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Napoleon #1

Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799: Path to Power 1769 - 1799 v. 1

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At just thirty years of age, Napoleon Bonaparte ruled the most powerful country in Europe. But the journey that led him there was neither inevitable nor smooth. This authoritative biography focuses on the evolution of Napoleon as a leader and debunks many of the myths that are often repeated about him—sensational myths often propagated by Napoleon himself. Here, Philip Dwyer sheds new light on Napoleon’s inner life—especially his darker side and his passions—to reveal a ruthless, manipulative, driven man whose character has been disguised by the public image he carefully fashioned to suit the purposes of his ambition.

Dwyer focuses acutely on Napoleon’s formative years, from his Corsican origins to his French education, from his melancholy youth to his flirtation with radicals of the French Revolution, from his first military campaigns in Italy and Egypt to the political-military coup that brought him to power in 1799. One of the first truly modern politicians, Napoleon was a master of “spin,” using the media to project an idealized image of himself. Dwyer’s biography of the young Napoleon provides a fascinating new perspective on one of the great figures of modern history.

672 pages, Kindle Edition

First published June 4, 2007

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About the author

Philip G. Dwyer

16 books11 followers
Philip Dwyer studied in Perth, Paris and Berlin before receiving his doctorate from the University of Western Australia. His first posting was as a Leverhulme Fellow at the University of Dundee. He has taught European History at the University of Newcastle since 1994. His primary research interest is eighteenth-century Europe with a particular emphasis on the Napoleonic Empire. Volume one of his study on Napoleon won the National Biography Award in 2008. The second volume published in 2013 was short-listed for a number of prizes. The third and final volume of Napoleon is due out in 2017. He is currently working on a global history of violence. Philip is founding Director of the Centre for the History of Violence.

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Profile Image for Matt.
908 reviews28.1k followers
January 28, 2010
There is no such thing as the last book on a subject. If there was, we wouldn't have a million books on Abraham Lincoln. When you have a historical figure, such as Lincoln or Napoleon, it seems that every generation wants to take a crack at figuring out that man's essence. But there comes a point when you really can't say anything new. That's just reality, since man's life is finite. When that point is reached, the only thing an author can do, really, is take the collected wisdom of hundreds of previous authors and toss it out the window.

The road to tenure goes through Revision City.

In history, no one really dies. Men and women who've been in the graves for centuries still manage to evolve and devolve, grow in stature or shrink. Just look how we've taken our Founding Fathers - a bunch of white dudes protesting high taxes - and molded them into prophets whose alleged foresight can answer all of today's pressing questions (Wait, you didn't know that Thomas Jefferson was against Cap & Trade?).

When I purchased Napoleon: The Path to Power, I was hoping to get a base of knowledge about this fascinating Corsican who rose from modest beginnings to Emperor of France to one of the world's great conquerors. Instead, I feel like a read a first-class takedown.

The Path to Power is the first of a proposed two-part biography. It covers the years 1769, when Napoleon was born, to 1799, when a coup overthrew the French Directorate and installed Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul.

The book starts with a discussion of Corsica, Napoleon's homeland, which is an island south of France and west of Italy. You learn about the region's upheavals, and the role that Napoleon's father played in them. This is necessary background, because Napoleon used later tensions in Corsica to vault himself into positions of importance. However, you don't learn a lot about Napoleon's early years. This, according to author Philip Dwyer, is due to a lack of sources. I'm not going to disagree. He seems to have done his research (and he seems to speak French!). But even when there is a source, Dwyer flatly states it isn't credible. This was an early indication that I wasn't going to like this book.

Dwyer's thesis, if you will, at least in this first volume, is that Napoleon created himself out of smoke and mirrors. He was a master propagandist, and he used newsapapers, letters, proclamations, and paintings to present his carefully polished side to France and the world. He enlarged his victories, diminished his defeats, and essentially created a false narrative that nevertheless managed to trick millions of his contemporaries and hundreds of later historians.

As the book goes on, and Napoleon goes from a young artillery officer in the French army, to an opportunistic player in the French Revolution, to the commander of the Army of Italy, Dwyer time and again diminishes Napoleon's accomplishments. Now, I don't know a lot about Napoleon, so I'm not arguing that the facts are wrong. However, I did perceive a slant. For instance, Dwyer would draw from Napoleon's account, written while in exile, and then dismiss said account, because Napoleon was allegedly burnishing his image. There is no other analysis, no other attempt to disprove or corroborate. On the other hand, when someone says something critical of Napoleon, there is no mention of that person's possible motivation for his criticism. And the extent to which Dwyer distrusts Napoleon is amazing.

My favorite example is an amusing aside, when Dwyer is discussing Napoleon's courtship of a plump young woman named Desiree. On his deathbed, Napoleon stated that his greatest conquest had been Desiree's rear-end (I'm paraphrasing). Dwyer dismisses this as "locker room" talk. But wait. First of all, I understand that a man, such as Napoleon, might look back and try to put things in a good light. However, the law has always recognized that death-bed confessions have certain indicia of reliabiilty. Second of all, Napoleon is about to die. Men usually engage in locker room talk in a locker room (or at a bar, or during a sporting event). What's the point of bragging about something you've never done if you're about to kick the bucket? It's nonesense.

The bulk of The Path to Power follows Napoleon as he battles the Austrians at the head of the Army of Italy. Here, Dwyer repeatedly asserts that Napoleon's victories weren't that impressive: he didn't kill as many men as he said; he lost more men than he said; the enemy wasn't that great; his subordinates did all the work. And so on. According to Dwyer, Napoleon's achievements seem nonexistence, or at best ephemeral. Of course, this would require everyone to close their own eyes to the truth, but whatever.

Worse, in my opinion, is the complete lack of any military detail with regards to these campaigns. This book lacks even the barest description of the way a particular battle was fought. For instance, Dwyer notes the conventional wisdom that the Battle of Rivoli was one of "three great Napoleonic victories (the other two are Austerlitz and Jena)". Dwyer dispenses with the battle in two pages; the only time he mentions Napoleon is to say that he missed the first day of battle. Of course, the next day, with Napoleon present, the Austrians went down to defeat. I can only assume that Napoleon might have had something to do with that, but I'm not sure, because the book doesn't say.

This problem continues with Napoleon's thrust into Egypt, so that the battles are just names in a book: Lodi, Arcola, Rivoli, the Battle of the Pyramids. You get no sense of Napoleon's actions in these conflicts, which might shed insight into his still-developing tactical acumen. Napoleon started as a humble artilleryman and ended - despite Dwyer's views - as a military genius, who employed tactics that have been studied by generations of young officers. I'd like to know how that transformation took place. The only way to do this is by describing the earlier battles, so even if Dwyer finds their results exaggerated, one might compare them to later victories.

About the only time Dwyer takes the time to detail Napoleon's actions in a particular battle is at Jaffa, where he infamously executed thousands of Mamelukes. This sudden shift into minute-detail is glaring, though not unexpected. Dwyer even takes a sentence or two to surmise, without explanation, that Napoleon's blood-lust was precipated by his rage at Josephine, who he'd learned was cheating on him.

Ah, Josephine. The crooked-smiled tart who stole Napoleon's heart. My favorite parts of the book were every part involving her. Whoever said history is boring has never read anything about this tempestuous coupling: the suggestive letters where Napoleon refers to his own brand of the French kiss; the begging; the pleading; the groveling; the threats; the curses; the insults; the affairs; the make-up sex. They embody all aspects of the tawdriest romance novel. There's even an amusing story of Napoleon going all David and Bathsheeba on us, and sending away a French officer so Napoleon could sleep with his wife.

I suppose that after studying their relationship, you might come to the conclusion that Napoleon executed thousands of Mamelukes in a fit of anger caused by Josephine.

The book ends with the coup that overthrew the Directorate. It happens so quickly that I started to think why don't I do that, thereby becoming Emperor of France?

As disappointed as I was, I still look forward to the second volume. I am interested in Dwyer's take on Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars, because I doubt he can chalk it all up to lies and exaggerations. But maybe I'm wrong. I mean, Tolstoy was able to steal all Napoleon's thunder with his ceaseless mutterings on the force of History. Dwyer, it seems, believes that Napoleon's achievements were the result of his own self-promotion.
Profile Image for Gavin.
1,074 reviews311 followers
February 15, 2019
How did a "haggard and ghastly" foreigner from a poor-noble family end up ruling two-thirds of Europe, getting one in every 200 people in the world killed (his namesake wars were the same size, though not the same shape, as the Holocaust), becoming one of the most successful generals in history?

Dwyer's answer is via various sorts of creativity: nepotism, plagiarism, disloyalty, false advertising, ignoring orders (and then going AWOL to avoid reprisal), and but also actual military acumen.

This is true but the broader answer is: with the help of all the revolutionaries whose violence he used. The Corsican freedom fighters, the mob, the fucked-up Jacobins, and the Thermidorians each broke France, creating a ladder of corpses for people like Boney. (This feat is repeated by psychos in most revolutions.) He made general at 26 through an unearned political appointment, and was given absolute command of 63,000 men soon after.

Dwyer is out to get Napoleon: he sees propaganda everywhere (even in Boney's private diary, aged 18). The whole book is obsessed with the Construction of Napoleon - for instance, did you know that when he won a battle, he told people about it expecting praise? This sentence, or its proposition, is repeated more than a hundred times:

This encounter [with a prostitute] is taken by most historians at face value, but it is entirely possible that the account is fictional, nothing more than a fanciful exercise of the pen.

Of course it's possible, but so what? What is its probability? (I continue to read nonfiction which isn't data-driven - more fool me, I suppose.) It's weird to feel annoyed by the hypercritical spirit; I'm usually on the other side of this fence.

Dwyer is at least jargon-free. And Napoleon certainly lies all the time - to his rivals, his friends, and to posterity. An odd case: both genius and fraud - a genius of dishonesty. (Like Edison?)

Much of this long book is just a prose list of events, many of them insignificant (not to say prurient). There is basically no military detail - most of the major battles get half a page. Fine as reference work maybe.



* I knew that standing armies of the day were rammed full of pillagers, rapists, and thieves, but I was surprised to find that their generals were little better - Napoleon extracted about 80 million francs (maybe half a billion dollars?) from the Italians he conquered, under the name "requisitions".
(This is many times the tax rate of the previous Austrian occupiers.)

* The many portraits of N are comically dissimilar - simply because done by artists who had never seen him or any image of him.

* His romantic insecurity is also surprising: he writes to Josephine much more than she replies, and is constantly crestfallen to find her gone without saying where.

* "Jacobin" is a terrible choice of name for a social justice magazine. It's more like "Khmer Rouge Weekly" or "the Daily Witchfinder" than anything laudable: ~40,000 executed or left to rot and a hundred thousand in the Vendée, mostly religious peasants, as well as atrocities like mass slow drownings). The Jacobins deserve some share of Napoleon's millions of dead too - for all that N was only pretending to be a Jacobin.

Of course, the revolution nominally ended feudalism, redistributed land, and claimed to establish human rights. But we know in hindsight that this could have been done without killing 1% of the country and 0.6% of everyone alive - for instance, it was in Britain, and it was by earlier and later French republicans. So you got some nicer rhetoric in exchange for millions of gallons of blood.

It suits me to call the Jacobins a perversion of the Enlightenment. This has lately been characterised as a trick - if it's wrong for Jacobin to cherry-pick the bits they like about the Jacobins (anger, radicalisation, protest marches, beautiful lip-service to egalitarianism) then it's wrong for me to say they're not really part of 'the Enlightenment'. But it is a sick joke of history that Montesquieu's rage at torture, Condorcet's rational politics, and Bentham's impressive moral generosity must share a name with these torturing and bigoted totalitarians.

But why is Jacobin called Jacobin?

In the United States, most people do not associate the term with a particular political group. It sounds vaguely radical... I had heard the word as a child: my parents... had copies of CLR James' Black Jacobins at home. In reality, it was not more thoughtful or premeditated than that! For the artistic director Remeike Forbes who was born in Jamaica, the term refers to the same book... "Bolshevik" would not be bad as a title in fact! Why not, one day...

: just idiocy, not malice.
Profile Image for Patrick Oden.
Author 11 books24 followers
June 4, 2008
Although a history major in college I have studied very little of Napoleon or the time and places of his greatest influence. Thus I come to Dwyer's book with a love for history but without a critical background of prior Napoleon research. Therefore I must asses this book by the tools of history and by my own opinions as a reader of history books, rather than by assessing Dwyer's overall worth for Napoleon studies.

What I look for in a history book are the kinds of sources, the use of sources, the author's bias, the quality of the writing, and the interpretive skill of the author. This last part must be balanced extremely well, as we are looking for a study of the subject, not an opinion piece that pushes too much.

As a reader of history I want to be within the story as much as possible, given the facts and connections that allow me to draw my own conclusions.

According to these standards I look for Philip Dwyer has written a truly wonderful book.

I am not in a position to fully judge the source material he depends upon, however it appears that Dwyer has made ample use of a great variety of primary sources, and has then bolstered this with a wide selection of secondary sources from throughout the past 200 years. We are given, it seems, a very full and balanced picture of Napoleon. This includes more than just insights into his achievements. Indeed it seems Dwyer is more concerned with who Napoleon was as a man, with the achievements serving to illustrate the psychology and drive.

And maybe this is the best way to look at this book. Dwyer has written a very solid history that if not entirely exhaustive for some specialized scholars it is certainly such for a non-scholarly reader. Yet throughout we hear him examine Napoleon as a man, with insights and interesting perception into the motivation. This is by no means a common distraction, as Dwyer's emphasis is clearly and primarily a good historical study. He does not peek into the story very much and it seems he has written a very balanced view of a very controversial man. But we do hear from Dwyer enough in this book to make me, on occasion, feel intruded upon as I disagree with Dwyer's own interpretation or feel he hasn't entirely grounded his interpretation on what was presented. This is a minor quibble in an otherwise very good book.

Dwyer does also, on occasion, seem to want to show his proper academic skepticism in regards to the sources. This is what scholars should do, but there are times in which he dismisses a source or denigrates it, especially in the beginning, because of unsubstantiated suspicion. There is so much myth built up around Napoleon and Dwyer wants move past that, sometimes a little too forcefully and without established reason for rejection.

The Path to Power is not a light read. It is very good and detailed history, not a general overview for a popular audience. The very details that make this so wonderful a study also would bog down a great many readers, even if they have a more than casual interest in history.

I would highly recommend this book as a great starting place for research and understanding of Napoleon. It is a tremendous overview of his rise to power and the motivations and insecurities that were at the foundation of his historic achievements. For me, a lover of history, it was a wonderful treat to discover a famous man I had not studied before, and I'm greatly looking forward to another volume... to see how this fascinating story ends.
July 19, 2021
Loved it. Some reviewers feel that Mr Dwyer is unfairly critical of Napeleon. Yet Napoleon is a proven liar and what we'd now call a war criminal. Dwyer does well in highlting this. That readers 200 years later are upset about this fact is funny and shows how effective of a mythmaker Napoleon was.

This book and the following in the series are great, it's better reading than the Andrew Roberts biography, which gives Napoleon little scrutiny and is built on weaker foundations than Dwyer - who has spent his whole life studying this time period.

Not sure I'll even start the third book. Napoleon pacing an atlantic rock isn't nearly as interesting as him influencing the destiny of Europe, but at this point I feel a tiny obligation to polish off the series.
Profile Image for Stephen.
119 reviews
April 11, 2022
Very solid but wooden. Little in the way of flourish. It actually manages to make Napoleon ordinary, maybe this is the intention. Well-researched & thorough but no narrative fire. Hopefully the second volume will rectify this as the subject’s power increases.
Profile Image for Daniel.
82 reviews53 followers
July 16, 2009
Before reading this book, I had no idea how little I knew about Napoleon Bonaparte. As such, I found Philip Dwyer's study of Napoleon's rise to power wholly fascinating. The man that emerges from these biographical pages is just that, a man. Dwyer does a wonderful job of separating the man from the myth, and I was surprised at just how human the Little General was in his youth and young adulthood. A competent military strategist, Napoleon's true genius is revealed by his unprecedented use of the press, specifically the written and illustrated word, to build a cult of personality to cast himself in the image of conquering hero and born leader of men that the people wanted.

Some readers may not even realize that Napoleon was not French but Corsican. Dwyer necessarily spends a lot of time describing the chaos of Corsican history at this time, particularly in terms of its incorporation into the French empire and the political winds that blew to and fro in the chaotic years of Napoleon's youth. Perhaps more surprisingly, Napoleon's early political ambitions revolved around his family, particularly his brother who was seen as the rising political star. It was only after the tides of fortune turned against his brothers in Corsica that he began focusing on his own possible successes. These formative years are crucial to understanding Napoleon's political mindset, for it was here that his development as an opportunist rather than a devoted ideologue began.

One thinks of Napoleon's ascension to power as a sort of historical inevitability, but such was clearly not the case. In fact, one could argue that Napoleon truly didn't internalize his pursuit of power until the Egyptian campaign, when he was finally forced to confront the truth of Josephine's infidelities. His successes in the Italian campaign can be seen as an attempt to impress her. It's almost embarrassing to read his lovesick letters to Josephine in these early years of their marriage, as her coolness and unfaithfulness simply emasculate this up and coming warrior as he pines for her out on the battlefield. Sometimes driven to the very depths of despair, such inherent weakness belies the image that Napoleon was building for himself as a military hero and leader of men.

Greatly exaggerating his military successes while minimizing his losses and setbacks, Napoleon gradually separated himself from the revolutionary government in Paris. As his carefully cultivated image made him a legend to the French people, the Directory proved increasingly ineffectual at controlling their brilliant young general from establishing his own political as well as military autonomy. Here was the wellspring of Napoleon's true ambition, one which would carry him to the heights of power.

Dwyer is eminently successful at separating Napoleon the man from the legend and revealing the very human qualities - both good and bad - that defined him. Napoleon: The Path to Power, 1769 - 1799 is an immensely rewarding work of history and biography, and one cannot help but highly anticipate the upcoming sequel, Napoleon: The Universal Monarchy, 1800-1821.
Profile Image for Louise.
1,632 reviews285 followers
May 5, 2013
Most historians have to chose between writing a readable narrative or one that will be heavily documented. Dwyer doean't have this problem His writing is able straddle both styles. He has created a readable, heavily documented history of Napoleon's rise to power. I don't know the literature of this period, but the book has the feel that it is definitive to date.

While the text is not on the page turning level of "Alexander Hamilton, The Most Famous Man in America:, "The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher or "Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa", it is engaging and keeps the interest of the general reader.

Most interesting to me were the Italian and Egyptian campaigns, and Napoleon's relationships with his parents, siblings and wife.

One of the overriding themes is Napoleon's propaganda which certainly presages what we have today. There were no TV crews in Egypt so Napoleon had a blank slate to write on. He could send dispatches to his brothers' newspapers, and who c/would dispute him? He could march his troops, triumphantly into Paris, who's to know it wasn't a total victory?

Dwyer assembles a lot of information and I look forward to what I presume will be volumes 2, 3 and maybe even 4.
Profile Image for TheBookWarren.
401 reviews88 followers
April 2, 2020
2.5 Stars - I didn’t hate this book, as matter of fact I enjoyed several components of it, especially the way the author is able to make Napoleon the man, appear real, tangible & is able to paint a picture of Napoleon’s life, rather than just his exploits.

Where this one goes a little awry, for me at least - Is that you spend a vast majority of the book eagerly awaiting the military tactical genius, the deep dive into the battlefields etc but it never really arrives.

I had to put this one down & came back to it 12 months later, but I’m glad I did, the aforementioned portrait of the man himself was insight I welcomed, but I can’t shake the feeling this book was cut, or the author lost his way somewhere. Who knows.
170 reviews1 follower
July 10, 2011
This is probably the first biography I've read where the author was so brutally honest about the character that he seemed to actually dislike the man. But he was scrupulously fair about bringing out both sides of what was happening - reporting Napoleon's accounts and at the same time accounts by other people involved that gave the opposite side of the story. Napoleon really did have a "particularly modern approach to politics" in the best Rovebusian style, never shying away from completely fabricating events to make himself look good! It's amazing that France made it through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries at all.
Profile Image for bazra bat.
13 reviews
November 6, 2012
Reading was stressful. All my curiosity reading disappeared from the very first chapter. Too much concentrated on the background of napoleons, which was too boring. And there were very lack information regarding to napoleon himself. In this book there is no something that will intrigue you to read, like other interesting books does. It seemed to me like i was reading long, and boring dissertation. From the middle i lost the main idea, main pattern and gave up reading this book. Maybe Historians, or history addicts would found this book interesting, but not me. Napoleon's short life in 500 pages is way too weighed. And i am not saying that there are little much to do with Napoleon himself.
Profile Image for Rich.
125 reviews2 followers
May 8, 2012
One of the best, recent biographies of Napoleon. Dwyer has crafted a thoroughly researched yet fascinating account of Napoleon's life up to his seizure of power in 1799. Dwyer convincingly makes the case that Napoleon shrewdly and consciously invented and reinvented an image for himself that has survived to this day. Dwyer attempts, as much as possible, to peel away the layers of that persistent myth and reveal the man beneath.
10 reviews
August 2, 2015
It's clear from the beginning that Dwyer dislikes Napoleon, which is perfectly fine; but one can be critical towards the man's many flaws without cherrypicking the sources in order to make him unlikeable also to the reader (authors overwhelmingly favorable to Napoleon also indulge in cherrypicking, obviously). Anyway and surprisingly my main problem with this book is the style, that I find too dry.
37 reviews
August 28, 2010
The first 30 years of an amazing life. this book filled in a vast gap in my understanding of the history of France, the revolution, and Europe in the years leading up to 1800. If you want to know how Sara Palin can take over, just read this.
Profile Image for Becky.
367 reviews
February 12, 2009
A mostly well-written book about Napoleon's rise to power. It goes into a little too much detail, however; plodding through 500 pages covering the first 30 years of his life was a bit much.
Profile Image for Mark Wardlaw.
Author 1 book34 followers
March 23, 2018
This is a solid scholarly insight into Napoleon’s rise to power. Philip Dwyer takes us on a roller coaster ride; from disenfranchised Corsican to most powerful General in Europe. Born of nobility and an officer graduate of Paris Military Academy, he was lucky not to face the guillotine in the vengeful, barbaric turmoil of revolutionary France.

The Author skilfully guides us through Napoleon’s world, separating the man from the myth; his ambition, contacts and networking, his love for Josephine, and his rapid promotion at twenty six to Commander of the Army in Italy. He had “An authority which he imposed on everybody.”

Philip Dwyer describes how Napoleon wanted to be perceived and how he achieved his political goals. Was he the master of ‘fake news’, of ‘spin’- a manipulator who exaggerated his victories and minimized failures? In his use of the press “he was not only enhancing the heroism of his own men, as a reflection of his own image as a hero, he was also demonstrating his accomplishment as a commander-in-chief.”

Though triumphant in Italy, Napoleon could have been compromised by the inglorious Egyptian conquest, defeat in Syria and his stealthy departure from his army in Egypt. However as the Author explains Revolutionary France needed a hero. Napoleon’s return was greeted with national acclaim. The farcical coup that brought him to ultimate power would soon determine European history, but would he still be their Hero as an uncompromising military dictator?
630 reviews10 followers
February 28, 2021
“Napoleon: The Path to Power” is the first in a three-volume biography of Napoleon by author Philip Dwyer. It follows its subject from his youth on Corsica to his ascension to the post of First Counsel. With 519 pages of text plus notes, bibliography and index it is long enough to be thorough and it is. It guides the reader through the battles and political intrigues in which Napoleon rose to fame and power. Knowing relatively little about Bonaparte but having agreed to teach a continuing education class on the subject, I turned to this tome to increase my knowledge. It was a good choice. From its pages I earned of his family background, education, his role in defense of the Revolution against domestic opposition, how he earned glory in battles against Austria in northern Italy and his return to Paris to be France’s savior when the Directory was faltering.

Although delving into much detail, Dwyer’s writing style aids in holding the readers’ interest. For those seeking an in-depth study this should be a valuable resource. For those searching for an introduction I suggest having the patience to read it all. Even if you do not remember many of the details you will glean more than you would from a shorter work.
Profile Image for Eoin Conroy.
38 reviews3 followers
September 10, 2022
I have heard Dwyer’s Napoleon biographies to be the most definitive, and since I have no desire to read Tory Great Man-isms, I chose this over Andrew Roberts.

Dwyer paints a portrait of Napoleon as a propaganda-man very effectively, and I love how much of the early parts of this book were set in Corsica and were about Napoleon’s Oedipal struggle with Pasquale Paoli.

He walks a fine line with some psychological analysis of Napoleon, but I think he gets away with it by musing on, rather than declaring, Napoleon’s emotional/mental state during his rise to power.

My biggest complaint is that it is lacking descriptions of Napoleon-as-commander. This is not necessarily a military history book, so that may be understandable, and yet you’ll find Dwyer dwelling on Napoleon’s bad decisions, like his siege on Acre, yet not so much on some of his great work as a commander in the first Italian campaign, which brought stunning victories and the faith of his men who saw him as a political animal upon his appointment. Again it’s not a military history book, so I wasn’t expecting beat-by-beat analyses of all his battles, but it feels like Napoleon’s genuine successes as a commander are a fly in the ointment for Dwyer.
Profile Image for David Hill.
511 reviews11 followers
June 6, 2022
In an ideal world, I'd have looked closer at this one before I bought it. This book covers Napoleon's life from birth to the Coup of 18 Brumaire, which brought him to power. I much prefer whole-life biographies. So my disappointment is mine and mine alone.

I did find the book interesting and informative for the period it covered. It sounds to me like the author (and any others attempting to tell Napoleon's story) is faced with quite a challenge. There is quite a bit of conflicting information of most of his life, and quite a bit of missing information. So the author more or less had to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with only a general idea of the picture, and some missing pieces as well as pieces from some other puzzle.

The book has many illustrations, is thoroughly noted, and has an extensive bibliography.
19 reviews
April 3, 2021
The only problem I had with this book was how mean it was to Josephine Bonaparte, in some spots! Other than that, a pretty great and critical biography outlining Napoleon's youth and his subsequent rise to power. I'm glad I read this one instead of the Andrew Roberts biography, which I heard has a much more positive outlook on Napoleon. It also does not go as far as Zamoysky by characterizing Napoleon, like a squirrel - a "high-flying rat with great PR" who succeded through sheer luck and force of propaganda. It takes a pretty balanced look at his career up until the Coup of Brumaire and does a good job at placing him in the political and millitary context of his time, rather than fully accepting either the Napoleonic legend or the dismissive tact some historians understadably take.
June 16, 2017
A great read of the backroom dealings of Napoleon's rise to power. The title is correct it explains 'Napoleon's path to power' alright, but I would've like to have read more on the military tactics and skills of the great general, it is lacking in that respect. I'll have to find that in another book.
I look forward to reading the follow up book by this author.
Profile Image for Cal.
71 reviews2 followers
September 30, 2020
Interesting but not phenomenal. Some of the arguments are flimsy at best and there are gaps and ambiguities used as supporting context. It is a nice concept for a book but I didn’t find it revelatory by any means. Worth the read, though.
Profile Image for Arthur Wangchuk.
64 reviews1 follower
October 29, 2020
I cannot carry on! I dislike the author's ostentatious style of telling stories. I am no historian! How can the author expect the common readers cope with those suddenly-occurring names and issues without any explanation?
Profile Image for Peter Russel.
64 reviews2 followers
March 28, 2022
I give the book 5 stars for analysis, narrative, and not taking any of Napoleon's self-myth making bullshit - I give the subject 0 stars.
Profile Image for J.S..
Author 1 book51 followers
August 5, 2015
In spite of his anecdotally small stature, the character of Napoleon Bonaparte is usually depicted as larger than life, an image cultivated deliberately by Napoleon himself. Mr. Dwyer presents a detailed and thorough history of Napoleon's rise to power, beginning with his upbringing on the island of Corsica and how local politics and his father's attempts to integrate himself with those in power shaped his ambitions. He used connections skillfully to obtain French military appointments, eventually leading expeditions into Italy, where the people were ostensibly "liberated," before being subjected to French exploitation. His marriage to Josephine was one of social opportunity, but one where he truly loved her in spite of her lack of affection, and possibly contributed to some of his early battlefield success. But his discovery of her constant infidelity also may have lead to the cruelty and brutality he showed during the Egyptian and Syrian campaigns. And finally his rise to power through a revolutionary coup in 1799, where in spite of his youth and inexperience, he ended up at the head of the most powerful European nation at the time.

Dwyer is especially careful to point out the likely truths, embellishments, and flat-out lies. The picture that emerges is one of an insecure youth with an immense desire to prove himself and a knack for making his own opportunities. Both military brilliance and a good deal of luck helped him along the way, and Napoleon was especially adept at managing public opinion and perhaps even ahead of his time in that regard. But Dwyer is neither adoring nor condescending. He acknowledges Napoleon's talents as well as his frailties, and manages to breathe life into this historical giant. One feels both sympathy and disgust, and in the end can't help but feel some sense of awe at what he managed.

This book is so thorough and scholarly it risks becoming overly burdened with boring information. But to its credit I found it very readable and, dare I say, fascinating. True, it tends to drag in a few places, and isn't aimed at those seeking more sensational reading. But even those who aren't serious students of European history may find themselves drawn into the world of Napoleon. Even though my knowledge of European history was thin, I never felt overwhelmed and lost, but came away with a much greater understanding of who he was and the time he lived in, although a little more background on some events and people might have been enlightening. The book is filled with helpful pictures of the paintings that announced and documented Napoleon's version of events, although I would have appreciated more maps of the various locations and campaigns. It looks almost certain that the author will follow up with a continuation of Napoleon's life, and I look forward to it.
Profile Image for Charles Gonzalez.
117 reviews12 followers
July 22, 2015
I have had a long interest in the French Revolution as part of my study and appreciation of our own revolutionary period. Having read Schama's " Citizens" had a somewhat limited perspective on the period and was especially interested in the transition from revolutionary period to consulate to Empire and the whole Napoleonic myth making. This volume, of a 2 volume set, starts the story early on the island of Corsica and gives a quite detailed explanation of Napoleons early life,influences and goals, and addresses the author's theory on the origins of Napoleon's unique knack for dealing with obstacles. The story picks up speed as Napoleon's career is energized by his cultivation of key leaders and, as the author reminds the reader in the epilogue, his uncanny ability to take full advantage of opportunities large and small. This, rather than his luck at being in the right place at the right time solves the puzzle of his rapid emergence in French history. The book ended with me more interested in the second part of the story, the more well known part of his life as general, emperor and exile. I look forward to it .
Profile Image for Dale.
24 reviews5 followers
July 24, 2009
An excellent read. It's a bit daunting, very well-researched and extremely detailed, and it's a large book - but if you would really like to understand both the rise of Napoleon (if you thought "spin" started with contemporary politics, you're very much mistaken) and the political intrigues of the French revolution, this is the book for you.
Profile Image for Matthew Griffiths.
241 reviews11 followers
September 28, 2014
An enjoyable account of Bonaparte's rise from an obscurity to one of the central figures of French history. This book handled very well Bonaparte's careful management of his public image to create a certain impression of himself as a true republican and it also discussed his performance as a general which contrary to popular belief was not as irresistible as generally accepted history tells us.
39 reviews1 follower
February 24, 2016
Bailed out on this. I wanted something less flattering than the previous Napoleon book I had read, but this was deliberately written to criticize without grounds. The pattern would be, "Historical records say this happened, but Napoleon's people surely manipulated those, so we don't know what happened but we can be certain it was not what the history books say." It was tiring after 100 pages.
Profile Image for Roger.
138 reviews1 follower
November 26, 2009
This book took longer to read than expected. Filled with lots of details of Napoleon's early life and his rise to power. Found I needed to read about 10-15 pages and then but the book down. Needed a better backgroud of French history especially the pre revolution and revolutionary years.
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