More books have been written with Napoleon (1769-1821) in the title than there have been days since his death, writes prolific historian and Napoleonic Institute fellow Roberts (The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, 2011, etc.) in this 800-page doorstop. Entirely conventional and mostly admiring, it fills no great need, but few readers will complain.
After his early years in the backwater of Corsica, Napoleon’s influential father sent him to France at the age of 9 to learn French and be educated in an elite military academy. An obscure officer when the revolution broke out in 1789, he left his post to spend most of those years in a complex factional struggle in Corsica, which he ultimately lost. He fled to France in 1793, a penniless but fiercely ambitious artillery captain. Six years later, already a national hero after a brilliant campaign in Italy, he engineered a coup that made him dictator. For the next 15 years, except for a brief armistice, his armies rampaged through Europe, mostly crushing opposing forces until he overreached in Spain and Russia and went down to defeat and humiliating exile. “Although his conquests ended in defeat and ignominious imprisonment,” writes the author, “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.” Readers will find this book to be a long but mostly pleasant reading experience, although some will doubt that Napoleon “saved the best aspects of the Revolution, discarded the worst, and ensured that even when the Bourbons were restored they could not return to the Ancient Regime.”
Other opinionated observers—Paul Johnson, Charles Esdaile, Alan Schom—consider Napoleon a self-absorbed opportunist plagued by his incompetent economics, pugnacious foreign policy, totalitarian government and massive propaganda, but Roberts offers a solid reconsideration.