Napoleon’s Librar(ies)

“The Emperor was infinitely fond of reading. The Greek and Roman historians were often in his hands, especially Plutarch. … He often read Rollin. The history of the middle ages, modern history, and particular histories occupied him only casually. The only religious book which he had was the Bible. He liked to read over in it the chapters which he had heard read in the ruins of the ancient cities of Syria. They painted for him the customs of those countries and the patriarchal life of the desert. It was, he said, a faithful picture of what he had seen with his own eyes. Every time that he read Homer it was with a new admiration. No one, in his view, had known what was truly beautiful and great better than this author; consequently he often took him up again and read him from the first page to the last. The drama had great charms for the Emperor. Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, often had one or two acts of their pieces read aloud. He preferred Corneille to the others, in spite of his imperfections…. Sometimes he would ask for some comedy which he had seen played, and from time to time a piece of poetry, for instance, ‘Vert-Vert’ [by Gresset]. He also took pleasure in reading some parts of Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations, as well as some articles from the Dictionnaire Philosophique of the same author. Novels helped him to relax and broke the seriousness of his habitual occupations. Gil Blas, Don Quixote and a small number of others would be read by him. Those of Mesdames de StaëlGenlis, Cottin, Souza, etc. he read over sometimes, but the novels which he could not bear were those of Pigault Lebrun…. He had nearly always under his eyes all the works relative to the military art and the campaigns of the great captains…. It was only by chance that he took up a scientific work; books of this sort were only occasional.”

                                                                        –Louis Etienne St. Denis 



When Napoleon died in exile at St. Helena, his library consisted of 1,814 volumes, 1,226 of which had been shipped from England. In his will, Napoleon directed his librarian, Louis Etienne St. Denis, to take care that nearly 400 volumes, specially selected out of the ex-emperor’s library, be sent to his son Napoleon II, King of Rome, when he reached sixteen years of age. Napoleon’s companions made off with many of the rest of his books, with the bookseller Bossange and Co. purchasing the remainder. Sotheby’s auctioned these off in London on July 23, 1823.

A smaller library of books belonging to Napoleon was discovered in 1906 in Marseille, France, where he had stashed them on his return from his Egyptian campaigns. He had reportedly taken over 320 books with him in his travelling library while on that particular campaign.

He was a voracious reader. Although he preferred to read books of history and drama, he did not neglect books of religion, political theory, or philosophy. His annotated version of Machiavelli’s The Prince, for instance, had a higher selling rate in France than the original.

For further reading about Napoleon’s reading habits and proclivities—why he loved Homer’s Iliad but not The Odyssey; and why he wanted to make Corneille a prince, for instance—consider these articles and archives:


Napoleon’s Library at St. Helena

Napoleon the Reader: The Early Years

Napoleon the Reader: The Imperial Years

Napoleon the Reader: The Final Years

Bonaparte the Bookworm