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December 22, 20172373Views

Napoleon: An Interview with Andrew Roberts

Was Napoleon Great? Henry Hopwood Philips meets Andrew Roberts to discuss.

After a successful intelligence Squared Debate in which Andrew Roberts and count Adam Stefan Zamoyski debated – with Jeremy Paxman as Chair – Napoleon’s right to the appellation 'The Great', Mr. Roberts discussed his latest book, Nepoleon: A Life, with Henry Hopwood Philips.

HHP: There seems to be a theme your history books: you seem fond of the Great Man theory where use their powers to great effect; you're a fan of those who stick their feet in the sands of humanity against tides of impersonal determinism.

Andrew Robert: And isn’t Napoleon the personification of that. You cannot Imagine the era without him. He wasn't the plaything of forces, instead he dominated them. You have to go back to Frederick the Great or forward to Churchill before you see such massive game-changers.

HHP: How long did it take you to research the book?

AR: I signed the contract in 2007. I recently gauges that I’ve been working on it longer than Napoleon’s spells on St Helena and on Elba put together. I’m now at the age Napoleon was when he died. Incidentally, I've been to the room where he died on the island of St Helena, which is by no means an easy place to get to, in fact it takes six days by boat from Cape Town.

HHP: Is it inhabited?

AR: Yes, it has a population of approximately 4,000 people; 1,000 of whom never seem to have left the island.

HHP: I’m not surprised if that’s the transport link.

AR: That’s true. At ten by eight miles, it is a tiny speak. I was out there to do a three-part documentary on Napoleon which will come out next June on BBC2.

HHP: Was your grasp on French strong enough to grapple with sources?

AR: Funnily enough written French has not changed as much as English has since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s an infinitely malleable language. I also had a brilliant team of research assistants and translators who helped to translate of the 33,000 letters Napoleon produced over a lifetime at a rate of 15 per day.

HHP: There seem to be many parallels between Sulla and Napoleon (he solved civil strife, became a dictator to do so, left but returned etc.)

AR: It’s a good apercu. Actually Napoleon did hold Sulla up as a role model; he didn't celebrate him as much as say Alexander the Great or Caesar because Sulla had a worse reputation.

HHP: some think that Napoleon was not a hero in the way the heroes of antiquity were because he was too conscious of having to strive and imitate his forebears; he had a level of self-consciousness that made him too modern to be heroic…

Napoleon as First Consul by
Jean Auguste Dominique

AR: No I don't think that is true. Nobody is born charismatic. Nobody says 'Oh, isn’t that a charismatic baby.' He was both a man of action and letters, a man who fully backed civilization; it's why he turned against the ancien regime.

HHP: Zamoyski insinuated Napoleon couldn't uphold proper friendships.

AR: No, his problem wasn’t making friends, it was keeping them. They kept getting cannonballs in the He was both a man of action and
letters, a man who fully backed
chests. But then he was a soldier, and he admired men who went through the fire with him. As a result these men ended up getting killed but that’s a totally different phenomenon to being ‘incapable’ of friendship.

HHP: Jeremy Paxman quoted Brecht at the start of the debate…

AR: [interjects] Upon leaving the green room Jeremy, said; remember this is meant to be the moderator, 'Right, let's bury this maniac [about Napoleon]!' and, in his own book he called
Napoleon a 'despot', so I rather felt was against one.

HHP: The quote from Brecht was 'happy is the land that has no need for heroes'- Is this true?

AR: No, that, absolutely absurd. The post-heroic age has been declared often but has never actually arrived. Our history is replete with gods and heroes, subsequently we've found that gods don’t exist, but heroes do. They are the punctuation marks of history. Another line I was glad to refute was Zamoyski’s insistence that the quotation I took from his book (proving France was a failed state when Napoleon went to save it) was out of context—don’t forget all quotation is out of context—it was Enoch Powell who said that.

HHP: what of old accusation that Napoleon won against old armies, old tactics and old generals and he never improved when those armies did?

AR: Such nonsense. I pointed out in the debate that in 1814 he won four battles in five days. He was still Upon leaving the green room Jeremy
said “let’s bury this maniac!” And, in
his own book he called Napoleon a
capable of delivering very tough, hard blows. But what he couldn’t do was change the numbers; 70,000 men was the largest army he controlled, and he was regularly pitted against forces that totalled 350,000.

Napoleon's Grandes Armes

HHP: Some critics have accused you of giving short shrift to French internal affairs in your book?

AR: I have chapters on him as a lawgiver, chapters on him as a consul and other similar ones. I give at least 100 pages on these; you'd be testing the reader’s attention in the era of kindle and all the rest of it, to write much more than that.

HHP: Give two reasons why Russian campaign failed.

AR: Typhus and Russia’s scorched earth (and city!) policy.

HHP: Mein Kampf had Hitler toying with the idea that Germany could be the world’s land power and Britain could remain as its sea power – did Napoleon ever think along such lines?

AR: Napoleon didn't believe that. He wanted to take Britain on. He was a landlubber though. He wasted time, effort and money rebuilding the fleet after the Battle of Trafalgar (1805).

HHP: Why do you think the strength of the French Navy declined so rapidly after its successes in the late eighteenth century?

AR: This a very good question I have no idea. Perhaps I ought to write a book about it...


Andrew Roberts is a biographer and historian of international renown whose books include Salisbury, Victorian Titan (winner, the Wolfson Prize for History), Masters and commanders. And The Storm of War, which reached No. 2 on the Sunday Times bestseller list. Roberts is a Fellow of the Royal Societies of Literature and Arts. He appears regularly on British television and radio and writes for the Sunday Telegraph, Spectator, Literary Review, Mail on Sunday and Daily Telegraph.

Napoleon: A Life, Andrew Roberts, Allen Lane, £30 hardback, available on ebook.

Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Co-founder, historian and Editor-at-Large of Excvbitor


Twitter: @byzantinepower


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