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Everything you ever wanted to know about Napoleon but were afraid to ask

The former French emperor continues to fascinate because he is such a contrary character being neither wholly good or bad

Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

Napoleon (1769-1821) was, to give him his official title during his pomp as the conqueror of most of Europe “by the grace of God and the constitution of the Republic, Emperor of France, King of Italy, Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine states, mediator of the Swiss Confederation”. In short, and he was not short, Napoleon is one of the most famous men who ever lived.

Why is he in the news?

He is the subject of a new eponymous biopic by the British film director Ridley Scott. There are many more biopics about Napoleon or aspects of his life. Unfortunately, the latest starring Joaquin Phoenix has not been well-received by critics. French critics, according to the New York Times, consider it “lazy, pointless, boring, migraine-inducing, too short and historically inaccurate”. The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné described it as the “Waterloo of cinema”.

Historians have also trashed the film for its inaccuracies. Napoleon is depicted in the film firing cannons at the Pyramids in Egypt and leading the charge with his men into battle. He did neither.

What has been Ridley Scott’s response?

Scott fired back at his critics with a now notorious statement. “Were you there? Oh, you weren’t there. Then how do you know?” Napoleon’s most prominent contemporary biographer, Andrew Roberts, said by that criteria there could be no historians as they couldn’t write about events unless they directly witnessed them. He pointed out that historians like himself had multiple witness accounts from those who were there to depend upon as well as Napoleon’s own accounts in crafting their books about his life.

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What is it about Napoleon that provokes such emotion more than 200 years after his death?

Napoleon, to his supporters, is the personification of the self-made man, the ones who emerge from humble origins to become great by force of will or ability. Born in Corsica to a prominent local family but one which was poor, Napoleon rose through the ranks of the French army to become the dominant personality in Europe despite his humble beginnings.

He saved the French Revolution from its external enemies and implemented the Napoleonic civil code which enshrined many of the basic liberties of the revolution and has been widely copied throughout Europe. He introduced the Baccalauréat, the French leaving examination from school, which was also copied around the world. Above all he is remembered as a military genius whose Grande Armée swept across Europe defeating enemy after enemy before he overreached himself in Russia and the long retreat from his 1812 campaign weakened him and damaged his reputation forever. Nevertheless, his role as a military general of the highest ability was acknowledged even by his foes. “I used to say of him that his presence on the field made the difference of forty thousand men,” the Irish-born Duke of Wellington once said. Wellington would prove to be Napoleon’s nemesis defeating him at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

So why is he such a controversial figure?

On the other hand a lot of people regard Napoleon as a narcissistic megalomaniac who made himself emperor of the French in 1804 at a time when he was supposed to be promoting republican values. He reintroduced slavery into the French empire after the revolutionary government had abolished it. He was careless with his men’s lives and inflicted needless suffering on the peoples of Europe. He was loved and hated by many of his contemporaries.

“That monster, choked out of hell, formed by Beelzebub,” the Prussian emperor Frederick William II opined at the time. Thomas Paine, the author of the Rights of Man, championed Napoleon’s early career only to despair of his excesses. He called him the “completest charlatan that ever existed”.

Who was Josephine?

Josephine was Napoleon’s first wife and the love of his life though they later divorced. Unlike him she was from an aristocratic background and six years his senior. He divorced her in 1810 when she couldn’t provide him with an heir and married Marie-Louise of Austria, but he made it clear he was marrying a womb not a woman. His last words were reportedly: “France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Joséphine.” (“France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine”).

Napoleon and The Crown are riddled with historical howlers. Does it matter?

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Why should we remember Napoleon today?

Napoleon continues to fascinate because he is such a contrary character being neither wholly good or bad. Those who cherish his memory acknowledge he was not all good; those who detest him acknowledge he was not all bad. He means different things to different generations. Above all his story ended tragically with his exile to the island of St Helena which was then and is now one of the most isolated places in the world. He died of stomach cancer in agony at the age of 51. In his final years he befriended an Irish doctor on St Helena named Barry O’Meara, who described him “this great man, full of noble courage”.