Napoleon: A Life


Andrew Roberts

While reading War and Peace, I determined that I knew little about Napoleon Bonaparte which is why I chose to read the biography Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts.  Napoleon was an arrogant and formidable character that was determined to expand the French empire.  I knew he was a highly tested General, but what I did not know is that he shaped civil society in many ways.

A few facts.  Napoleon was born in Corsica, a French controlled colony off the coast of Italy.  He was afforded the opportunity for education and he demonstrated intellectual curiosity and became a life-long learner.  As a leader he was a micromanager but he understood the need for his troops to be well clothed, fed and motivated.  He also kept in close contact with his troops and often bantered with them which endeared him to his men. Napoleon was an expert strategist and some of his battle strategies are taught in war colleges today. 

Once he invaded a territory, his approach to win over the local people was to adopt their religion (albeit temporarily until he conquered the next territory) and to win their hearts and minds by revoking oppressing laws and installing new laws that helped build commerce, stabilize the local economy and create more equitable societies.  Many countries continue to rely on some aspects of Napoleonic law today.  Napoleon also invested in physical infrastructure and educational institutions as well.

Napoleon faced challenges in Russia with many claiming that he simply was not prepared for the harshness of the winter.  While this was true, it was also true that Napoleon lost many men to typhoid and faced a competitor that refused to back down.

Napoleon was disposed of his self-appointed status as emperor and deported to the island of Elba.  He successfully escaped and reigned briefly.   His second and final deportation was to the island of St. Helena which is far off the coast of Africa (1,200 miles away)!

Napoleon is an interesting character and we can learn a lot from both his good and bad behaviors that drove his leadership style and ultimate downfall.  The author relied on the release of 33,000 letters written by Napoleon which means this is the first time readers may have a total and unbiased view of Napoleon.  Napoleon: A Life is a long book and contains much discussion of the intricacies of war, which many readers will not find appealing.  If you are not up for trudging through some of the tougher parts then learn about Napoleon on Wikipedia and you will have more than enough information to look smart at a dinner party or to respond accurately to a question on Jeopardy!