Whether looking down from above or up from below, Napoleon must be well satisfied with the attention he has been receiving two hundred years after his fall. He has recently been the subject of new biographies by historians across the world. Each has their own perspective. Among British authors, Michael Broers, the leading expert on Napoleonic imperialism, portrays him as a lawgiver as well as a conqueror, while Andrew Roberts presents him as a genuine hero. Adam Zamoyski sets himself a different task: to peel back the layers of myth that have formed around the emperor and reveal the man beneath. He succeeds impressively in this remarkable book.
Zamoyski’s first achievement is to present a vivid and convincing picture of Napoleone di Buonaparte before he became Napoleon Bonaparte. This emphasises how odd in many ways the young Napoleon was: highly gifted intellectually, especially in mathematics, but solitary, awkward and so self-absorbed he would sometimes pace up and down gesticulating to himself. Zamoyski underlines Napoleon’s lifelong insecurities, tracing them back to rumours, which he himself took seriously, that he was in fact illegitimate, the son of a French governor of Corsica. Napoleon was also subject to fits of depression, making one documented attempt at suicide in 1814 and possibly others. Given that his formative culture was Italian, and that he took until his mid-twenties to decide his career did not lie in Corsica, he was an unlikely future leader of France.
What led him to the pinnacle of power was an extraordinary fusion of his own talents and the forces released by the French Revolution. Beneath his idiosyncrasies, the young Napoleon harboured a driving ambition for patriotic glory, nurtured by his reading of the classics, especially Plutarch’s Lives, with its