Napoleon’s Empire: From enlightened absolutism to colonial imperialism

Michael Broers argues that the influence of Napoleon’s Empire was out of all proportion to its duration.

Napoleon’s hegemony over Europe came very close to being comprehensive, yet his ascendancy was brief. Even in France and his earliest conquests in the Low Countries, northern Italy and western Germany, Napoleon’s rule lasted little more than 14 years. This juxtaposition of a sprawling imperial presence across Europe, unequalled before or since, with so short a time span to study, poses the inevitable dilemma. Does size matter? Or does so brief a passage of power make Napoleonic history merely ‘an episode’, as one French textbook series dubbed it? Was Napoleon’s empire most akin to that of Attilla the Hun, which swept across Europe as a destructive whirlwind, only to vanish without trace? Or, as I believe, can so brief a period merit comparison with the Romans or, beyond Europe, the British Raj?

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