arrival in Paris on October 16 and the 18 Brumaire when the coup was launched, neither of which was compromising. For a man who wrote an average of fifteen letters a day, this time everything was to be done by word of mouth."

"They put the orders of the officers under which which they had served . . . . before those of their elected officials. When it came down to a choice between obeying those giants of their profession or the politicians baying for their arrest in the Orangerey, there was simply no contest."

"Talleyrand was characteristically profiting from the situation. When Napoleon years later asked him how he had made his fortune, he insouciantly replied 'Nothing simpler; I bought rentes [government securities] on the 17th and sold them on the 19th.'"

"In his first week as First Consul, Napoleon wrote two letters proposing peace to Emperor Francis of Austria and to Britain’s King George III. ‘I venture to declare that the fate of all civilized nations is concerned in the termination of a war which kindles a conflagration over the whole world,’ he told the latter. When the British foreign secretary, Lord Grenville, responded by saying that Napoleon should restore the Bourbons, Napoleon replied that if the same principle were applied to Britain it would result in the restoration of the Stuarts."

"'A newly born government must dazzle and astonish,' he told Bourrienne at this time. 'When it ceases to do that it fails.'"

"Within a week of Brumaire, as a result of the new sense of stability, efficiency and sheer competence, the franc-dollar and franc-pound exchange rate rates had doubled."

"The art of policing is punishing infrequently and severely."

"In November 1799, some 40 percent of France was under martial law, but within three years it was safe to travel around France again, and trade could be resumed. Not even His Italian victories brought Napoleon more popularity."

"Napoleon took a deep personal interest in the strategic dissemination of news. ‘Spread the following reports in an official manner,’ he once instructed Fouché. ‘They are, however, true. Spread them first in the salons, and then put them in the papers.’"

"All the leading French admirals -- Genteaume, Eustche Bruix, Laurent Trugent, Pierre de Villeneuve, as well as Decès -- opposed the English expedition."

"[T]he duke [d'Enghien] had offered to serve in the British army, was receiving large amounts of money from London, was paying British gold to other émigrés, and was hoping to follow the Austrians into France should they invade. He had also corresponded with William Wickham . . . that is, the British secret service. [A]lthough he was not specifically aware of the Cadoudal-Pichegru plot [to assassinate Napoleon], he was clearly holding himself in readiness. It hardly constituted strong enough grounds to have him executed, however, except as a ruthless message to Louis XVIII to call off my further plots."

Roberts's absurd justification for Napoleon's becoming Emperor: "France was de facto an empire by 1804, and it was only acknowledging that fact that Napoleon declared himself an emperor de jure, just as Queen Victoria would become for the British Empire in 1877." Roberts ignores what made Napoleon an illegitimate ruler, much less Emperor: the regicide, the phony plebiscites, and the fact that -- at the time -- France had little territory beyond today's hexagram: part of the Rhineland, and Northern Italy (the latter of which hardly counts since it was stolen from the chinless Hapsburgs).

The Emperor "took the somewhat convoluted and seemingly contradictory style 'Napoleon, through the grace of God and the Constitution of the Republic, Emperor of the French.'"

Preparing for the coronation, "Napoleon ordered his officials to treat the pontiff as though he had 200,000 troops at has back, just about his greatest complement."

Roberts says, contrary to most other sources, "Although [Napoleon] lifted the Charlemagne replica over his own head, as previously rehearsed with the Pope, he didn't actually place it on top because he was already was wearing the [crown of laurels, meant to invoke Rome]. He did, however, crown Josephine."

"He never did understand that a fleet which spent seven-eighths of its time in port simply could not gain the seamanship necessary to take on the Royal Navy at the height of its operational capacity."

"The fall of Berlin came so quickly that shopkeepers did t have time to take down the numerous satirical caricatures of Napoleon from their window."

After the battle of Friedland: "Soldiers! On 5 June we were attacked in our cantonments by the Russian army, which misconstrued the causes of our inactivity. It perceived, too late, that our repose was that of the lion, now it does penance for its mistake… From the shores of the Vistula, we have reached those of the Nieman with the rapidity of the eagle."

In establishing brother Jérôme as King of Westphalia, Napoleon wrote, "It is essential that your people enjoy a liberty, an equally, a well-being unknown in Germany…The population of Germany anxiously awaits the moment when those who are not of noble birth but who are talented, have an equal right to be considered for jobs; for the abolition of all serfdom as well as intermediaries between the people and their sovereign."

"As the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars progressed, the casualty rates in battles increased exponentially [sic]: at Fleurus they were 6% of the total number of men engaged, at Austerlitz, 15%, at Eylau 26%, at Borodino 31% and at Waterloo 45%."

At the famous meeting in the middle of the river at Tilsit--"The Tsar's first words were ' I will be your second against England'"…Napoleon immediately appreciated that a wide-ranging agreement would be possible -- indeed, as he put it later, 'Those words changed everything.'"

It was the late-night conversations about philosophy, politics and strategy that shaped Napoleon's relationship with the Tsar.

Years later, Napoleon said--"Perhaps I was happiest at Tilsit. I had just surmounted many vicissitudes, many anxieties, at Eylau for instance; and I found myself victorious, dictating laws, having emperors and kings pay me court."

"The simple fact that Napoleon had missed was also the most obvious one: its vast size made Russia impossible to invade much beyond Vilnius in a single campaign. His military administration was incapable of dealing with the enormous strain that he was putting on it. Each day, in his desperation for a decisive battle, he had fallen further into Barclay's trap."

"In retrospect, it would have been better for the French had [Moscow] been razed to the ground, as that would have forced and immediate retreat.…Napoleon eventually chose what turned out to be the worst possible option: to return to the a Kremlin, which had survived the fire, on September 18, to see whether Alexander would agree to end the war."

"[T]he real significance of the rain was that his artillery commander, General Drouot, suggested waiting for the ground to dry before starting the battle the next day, so that he could get his guns into place more easily and the cannonballs would bounce further when fired. It was advice that Drouot was to regret for the rest of his life."

"'If it had not been for you English, I should have been Emperor of the East; but wherever there is water to float a ship we are sure to find you in our way.'"
Profile Image for Boudewijn.
633 reviews72 followers
March 12, 2020
After reading his excellent account of the Storm Of War, I had high expectations of Robert's newest release, his biography of Napoleon. I was not dissapointed.

I suspect you can fill half of the New York's library with books dealing with Napoleon and as I understood these can be divided in two sorts: you either hate him, or you love him.

Andrew Roberts is comfortably between these two camps. He does not praise him, but is here and there rather critical of Napoleon's decisions. He is unbiased and stays to the facts, but while reading the book my admiration for Napoleon has grown quite a bit. I mean, who can compare his self to this guy, who was emperor at 38? I'm 38, and all that I've managed is to become a consultant at an energy company.

As a novice reader in the Napoleon subject (I am ashamed to admit) Andrew stays to the facts, which is quite comfortable in that respect. He does deliver his tale with objective reasoning, introduces a lot of names that I've never heard of, but this is not a hinderance. Andrew Roberts seems to have had access to a lot of letters from Napoleon to various friends and relatives, which gives you the feeling that you to get to know Napoleon quite personally. Also, here and there you can't supress a quick smile if Andrew mentiones some nice anecdotes and some interactions between Napoleon and the common soldier.

So this book met in all aspects my expectations. I can imagine that for the more experienced Napoleon reader, this will not hold many suprises, but for a beginner in the Napoleon subject, this is an excellent introduction. Al in all, 5 stars!
Profile Image for Creighton.
73 reviews11 followers
December 29, 2022
Throughout the pages of history, one will find that there are stories of individuals who leave indelible marks on the world; these people had capabilities and skills that surpassed those of their time, and they are revered even today. To my mind, I think of generals like Alexander, Cesar, Frederick the Great, or I think of men like Washington, but this list wouldn’t be complete without Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon Bonaparte truly deserves to belong in the pantheon of great generals, but not even this, he deserves recognition for his political, and social prowess that was just as truly exceptional. He was a man who possessed a wealth of knowledge that was truly impressive, a man of action, a man with unbounded charisma , and a man who deserves to be looked at in a more positive light.

For so long, we have seen and heard this idea that Napoleon was a precursor to the 20th century totalitarian dictator, and he has been compared to Adolf Hitler, the bloodthirsty maniac of the 20th century. Napoleon was a man of the enlightenment, who pushed fourth enlightenement values, and created a lot of reforms that benefited Europe immensely. Napoleon was not a racist, genocidal maniac, and unlike Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte will be remembered in a positive way lightyears from now.

Yes, Napoleon was flawed as an individual, but aren’t we all? That shouldn’t stop us from examining and admiring his many talents, and viewing him not as a monsterous madman but as an innovator and a visionary. His few criticisms I have are that he put his siblings in charge of various European countries, and when he invaded Russia, he had the chance to get support from the populace by calling for abolishment of serfdom, on top of him not really using Marshal Davout effectively in the sixth and seventh coalitions. I will say his stubbornness did sometimes muddle his chances of success later on, but then again, looking at the bigger picture, it doesn’t detract from his skill and abilities.

This is the view that Andrew Robert’s presented in his book, and it is one that for the most part I can agree with.
Before this, I had never really read anything on Napoleon, and I was really apprehensive about picking this book up. I’ve always been interested in the Napoleonic wars and Napoleon himself, and I’ve always wanted to get an understanding of his life, his campaigns, and what exactly it was he left the world as a legacy?

Another one of the reasons I’ve been interested in the napoleonic wars is because so many generals from the American Civil War tried fashioning themselves after Napoleon, and at West Point they studied his campaigns a great deal, I wanted to see if I could find instances where I could find a comparison between Napoleon and someone like Robert E Lee or Stonewall Jackson PGT Beauregard, or George Thomas. I have to say, I found quite a few instances where I could see Napoleons strategy and tactics being used in the ACW.

I found out so much from this book, and I have to say that it was worth reading. It has started me down a rabbit hole of studying the Napoleonic Wars
Profile Image for John Blumenthal.
Author 11 books98 followers
March 23, 2019
Okay, I know a biography of Napoleon is going to have a lot of detail about battles in it (after all he conquered Europe, so yeah), but I just couldn’t take it anymore and stopped reading somewhere around page 100. One more page and I would have fallen on my sword.
Profile Image for Clif.
434 reviews116 followers
November 30, 2018
This book had me thinking of it even when I wasn't reading from it, more so than any other book I've read. The story is epic, larger than life.

Man is attracted to war. The threat of death seems distant when a declaration of war is made and the identification of the self with great national power, the bonding of fellow citizens that cared nothing for each other a day before, and the spectacle of masses of uniformed men marching in step puts reason at a distance as emotion overwhelms. And it all is concentrated on the person of the leader, be it a Caesar, a Washington or a Napoleon.

This has been true over all of history until technology made slaughter of civilians greater than that of soldiers and the immediacy of missile borne nuclear weapons made total destruction likely before people would even know a war is underway, let alone rush out to celebrate it.

Napoleon came along at the time when all of the factors that glorify war were present for those in the cities while the chance for heroism at the scenes of battle was high. He was the man for the time.

And what a fascinating man! Read this book to find out why Robert E. Lee said that it is good war is so terrible else we would love it too much.

Napoleon was to a great degree self educated. His idols from youth were Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. This would not distinguish him from many other boys, but his phenomenal talent on the battlefield made him one of a kind.

I cannot understand how in a time before airplanes and instant communication a general could have any idea what tens of thousands of troops were doing and where they were doing it let alone command them in a timely enough manner to counter, even to anticipate what the enemy was doing. It all relied on finding some high ground for an overlook, even if it were only a church tower, and to send and receive messengers on horseback. This could not be done effectively if the commander were away from the scene, nor could a commander have the respect of his troops were he not seen in action.

Napoleon was heedless of danger. He had horses killed under him and he regularly saw people at his side wounded or killed, on occasion being dismembered or disemboweled in the act of taking his orders. If any environment could bring on post traumatic stress disorder, this would be the one yet he functioned effectively for many years in it, and after, never suffering more than a grazing wound.

His ability as a commander is legendary. The British general, Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, remarked that in battle he would rather hear that tens of thousands of enemy reinforcements had arrived than that Napoleon had come to direct the fight. Andrew Roberts relates how Napoleon achieved this fame.

Consider his qualities.

He had a compartmentalized mind that could put everything else aside for the subject at hand. He had a phenomenal memory and a love of detail, particularly helpful on the topography of battlegrounds. He was never emotional in action, remaining cool and collected even when it seemed that everything was going wrong. He did not hesitate to use the lives of his troops as a tool when a costly maneuver was called for (as did Grant in the American Civil War). He continually asked himself "what if" questions. What if another army appears on my left? What is my plan Y and Z if my plan X is not successful? He was incessantly active, never taking a break. He had a sense of humor even under the worst conditions. He verbally encouraged his officers and men and accepted even their negative comments to him without the least resentment. He would not tolerate incompetence and he rewarded bravery and initiative. He had no vanity on the battlefield, dressed without ostentation with no care for a chest bedecked with ribbons or signs of rank. He routinely interacted with his men, asking them how they were doing, what they needed, and responded by seeing that they were taken care of. His speeches before battle were electrifying. No one could complain that he thought he always had the right idea, because time and again he had proven that he did.

In addition to all of this, he was trustworthy and pleasant to be with, knowledgeable on many topics that would engage intellectuals. He earned the devotion so many felt for him who saw him regularly if not daily. War was an adventure that made life vivid and demanding. He was not vindictive, even to the point of trusting some, like his foreign minister, Tallyrand, that he should not have trusted. Only his family members would have reason to complain of him ordering their lives.

In short, until the end of his time in power, he was a tyrant whose subjects believed he had earned the right to it. He got things done and put into practice ideas that the French and the rest of Europe had never been exposed to before.

For all of the foregoing, it might seem strange that he wanted to be crowned emperor and was anxious to have a son to provide heredity rule. But it was a time when only the United States had a democracy. There appeared to be no other way to keep order than monarchy and royalists who wished to see the return of the Bourbon kings were numerous in early 19th century France (and Europe). To his credit, it has to be said that during the time he was ruler, he gradually relaxed the total hold on power he had when first crowned.

You probably know what went wrong: the Russian campaign. I discovered that Napoleon had intended to overwinter at least once before attempting a march on Moscow, but unfortunately when Moscow did not seem distant, he went for it and succeeded in taking it, undefended, with ease. The famous burning of Moscow took place afterward. The Russians had cleverly removed all firefighting equipment so that when fires started in this city of wood there was no way to keep them from spreading. The French for all their armed might had to watch helplessly as the city turned to ash.

It was winter that brought disaster even though Typhus had decimated the army before it reached Moscow. Improper food given to the horses had them dying at the rate of 1,000 a month before Moscow was gained. This, even without a serious battle (the Russians wisely retreated) greatly reduced what began as a force of 450,000 at the Russian border. I had heard that Napoleon took his army in without winter clothing, but this isn't true. In fact they had that clothing but in the late summer when first the army crossed into Russia, the weather was very hot (upper 90's F) and the troops simply dumped their winter gear. Once snow and subzero temperatures arrived, retreat was the only option and it was too late to prevent tens of thousands dying in the process.

The most incredible account in the book is of the construction of two bridges to allow Napoleon's army to get back across the Berezina River, 300 feet wide and with air temperatures well below freezing. Engineers had to wade in shoulder deep to erect wooden trestles. Of 450 mostly Dutch engineers only 50 survived, but the rickety bridges got the army across even as a Russian army nearby failed to see it happening, a major blunder that if avoided would have ended Napoleon's career, and probably his life, right there.

It was only two years from the retreat from Moscow to the invasion of Paris by the Russian army. Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba between Corsica and mainland Italy, escaped easily, returned to Paris, and raised another army only to be defeated at Waterloo. He was not a man given to despair or the idea that a thing could not be done.

The Allies vowed not to be fooled again and his next place of exile was the island of St. Helena in the Atlantic thousands of miles from Europe. The man who had conquered Europe and enjoyed the attentions of over 20 mistresses while doing so, was alone with a handful of retainers with nothing to do but write his memoirs. Still he did not collapse, enjoying playing children's games with the kids of the locals, who appreciated him as one would a fun grandpa.

Hundreds of thousands died during his time in power, but what a guy!
Profile Image for Leah.
1,351 reviews203 followers
December 8, 2019
Abandoned at a third of the way through. The book's getting great reviews so it must be one of those cases where the author and reader simply don't 'gel' but I'm finding it as turgid as wading through treacle. After reading some truly great, well-written histories and biographies over the last few years, this one is simply failing to inspire my interest - despite the fact that Napoleon must surely be one of the most fascinating characters in history. Oh well!
Profile Image for Philipp.
613 reviews180 followers
May 1, 2018
If you're looking for an overview of Napoleon's life and google around, this is usually the biography you end up finding, readable, engaging, thrilling, more than 900 pages long. Roberts is a military historian, so the focus is definitely on military action, less on other interesting aspects of Napoleon's life like, for example, the specific art style of the Napoleonic era.

The majority of this book's maps are maps of battlefields and positions, the largest part of the text is descriptions of the various battles, which is perhaps unsurprising for a biography of a man who made his name in war. Especially in the last chapter Roberts makes a lot of Napoleon's military background, which I'm sure many won't agree with:

Much has been written about his Corsicanness, his origins in the petit noblesse, his absorption of the ideas of the Enlightenment, and his inspiration by the ancient world, but the years he spent in military schooling at Brienne and the École Militaire affected him even more than any of these, and it was from the ethos of the Army that he took most of his beliefs and assumptions.

The focus on war is the trick that makes book so fast-paced, the battles are almost described like sports matches with tactic errors and routes and whatnot, you almost (almost!) forget that every time Napoleon stirred 100,000 Europeans had to die.

Roberts' viewpoint is, let's say, conciliatory - he likes to look at instances where history judged Napoleon harshly and tries to defend Napoleon, often by assuming the most positive view ('Yes, Napoleon wrote this error in his letter, but he was probably betting on it being intercepted, thereby confusing the English!', or, 'an overzealous underling probably did that', and so on), sometimes by painting other politicians in a worse light ('[Napoleon] cannot be accused of being the only, or even the principal, warmonger of the age').

There are a few cases where Roberts criticises Napoleon more than other historians: his treatment of women and the laws he introduced (sexist even for his time, women as birth machines for the army), or the way he treated Jews ('Napoleon therefore hardly deserves his present reputation in Jewry as a righteous Gentile').

Reading this I learned lots of fun things, Roberts has a knack for finding these small side-actors who deserve their own books:

[Pauline Fourès] later made a fortune in the Brazilian timber business, wore men’s clothing and smoked a pipe, before coming back to Paris with her pet parrots and monkeys and living to be ninety.

What's ridiculous is how fast-paced Napoleon's life is, you can't help but compare your own life. He learned French at 9, joined the army as a secondary lieutenant at 16, brigadier general at 24, commander of a whole army at 27, Emperor of France at 35, lost everything and was exiled at 45, died (as Roberts is adamant, of stomach cancer like his father, not of any poisonous plot) at 51. That to me is the biggest strength here, how Roberts succeeds in depicting Napoleon's sheer energy and speed (often by citing from Napoleon's many micro-managing letters).

Another fun thing I learned is that if there are indeed infinite universes where everything possible has happened, then we live in one of the few universes where Napoleon didn't die on the battlefield. I think there are at least 20 sentences like this, perhaps somebody else should count?

With the Emperor riding beside him, Desvaux was cut in half by a cannonball.

or this one:

[..] where a howitzer shell disembowelled a horse [Napoleon] was riding but left him unscathed.

and so on!

Overall, very, very interesting reading, I can see why this is generally recommended as the general Napoleon biography.

Napoleon’s life and career stand as a rebuke to determinist analyses of history which explain events in terms of vast impersonal forces and minimize the part played by individuals. We should find this uplifting, since, as George Home, that midshipman on board HMS Bellerophon, put it in his memoirs, ‘He showed us what one little human creature like ourselves could accomplish in a span so short.’

P.S.: Did you know Napoleon was nearly exiled to Botany Bay (the one in Sydney) instead of St. Helena? I didn't!


Only those openly denouncing Napoleon were liable to arrest, and even this mild crackdown was carried out in a classically French eighteenth-century manner. When the royalist Charles de Rivière ‘proclaimed his hopes a little too spitefully and prematurely’, he was sent to La Force prison, but was later released when a friend won his freedom in a game of billiards against Savary.

Profile Image for Jean.
1,701 reviews737 followers
November 26, 2014
I have been fascinated with Napoleon for as long as I can remember. Needless to say I have read extensively about him. This new book about Napoleon was given to me by a friend who knows of my obsession.

Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France and by many people’s reckoning the most brilliant general of modern times. As a child Napoleon studied the careers of history’s titans with a view to following their footsteps. He was a general by age 24 an emperor at age 34. He promoted on merit not birth rank or political favor and changed the French military and government accordingly.
In research for this book Roberts walked almost everyone of the 60 battlefields. He also made use of the new scholarly edition of Napoleon’s 33,000 letters. The effect is a huge, deep, witty, humane, and admiring biography of 900 pages. The Napoleon painted here is a whirlwind of a man, not only a vigorous and supremely confident commander, but an astonishingly busy governor, and correspondent. Roberts points out that Napoleon was a master of multitasking, had a great sense of humor and was a great negotiator.

Robert’s new book tries to understand why this peculiarly brilliant Corsican managed for so long to dazzle the world. Roberts’s book is not just another brilliant narrative biography of Napoleon but also an essay on statesmanship and meditation on history itself. Throughout his life, Napoleon wrote and spoke of himself as though he was already an immortal: his world view was molded by the concepts of duty, glory, and genius: his law code, he thought would “live forever”. Napoleon would therefore be delighted to know that he is the subject of historical obsession nearly two centuries after his death.

Robert has been indefatigable in tracking down memorabilia and visiting sites of battles, palaces and places of exile. This is all richly depicted and woven into a narrative that is told with the aplomb of an accomplished historical storyteller. Roberts points out that the laws and structure of modern France, indeed, to a significant degree, of all Europe, derive from those created by Napoleon.

If you are interested in Napoleon I would recommend this book.
Profile Image for Omar Ali.
218 reviews200 followers
November 30, 2015
Roberts is an unabashed hero-worshipper when it comes to Napoleon. That can become a little irritating. But he has also done tremendous research and presents a very thorough, very readable and very up to date biography of Napoleon (up to date because new information, including 100s of perviously lost letters, have continued to turn up and all that information is included in this work). His hero worship does not affect my five star rating because he does not hide any of Napoleon's faults, mistakes or disasters. He just feels the need to jump in with explanations, mitigating factors and examples of similar atrocities/mistakes etc. from others to try and keep things in perspective. If you do not share his Napoleon-love, you can still benefit from reading this book. As someone who grew up hearing about Napoleon from Justice Sipra (an admirer at the Andrew Roberts level), with several editions of Emil Ludwig's classic biography always present in the house, I am not exactly an unbiased observer, but I think the book really IS worth a read. Factually accurate, extremely detailed and highly readable.
Go for it :)
Best "new thing I learned from this book"? Exactly how much money the British spent (very effectively) as subsideies to various European powers to keep Napoleon in check. I knew they spent money but it had never been clear to me how systematic, well thought out, effective and extensive that effort was.
btw, Roberts' England-love is also real. That too shows up occasionally in the book :)
Profile Image for Julian Douglass.
297 reviews10 followers
April 8, 2022
A very thorough and well laid out biography of Napoleon. How he rose from a sorta well to do family in the secluded area of Corsica to the ruler of the French Empire, Mr. Roberts does not spare any details regarding any part of his life. Mr. Roberts is a fan of Napoleon, and he lays out a well-researched argument to suggest that he wasn't all that bad as many of his [Roberts] contemporaries make him out to be. The only issue in this book is the Mr. Roberts tends to fanboy a lot during the book and that can ruin a biography for me. I am aware that biographers who try to put a positive spin on their subjects tend to be fans of who they are writing about, but there is a way to do it without looking like a gushing teenager or a member of their cult of personality. It is a minor issue, but the overall piece of work is still amazing.
Profile Image for Sonny.
422 reviews27 followers
June 23, 2020
Andrew Roberts is a British historian, biographer and journalist. Since numerous books have been written about Napoleon, one must wonder why we need yet one more. Perhaps Henry Kissinger said it best during an interview when he stated that “Andrew Roberts is a great historian who is always relevant to contemporary thinking and contemporary problems.” Thus, Roberts explains for a new generation exactly why Napoleon mattered.

Napoleon was not French at all. He was born Napoleone di Bounaparte in Corsica to a relatively modest Italian family. He was a lonely, introverted boy whose only real friends were his books and he developed into an immature, self-conscious man, always seeking approval. His favorite pastimes were intellectual rather than social. His family sent him to France to get an education; he was among the few selected for the prestigious École Militaire in Paris, where he took advantage of every opportunity. He rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led several successful military campaigns. Not being a part of the French elite, he worked his way up the ranks through hard work and natural talent, particularly in mathematics and artillery. But grasping national power for himself, Napoleon first had to defeat the enemies of revolutionary France, particularly Austria and Italy.

As Emperor of France from 1804 until 1814, Napoleon took a country in the midst of acute fiscal crisis and social unrest and made it the dominant power in Europe. He tried to restore glory and order to France, lost in the days after the storming of the Bastille, by making a series of legal, educational and administrative reforms. The central pillars of his reign were low taxes, property rights, centralized authority, and national glory. Before the Napoleonic Code, France did not have a single set of laws. The Code standardized and modernized a conflicting set of local customs and provincial laws that consisted mainly of exemptions, privileges, and special charters that had existed for centuries. Napoleon also brought enlightenment to people. In the new French Empire, talent mattered more than birth and glory depended on achievements rather than status. He abolished noble privilege while bringing religious tolerance. He was the hero of the growing middle class and he made Paris a great center for culture and learning.

Napoleon was a talented genius, yet he failed on occasion as he grew older. His ability as a master tactician on relatively localized battlefields failed him when he invaded Russia, where he was outthought and outmaneuvered in the open spaces he found there. While his engineers were able to help him and his army make an amazing escape, he was defeated again at Leipzig. Meanwhile, Wellington entered France, and Napoleon’s ultimate defeat at Waterloo came soon after—largely the result of some significant miscalculations.

Despite significant advancements, Napoleon empire was flawed, to be sure. He was driven by violence and the love of power. While the plight of many was improved, women’s rights were drastically curtailed under the new Napoleonic Code. Prior to the Code, women had enjoyed wide freedom, separate property rights, and an influential place in society. The Code also gave immense powers to the state.

Mr. Roberts is an excellent writer and a good storyteller. He brilliantly conveys the vigor and charisma of Napoleon, especially his military genius. He is at his best when describing the battles. While he never excuses Napoleon’s failings, he places the stress on the Napoleon’s achievements rather than his faults. In doing so, he often overlooks the negative consequences of the ruler’s actions. Still, this is a worthwhile epic biography.
Profile Image for Sud666.
1,915 reviews156 followers
July 12, 2021
Sometimes life can be strange. When I was a newly minted Ph.D., I did some post-doc research at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. While there I was introduced to a visiting lecturer named Dr. Andrew Roberts from Cambridge. It is funny that several years later I stumbled upon this book and was surprised to see Dr. Robert's name. I am certainly glad that I picked this one up and proudly add it to my library. It is truly magnificent.

"Napoleon: A Life" is that rare piece of history that is not only vastly informative, but is also tremendously entertaining. Dr. Robert's writing style draws the reader in with witty sayings uttered by Napoleon, fascinating side notes, and detailed maps of the various conflicts. It is in the writing of the conflicts that Dr. Roberts shines. Some people (generally heretics) find military history to be boring. Dr. Robert's wonderful accounts of the battles should dispel that vile calumny.

But there is so much more to the complex character that is Napoleon. He is generally associated with his Wars and that is understandable, but far fewer know about the tremendous changes that occurred after his conquest of Europe. Many of the old traditional structures came undone due to his new Napoleonic Code. In many ways, his progressive ideas and successes were overshadowed by the myth of this ogre-like Anti-Christ coming to burn a city near you.

Beautifully written, fascinating to read, and always entertaining- this is the must-have version of Napoleon's history. Using new research, Dr. Roberts gives the reader an idea as to the truly complex mind of Napoleon. It is also interesting that Robert shows that Napoleon did make mistakes, sometimes ignoring his own maxims (such is the case during the Battle of Waterloo).

There are many wonderful illustrations and maps in this book. The scope of the story is vast and wonderfully complete. Not only will you learn about the man Napoleon, but you will see how his actions changed the face of Europe forever.

A brilliant book by a brilliant historian about a brilliant man. What could be better? Not much. If you are going to read one history book this year, let this be the one. Highly recommended.

Profile Image for Michael Flanagan.
494 reviews22 followers
April 28, 2015
I sat before this very daunting looking book, coming in at over 900 pages, feeling slightly excited as my expectations where high after Dr Roberts last offering. I have read a few books about Napoleons campaigns before but never had I taken a look at the entire life of the man.

I am pleased to write that this book delivers an informative and enthralling read that sees the pages melt away as you are pulled into Napoleons life. This book is very balanced, with the author trying to peel back the stories and legends around the man to tell as best as possible the real story behind the man.

The huge amount of research that went into this book is evident and gave the author some great insights into Napoleon’s characteristics. This book is a must read for anyone that loves history.
Profile Image for Chris Dietzel.
Author 26 books399 followers
April 29, 2021
This was excellent and exceeded my expectations. I feel like I just completed a college course dedicated to Napoleon and am now an expert on him. Part of what makes this biography so wonderful for me is that Roberts spends a lot of time giving readers each take on the key moments in Napoleon's life, from those who hated him to those who loved him, and then provides historical context to let readers know what is most likely in each instance. This makes the entire book feel much more worthwhile than if the author took a simple black-or-white stance on Napoleon as previous biographers have done. Roberts does a great job of not taking sides while providing as much context as possible on everything Napoleon said and did. Highly recommended for history lovers.
Profile Image for Mike.
478 reviews368 followers
October 1, 2022
Full review to come. Very extensive exploration of Napoleon’s life, though sometimes it gets lost in trivial matters.
Profile Image for Christopher.
733 reviews39 followers
May 10, 2015
(Full Disclosure: I received an advance uncorrected copy of this book for free through Goodreads' First Reads program. However, the views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of the author, the publisher, or Goodreads).

Like the great ancient conquerors which he admired, Napoleon stands as a colossus on the historical stage. Yet he is little known nor well understood by people today, especially as his reputation has been marred by superficial similarities to Hitler and the "Black Legend" of libelous claims made by his detractors after his fall from power. Enter this wonderful biography by Mr. Roberts, who has written a couple of books on the Napoleonic era and is currently a fellow of the Napoleonic Institute. In around 800+ pages of narrative, Mr. Roberts dispels the Black Legends that cropped up and shows Napoleon to be not some kind of proto-Hitler, but as the last and greatest of the Enlightenment despots that appeared on the world stage during the 18th century. Napoleon had all of the admirable qualities of an enlightened dictator including being intimately involved in the regeneration of France after the devastation of the Terror during the French Revolution, being a true patron of the arts, establishing equality under the law through the Code Napoleon that would be copied on every continent except Antarctica, and the establishment of a semi-meritocratic system with the legion d'honneur. He also had the bad qualities too, including the launching of a coup that overthrew an unpopular, but democratic government, the end of most forms of political freedom, especially press freedom, the rare execution of dissidents, the tacit approval of mass murder tactics in the Peninsular War, and, most famously, his pride. Of course, what Napoleon is best known for are his battles and Mr. Roberts does not fail to deliver as he describes Napoleon's military reforms and his tactical and strategic brilliance quite clearly. His descriptions of specific battles are almost pulse pounding in their descriptions of cavalry and artillery and acts of bravery. Mr. Robert's also brings two very interesting arguments to the table as well. The first is that Napoleon, in contrast to his portrayal by proponents of the "Black Legend", was actually quite warm and and forgiving to nearly everyone, like his hero Julius Caesar. Not until the end does Napoleon seem to hold a grudge against anyone, but Napoleon never seems to avenge any slights against himself. The second interesting argument is that, contrary to popular belief, the Russian invasion was not the product of massive hubris and ego, but rather the culmination of a series of miscalculations after the peace at Tilsit that any body in a similar position could have made. Is there any way Napoleon could have planned for the Typhus fever that would ravage his army? And many of his best advisors had been killed or were unavailable to dissuade him from war with Russia in any meaningful way, though many of his advisors at the time did try to. And, yes, there were a few places where Napoleon could have stopped his army and gone into winter quarter before arriving in Moscow, but he reached those sites so early in the campaign that he could be forgiven for wanting to drive into Moscow and seek out a decisive victory. Certainly Napoleon was a proud, perhaps even egotistical man, but Mr. Roberts ably argues that Napoleon was just as brilliant as Napoleon thought himself to be. Napoleon's personal life is also given equal weight and one feels a sense of sadness from Josephine's infidelities at the start of their marriage, the pain of their divorce for dynastic reasons, and the fact that though his second marriage to Marie Louise seemed a happy one and would produce a son whom Napoleon would dote on, after leaving her for the front in 1814 Napoleon would never see his second wife or son again and Marie Louis would soon cheat on him and seemingly hate him so soon afterwards, even going so far as to trying to turn their son against him after his death. And speaking of his death, the last chapter of the book describing Napoleon's exile on St. Helena is almost excruciating as the great man seems to slowly dissolve away within a few years after his death. Mr. Roberts brings Napoleon to life quite well. The only black mark I have against this book is that Mr. Roberts argues that Napoleon was a witty tease and that many of his more eyebrow raising quotes were made in jest. But this is one area where Mr. Roberts fails to make that case convincingly as some quotes would have a remark that this was said in jest and others wouldn't. However, this is a rather small mark against an otherwise great biography. I highly recommend this to anyone who is interested in knowing more about the great Emperor of the French Empire.
Profile Image for Andy Miller.
811 reviews50 followers
May 3, 2015
This fine biography is as thorough as it is balanced. The exhaustive research by Andrew Roberts included thousands of letters written by Napoleon that were not available to other biographers as well as letters written by others and memoirs of many people from the day. The balance comes from critical examination of the sources, Roberts discusses whether certain letters and memoirs were self serving or accurate and looks to other sources to aid in that balance

The biography adds not often found nuance to Napoleon. As a soldier he witnessed the surrender of the Swiss Guards by Louis XVI, Napoleon remembered that when he later ruthlessly crushed citizen resistance in Paris before he went to Egypt. Shortly before the fall of Robespierre, Napoleon was plotting with Robespierre's brother, after the fall, Napoleon was justifiably concerned that his involvement would be discovered

The biography recounts Napoleon's victorious Italian campaign giving credit to Napoleon's superior strategy and military reforms. The Egyptian campaign is detailed and is an example of Roberts' balance. Napoleon brought many writers and scientists with him and Roberts shows that Napoleon's intellectual curiosity and respect for Egyptian history was sincere, but Roberts also contrasted Napoleon's record of respect and magnanimous treatment of defeated soldiers with his barbaric treatment of the defeated soldiers in the Egypt and Palenstine campaigns with Roberts concluding was due to the color of their skin

The biography follows Napoleon's return to France when he learns of military advances against France. This included Napoleon's coup to become ruler. It was not democratic, the legislative assemblies were against it but were intimidated by Napoleon's injection of military force but Roberts notes that such force was unsuccessful earlier in the French Revolution due to citizen revolt, but by this time the citizens were tired of the upheaval and welcomed Napoleon's ascension to power.

Roberts describes Napoleon's victories against France's enemies, not only eliminating threats to France but expanding terrority and gaining allies through force and intimidation. Roberts gives credit for defeating superior forces to Napoleon's superior tactics and reformed, modern armies. He also gives credit to Napoleon's easy rapport with his soldiers something his rivals would never even consider

Roberts spends much time on Napoleon's political, social and legal reforms which had impacts long after his defeat. Even while Napoleon became more and more of a dictator, he instituted egalitarian and republican reforms which were welcomed not only by the French people but also the people of defeated countries. Contrary to much of our history, even the dictator Napoleon was not simply another Bourbon king, his reforms were real and may well have prevented a long time Bourbon restoration after Napoleon's defeat. Roberts makes a convincing argument that Napoleon was just as interested in reforming France and Europe as he was in making war

The lead up to Napoleon's defeat is of course recounted. Roberts notes that many of his enemies eventually copied Napoleon's military reforms such as younger generals, merit promotion and modern strategies. Napoleon also made mistakes, his attempted blockade against England may have lead to his war with Russia and while Napoleon did not initially plan on going to Moscow in that war he later made misteps which caused him to change his mind and go there with disastrous results. Napoleon needlessly added enemies and a draining and dilution of his armies, he did not have to make Sweden an enemy and his campaigns in Spain and Portugal took needed soldiers and resources against the real threats to France

The biography intersperses the military campaigns and political reforms with Napoleon's personal life. He initially loved Josephine and was faithful to her only to learn of her infidelity. But Napoleon forgave her though he went on to a series of mistresses and his eventual divorce from her for a male heir and political alliance pursuant to new marriage was done so with tempered feelings, they maintained a long and warm correrspondence long after the divorce. His marriage to the Austrian princess was not just of convenience but the one woman who repeatedly appeared in his life, even in his defeat, was his Polish mistress.

There is much in this thorough and complete biography that is not touched upon in this review; all the more reason to read it yourself!
402 reviews7 followers
February 17, 2015
I embarked on this great slab of a historical biography - 820 pages excluding sources and notes - in an attempt to understand to what extent Napoleon was truly "great", particularly after reading a popular biography of Josephine which seemed to sell him short.

In the course of wading through the mud and slaughter of his interminable military campaigns, I concluded that he was a remarkable man whose greatness stemmed from enormous energy and vision, insatiable curiosity, the capacity to absorb a huge volume of facts, the confidence to take risks in putting ideas into practice, great tactical skill, flexibility and speed in conducting campaigns - when he had a single enemy to contend with and a small enough army to control personally - undeniable courage, a keen sense of self-publicity and understanding of how to motivate men at all levels - this sometimes deserted him - through a mixture of praise, rewards and decisive orders when needed. He was also capable of moments of refreshing candour and regret as to his shortcomings, and possessed a sense of humour and charm which captivated even some of his enemies.

On the downside, his desire to emulate Caesar and Alexander the Great may have led to megalomania, his attention to detail made him a control freak, as Emperor he made himself an unbridled political dictator, although he listened to the opinions of others and adopted a more democratic approach towards the end when he was fatally weakened. His continual exaggeration of enemy losses and playing down of his own may have been judicious PR, but suggests a failure to face up to his frequent squandering of the lives of the men he had inspired to follow him. He was a male chauvinist - although perhaps most men were at the time - and he made some major errors.

The most costly of these was the attempt to fight on two fronts simultaneously - Russia and Spain, and to allow himself to be lured as far as Moscow, over-extending his supply lines and then underestimating the time needed to limp back to France before the onset of winter. The shocking death toll of more than half a million soldiers, and the destruction of his horses made it hard to put up an effective defence with fast-moving cavalry when the extent of his conquests set most of the rest of Europe against him. He picked the wrong issues for stubborn obsessions, such as an unworkable scheme to block trade with Britain with which he annoyed the Tsar by trying to impose it on Russia, or the rejection of fairly reasonable peace terms when his luck had run out.

In an academic yet mainly very readable text, the author fired me with some of his own enthusiasm for Napoleon. I found myself rooting for him and wishing he had desisted from some campaigns to build his reputation as a social reformer - even as a prisoner on Elba, he arranged the provision of fresh water, improvement of roads, irrigation schemes, etcetera. He may of course have been in a cleft stick, in that he had to wage war to avoid being overrun by belligerent neighbours outraged by his assumption of a crown.

I realise that many chapters on military campaigns are unavoidable, and was impressed to learn that the author had clearly tramped many of the sixty main battle sites in person, but I found the information perhaps inevitably too condensed with indigestible lists of names of commanders, companies, details of troop movements, villages and rivers. It is frustrating that maps are not always supplied, and when included, often omit place names mentioned in the text, an indication of location, topography and scale to help one understand the course of events. I did not want to interrupt my reading to go and search for these details elsewhere. It would have been helpful to include more of the factual information in clear tables, charts and timelines - together with better maps- for easier reference.

Overall, this is an impressive work which has increased my understanding and appreciation of a fascinating historical figure.
27 reviews
September 5, 2020
I was disappointed with this extremely long account of Napoleon and his battles. Just too much with details about battle tactics and characters involved. Of course, it is about French history and they all spoke French, but I don't. That is why I bought the English version. However there were so many phrases and comments in French without interpretation that was lost on me. I listened to the audio version read by John Lee. I will avoid him in the future. He has a bad habit of dropping the last word in a sentence to a whisper so many times and then I would loose the content. Drove me crazy!
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