MHQ Reviews: Napoleon in Power

Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power
by Philip Dwyer. 816 pp. Yale University Press, 2013. $45.

Reviewed by Rafe Blaufarb

THE SECOND VOLUME of Philip Dwyer’s magisterial biography of Napoleon, Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power, offers a gripping narrative of the great man’s principal military and political accomplishments from the time he seized power in 1799, when he was just 30, to his defeat at Waterloo. Although it provides some analysis of Napoleon’s civil accomplishments, as well as discussion of his evolving artistic propaganda style, this work is primarily concerned with the battlefield and cabinet room.

The author is a leading academic authority on Napoleonic Europe, but his work aims at a broader audience than that of his university peers. If you are one of them, you are likely to be disappointed by the book’s resolutely traditional style, lack of explicit engagement with current scholarly debates, and jargon-free prose. But if you are a reader looking for a panoramic account of the emperor’s rise and fall, an account that manages the impressive feat of being comprehensive and fast paced at the same time, then this book is a must-read.

It is impossible to summarize its contents in a short review. Over 800 pages and covering 15 of the most action-packed years of all time, Citizen Emperor is nothing if not comprehensive. It provides vivid accounts of all the military campaigns and battles (among others, Austerlitz, Jena-Auerstadt, Leipzig, and of course Waterloo—collectively, history’s largest war until World War I) and carefully situates them in their diplomatic context. The author effectively spices this up with choice anecdotes and quotations, many of which will be new even to those versed in Napoleonic history. This is a powerful testimony to Dwyer’s deep knowledge of the subject and his skill with the pen.

No book review is complete without some criticism. The main reproach one can level at Citizen Emperor is that it could have devoted a bit more attention to Napoleon’s administrative and legal reforms. The Napoleonic Code, the prefectoral system, and many more too numerous to list, all these innovations in the civil sphere long outlived Napoleon’s dazzling but ultimately ephemeral military accomplishments. To be fair, the book does address these topics, but only briefly, dispatching them in about a dozen pages. But then again, those interested primarily in the military and political events of the time will not necessarily find this a disadvantage.

Philip Dwyer’s Citizen Emperor is a formidable, engaging account of Napoleon’s time in power. Together with volume one, Napoleon: The Path to Power, 1769–1799 (Yale, 2008), it now stands as the gold-standard account of the Napoleonic adventure.

 

Rafe Blaufarb is the Ben Weider Eminent Scholar and director of the Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution at Florida State University’s Department of History.

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