Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?
Was he history’s greatest military strategist, laying the foundation for France to become a twentieth century (and beyond) world superpower of social, political and economic might?
Or was he the physical manifestation of ambition and ego in its most pungent form, a tyrant who discarded treaty and initiated concurrent conflict resulting in the immeasurable loss of life and culture through plundering and war?
The answer, of course, depends on who you ask. In France, Napoleon is revered. His monogram, visage and legend on display all around Paris, perhaps never more boldly than at Les Invalides his final resting place. You can’t escape the structure. It’s dome—covered in 14kg of gold leaf—is as much an icon of the city’s skyline as the Eiffel Tower (which is just a short walk away). I hadn’t visited this site before and thus made it my first stop, on my first day.
His many achievements outside of military conquest include creation of a Civil Code, the Council of State, the Bank of France, a national audit office, a centralized administrative system, standardized eduction for all, the metric system, and freedom of religion—all of which laid the foundations for change across Europe and eventually the world … but my first introduction to Napoleon was through Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, one of my favourite movies as a kid. It’s only over the past decade, one in which I’ve studied the French Revolution and its aftermath with great interest, that I’ve become intrigued by his person and historical significance.
The first part of Les Invalides that I visited was his tomb. This seemed to be the most popular area of the national monument, which also includes the Musee de l’Armée (the military museum). Everyone seemed in awe as they walked in near silence through the structure, admiring its sky-scraping pillars, ceiling murals, and general grandeur. It was the resting place of a king (as I’m sure he wanted)! The crypt gave an equally impressive view with twelve angelic Victory statues surrounding Napoleon’s sarcophagus, each representing a successful military campaign. I was captivated by the marble work on these figures. Their solemn faces eerily lifelike and haunting.
Afterwards, I visited part of the Musee de l’Armée. I regret not exploring the entire museum as it was quite fascinating but jet lag had started to settle in and I was looking forward to being rocked to sleep on my houseboat by the waves of passing watercraft. I did chance upon two items though that gave me pause: 1) actual clothing worn by Napoleon Bonaparte (he was as tiny as the rumours suggest); and, 2) his famous bicorne hat, weathered with time and the weight of myth.
So what is my opinion of Napoleon? In this age where we question the past through the lens of the present, it might not be socially acceptable to admit but I think Napoleon was one of the most fascinating, complex figures in history. An outsider of little persuasion who rose through the ranks to become one of the most influential beings the world has ever known is quite the life lived. Of his time, he was without peer.
He was described by one historian as “the most competent man who ever lived” and very well might have been.