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Napoleon the Reader: The Imperial Years

By Ira Grossman

Napoleon Reading
Napoleon Reading

Despite his busy schedule as conqueror, administrator, and as emperor, Napoleon still found some time to read a wide variety of books. Although this second installment to the first story concerning Napoleon the reader will concentrate on his years of supremacy and first abdication as emperor, it will also briefly touch on what he read just before both the Italian and Egyptian Campaigns.

In 1796, three days before departing to take command of the French Army of Italy, Napoleon went to the French National Library to check out a few books to familiarize himself with the country he was to conquer, according to his biographer Vincent Cronin. To familiarize himself with Italian geography, he read a book on the topography of Piedmont and Savoy. To find out how past military commanders fought in Italy, he read the Memoirs of Marshal de Catinat, a biography of Prince Eugene of Savoy, three volumes about Prince Eugene’s battles, Saint Simon’s Guerre des Alpes, and a book about Jean-Baptiste Francois de Maillebois’ Italian campaigns.

On his way to Egypt in 1798 on board the ship L’Orient, he read various books to pass the time and to familiarize himself about Egypt. In this case, Napoleon himself did not do the actual reading. He let his long-time friend and secretary Louis-Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne read to him. To sample a few volumes that were read to him concerning Egypt, we find in Napoleon’s possession a few travel books on Egypt, old classical favorites like Plutarch, Livy, Virgil and Homer, Arrian’s account of Alexander the Great’s campaigns, and the Koran, the Islamic holy book, according to biographer Emil Ludwig. Perhaps Napoleon felt that he could learn a lot about the Egyptian people’s manners and customs as well as about the topography of the country. The Koran would acquaint him with the predominant religion of the Egyptian people. Napoleon’s shipboard library totaled about three hundred volumes and included books on various military topics, travel, and history. It also included volumes on India and Prussia.

When Napoleon was emperor he liked to read narrative history, tragic drama, and some comic poetry. But since he had to be on the road so often during his war years, his books traveled with him. Cronin explained that his books were carried in a mahogany-cased portable library. It contained history books about almost every country and period in history. To cite a few examples of his love for narrative history, his favorite reading, he read Gregory of Tours and other chroniclers of the late Roman Empire in 1806 and Voltaire’s History of Charles XII in 1812 during the occupation of Moscow.

To sample a few volumes of poetry and drama that he read, two books are worth mentioning. These were: Louis Gresset’s mock-heroic poem, Vert-Vert and Corneille’s play Cinna.

Gresset’s Vert-Vert is about a parrot named Vert-Vert who lives in a convent. The bird knows prayers by heart and the nuns are fond of him and visitors come from far away places just to admire him. A neighboring convent asks to have the bird stay with them for two weeks, so he is sent down the Loire River by boat. When Vert-Vert arrives he misbehaves by swearing like a soldier and is quickly sent back to be disciplined. The fact that he read such humorous literature as Vert-Vert shows that Napoleon had a sense of humor.

Corneille’s Cinna, a drama of mercy, was his favorite play. In the play, the Roman Emperor Augustus, while visiting Gaul, learns that his best friend Cinna is plotting to assassinate him. Instead of declaring him guilty and executing him, he takes the advice of his wife Livia and pardons him He, then, offers him his friendship and gives him the consulate.

It is important to note that Napoleon loved tragic drama since it extols the virtues of honor and courage. Although as a youth he liked tragedy to end in bloodshed, his penchant for such entertainment faded as he grew older.

During his brief exile at Elba Napoleon spent his leisure reading old favorites such as Plutarch, Corneille, Racine and Voltaire. He also read a biography of Holy Roman Emperor Charles the fifth, forty volumes of stories and legends from The Arabian Nights, and other works.

It has been an interesting journey to discover what Napoleon did besides going to war, conquering nations, and governing a country. A sequel to this story will discuss what Napoleon read during his last years of exile in Saint Helena. After years of war, he could finally catch up on his reading .

For Further Reading:

Cronin, Vincent. Napoleon London : HarperCollins Publishers; 1994.

Durant, Will & Ariel. The Age of Napoleon New York : Simon & Schuster, 1975.

Guerard, Albert. Napoleon I New York : Alfred A Knopf;1969.

Herold, J. Christopher. The Age of Napoleon Boston : Houghton Mifflin Company; 1987.

Ludwig, Emil. Napoleon Garden City : Garden City Publishing Company; 1926.

Richardson, Hubert. A Dictionary of Napoleon New York : Funk and Wagnalls Company; No publication date.