In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte visited the tomb
of the medieval king Charlemagne. His overwhelming ambition had induced an obsessive
fascination with the so-called Father of Europe. Three months later he was crowned emperor
of the French by the pope in a lavish ceremony at Notre Dame Cathedral. From humble origins, the “Little Corporal”
had become a neo-Roman ruler in the style of Julius Caesar. Just how did he do it? With an eye on the human condition, this is Insight. The subject of more than 100,000 books, Napoleon
Bonaparte’s story still enthralls us two centuries later. A new biography by Andrew Roberts is based
on the recent publication of Napoleon’s 33,000 letters, that have modified our understanding of his character and motivation. How did Napoleon become, in the words of one
French scholar, “charismatic leader, master of war and peace, . . . a messiah taking unto himself the symbols of both the Republic and the Roman emperors”? At the personal level, the answer surely lies
in a combination of Napoleon’s military and administrative talent, overweening ambition,
and self-propagandizing. Careful control of his image was one of the
tools he and his supporters used to great effect to further his goals, consolidate his
hold on power, and promote his deification. The theme of Napoleon as savior—either Roman
or Christian—began to appear in works of art. In an attempt to offset reports that Napoleon
had abandoned his plague-ridden French soldiers in Palestine, he commissioned a kind of spin
doctor of his day, the artist Antoine-Jean Gros. Gros painted Bonaparte at the Pesthouse of
Jaffa; he is depicted visiting his dying men and touching one with an ungloved hand in
the manner of Christ healing the sick, while an officer looks on, covering his face so
as not to breathe in the infected air. As historian Gérard Gengembre observes, “the
painting contributed to the divinization of the master.” Though raised a Catholic, Napoleon
was not overly religious. He saw religion’s value only in political
terms and used it to legitimate his rule by restoring the national relationship with Rome. The Concordat of 1801 was an agreement between
Napoleon and church officials recognizing Catholicism as France’s
primary religious identity. In 1804 Napoleon furthered his status by organizing
the canonizing of Neopolis, supposedly a Roman martyr from the time of the early Christians,
and now renamed St. Napoleon, patron of warriors. This new saint’s day, August 15, became
France’s first national holiday and happened to coincide with the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and Napoleon’s birthday. As Gengembre notes, “it was the cult of
Napoleon himself—restorer of religion, savior of the Church, anointed sovereign, living
saint—who was celebrated.” Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 resulted
in his banishment to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena. His death there six years later would not
be the end of his fame but, in some ways, just the beginning. Dictating his memoirs day by day, he positioned
himself for immortality: “I have worn the Imperial crown of France, the iron crown of Italy, and now England has given me one even grander and more glorious—that worn by the
savior of the world—a crown of thorns.” Four years later after the emperor died, Horace
Vernet painted Napoleon on His Deathbed. Like a Roman, he wears a laurel crown, his face rejuvenated and Christlike, a crucifix on his chest. This political-and-religious-savior imagery
was only to take on further excesses. By 1840, the year that Napoleon’s remains
were re-interred in Paris, the artist Jazet showed him rising from the grave with military uniform and laurel wreath. At that time, the author Victor Hugo wrote,
“Sire you shall return borne high on a car / Glorious, crowned, sanctified like Charlemagne
/ And great like Caesar.” While Napoleon believed he was “called to
change the world,” in the opinion of some he was also the man largely to be blamed for
starting the real First World War. And while many of his social innovations still
benefit France, history records a darker side. At the urging of his generals, he left more
than 20,000 of his own men to die in the terrible Russian winter of 1812
and returned to Paris. In all, his military campaigns destroyed an
estimated 3 million to 6.5 million people. Like so many before him, Napoleon positioned
himself as a messiah, but he proved false. Yet his legacy would inspire two dictators
that followed him in the 20th century: Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. If you’d like to know more on this subject, search the key phrase “false messiahs” on this website For Insight, I’m David Hulme.