Reviews: Biographical Books


The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte

Asprey, Robert. The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. N.Y.: Basic Books, 2000. ISBN# 046504879X. $37.50. 580 pages. Hardcover

Marengo cover

In what is perhaps the first full-length biography of Napoleon in English of the twenty-first century, Robert Asprey turns to the nineteenth century for his inspiration. Asprey, a former U.S. Marine captain, who has previously written histories of World War One, guerrilla war and the German high command at war, as well as a biography of Frederick the Great, has produced the first volume in a projected two-volume biography of Napoleon (the second volume is due out in the fall of 2001). The present volume covers Napoleon's life up to his stunning victory at Austerlitz.

Asprey doesn't take an extreme view of Napoleon. In Asprey's view Napoleon is neither wholly saint or sinner, neither all power-mad psychopath or innocent victim of history. The truth for Asprey lies somewhere in between these extremes. Asprey states, "As with all of us, Napoleon was a sum of his parts which is why I have treated him, warts and all, as a human being, as child, student, man, soldier, general, lover, husband, father, ruler, emperor, conqueror and statesman." Asprey offers no new startling revelations about Napoleon, but rather stakes out the middle ground in the ongoing debate over Napoleon's place in history. "…Napoleon Bonaparte has too often been the victim of biographical and historical exuberance," Asprey writes, "of unhealthy literary passions that treat him either as a demi-god…or as devil incarnate…I object to either interpretation."

Primarily a military history, in spite of Asprey's apparent aspirations as revealed in his "Note to the Reader," Asprey glosses over lightly Napoleon's political achievements. The political changes wrought by Brumaire as quickly dealt with in one short chapter. The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte therefore does not replace other biographies of Napoleon, such as Vincent Cronin's, that gives more attention to the political and cultural aspects of Napoleon's life. Asprey points out Napoleon's egoism, his ambition, his quick temper, all of his faults, but does not dwell on them unduly. The events of Napoleon's life are given precedence over moralizing about or psychoanalyzing that life. Generally Asprey avoids trying to divine what Napoleon was thinking and instead tries to explain Napoleon's actions in the context of the times and of Napoleon's life.

Written in forty-eight short chapters, the book is based entirely on secondary sources, both in English and in French. Asprey relies largely on the classic work of historians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for his sources, though he does make extensive use of research done by modern historians in journals and in papers presented to the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe. And Asprey often lets Napoleon speak for himself through liberal use of the Emperor's voluminous correspondence.

After a perhaps too brief an overview of Napoleon's life before 1789 -Napoleon's early years are dealt with in a mere 80 pages before his arrival at Toulon. Asprey jumps almost immediately into Napoleon's military career. The author presents a highly simplistic overview of the background dynamics of the French Revolution (which Asprey obviously abhors). For Asprey, like Simon Schama, the Revolution is about a small group of violent extremists who want only power for its own sake and are willing to destroy all the national institutions of France to get and retain that power. These extremists, in Asprey's view, hijack the Revolution and create only chaos.

Asprey presents a fairly even-handed look at Napoleon's career, however. He does not excuse Napoleon's actions, but does not moralize over them either. He points out how on arriving in Milan during the first Italian campaign, Napoleon ordered Gen. Pelletier to collect from his vicinity 250,000 francs in cash, 200,000 cattle and 200 mules. Then he orders Pelletier to extort 50,000 livres from the seigneur of Arquata, "a raging oligarch, enemy of France and of the army." If the seigneur did not comply the general was to burn his chateau. Napoleon justified all this as "feeble retribution" for the Lombards' liberation from the Austrians. As Stendhal said, "The good people did not know that the presence of an army, however liberating, is always a calamity." The extractions and the actions of the Italian Jacobins eventually led to uprisings in Milan, Pavia and elsewhere, that Napoleon put down coldly, commenting "I don't doubt that this lesson will serve as an example to the Italian people."

Nor does Asprey attempt to excuse or explain away the execution of prisoners at Jaffa during the Egyptian campaign. He provides some context for the decision and simply states that in Napoleon's mind "terror was a weapon." Napoleon wrote to the Syrian rulers that "the example offered by Jaffa and Gaza should make you understand that, if I am terrible to my enemies I am good to my friends…" Asprey also makes the point, overlooked by many other writers criticizing Napoleon's Egyptian campaign, that Napoleon had the intention of establishing the French in Egypt, then returning to France. In April 1798 Napoleon ordered that 35 ships of the line to be built at Brest and 400 gunboats and 400 fishing vessels be collected at Boulogne for an attack on England at the end of that year. When asked by Bourrienne how long they would be gone, Napoleon replied, "A few months or six years; it all depends on events." In Sept. 1798 Napoleon wrote to the Directory, "…I will not be able to be back in Paris in October as I have promised you, but this will only be delayed a few months." Asprey also points out that the lack of cash played an important role in the failure of the Egyptian campaign. Having arrived in Egypt with no more than 4 million francs, Napoleon had a payroll alone of one million francs a month. When none of the expected treasures were found and none of the anticipated supplies from France forthcoming, Napoleon was forced to levy heavy contributions against merchants and others who he would have to depend upon to support his regime. Asprey also returns the blame for the defeat at Aboukir back to Adm. Breuys account, though I would have liked to see Asprey argue his position on this at greater length.

Elsewhere in the book I also got a feeling of superficiality of some of Asprey's writing. In the story of the assassination of Tsar Paul, Asprey vastly oversimplifies the events by writing that Paul's regime "ended abruptly on a night in late March when an assassin gained his bedroom to plunge a dagger into the Imperial heart." In fact, Paul was strangled by a party of aristocratic conspirators with the knowledge of his son, the future tsar Alexander. Another criticism is that the volume could use more maps. There are just seven maps included (the advertised maps of the end papers are missing) and those are all of whole theaters of war except for one small, not very detailed, map of the battlefield of Austerlitz. There are just 27 illustrations spread throughout the text, mainly portraits of personages mentioned -nine of which are of Napoleon's marshals. On the whole, these pictures don't add much to the book. Some minor errors have crept into the books, some of which could be editing errors. Asprey mentions "Pierre Louise Roederer," "Pierre Françoise Real," and "Georges Candoudal," for example, and Napoleon becomes once again 5 foot, two inches. Another shortcoming of the book is that the index is only partially analytical. The prose is straightforward, factual and unadorned. It lacks the élan that the subject lends itself to and there are no literary flourishes or vivid descriptions of battles. I get no feeling of an "old soldier" writing of another old soldier as I do when reading Elting's books. Asprey deals with the battle of Marengo, for example, in a scant five pages.

Asprey has taken a fresh, if somewhat superficial, look at Napoleon's life. The book is factual and informative and can be recommended to those new to Napoleon and his life. It would make a fine companion to Vincent Cronin's Napoleon Bonaparte which, while laudatory, does give a much better picture of the non-military side of Napoleon's life. I look forward to the second volume.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
February 2001

 

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