(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Robert Asprey’s The Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte is the second of a two-part biography. The first volume, The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (2000), chronicled Napoleon’s improbable journey from birth in a Corsican cave to glory as emperor of France. This second installment picks up Napoleon’s story right after Austerlitz, his most brilliantly fought battle. There Napoleon had defeated and humiliated the Austrian and Russian empires, making him the master of continental Europe. From this high point, Asprey traces the gradual decline of Napoleon’s fortunes, as his own mistakes and the implacable hatred of his enemies resulted in a series of wars that drained the resources of France dry.

The saga of Napoleon Bonaparte is inherently dramatic. Emerging from obscurity, he demonstrated military genius of the highest order in a long series of wars. His successes are legendary. His final defeat at Waterloo is proverbial. The trajectory of his career is so aesthetically satisfying that it has offered rich material to sensationalists and moralists alike.

Napoleon stands in the select company of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Adolf Hitler as a conqueror who shaped the course of world history. Napoleon bestrode his age like a colossus. He still lives in the popular imagination, usually in the poses left to us by the great painter Jacques-Louis David. We see him as the young general, astride his rearing horse, leading an army across the Alps; as the self-made emperor, usurping the place of the pope and crowning himself; or, finally, as the mature, increasingly pudgy, master of Europe, staring confidently out of his portrait, his hand mysteriously tucked inside his waistcoat. Both as a historical figure and as an icon, Napoleon Bonaparte is an irresistible subject for biographers. Books about Napoleon continue to pour off the presses. Asprey’s biography is a recent and useful contribution to this vast literature.

Biographers of Napoleon have tended to fall into two broad camps. One tradition of Napoleonic scholarship has portrayed the emperor as an overweening tyrant, whose inordinate ambitions had to be foiled by a coalition of the long-suffering victims of his aggression. Another line of interpretation sees Napoleon as a heroic figure, defender of much of the best of the French Revolution, whose laudable goal of spreading enlightened law and government was ultimately frustrated by the forces of reaction, usually personified in the figure of the scheming Austrian diplomat Count Clemens von Metternich. These conflicting views of Napoleon can be traced back to the propaganda, con and pro, that was inspired by the emperor in his own time.

Now, as then, a full appreciation of Napoleon Bonaparte can not be separated from an assessment of the French Revolution, the protean social and political convulsion that gave birth to the modern Western world. For good or ill, Napoleon was the Revolution’s legatee. His greatest civil achievement, the Napoleonic Code, which still forms the basis of law in France and other European nations, guaranteed once and for all such fundamental revolutionary principles as the equality of all men before the law. For those who regard the French Revolution as a bloody precursor to modern totalitarianism, with the guillotine as a fitting symbol of its brutal experiments in social engineering, Napoleon is just a military adventurer who hijacked an illegitimate government already rotting away with corruption. To those who believe that the Revolution was a noble attempt to create a just society, Napoleon is the inevitable result of a war of self-defense, a man whose troops exposed people all over Europe to the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Hanging on the outcome of this clash of interpretations is the meaning of Napoleon’s epic reign. If the first school prevails, then Napoleon is an accident, a dictator who took advantage of his opportunities and lived to write a highly conspicuous chapter in the ever-lengthening book of human oppression. If the second school prevails, Napoleon is the agent of modernity, the man who broke up the ossifiedancien régime and became the father of the modern world. Napoleon’s place in history is secure; his reputation is not.

Robert Asprey falls emphatically into the second school of interpretation. His Napoleon is a tragic hero, like a character in an ancient Greek drama who wrestles simultaneously with his own failings and malevolent forces directed against him from outside. Asprey readily acknowledges Napoleon’s despotism and makes few excuses for his crimes. Instead, he defends his subject by asking the reader to recognize that his subject was formed by desperate and dangerous times. For Asprey, Napoleon was the heir to and apostle of the liberal vision of the French Revolution, but he was also a survivor of the...

(The entire section is 1986 words.)