Despite his small statue, Napoleon Bonaparte casts an outsized shadow on European history. His military acumen and political genius set him apart from other leaders of his age. Though it’s hard to say a man who spent most of his life killing and conquering, whether in the name of the French Revolution or his own empire, is a good dude, Napoleon’s imprint on our world is undeniable. Because of all his amazing exploits, a post on the best books about Napoleon could be pretty long. But, I’ve done my best to distill it down to the very best.
So, to uncover more about this complicated, yet fascinating figure, read on!
1. Napoleon: A Life
Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts is a sweeping and definitive biography that presents a comprehensive and captivating portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte. Roberts skillfully explores every facet of Napoleon’s life, from his humble beginnings in Corsica to his role in the French Revolution to his rise as one of history’s most iconic soldier-statesmen.
The book delves into the intricacies of Napoleon’s character, his military genius, and his political ambitions. Roberts sheds light on Napoleon’s military campaigns, his tactical innovations, and the complex web of alliances and rivalries that shaped Europe during his era. But he doesn’t stop there, probing into Napoleon’s personal life, relationships, and his lasting impact on art, culture, and governance.
Napoleon: A Life takes a deeper look at this intimidating subject than any other biography before. It’s the first one volume biography to take advantage of Napoleon’s 3,300 letters that were newly published when Roberts was working on the book.
Roberts’ thorough analysis of these new materials, his attention to detail, and his accessible writing style make this biography a page-turning and enlightening read. Whether you are intrigued by military history, political leaders, or the complexities of human ambition, Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon: A Life offers a rich and rewarding exploration of the man who left an indelible mark on the world.
This also made our list of best history books of all time!
Napoleon by Felix Markham is a captivating biography. Markham provides a balanced and nuanced portrayal of one of history’s most influential figures, tracing Napoleon’s remarkable rise to power during the final chapter of the French Revolution, his military campaigns, and his eventual downfall.
Markam does an exceptional job of walking through the long, winding story of Napoleon’s military campaigns. From the iconic victories to the battles that culminated in Napoleon’s defeat, including, Austerlitz, Waterloo, and his ill-fated Russian campaign, Markam marches his reader next to the great general every step of the way.
But, Napoleon doesn’t just chronicle the great man’s military career. The book also delves into Napoleon’s early life, his military education, and his meteoric ascent as Emperor of the French.
Markham skillfully navigates through Napoleon’s complex character, examining the strategic brilliance, political acumen, and controversial decisions that made him into one of the first truly modern politicians of his day.
How? Markam got to know Napoleon through the writings of those who the knew the man best, including his second wife Marie-Louise and Grand Marshal Bertrand, who accompanied the fallen dictator on his journey to St. Helena.
With this research in hand, Markham was able to capture Napoleon’s essence like few others.
Napoleon in Egypt by Paul Strathern is a captivating historical account that delves into one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s most audacious and enigmatic adventures: his campaign in Egypt.
In this engaging book, Strathern explores the motivations, strategies, and consequences of Napoleon’s invasion of the land of the pharaohs.
The book chronicles Napoleon’s ambitious endeavor to conquer Egypt, offering a vivid portrayal of the military campaign, the cultural encounters, and the political implications. Strathern highlights the clash between the French forces and the Ottoman Empire, the fascinating interactions with local populations (who weren’t as thrilled at the French army’s sudden appearance as Napoleon had hoped), and the discoveries made by the team of scientists and scholars who accompanied Napoleon’s invasion.
Strathern’s evocative storytelling and his ability to bring the sights, sounds, and complexities of 18th-century Egypt to life is truly captivating. He weaves together historical narratives, personal anecdotes, and insightful analysis to show why the campaign was launched, why it failed, and the effects it had on the founding of Egyptology and the (slight) tempering of Napoleon’s ego and ambition to conquer the world.
The meticulous research and engaging prose Strathern employed to create Napoleon in Egypt make this book a fascinating exploration of a lesser-known chapter in Napoleon’s career.
The Campaigns of Napoleon by acclaimed military historian David Chandler is an authoritative and meticulously detailed account of Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaigns. Regarded as a definitive work on the subject, this comprehensive book provides a comprehensive examination of Napoleon’s fabulous intellect, including his strategic genius, tactical innovations, and the battles that shaped his career.
Napoleon is famous for not working from a generic formula for war, but rather making new strategies and battle plans for each campaign. He apparently once even boasted “Je n’ai jamais eu un plan d’opérations”; which, translates to “I never had a plan of operations.”
David Chandler expertly chronicles Napoleon’s unique campaign style, from his early victories in Italy to his iconic battles like Austerlitz and Waterloo. The book dives deep into Napoleon’s strategies, analyzing his use of combined arms, maneuver warfare, and his ability to exploit his adversaries’ weaknesses. Chandler also provides insightful analysis of the geopolitical context and motivations behind Napoleon’s campaigns.
Readers will appreciate Chandler’s rigorous research and attention to detail, as he brings the military operations to life through vivid descriptions, detailed maps, and strategic diagrams. The book not only offers a thorough examination of the battles but also delves into the logistics, tactics, and the impact of the Napoleonic wars on European history.
The Campaigns of Napoleon is an enjoyable read that provides a deeper understanding of Napoleon’s military brilliance and the context in which he operated.
The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History by Alexander Mikaberidze offers a sweeping and comprehensive account of the tumultuous Napoleonic era, examining the global impact of the conflicts that reshaped Europe and reverberated across continents.
In this meticulously researched book, Mikaberidze goes beyond the traditional European-centric narrative of the Napoleonic wars and explores consequences of the Napoleonic Wars on a far-reaching, global scale.
The book stretches from the typical Napoleonic battlefields, like Ausertlitz and Waterloo. But Mikaberidze expands from there, discussing the implications of the Napoleonic wars on Epypt, India, the United States, Spain’s South American colonies, and more. Though historians have long emphasized the earth shattering nature of Napoleon’s career, Mikaberidze was the first to take this assertion to its logical conclusion and examine just how it shaped the world outside of Europe and the Mediterranean.
Mikaberidze’s comprehensive research and engaging narrative style make this book an excellent resource for both casual readers and serious scholars.
Napoleon: A Biography by Frank McLynn is an immersive and comprehensive exploration of one of history’s most influential figures. In this masterful biography, McLynn delves into the life, rise to power, and complex character of Napoleon Bonaparte, offering readers a deep understanding of the man behind the myth.
The book takes readers on a captivating journey from Napoleon’s humble beginnings in Corsica to his meteoric ascent as Emperor. McLynn gives a balanced portrayal, delving into Napoleon’s military genius and ambitious reforms, while showing the flaws that made him all-too-human.
The book brings Napoleon and the era he dominated to life. From the complexities of Napoleon’s character to the intricacies of his military campaigns and his enduring impact of on Europe, McLynn lays bare the duel nature of Napoleon Bonaparte: the Great Man and the man.
Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast by Cynthia Saltzman is a captivating exploration of the controversial acquisition and subsequent fate of the renowned painting “The Wedding Feast at Cana” by Paolo Veronese.
This meticulously researched book delves into the tumultuous historical context and power dynamics surrounding the artwork’s confiscation by Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops during the French occupation of Venice in 1797.
Saltzman’s vivid descriptions and attention to detail are engrossing, as she follows the painting’s perilous journey to Paris and the Louvre, it’s part in the burgeoning collection of pilfered art in the Louvre, and how it has somehow remained within the walls of the former palace to this day, hanging opposite the Mona Lisa.
Plunder raises thought-provoking questions about cultural heritage, the ethics of art acquisition, and the complex interplay between art and politics, inviting readers to reflect on the legacy of colonialism and the implications of cultural plundering.
Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History is a captivating scientific and historical exploration by authors Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson. In this fascinating book, the authors delve into the profound impact of seventeen key molecules on world history, revealing the intricate connections between chemistry, society, and human civilization.
Taking Napoleon as their titular example, Couteur and Burreson explain how the buttons on pretty much his entire army’s cloths, officers and foot soldiers alike, were made from tin. Unknown to the men of the grand armée, however, tin freezes when the temperature drops below 56 degrees Farenhite. Unfortunately, once they invaded a Russia, a place that’s routinely colder than 56 degrees, the soldiers’ buttons started breaking down, leaving them even more exposed to the Russian elements.
With each chapter, Couteur and Burreson focus on a different molecule, ranging from caffeine and nicotine to silk and morphine, and explore how their discovery, production, and use shaped major historical events and cultural developments. From the role of salt in ancient civilizations to the impact of indigo on the slave trade, the authors skillfully unravel the intricate tapestry of science and history.
Napoleon’s Buttons offers a fresh perspective on world history, highlighting the often overlooked role of chemistry in shaping our past.
Another Andrew Roberts siting!
Spanning from Napoleon’s humble Corsican origins to his rise as Emperor of France and eventual downfall, Napoleon the Great offers a captivating account of Napoleon’s military genius, political acumen, and complex personality.
Roberts skillfully examines the intricacies of Napoleon’s major military campaigns, from his early victories in Italy to the famous battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo. Through painstaking research and penetrating analysis, Andrew Roberts provides readers with a vivid portrait of Napoleon’s ambitions, leadership style, and his awe-inspiring impact.
As with his other works, Roberts seamlessly blends historical facts with personal anecdotes, providing a well-rounded portrait of Napoleon as a man, a military strategist, and a political visionary.
The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It is an enthralling account of the Napoleonic wars by acclaimed author David A. Bell.
The book meticulously chronicles Napoleon’s meteoric rise to power and the bloody battles that got him there. From his days putting down counter-revolutions as part of the revolutionary army in France, to his ill-conceived war of “liberation” in Egypt, to the large-scale battles in central Europe that killed tens of thousands of soldiers, Napoleon practically invented to the concepts of total war.
Delving beyond the military narrative, Bell examines the socio-political ramifications of Napoleon’s wars. He explores the dynamics between the French Empire and the conquered nations, as well as the far-reaching consequences of total war, such as the emergence of nationalism, the introduction of conscription, and the devastation wrought upon civilian populations.
To continue with David A. Bell, another of his works, Napoleon: A Concise Biography, is a compact and illuminating account of the life and impact of the great general turned dictator.
Bell explores the multifaceted aspects of Napoleon’s character, presenting him as a brilliant military strategist, a charismatic leader, and a shrewd politician. To do so, he delves into Napoleon’s early life, his military successes, and his transformation into Emperor, examining the key events and decisions that shaped his legacy.
What sets this biography apart is its brevity combined with a rich analysis of Napoleon’s influence on Europe and the modern world. Bell provides a nuanced perspective on Napoleon’s impact on political systems, warfare, and governance, offering readers a deeper understanding of his lasting significance.
Bell also uses Napoleon’s life story to demonstrate the highs and lows possible within the human condition. Napoleon was at once a prodigy that reshaped how Europeans fought wars and governed their states, and a man who’s wars of personal ambition cost the lives of millions. He was in one instance the most powerful man in the world, only soon to be left adrift on the island of St. Helena in permanent exile.
The Invisible Emperor: Napoleon on Elba by Mark Braude provides a fascinating glimpse into a lesser-known chapter of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life — his exile on the island of Elba.
In this engaging historical narrative, Braude uncovers the intriguing details of Napoleon’s 10-month sojourn on the secluded Mediterranean island.
Braude takes readers on a journey to Elba, where Napoleon found himself transitioning from the height of power to a more, shall we say, confined, existence. The author explores the daily life of the fallen emperor, his interactions with the locals, and his attempts to maintain his influence and dignity amidst the isolation.
The Invisible Emperor sheds light on the complexities of Napoleon’s character and provides insights into his strategic thinking during this critical period. Braude’s meticulous research and evocative storytelling paint a vivid picture of Elba, its inhabitants, and the dynamics of power on the island.
Braude masterfully tells the story of how, through sheer force of personality, Napoleon used his time on Elba to gain allies in his bid to once again become the French Emperor.
Though he’s typically known for his historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell has created a truly wonderful and highly readible history with Waterloo: The True Story of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles.
This is a gripping account that plunges into the dramatic events of Napoleon’s defeat. Cornwell expertly brings to life the Battle of Waterloo by exploring the key players, the strategies employed on both sides, and the intense, world changing action that unfolded over four tumultuous days in June 1815.
Cornwell guides readers through the ins-and-outs of the battle like only he can. Beginning with the initial clashes between the French and Allied forces he carries the narrative all the way to the final, fateful minutes that sealed Napoleon’s defeat. Like only novelist can, Cornwell also shows the experiences of the soldiers on both sides of battle, giving us a truly human look into this bloody affair.
Just like with this novels, you will find yourself immersed in the intensity of the battle, feeling the tension and uncertainty that hung in the air, as well as the violence that surrounded all the men on the battlefield. Waterloo truly makes the history of this epic clash come to life.
Why Read a Book About Napoleon?
There have been few people in history more influential than Napoleon Bonaparte.
His rise through the ranks of the French army ended the French Revolution. The wars he waged across Europe, what we call the Napoleonic Wars, reshaped the face of an entire continent. And he drastically reworked the French education and legal systems so dramatically that many of the reforms included in his Napoleonic Code are still in use.
Napoleon was a singular genius and a key figure in transition Europe from early modern to modern history. And we can’t truly understand the world we live in today without understanding what this great, but troubled figure accomplished.