There is perhaps no more polarizing figure in modern European history than that of Napoleon Bonaparte of France. The very mention of his name conjures visions of an over-ambitious tyrant, a power-hungry general, and a harsh dictator. That same name also brings to mind great military genius, political acumen, and a tremendous civic legacy. Napoleon has indeed become a unique cultural icon: one that brings to mind both fear and distrust as well as one that inspires.
This sojourn explores the political and military careers of Napoleon and examines the indelible mark they forever left not only upon France and Europe, but upon the entire modern world. The journey takes us from the very streets of Paris upon which Napoleon once paraded to Brussels and the battlefield where he met his fate. During daily lectures at the renowned University of Paris-Sorbonne, Professor Sutherland and select guest speakers lead us through the astonishing career of the admired and despised Napoleon Bonaparte. These lectures are then brought to life by visits to an array of historic sites, monuments, and museums which provide further depth to our endeavor and reward us with an insider’s view of some of the most interesting and undiscovered corners of Paris.
We explore the entire trajectory of Napoleon’s life, from his youth in remote Corsica all the way to his installment as Emperor of France in Paris. We examine Napoleon as a political leader and learn how he most certainly restored order and the rule of law to post-revolutionary France. We come to understand as well his civic accomplishments, Napoleonic Law and the acceptance of the metric system among them. And, as we uncover his personal life, a day-trip to the palace at Fontainebleau provides deeper insight to his interpersonal relationships and the private side of the man.
No study of Napoleon would be complete, however, without looking at his tremendous military career, the likes of which had arguably not be seen since Julius Caesar. No leader in modern times can chalk up the sheer number of resolute victories as Napoleon. Indeed, his military tactics continue to be studied at the best military academies across the globe to this day.
The second half of the week brings us to Brussels where we journey to Waterloo itself. There we examine first-hand one of the most decisive military battles in western history. There too we envision the battle lines drawn on that early June morning and understand the tactics of the great armies that clashed in the pastures nearby. We climb to the top of the memorial erected to commemorate the fierce battle and are provided a bird’s-eye view of the surroundings.
Finally, we allow ourselves to reflect upon Napoleon’s life following his defeat at Waterloo. We examine his abdication, exile, and very prosaic final days on the Island of Saint Helena where on his deathbed, his last word was simply “Josephine.” In the end we come to understand Napoleon not only as an icon, but as a man. We reflect both upon his faults and shortcomings as well as his remarkable talents and accomplishments. In doing so, we are rewarded not only with a better understanding of Napoleon himself and his place in history, but also of the historical epoch which bears his name.