By Will and Ariel Durant, 1975

This is Part One of a Three-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

“The Age of Napoleon” is one of 11 volumes in “The Story of Civilization” by the Durants. For background on these historians, and their long and productive life together, see the Website of the Will Durant Foundation. – H.F.



We must not picture him as Gros painted him in 1796 (above) – standard in one hand, drawn sword in the other, costume ornate with colored sash and official insignia, long chestnut hair wild in the wind, eyes, brow, and lips fixed in determination; this seems too ideal to be true. Two years younger than his twenty-seven-year-old hero, Gros is said to have seen him planting that standard on the bridge at Arcole, but the painting is probably the product of ardent idolatry – the man of art worshiping the men of deeds. And yet, two years later, Guerin portrayed Napoleon with essentially the same features: hair falling over forehead and shoulders, brows arched over eyes somber and resolute, nose going straight to the point like his will, lips closed tight as of a mind made up. This too is but one aspect of the man – the martial; there were many other moods that could relax those lineaments, as in his playful pulling of his secretary’s ears, or in his paternal ecstasy over the infant “King of Rome.” By 1802 he had discarded those long locks – all but one which dangled over a receding forehead. He put on weight after forty years, and sometimes used his paunch to support his hand. Frequently, especially when walking, he clasped his hands behind his back; this became so habitual that it almost always betrayed him at a masquerade. Throughout his life his hands attracted attention by the perfection of their skin and the tapering fingers; indeed, he was quite proud of all four of his extremities. However, Las Cases (Ed. note: a French historian who accompanied him to exile at St. Helena) who thought him a god, could not help smiling at those “ridiculously handsome hands.”

He was absurdly short for a general, being only five feet six inches in height; the command had to be in the eyes. (Editor’s Note: In fact, Napoleon was not short. Five-feet-six was about average for a Frenchman of this time, according to demographic data and other sources. See here for more information on this topic.) Cardinal Caprara, coming to negotiate the Concordat, wore “an immense pair of green spectacles” to soften the glare of Napoleon’s eyes. General Vandamme, fearing their hypnosis, confessed, “That devil of a man exercises upon me a fascination that I cannot explain to myself; and in such degree that though I fear neither God nor devil, I am ready to tremble like a child when I am in his presence, and he could make me go through the eye of a needle to throw myself into the fire.” The Emperor’s complexion was sallow, brightened, however, by facial muscles quickly reflecting – if he wished – each turn of feeling or idea. Napoleon’s head was large for his stature, but was well shaped; his shoulders were broad, his chest well developed, suggesting a strong constitution. He dressed simply, leaving finery to his marshals; his complex hat, spreading like a folded waffle, had no adornment but a tricolor cockade. Usually he wore a gray coat over the uniform of a colonel of his guard. He carried a snuffbox on his waistband, and resorted to it occasionally. He preferred knee breeches and silk stockings to pantaloons. He never wore jewelry, but his shoes were lined with silk and bound with buckles of gold. In dress, as in his final political philosophy, he belonged to the Ancien Regime.

Napolean drawn by Appiani

He was “scrupulously neat in his person.” He had a passion for warm baths, sometimes lingering in them for two hours; probably he found in them some relief from nervous tensions, muscular pains, and an itching skin disease that he had contracted at Toulon. He used eau-de-cologne on his neck and torso as well as on his face. He was “exceedingly temperate” in food and drink; diluted his wine with water, like the ancient Greeks; and usually gave only ten or fifteen minutes to his lunch. On campaigns he ate as chance allowed, and often hurriedly; sometimes this led to indigestion, and at the most critical moments, as at the battles of Borodino and Leipzig. He suffered from constipation; in 1797 he added hemorrhoids, which he claimed to have cured with leeches. “I never saw him ill,” said Meneval, but he added: “He was only occasionally subject to vomiting bile, which never left any aftereffects….He had feared, for some time, that he was affected with a diseases of the bladder, because the keen air of the mountains caused him a kind of dysuria; but this fear was found to be without foundation.” However, there is considerable evidence that in his later life Napoleon was afflicted with inflammation of the urinary tract, sometimes leading to painful and inconveniently frequent urination. His overstrung nerves sometimes (as at Mainz in 1806) collapsed into convulsions partly resembling epileptic seizures; but it is now generally agreed that he was not subject to epilepsy.

There is no such agreement about the imperial stomach. “In all my life,” he told Las Cases on September 16, 1816, “I never had either a headache or a pain in my stomach.” Meneval corroborated him: “I have never heard him complain of pain in the stomach.” However, Bourrienne reported having more than once seen Napoleon suffering such stomach pains that “I would then accompany him to his bedchamber, and have often been obliged to support him.” In Warsaw, in 1806, after violent stomach pains, he predicted that he would die of the same disease as his father – i.e., cancer of the stomach. The doctors who performed an autopsy on him in 1821 agreed that he had a diseased – apparently a cancerous – stomach. Some students would add gonorrhea and syphilis to his woes, and suggest that some by-products remained with him to the end.

He refused to treat his ailments with medicine. As a general accustomed to wounded soldiers, he admitted the need of surgery; but as for drugs, he distrusted their side effects, and preferred, when ill, to fast, drink barley water, lemonade, or water containing orange leaves, to take vigorous exercise to promote perspiration, and let the body heal itself. “Up to 1816,” Las Cases reported, “the Emperor did not recollect having ever taken medicine”; but the imperial memory was then susceptible to wishful forgetting. “Doctor,” he explained to the physician of the S.S. Northumberland on the way to St. Helena, “our body is a machine for the purpose of life; it is organized to that end – that is its nature. Leave the life there at its ease; let it take care of itself; it will do better than if you paralyze it by loading it with medicines.” He never tired of teasing his favorite physician, Corvisart, about the uselessness of medicine; finally he led him to agree that, all in all, drugs had done more harm than good. He amused his final physician, Francesco Antommarchi, by asking him which of the two groups, the generals or the doctors, would, at the Last Judgment, be found responsible for the greater number of deaths.

Despite his ailments, he had in him a fund of energy that never failed till Moscow burned. An appointment to service under him was no bureaucratic sinecure, but almost a sentence to slow death; many a proud official crept away exhausted after five or six years years of keeping the Emperor’s pace. One of his appointees complimented himself on not being stationed in Paris: there “I should die of application before the end of the month. He has already killed Portalis, Cretet, and almost Treilhard, who was tough; he could no longer urinate, nor the others either.” Napoleon admitted the high mortality among his aides. “The lucky man,” he said, “is he who hides away from me in the depths of some province.” When he asked Louis-Philippe de Segur what people would say of him after his death, and Segur replied that they would express universal regret, Napoleon corrected him: “Not at all, they will say ‘Ouf!’” in profound and universal relief.

He wore himself out as he did others; the engine was too strong for the body. He crowded a century of events into twenty years because he compressed a week into a day. He came to his desk about 7 a.m., and expected his secretary to be available at any hour; “Come,” he called to Bourrienne, “let us go to work.” “Be here tonight at one o’clock, or four, in the morning,” he said to Meneval, “and we will work together.” Three or four days a week he attended the meetings of the Council of State. “I am always working,” he told Councilor Roederer; “I work when I am dining, I work at the theater; in the middle of the night I wake up and work.”

We might have supposed that these full and exciting days would be paid for by sleepless nights, but Bourrienne assures us that the Emperor slept well enough – seven hours at night, and “a short nap in the afternoon.” He boasted to Las Cases that he could go to sleep at will, “at any hour, and in any place,” whenever he needed repose. He explained that he kept his many different affairs arranged in his head or memory as in a closet with several drawers; “When I wish to turn from a business, I close the drawer that contains it, and I open that which contains another. . .If I wish to sleep I shut up all the drawers, and I am soon asleep.”

The Young Napolean by Gerard