Telegraph Great Reads: Napoleon the Great

Telegraph Great Reads: Napoleon the Great

“To dive into Roberts’s new book is to understand – indeed, to feel – why this peculiarly brilliant Corsican managed for so long to dazzle the world.” – The Telegraph

Below, Andrew Roberts discusses why he believes Napoleon is worthy of the title ‘the Great’.


How does a ruler win the title ‘the Great’? There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rule. Although those who are called ‘the Great’ – Alexander, Alfred, Charles, Peter, Frederick and Catherine – all undoubtedly changed history, so did many other rulers, such as Frederick Barbarossa, Henry V, Ferdinand and Isabella, Elizabeth I, Charles V, Louis XIV, who never received the coveted sobriquet. Foremost among them is Napoleon Bonaparte, who I believe ought to be called ‘the Great’.

Napoleon was sometimes called ‘Le Grand’ in his own lifetime, even if it wasn’t adopted by posterity. The phrase can still be seen on the pedestal of the Vendome Column in Paris, for example, and the Louvre director Vivant Denon dedicated his 21-volume book Description of Egypt to ‘Napoleon Le Grand’. But it never caught on.

Napoleon deserved the title because he was in many ways the founder of modern France as well as being one of the greatest military commanders of history. He gave his name to an age. Although his conquests ended in defeat two centuries ago at the battle of Waterloo, it was one of only seven defeats out of the total of sixty battles that he fought.

Having walked the ground of 53 of his 60 battlefields, I was astonished by his capacity for, as the phrase goes, ‘seeing what as o the other side of the hill.’ When the victor of Waterloo the Duke of Wellington was asked who was the greatest captain of the age, he immediately replied ‘In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.’

Napoleon’s achievements as a lawgiver equalled his military achievements, and have far outlived them, indeed many of his civil reforms stayed in place. The Napoleonic Code forms the basis of much of European law today, while various aspects of it have been adopted by forty countries on all six inhabited continents. Napoleon’s architectural and construction projects, once finished by later regimes, are wonderful, and many of his bridges, reservoirs, canals, sewers and quays are still in use. The Cour des Comptes still oversees France’s public accounts, just as the Conseil d’État still vets her laws. Napoleon’s Banque de France is still the central bank. The Légion d’Honneur is much coveted, just as France’s best lycées and les grandes écoles still deliver first-class education to their pupils. Even if he had not been one of the great military geniuses of history, he would still be a giant of the modern era. When Napoleon’s mother was complimented on her son’s achievements, she replied: ‘So long as it lasts.’ Well, they have.

The reason is that Napoleon consciously built upon and protected the best aspects of the French Revolution, while discarding the worst. ‘We have done with the romance of the Revolution,’ he told an early meeting of his Council of State, “we must now commence its history’ Yet for his reforms to work they needed one commodity that Europe’s monarchs were determined to deny him. Time. ‘Chemists have a species of powder out of which they can make marble,’ he said, ‘but it must have time to become solid.’ Because many of the principles of the Revolution threatened the absolute monarchies of Russia (which was to practice serfdom until 1861), Austria and Prussia, and the disruption of the balance of power on the continent threatened Britain, they formed seven coalitions over 23 years to crush Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.

Yet many of the ideas that underpin our modern world – meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on – were protected, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon during his sixteen years in power, and could therefore not be reined back by the Bourbons on their return to power after his fall. He also dispensed with the unsustainable revolutionary calendar of ten-day weeks, the absurd theology of the Cult of the Supreme Being, the corruption and cronyism of the previous Directory government of France, and the hyper-inflation that characterised the dying days of the Republic.

Napoleon represented the Enlightenment on horseback, yet he is often just seen as a warmonger. However, war was declared on him by the Allies far more often than he declared it against them, so he cannot be fairly accused of being the only, or even the principal warmonger of the age. In my view, he certainly deserves to be called ‘Napoleon the Great’.


Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts is available to order online today as a Hardback, Paperback or eBook.

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