It is 1799. After a decade of political turmoil, more than 40,000 executions and a brief but bloody Reign of Terror, France has at last thrown off the shackles of absolutist tyranny. Or has it?

In the second hefty volume (800 pages) of his biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, the distinguished Australian scholar Philip Dwyer takes us through the crucial years of the French Emperor’s life.

Dwyer presents us with a meticulously research study, containing more than two hundred pages of notes and bibliography. The book is a magisterial study of Napoleon’s years in power, his tormented obsessions and often violent nature, all of which nevertheless served as an inspiration to his countrymen and contributed to a legend that personified France’s most glorious days.

For some, Napoleon was a statesman of genius, the most brilliant military strategist of his day. For others, he is dismissed as Europe’s biggest troublemaker of the 19th century, the person responsible for up to 6.5 million casualties of war.

Dwyer’s seminal achievement will rank alongside works such as Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume life of Churchill, and Alan Bullock’s profile of Hitler, as the definitive biography of a man who, regardless of one’s personal opinions of his character, played a crucial role in shaping European history.

The Little Corsican, who in 1804 stepped into the shoes of the guillotined Louis XVI as France’s absolute monarch, is portrayed as a hero in the eyes of his countrymen. But also as a bully, and a ruler of mercurial temperament who could win arguments through indefatigable physical stamina when at a loss for the force of logic.

Napoleon regarded himself as a self-styled representation of the French nation, ‘the patrie, dressed in imperial gold and velvet’; imperious, arrogant, and conceited. ‘Anyone would have to be totally mad to make war against me,’ he remarked months before his crushing victory over the Russian and Austrian armies at Austerlitz. In this case, it cannot be denied, he spoke with unerring accuracy.

Dwyer begins his tour de force with a reminder that at this time, Napoleon was just 30-years-old. So cocksure was he of his glorious destiny, that after escaping an assassination attempt and ignoring the insults shouted by several deputies, he turned to his secretary and said, ‘By the way, we will sleep tomorrow at the Luxembourg Palace.’

And so it was, for Napoleon overthrew the ruling Directory and had himself proclaimed First Consul, a title he held for 10 years. ‘No one yet knew, however,’ the author says, ‘what he was truly capable of.’

Napoleon’s downfall

In the ensuing years, Napoleon’s appearance suffered a marked decline. When he stepped off the boat near Cannes after escaping from exile on the island of Elba, he was ‘corpulent, his complexion was dull and pallid, and he walked with a stiff gait’, according to contemporary reports cited by the author.

Charge of the French Cuirassiers at Friedland (1807) – by Ernest Meissonier. But was it the Battle of Essling two years later that turned French opinion against Napoleon?

It was a far cry from the ‘relatively svelte figure’ who fifteen years earlier had swaggered into the Council of Five Hundred to summarily unseat the government. Napoleon had returned to France in March 1815 to once again seize power. Three months later he and his delusions of imperial magnificence were finally crushed on the fields of Waterloo, and the erstwhile master of Europe was packed off by the British to the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena.

It is still debated whether it was the French rout in Spain in 1813, or the battle of Essling near Vienna, that began to turn opinion at home against Napoleon. In his account of this French defeat, Dwyer reveals his abilities as an analyst and chronicler of military history.

The detailed description of the encounter brings to light the Emperor’s battlefield indecision and his fateful miscalculation of the Austrian enemy’s ability to wage war. ‘It was the first time that the Emperor’s reputation as a military genius was tarnished, to the point that some were toying with the idea that he had gone mad,’ Dwyer tells us. From that moment forward, speculation about Napoleon’s sanity would continue to grow.

It is a reflection of Napoleon’s powerful influence over the army that he never had to face a mutiny in the ranks, not even after the combined losses of about 700,000 men through the disastrous campaigns of 1812 and 1813. Despite the military calamities in Russia and Spain, Napoleon’s escape from exile in 1814 inspired officers to cheer the return of ‘the idol of the French soldier’, as one veteran who had survived the Russian debacle put it.

Napoleon took care to cultivate a close personal relationship with his commanders. He understood that his political ambitions rested on army support. ‘France’s army was also his army,’ as Dwyer quotes from one contemporary observer.

The army’s role as protagonist was evident from the morning in 1800 that Napoleon moved into the Tuleries Palace. In the grand procession that had been organised for the occasion, the military were present not only as an escort to the civilian authorities and not just as an integral part of the parade. ‘They were placed at the head of the procession, signifying that they were now the premier corps in the state,’ Dwyer explains.

Tormented psyche

Dwyer’s book takes us deeper into Napoleon’s tormented psyche than any previous biography. During the disastrous Russian campaign, Napoleon grew so terrified of the prospect of falling prisoner to the enemy that he ordered his physician to prepare a sachet of poison, which he kept with him until his fall in 1814.

‘Despair had set in, and was not really to leave him until his fall from power,’ says the author. This was dramatically demonstrated in a ghastly scene one night after Napoleon’s abdication. The Emperor finally decided to make use of the poison prepared by his physician.

A few hours after going to bed, he placed the lethal concoction in a glass of water, took a few sips, and was only saved form death by the timely intervention of his physician who induced vomiting.

Great leaders of French history acquire an aura of grandeur that is often at variance with a rather inglorious death. Louis XVI had his head lopped off on the guillotine, Charles de Gaulle slumped over with a blood clot whilst watching television and Napoleon – in his final exile, conspiracy theories of arsenic poisoning notwithstanding – died painfully of a protracted bout of stomach cancer.

The greatest ignominy to befall Napoleon, who once held the greater part of continental Europe in his hand, was to be deserted by his allies, and then rejected by the people who had once worshipped him almost as a demigod.

It is beyond dispute that Napoleon was one of the great European conquerors. It should not be forgotten that as a political leader, he promoted the growth of liberalism and improved the economic lot of his people.

More controversially, he introduced a top-down system of government that to this day prevails in continental European countries. He could be surprisingly generous to his enemies, while employing the most brutal ruthlessness in suppressing opposition at home.

It will be of interest to see how his legacy is portrayed at the Napoleon theme park being erected outside Paris, an initiative which, were the Emperor alive to see it take form, might serve to reinforce his notions of enduring personal greatness. On the other hand, it could conceivably bring on another stomach cancer.

Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power
Philip Dwyer
Bloomsbury, £30
ISBN: 978-074757808 6