Napoleon Bonaparte: Apostasy, Imperium, Tragedy

Napoleon Bonaparte is perhaps one of the last of history’s imperial apostates. Like Augustus and Julian, Napoleon combined innovation with tradition, rising from a bloody revolution to restore Europe to an imperium true to her legacy, that of Rome. The following is a chapter excerpted from my thesis written on Napoleon’s use of classicism to advance his imperial agenda. The narrative I employ here is illustrated in a series of paintings that map out the rise and fall of this tragic hero of history:

The rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte constitutes a dramatic course of events contained within a few brief decades of history. This essay has suggested how the course of Napoleon’s life had in a sense reenacted the political developments of antiquity. Like the empires of Persia, Athens and Rome itself, Napoleon’s career reached a climax and, as in a Sophoclean tragedy, suffered a catastrophic denouement. Perhaps the most familiar word we derive from Greek drama is hubris, an overstepping of human bounds into competition with the gods themselves. I shall now illustrate the hubris that precipitated Napoleon’s fall from grace through his evolution in artistic representation.

Let us begin with Le général Bonaparte à Arcole 17 novembre 1796 by Antoine-Jean Gros. This typifies the first stage of Napoleon’s career, the ascent to power through the glory of war. The portrait exudes the themes of “the man of action in his natural context, the battlefield,” a Homeric hero such as Achilles leading his Myrmidons into battle with a courageous, severe yet serene expression. The message from this painting was that Napoleon took part in the labors of, and identified with, his fellow soldiers; but his is such an idealized form that he is set above the common man, so naturally he should lead them.

The next painting depicts Napoleon in his transition from a war hero to an autocrat, Jacque-Louis David’s The First Consul Crossing the Alps at the Great Saint Bernard Pass (1801). His long warrior’s hair is shorter than his depiction at Arcole, suggesting that he had matured to the dignity of political office. Still, it is long enough to be caught in the wind and whip across his left cheek. Two salient factors serve to elevate Napoleon above the ranks of common humanity. First is his physical representation in the painting, far on his high horse above the artillerymen in the background. No longer, as at Arcole, does he face his fellow soldiers on an equal plain. Second are the inscriptions carved into the rocks at the bottom: HANNIBAL, KAROLVS MAGNVS, BONAPARTE. The identification with Hannibal was safe enough, for he and Napoleon were both great generals who crossed the Alps, as Napoleon had done in 1800 before his victory at Marengo. But Charlemagne crossed the Alps not only as a man of war; he did so in the year 800 to be crowned “Emperor of the Romans” by Pope Leo III. A thousand years later, Napoleon offered a hint of his aspirations not merely to kingship, but to ecumenical imperium.

Third in the series is another work of David, The Coronation of Napoleon (1807), completed three years after the fact, but true to the events and ideas of 1804. With Pope Pius VII present, brought to mind is the coronation of Charlemagne such as that depicted by Raphael (1483-1520) in the Vatican Museum. Yet if a Napoleon crossing the Alps in 1801 was already equating himself to Charlemagne, by 1804 and certainly by 1807, he has surpassed even the Frankish icon. Unlike the Raphael painting, Napoleon stands elevated above the pontiff passively looking on and making the sign of the cross. Napoleon is already crowned and, as he had already grabbed the crown and set it on his own head, so he confers the honor upon Josephine. The language of Napoleon’s official correspondence of the time corroborates the choreography of the painting:

But the Pope was not addressing with this absurd and imprudent language, as did Gregory VII, the degenerate and degraded children of Charlemagne, but rather his powerful and glorious successor.

By the time this was written in 1810 the Holy Roman Empire had since been abolished (1806) and now Rome and the Papal States were added to the Grand Empire. But Napoleon was no successor to the medieval empire of the Ottos, Henry IV and Francis II, but rather to the ancient empire to which Charlemagne’s honorific “Emperor of the Romans” entitled him. His aim was “a revival of Caesaro-Papism,” to be a new Constantine in a world order where temporal power held sway over ecclesiastical matters. Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 CE) had styled himself “equal of the Apostles,” a degree of sainthood that placed him clear above the Bishop of Rome. 

Yet with such an apostolic equation Napoleon entered into dangerous territory, realized in the next painting, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806). The regal imagery and Platonic idealization as independent from space and time are suggestive enough of Napoleon’s superhumanity. Yet the “hubris” of this painting is best appreciated with reference to a later work of Ingres, Jupiter and Thetis (1811). They are conceptually identical. As did the emperor Diocletian in the late third century, Napoleon had identified with Zeus himself.

Napoleon’s apotheosis in works of art, while megalomaniacal on the surface, still corresponded to the classicizing pattern of Napoleon’s political career, to freely choose classical historical precedents. Emperor worship was instituted in parts of the Roman Empire as early as Augustus, assigning to the monarch a sacrosanctity vouchsafed behind the aegis of the civil religion.

But Napoleon had gone too far. His aspirations skyrocketed beyond the limits of power circumscribed by reason and realism, to the point where the reflection upon his image caught up with, and overtook, his real-life achievements. He hubristically overstepped his bounds into “the realm of the fantastic or of unlimited possibilities.” Works of art such as that of Ingres ascribed divinity to a person who had not yet subdued, if not subjugated, the whole of Europe. Napoleon quite literally rested upon the laurels of his Roman imperial crown before his France had truly equaled the ecumenical supremacy that those classical symbols of power entailed.

1812. Drunk with imperium over the armies of Europe, hell-bent on scourging Russia back into the Continental System to overthrow Carthage, Napoleon crossed his own hubristic threshold, the same Niemen River that formed the boundary between his own Roman Empire and the Byzantine successor state to the east. Confident that the mere display of his shear power would bully the Eastern Caesar into compliance, Emperor Napoleon tragically miscalculated. A new Julian the Apostate marched to his fate in the steppes of the new Persia. The disastrous Russian campaign reenergized Europe against Napoleon. He lost the battle of Leipzig in 1813. The next year Prussian troops stood on Montmartre. The Emperor abdicated and was exiled to Elba. Nemesis had struck back.

Upon his return to France in 1815, Napoleon’s phoenix flew only 100 days, and after Waterloo he saw the reality of what he had become. Like his old self, he fashioned to himself a new classical role; he styled himself a new Themistocles, abandoned by his people, come to the court of his enemy. But unlike his Athenian predecessor, the British would grant him no lordly estate on their side of the Channel. He boarded a ship to the remote island of St. Helena, where he passed away in 1821. A modern Prometheus had fallen from the heights of Olympus, chained to a barren rock.

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