The Age of Napoleon

The Age of Napoleon is the eleventh and probably the last volume in The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. The first volume, Our Oriental Heritage, in what was originally projected as a ten-volume series to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, was published in 1935. In the forty years between the appearance of the first and eleventh volumes, the Durants have established for themselves a leading place among the foremost popularizers of history. They have confirmed this status in The Age of Napoleon, observing in the preface that their book is designed not for scholars but for the general readers who have followed The Story of Civilization from its inception. Indeed, the objective of this and the other volumes in the series is to convey to a wide audience the main episodes and leading personages in the human drama. The authors describe The Age of Napoleon as the product of integral history, in which all the memorable aspects of European civilization between the beginning of the French Revolution and Bonaparte’s exile to St. Helena are woven into one narrative. What emerges from the Durants’ efforts is not so much the cultural history of the Napoleonic era but rather one big collection of stories and anecdotes that provides much entertainment but little enlightenment about significant new trends that would influence the course of the next two centuries.

The volume, in its overall scope, is divided into five books. In Book I, covering the French Revolution, the authors sketch the nature of the ephemeral governments between 1789 and 1799, as well as the manners, morals, and leading figures of that period. The section on Napoleon examines his personality, the nature of his imperial regime in France and Europe, and the cultural developments in the First French Empire. Book III deals with Great Britain, concentrating mainly on English life and literature. The title of Book IV, “The Challenged Kings,” suggests an account of the monarchs of continental Europe whose reigns were disrupted by the French Revolution and Napoleon. Although the Durants do discuss the overthrow of rulers in Iberia and Italy, they devote most of their attention in this section to the cultural and political history of Germany, including an entire chapter on the life, loves, and musical genius of Ludwig van Beethoven. Book V highlights the final stages of Napoleon’s career; namely, his disastrous retreat from Moscow, his temporary exile to the isle of Elba, his defeat in the Battle of Waterloo, and his final exile to and death on the island of St. Helena. What emerges, then, is a work that is engrossing in part but very uneven in its general scope.

Much of this unevenness can be attributed to the fact that The Age of Napoleon is largely biographical in content; the Durants cover the history of France, England, Germany, and Austria by providing a series of biographical sketches of the great personages who played leading roles in their respective countries. In discussing revolutionary France, the authors devote considerable space to, among others, Jean-Paul Marat, Maximilian Robespierre, Mme. Anne Louise de Stäel, and, of course, Napoleon Bonaparte. Marat, Robespierre, and Mme. de Stäel were each influenced by the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau on nationhood; although they all supported the Revolution, Mme. de Stäel was by far the most moderate of the three, condemning the Reign of Terror with which Robespierre was intimately associated. Marat’s assassination in July, 1793, by a Girondin supporter helped to accelerate the pace of the Terror, which at that time was in the process of becoming organized. The Durants describe Marat as the most radical, ruthless, and powerful of the new scribes who emerged at the outset of the Revolution in 1789. His work, The Chains of Slavery, which he published in London in 1774, was a de-nunciation of European governments as conspiracies of monarchs, clergy, and aristocracy to keep the people in subjection; it is especially interesting as it shows the influence which Rousseau had on him. Because of an unbearable condition of dermatitis, Marat spent most of his last years in medicated baths where he continued to...

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America. CXXXIV, May 1, 1976, p. 390.

Best Sellers. XXXV, February, 1976, p. 355.

Booklist. LXXII, December 15, 1975, p. 541.

Choice. XII, February, 1976, p. 1618.

Guardian Weekly. CXIII, December 28, 1975, p. 18.

Time. CVI, December 15, 1975, p. 80.