Literary Napoleon Complex: 7 of the Best Napoleon Bonaparte Books

Napoleon Bonaparte/Image: CC/Wikipedia

As iconic military and political leaders go, Napoleon Bonaparte is among the most famous (or infamous) of the last few centuries. His life and career spanned epochs and political movements, having first risen to prominence in the heyday of the French Revolution before becoming Emperor in 1804. His ambition, historic victories and stunning defeats, period of exile, and navigation of shifting political circumstances all contribute to his status as an endlessly compelling figure for study.

Whether you’re looking for works on his political maneuverings, his strategy in warfare, or fictionalized takes on his life, there are a number of great Napoleon books out there. (And further, you can also get your hand on books by Napoleon Bonaparte.) What follows are some of the best books on Napoleon Bonaparte — whether you’re seeking a view of him in full, or looking to hone in on one aspect of his life.

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts
Andrew Roberts’s mammoth biography of Bonaparte endeavors to examine his life in full, balancing the different aspects of his character and history that have made him such a compelling figure in the nearly 200 years since his death. The Guardian’s review referred to it as “a view – essentially positive – from inside the imperial entourage,” and praised its pacing and its continued relevance to the present political moment.

napoleon-moscow-zamoyskiMoscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March by Adam Zamoyski
Among Napoleon’s most infamous moments as a leader was his ill-fated attempt to invade Russia. This ultimately resulted in his army being successful in taking Moscow, but also caused said army to suffer massive losses due to the brutality of the Russian winter. It’s this paradoxical campaign that Adam Zamoyski surveys in this book – the foray east that set in motion Napoleon’s downfall as a leader.

napoleon-johnsonNapoleon by Paul Johnson
Napoleon’s rise to power and the manner in which he ruled offer many cautionary tales for those wary of authoritarian or totalitarian states. In his 2002 look at Bonaparte’s life, Paul Johnson finds plenty of alarming parallels between Napoleonic France and the totalitarian regimes that terrorized Europe a century later. Mark Mazower’s New York Times review noted that Johnson “sees Napoleon as a warning, the progenitor of what went wrong in Europe in the twentieth century.”

napoleon-war-peaceWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
For readers looking for a fictional take on Napoleon, Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel is almost as well-known as the man himself. And while this isn’t strictly a book about Napoleon, he does delve significantly into Napoleon’s story; his invasion of Russia in the early 1800s serves as a backdrop to the novel’s intricately structured plot. There are some questions about its historical veracity, however.

napoleons-warsNapoleon’s Wars: An International History by Charles Esdaile
This in-depth volume examines Napoleon’s military campaigns, from the well-known to the more obscure, tracking the ways in which violence quickly spread from France across the continent of Europe. In Napoleon’s Wars, history professor Esdaile takes a perspective that opts for the grander view. Kirkus’s review praised the book, asserting that Esdaile “offers a panoramic view of the pan-European warfare and traces the emergence in this conflict of a new military age.”

napoleon-martynNapoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution by Martyn Lyons
At a glance, it reads like a paradox: Napoleon emerged from the French Revolution, and returned France to the concept of having an Emperor. Martyn Lyons is the author of a number of books examining the complex political and societal landscapes of nineteenth-century Europe; in this 1994 work, he delves into the ways in which Napoleon was influenced by the ideals and the ideas of the French Revolution, as well as exploring larger questions of French society of the period.

napoleon-death-leysThe Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys
Another fictionalized version of Napoleon appears in this novel, in which he escapes from his period of exile on the island of St. Helena by switching places with a double. Leys’s novel shows the once-powerful man in a situation where he moves through his own legacy unrecognized by the people he once ruled, surveying the effect he had on history from an unexpectedly anonymous perspective – and in the process, asks questions about ideas of historical greatness, identity, and legacies.