Reviews: Biographical Books

Napoleon's Road to Glory: Triumphs, Defeats & Immortality

By David Markham

Markham, J. David. Napoleon’s Road to Glory: Triumphs, Defeats & Immortality. London: Brassey’s, 2003. 320 pages. ISBN# 1857533275. Hardcover. £20/$30.

When I received a review copy of David Markham’s new book, I was reluctant to read it.  My first thoughts were with over 250,000 books on the man and the era, what could justify spending my time reading a book that so many others have covered so well already? I then thought about what I really wanted in a book about Napoleon – something that would be easy to read, covers all the important facts, and so well organized I could use it as a general reference book.  I am happy to report that Mr. Markham delivers all of these and more!

Napoleon’s Road to Glory is organized chronologically into six parts, plus a prologue and an epilogue.  Each part covers a different period of Napoleon’s life: the Revolution, the Consulate, his glory years (1805 – 1809), his years of missteps (the Continental Blockade, Spain, and Russia), his downfall (1813 – 1815), and exile. Each section consists of several chapters that cover a different topic.  For example in the section titled “A Republican Emperor,” there are chapters on why Napoleon declared himself emperor; on his victories over the Austrians, Russians, and Prussians; the domestic reforms he made at home (such as education and religion); his love life; and his need to set up a dynasty so that his accomplishments would be carried on after his death.  Although the chapters are relatively short and can easily be read in a 15 minute sitting, each is packed with relevant information and provides a superb summary of the salient points.  Those looking for a quick reference book will be pleased by its logical organization and detailed index – both of which permits the reader to find information quickly

Napoleon’s Road to Glory is written from a decidedly pro-Napoleon perspective.  Mr. Markham promotes the idea that Napoleon was a man of peace and was forced by his enemies into the many wars.  This is, however, not a military history of Napoleon.  Napoleon's campaigns and battles are covered only briefly. The book’s focus is on how Napoleon came to power, how he ruled, and his long term, non-military achievements— such as the Code Napoleon, re-forming the education system, and re-building the French economic infrastructure.

Yet the author does not avoid the many controversies that have surrounded the man, including among others, the massacre of the Turkish prisoners-of-war and the execution of the Duke d'Enghien. Nor does Mr. Markham gloss over Napoleon’s blunders.  One section is devoted to his three major mistakes: the Continental System (i.e., the closing of the European markets to Great Britain), the invasion and subsequent quagmire in Spain, and the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812.  He also turns a very critical eye towards the errors Napoleon made during the Waterloo Campaign. The book ends with a brief look at Napoleon’s exile on Saint Helena.  It addresses his treatment by the British and provides updated information on whether or not he was murdered.

Napoleon’s Road to Glory is fast paced and a great read.  Mr. Markham has the ability to take dry facts and spin a tale that will hold the interest of the most jaded reader.  It is a welcomed balance to what seems to be an increasing number of anti-Napoleon biographies being published.

Reviewed by: Robert Burnham

Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2003

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