Interview: ‘The Age of Napoleon’ (Podcast)

The Age of Napoleon is a historical podcast that explores the life and times of the 19th century’s most famous and consequential military leader and statesman. Since its launch in 2017, the acclaimed program has taken a sweeping approach to its subject, focusing as much on the tumultuous socioeconomic conditions of the late 18th/early 19th century as on the man itself.

As the show illustrates, Bonaparte was more than just the “military genius” of popular imagination. In a time of fixed social status, he was a Republican loyalist who ascended from obscurity to become the absolute ruler of a new French monarchy. Yet he always claimed to champion the French Revolution; a guardian of the Enlightenment, with its promise of a more rational, equitable future.

With over 75 episodes completed as of this writing, The Age of Napoleon delves into the history and paradoxes of the man whose troops called him “The Little Corporal” (though not for his size). European royalty referred to him as him as, “The Monster.”

I spoke with the show’s writer/producer a couple of months ago and discussed his interest in the subject, his production process, and his Napoleon’s historical significance.

What initially drew you to Napoleon as a topic of study? Is there a particular aspect of his life/deeds/era that you find most compelling?

I’ve been interested in history since I was a child. What initially piqued my interest in Napoleon were the types of things you’d imagine might impress a child: his larger-than-life personality, and the action and drama of his life story.

However, I’ve found that as I’ve grown older and my interests have (hopefully) become more sophisticated, I’m always able to return to this era of history and find something new to catch my eye; some new angle I didn’t see before which reveals something rewarding. I couldn’t say there’s any one thing that grabs me about Napoleon and his world, it’s a confluence of things.

‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’ (1801) by Jacques-Louis David;

Why did you choose to pursue this project in a podcast format? Do you see it as an end unto itself, or do you have other ambitions for it and/or your research? Has the Patreon model for bonus content helped with your plans?

The short answer is that I listened to Mike Duncan’s ‘History of Rome.’ I like the idea of giving people something fun and intellectually stimulating to do when they are otherwise occupied with something monotonous. Before I started the show, I worked a job in which I was mostly alone, performing menial tasks, and podcasts were a great lifeline for me. I like to think I’m now providing that for other people.

As far as future projects, I have some ideas, and I have had a few conversations, but nothing concrete yet.

Patreon has been great. I probably would not have been able to continue the show this long without the support of the Patreon donors, at least not without making some huge compromises. I do regret that I’m not able to produce much in the way of Patreon-exclusive content, just because creating the regular show is so time-consuming.

How long does it take you to produce an episode, and do you have a staff? Is there a projected number that you plan on doing for the series, or is this a work-in-progress as you gather more information?

This varies episode-to-episode. Sometimes I already know more or less what I’m going to say before I write the first word. Other times I don’t feel nearly as inspired, or run into hurdles with research. Recording and audio editing is very time-consuming, usually it takes up a full working day, sometimes more. I have a pretty idiosyncratic work schedule, but on average I probably work slightly more hours per week than I did back when I had a real job.

There is no staff. I do everything myself, other than ad sales, which are handled by the network.

I came into this project with a rough outline of the trajectory of the whole show, but that went out the window very quickly. As von Moltke the Elder said, no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Regarding Napoleon himself, do you think that he ever believed the revolutionary, meritocratic ideals that he espoused in his early career, or was it always cynical rhetoric in his quest for power? Is it more accurate to see him as a figure of the Enlightenment, or a reactionary who wanted to return France to the era of absolute monarchs (e.g.  Charlemagne and Louis XIV).

I believe the young Bonaparte was basically sincere in his belief in enlightenment principles. Nothing I’ve seen in his private correspondence, or the letters of his close associates suggests insincerity. Napoleon was very ambitious from an early age, but this was always expressed vaguely, in terms of “destiny,” or a desire to play some role in historic events. His rise to power was mostly improvised rather than the fulfillment of some cynical, long-term plan.

I don’t think there’s quite as clear a dichotomy between Napoleon’s early career, and later career, as your question might suggest. Napoleon certainly didn’t see things that way. For one thing, the relationship between absolute monarchy and reactionary politics is complicated. Before the revolution, it was quite common for liberals and reformers to embrace the idea of absolute monarchy. They believed only a strong royal government would have the power to overcome reactionary institutions like the nobility and the church (Voltaire was of this school of thought). Napoleon believed dictatorial rule was the only way to force orderly, enlightened government on a country where democracy had failed.

Even as emperor, when he surrounded himself with splendor, founded a new aristocracy, and played the game of dynastic politics with the other crowned heads of Europe, Napoleon continued to see himself as a kind of revolutionary monarch. Enlightenment principles like meritocracy, secularism, equality before the law, and rational administration were at the core of his regime, even while he backed away from other enlightenment ideals, like democracy, freedom of expression, and the separation of powers. Right up until the very end, he wore the tricolor cockade, and claimed to rule constitutionally in the name of the people of France. Napoleon famously said: “I am the revolution,” and he really believed it.

Obviously there are some huge, glaring contradictions there, but Napoleon was quite comfortable embodying huge, glaring contradictions, which is part of what makes him such an interesting character.

What do you think is the public’s biggest misperception about Napoleon as an individual and historical figure?

I think there’s often too much emphasis on his military conquests. Obviously Napoleon was a brilliant general, but that’s just the beginning of the story. When you look at his legacy, most of what endures are his achievements as a statesman. Of course, those achievements were enabled by his battlefield victories, but Bonaparte was much more than a warlord, and you miss a lot of what makes him an interesting and significant figure if you try to put him into that pigeonhole.

‘Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène’ (1820) by François-Joseph Sandmann

Last question: Did the British poison Napoleon with arsenic during his second exile on St. Helena, and was this the cause of his ‘stomach cancer’? If so, is it fair and just for France to demand the life of UK’s current reigning monarch as recompense?

Here is my thinking on the arsenic poisoning theory: the idea that the British were above such a dastardly tactic is ludicrous, they used every trick in the book to defeat Napoleon, including some very unsavory methods. As they say, the motive, means, and opportunity are obviously there. However, it would be a pretty amazing coincidence if the British chose to assassinate Napoleon in a manner which very closely mimicked the type of cancer he was genetically predisposed to develop, long before the correlation between certain types of cancer and heredity was understood. On balance, I am more inclined to believe the stomach cancer theory, but if conclusive evidence to the contrary somehow emerged, I wouldn’t be overly shocked.

Thanks for your time!

The Age of Napoleon can be downloaded here, and can also be found on Apple podcasts. It also maintains a Patreon page which provides subscribers with additional content. You can also follow on Twitter.