Napoleon the Great?

A debate with Andrew Roberts, Adam Zamoyski and Jeremy Paxman

Wednesday 8 October 2014, 8.24pm | VIDEO NOW ONLINE

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‘There is no immortality but the memory that is left in the minds of men.’ – Napoleon Bonaparte

How should we remember Napoleon, the man of obscure Corsican birth who rose to become emperor of the French and briefly master of Europe?

As the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo approached in 2015, Intelligence Squared brought together two of Britain’s finest historians to debate how we should assess Napoleon’s life and legacy. Was he a military genius and father of the French state, or a blundering nonentity who created his own enduring myth? Was his goal of uniting the European continent under a common political system the forerunner of the modern ‘European dream’? Or was he an incompetent despot, a warning from history of the dangers of overarching grand plans?

Championing Napoleon was be Andrew Roberts who will argue that if any ruler deserves the epithet ‘the Great’ it should be Napoleon. Not only did he revolutionise warfare, but he transformed Europe by retaining the best parts of the French Revolution – equality before the law, religious toleration, and the end of feudalism. He founded the first modern code of law (the Code Napoleon), instituted the excellent Lycée-based education system, and created a new aristocracy based on talent.

By contrast, all mention of Napoleon as ‘great’, ‘hero’, ‘villain’ or ‘monster’ has Adam Zamoyski running for the hills, bemused why – in his opinion – this rather ordinary man excites such passion in otherwise level-head intelligent people. Zamoyski argued that Napoleon is credited with creating civil institutions which were in fact the work of others. He perpetrated some of the greatest military blunders in history, including the disastrous invasion of Russia. He brought about his own downfall through a mixture of incompetence and megalomania. It’s understandable why the French cling to their poetic myth of Napoleon’s ‘greatness’ but to Zamoyski no self-respecting Brit, let alone an historian, should fall for the flim-flam of this shameless self-publicist.

Speaker extolling Napoleon

Andrew RobertsAndrew Roberts

Award-winning historian whose latest book is Napoleon The Great, a biography of Napoleon, to be accompanied by a 3-part BBC TV series. He first made his name in 1994 with Eminent Churchillians. His many subsequent books include Napoleon and Wellington (2001), an investigation into the relationship between the two great generals, and Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Gamble (2005).


Speaker disparaging Napoleon

Adam ZamoyskiAdam Zamoyski

Award-winning historian and author of the best-selling epic 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (2004) and its sequel Rites of Peace. The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna (2007). His latest book is Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution in the Repression of Liberty 1789-1848.



Jeremy Paxman - image courtesy Chris FloydJeremy Paxman

One of Britain’s best known broadcasters and journalists. In June 2014 he left the BBC flagship news programme Newsnight after 25 years of presenting the programme. His numerous books include Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British and Great Britain’s Great War.




Speakers are subject to change.