The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries (detail) by Jacques-Louis David
Few figures in history excite as passionately held and often-conflicting visions as Napoleon. Some extoll him as a genius and the spirit of revolution incarnate, others denounce him as megalomaniac monster and compulsive warmonger. His personality is crucial to understanding the turbulent years that shaped the world at the start of the 19th century.
Napoleon was a consummate reader whose prodigious memory, analytical mind, and ability to select relevant details made him a highly effective administrator. One of the greatest military minds, he was a stirring visionary and the scale of his ambitions continues to capture people’s imagination.
But his other traits are distinctly unpleasant to consider. He was a climber and double-dealer who exploited others for his own gain. He was egotistical and prone to nepotism, richly rewarding his relatives even when confronted with their continued incompetence. His demands for efficiency often blurred lines between lawfulness and criminality and he cynically exploited human weaknesses whenever the occasion arose. He was not the “Corsican Ogre” that he is often made out to be, but neither was he the romantic figure of the Napoleonic legend. His many talents are incontestable, but within that genius lurk many flaws.
Whether he’s admired as a superb military leader or condemned as the precursor of latter-day dictators, Napoleon was a self-made man who dominated his age like no other, a fact that even his diehard enemies grudgingly admitted.
Historian Alexander Mikaberidze of Louisiana State University in Shreveport discusses the many facets of Napoleon the man and his enormous influence on Europe and many parts of the world. He has written and edited numerous books on the Napoleonic Wars.
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