“The Age of Napoleon” by J C Herold: a review

“The Age of Napoleon”, by J. Christopher Herold, Phoenix Press, 5 Upper St Martin’s Lane, London, 2002, paperback edition.

It probably goes without saying that whatever your view of Napoleon Bonaparte, there’s no denying the impact his ideas and decisions had not only on Europe in general, but also in places as far removed as the Americas and India.

Beginnings & titles

It was the early 1790s that saw the start of Napoleon’s quite spectacular career and so the recent review of J M Burns’ ‘Fire & Light’ (centered specifically on the Age of Reason) acted to recall this particular work to mind; it’s one that is usually quite close to hand, too.

Calling the volume “The Age of Napoleon” was possibly a little overblown but, you know, the content is not solely concerned with the man and his movements, though, to be fair he dominates proceedings…in fact the title worked out fine for me – I wasn’t in the biography market at the time, more just wanting to learn a bit about the late 1700s -1820s in general.

Naturally heady times –

It turned out that chapter 3 was what I had been reminded of – titled ‘Ideas in Conflict’, it’s a rather nice summary of a lot of the strands of thought that emerged and were built on, notions that in the febrile context of revolution often came to be regarded as sound and practicable, if not obviously self-evident.

Then, as now, there was actually quite a range of people from all levels of society all ready with reasoned justifications for telling everyone else what to do and/or how best to live and why.

An insidious type of self righteousness was in the very air…a kind that brooked no opposition on the basis that the stated goals and ideas were so naturally reasonable as to be beyond doubting, and could be proven mathematically, to boot…!?

Sources of truth…

That last bit is a feature of this time period – how much of a step away from autocratic divinity it really is, is a bit of a toss up – still, this idea that numerical analysis could provide the only right and true way forward, no matter the subject, took hold of many capable minds – serious attempts to calculate ( and implement ) happiness began in earnest.

Scary stuff…in their defense the big brains back then were breaking new ground (at least from their perspective) – and certainly lacked the benefit of hindsight in assessing what the consequences of their various, let’s say, visions, might actually turn out to be…

Wide ranging

On a bit of a brighter note, and getting back to the book (!), it was pleasing to rediscover a later chapter dealing with the effects the thinkers’ efforts inspired within the wider world – the world of the various European colonial empires, that is – and changes that realistically only came about because of the stirring example of French hegemony provided/inspired by Napoleon.

Anyway it was great to be given stuff in addition to the anticipated diversions into Egypt, Spain and Russia!


I guess that’s just (Napleonic) history… and J Christopher not only made a good fist of laying it all out in digestible form, but at the same time managed to avoid giving the nasty Corsican Ogre absolutely all the glory – not the easiest thing to do, given the character and personality concerned!

As an example of how the writer handles the subject of the epoch, the concluding chapter doesn’t finish up around 1815 or even 1821. Instead, after looking at the great man’s experiences on St Helena it continues by offering a gentle introduction to the establishment and evolution of the ‘Napoleonic legend’.

Although only a sketch in outline, and the part of the book in which the author allows himself the most latitude in holding forth his opinion, it nevertheless traces out just how quickly the ambitious began to make use of the example provided, perhaps a fitting epitaph since Napoleon was never shy about the extent of his own ambitions, nor the ways in which he went about realising them.


Originally published in 1963, the work has worn well – there’s nothing outrageous or controversial here, only solid scholarship of the readable, interesting and not overly intellectual variety…oh yes!…it has pics, too – in particular two full page illustrations of sketches by David, pretty cool ones that are a welcome break from the standard selection of full-on history painting or official portraiture.

Happy Reading!