Napoleon was a martyr, a charlatan, a phantom

He put the world’s very best in harm’s way because of it. He knew his exploits were remarkable – and why not? A Roman emperor who spent some of his leisure hours with a…

Napoleon was a martyr, a charlatan, a phantom

He put the world’s very best in harm’s way because of it.

He knew his exploits were remarkable – and why not? A Roman emperor who spent some of his leisure hours with a mistress just 80 miles from the palace? The truth is, he only made that headlines because his purposes were hidden.

And, of course, there was his immense popularity, a combination of aristocratic and nation-building designs that he achieved by whatever means.

Over the centuries the story has grown. Napoleon had killed off much of his glorious reputation by the end of his own reign, while things might not have been going that well for himself at the time. When he entered the Russian palace of Red Square, it was famous for its sheer height.

Napoleon alone had managed to use it to save the sovereignty of his empire.

But the former emperor was a celebrity, too. One of the oldest recognitions of a man’s rank comes in the form of his own obituary.

He has been described as ‘the legend of our time’, ‘a great revolutionary and the greatest military general of his time’, ‘Napoleon’s Lady’, ‘Napoleon’s muse’, ‘the champion of France’s greatness’, ‘the first’ and more.

His premature death made him a symbol of the fight against superstition, both within France and outside.

Fury wasn’t about revenge, despite his misdeeds (the French officer who murdered an unarmed American in the Crimea is more celebrated than the most famous Napoleon). It was about dispelling inaccurate legends.

On top of all that, there was his reputation as a media man himself, managing to be a fraud without being a faker himself.

It may surprise some that the most read article about him in magazines of the day was from Edward Jones, a simple and earnest American journalist, writing in The Christian Science Monitor about the emperor’s birthday – quite a line item in a broadsheet like that, where more controversial topics ran alongside – and not particularly helped in anyway by his lush prose.

He wrote:

Yet Napoleon, we may be sure, had a strange fascination for this planet, and was happy to prove himself to the best he could to be glorified by doing, not by believing; it is no surprise to us that his body turned white and for no known reason died so young, in the land he was fighting to bring order, and peace.

What do we know that people don’t know?

We know that Napoleon’s father was Count Ferdinand, which makes him a Swiss citizen who might or might not have been around for him to embrace the birth of the common European nation.

We know that he was blessed with a female figure dubbed his ‘mistress’, one that helped him make himself ready for life outside the Élysée Palace. We know that he had a child called Josephine who died young of German measles in 1831. We know he had a subject of a fascinating biographical biography.

Yet I would venture to say that the name that continues to cling onto him today is more rooted in rumour than in fact. He was single when he was crowned, he had an illegitimate son, and an army that was basically a divorce with payouts (surely he knew that having a French child would pay off big, whether it be governmental or not, right?)

If what we believe about Napoleon has held up well through the ages, it’s probably not thanks to an interest in the truth; it’s probably thanks to the hubris of his core ideals.

He believed in unity over domination, pride of place above resentment, and comradeship above betrayal. The facts about his father, child and death were important for him. They never changed that fundamental view.

It is all shrouded in myth to some extent – the ill-fated unsuccessful slave cultist, the tide-churning boozing general, the fearsome general able to tie up more than 200 nkph at a time when mechanised gunnery had yet to have had its first hits in the Mediterranean.

But true history won’t so much tell the emperor what he is, and as such, it will struggle to match the glee of an otherwise plain old myth.

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