Napoleon Imperator

Comments on the Napoleonean (auto-) iconography in the mirror of the Ancient World

Eberhard Birk


As historical sources the following analyzing portrayals of Napoleon and his military, political and justice administering „genius“ as a multidimensional icon shall be interpreted, not so much with their art-historical relevance, but rather with their importance as a tool for a historical-political propaganda, which incidentally also corresponded with Napoleonean self-interpretation. This enterprise had such a long-term effect that the impression posterity formed of Napoleon mainly was based on it. Against a backdrop of creeping misconception of history despite booming historical journalism, today the necessity of a discursive historical-critical „deconstruction of the images“, which has always been demanded by specialist-interdisciplinary research designs, seems to have yielded to the necessity to call to mind again the objective of its construction. As a matter of course even Napoleon, with his authoritarian ruling methods and his charismatic self-image both in a negative sense - on the inside he was a dictator, „on the outside Napoleon is a terrorist from the school of 1793/94 - and in a positive sense was in need of the umbrella of camouflage and glorification put up by his propaganda.“ His image-programmatics can be understood as an individual pendant or as an individual-centred counter-design against the „storming“ of the Bastille on 14th July 1789, which has congealed into a collective symbol, and which can be interpreted as an „example of self-mystification of the French Revolution“. Napoleon was „a saveur of the French society on the inside and a conqueror of the world on the outside“ and at the same time as a charismatic monarch he was „the most instructive type of Caesarism“. In addition, he is considered the personified catalyst of modern age. Thomas Nipperdey’s postulate on German history - „In the beginning there was Napoleon“ - also applies to propaganda, which since Napoleon began its triumphant advance towards modern age both in quantity and in quality by iconographically heightening his military, political and executive successes. Against a backdrop of political and military revolution in an era of fundamental upheaval he was interested in establishing new social principles, together with creating traditional power structures, in his person. Thus, the alliance constellations enforced by Napoleon - especially the Rhein League as a military-strategic glacis and a reservoir of soldiers founded in 1806 - remind us of the even stabler Roman system of federal associates, as the move to Moscow in 1812 is comparable with the Roman penetration to the east under Trajan in 117, which gave the Roman Empire its greatest territorial expansion after arriving at Basra at the Persian Gulf, although - as with Napoleon - it was a temporary external bulwark of an imperial overstretch for a short time only. As the emperor of a strained „Roman“France he led his empire into fall within one decade. In summary it may be said that Napoleon tried to find a „classic“, timeless and everlasting solution to all military, political and religious challenges, using an ancient sign and form language. This endeavour asked for a synthesis summarizing Napoleon’s self-image and his conception of rule in one tableau.