Posted in Empire, History, Modernity, War

What If Napoleon Had Won at Waterloo?

Today I want to explore an interesting case of counterfactual history.  What would have happened if Napoleon Bonaparte had won in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo?  What consequences might have followed for Europe in the next two centuries?  That he might have succeeded is not mere fantasy.  According to the victor, Lord Wellington, the battle was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.”

The standard account, written by the winners, is that the allies arrayed against Napoleon (primarily Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia) had joined together to stop him from continuing to rampage across the continent, conquering one territory after another.  From this angle, they were the saviors of freedom, who finally succeeded in vanquishing and deposing the evil dictator. 

I want to explore an alternative interpretation, which draws on two sources.  One is an article in Smithsonian Magazine by Andrew Roberts, “Why We’d Be Better Off if Napoleon never Lost at Waterloo.”  The other is a book by the same author, Napoleon: A Life


The story revolves around two different Napoleons:  the general and the ruler.  As a general, he was one of the greatest in history.  Depending on how you count, he fought 60 or 70 battles and lost only seven of them, mostly at the end.  In the process, he conquered (or controlled through alliance) most of Western Europe.  So the allies had reason to fear him and to eliminate the threat he posed.  

As a ruler, however, Napoleon looks quite different.  In this role, he was the agent of the French Revolution and its Enlightenment principles, which he succeeded in institutionalizing within France and spreading across the continent.  Andrews notes in his article that Napoleon 

said he would be remembered not for his military victories, but for his domestic reforms, especially the Code Napoleon, that brilliant distillation of 42 competing and often contradictory legal codes into a single, easily comprehensible body of French law. In fact, Napoleon’s years as first consul, from 1799 to 1804, were extraordinarily peaceful and productive. He also created the educational system based on lycées and grandes écoles and the Sorbonne, which put France at the forefront of European educational achievement. He consolidated the administrative system based on departments and prefects. He initiated the Council of State, which still vets the laws of France, and the Court of Audit, which oversees its public accounts. He organized the Banque de France and the Légion d’Honneur, which thrive today. He also built or renovated much of the Parisian architecture that we still enjoy, both the useful—the quays along the Seine and four bridges over it, the sewers and reservoirs—and the beautiful, such as the Arc de Triomphe, the Rue de Rivoli and the Vendôme column.

He stood as the antithesis of the monarchical state system at the time, grounded in preserving the feudal privileges of the nobility and the church and the subordination of peasants and workers.  As a result, he ended up creating a lot of enemies, who initiated most of the battles he fought.  In addition, however, he drew a lot of support from key actors within the territories he conquered, to whom he looked less like an invader than a liberator.  Andrews points out in his book that:

Napoleon’s political support from inside the annexed territories came from many constituencies: urban elites who didn’t want to return to the rule of their local Legitimists, administrative reformers who valued efficiency, religious minorities such as Protestants and Jews whose rights were protected by law, liberals who believed in concepts such as secular education and the liberating power of divorce, Poles and other nationalities who hoped for national self-determination, businessmen (at least until the Continental System started to bite), admirers of the simplicity of the Code Napoléon, opponents of the way the guilds had worked to restrain trade, middle-class reformers, in France those who wanted legal protection for their purchases of hitherto ecclesiastical or princely confiscated property, and – especially in Germany – peasants who no longer had to pay feudal dues.

When the allies defeated Napoleon the first time, they exiled him to Elba and installed Louis XVIII as king, seeking to sweep away all of the gains from the revolution and the empire.  Louis failed spectacularly in gaining local support for the reversion to the Ancien Regime.  Sensing this, Napoleon escaped to the mainland after only nine months and headed for Paris.  The royalist troops sent to stop him instead rallied to his cause, and in 18 days he was eating Louis’s dinner in the Tuileries, restored as emperor without anyone firing a single shot in defense of the Bourbons.  Quite a statement about how the French, as opposed to the allies, viewed his return.  

Once back in charge, Napoleon sent a note to the allies, reassuring them that he was content to rule at home and leave conquest to the past: “After presenting the spectacle of great campaigns to the world, from now on it will be more pleasant to know no other rivalry than that of the benefits of peace, of no other struggle than the holy conflict of the happiness of peoples.” 

They weren’t buying it.  They had reason to be suspicious, but instead of waiting and seeing they launched an all out assault on France in an effort to get him out of the way.  Andrews argues, and I agree, that their aim was not defensive but actively reactionary.  His liberalized and modernized France posed a threat to the preservation of the traditional powers of monarchy, nobility, and church.  They sought to tamp out the fires of reform and revolution before it reared up in their own domains.  In this sense, then, Andrews says Waterloo was a battle that didn’t need to happen.  It was an unprovoked, preemptive strike.

Andrews concludes his Smithsonian article with this assessment of what might have been if Waterloo had turned out differently:

If Napoleon had remained emperor of France for the six years remaining in his natural life, European civilization would have benefited inestimably. The reactionary Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria would not have been able to crush liberal constitutionalist movements in Spain, Greece, Eastern Europe and elsewhere; pressure to join France in abolishing slavery in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean would have grown; the benefits of meritocracy over feudalism would have had time to become more widely appreciated; Jews would not have been forced back into their ghettos in the Papal States and made to wear the yellow star again; encouragement of the arts and sciences would have been better understood and copied; and the plans to rebuild Paris would have been implemented, making it the most gorgeous city in the world.

Napoleon deserved to lose Waterloo, and Wellington to win it, but the essential point in this bicentenary year is that the epic battle did not need to be fought—and the world would have been better off if it hadn’t been.

What followed his loss was a century of reaction across the continent of Europe. The Bourbons were restored and the liberal gains in Germany, Spain, Austria and Italy were rolled back.  Royalist statesmen such as Metternich and Bismarck aggressively defended their regimes against reform efforts by liberals and Marxists alike.  These regimes persisted until the First World War, which they precipitated and which eventually brought them all down — Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs, Romanovs, and Ottomans.  The reactions to the fall of these monarchies in turn set the stage for the Second World War.

You can only play out historical counterfactuals so far, before the chain of contingencies becomes too long and the analysis turns wholly speculative.  But it seems quite reasonable to me to think that, if Napoleon had won at Waterloo, this history would have played out quite differently.  The existence proof of a modern liberal state in the middle of Europe would have shored up reform efforts in the surrounding monarchies and headed off the reactionary status quo that finally erupted in the Great War that extinguished them all.

Posted in Empire, History, Resilience, War

Resilience in the Face of Climate Change and Epidemic: Ancient Rome and Today’s America

Tell me if you think this sounds familiar:  In its latter years (500-700 ACE), the Roman Empire faced a formidable challenge from two devastating environmental forces — dramatic climate change and massive epidemic.  As Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

During our own bout of climate change and ravaging disease, I’ve been reading Kyle Harper’s book The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of Empire.  The whole time, rhymes were running through my head.  We all know that things did not turn out well for Rome, whose civilization went through the most devastating collapse in world history.  The state disintegrated, population fell in half, and the European standard of living did not recover the level it had in 500 until a thousand years later.

Fate of Rome Cover

So Rome ended badly, but what about us?  The American empire may be eclipsing, but it’s not like the end is near.  Rome was dependent on animal power and a fragile agricultural base, and its medical “system” did more harm than good.  All in all we seem much better equipped to deal with climate change and disease than they were.  As a result, I’m not suggesting that we’re headed for the same calamitous fall that faced Roman civilization, but I do think we can learn something important by observing how they handled their own situation.

What’s so interesting about the fall of Rome is that it took so long.  The empire held on for 500 years, even under circumstances where its fall was thoroughly overdetermined.  The traditional story of the fall is about fraying political institutions in an overextended empire, surrounded by surging “barbarian” states that were prodded into existence by Rome’s looming threat.

To this political account, Harper adds the environment.  The climate was originally very kind to Rome, supporting growth during a long period of warm and wet weather known as the Roman Climate Optimum (200 BCE to 150 ACE).  But then conditions grew increasingly unstable, leading to the Late Antique Little Ice Age (450-700), with massive crop failures brought on by a drop in solar energy and massive volcanic eruptions.  In the midst of this arose a series of epidemics, fostered (like our own) by the opening up of trade routes, which culminated in the bubonic plague (541-749) that killed off half of the populace.

What kept Rome going all this time was a set of resilient civic institutions.  That’s what I think we can learn from the Roman case.  My fear is that our own institutions are considerably more fragile.  In this analysis, I’m picking up on a theme from an earlier blog post:  The Triumph of Efficiency over Effectiveness: A Brief for Resilience through Redundancy.

Here is how Harper describes the institutional framework of this empire:

Rome was ruled by a monarch in all but name, who administered a far-flung empire with the aid, first and foremost, of the senatorial aristocracy. It was an aristocracy of wealth, with property requirements for entry, and it was a competitive aristocracy of service. Low rates of intergenerational succession meant that most aristocrats “came from families that sent representatives into politics for only one generation.”

The emperor was the commander-in-chief, but senators jealously guarded the right to the high posts of legionary command and prestigious governorships. The imperial aristocracy was able to control the empire with a remarkably thin layer of administrators. This light skein was only successful because it was cast over a foundational layer of civic aristocracies across the empire. The cities have been called the “load-bearing” pillars of the empire, and their elites were afforded special inducements, including Roman citizenship and pathways into the imperial aristocracy. The low rates of central taxation left ample room for peculation by the civic aristocracy. The enormous success of the “grand bargain” between the military monarchy and the local elites allowed imperial society to absorb profound but gradual changes—like the provincialization of the aristocracy and bureaucracy—without jolting the social order.

The Roman frontier system epitomized the resilience of the empire; it was designed to bend but not break, to bide time for the vast logistical superiority of the empire to overwhelm Rome’s adversaries. Even the most developed rival in the orbit of Rome would melt before the advance of the legionary columns. The Roman peace, then, was not the prolonged absence of war, but its dispersion outward along the edges of empire.

The grand and decisive imperial bargain, which defined the imperial regime in the first two centuries, was the implicit accord between the empire and “the cities.” The Romans ruled through cities and their noble families. The Romans coaxed the civic aristocracies of the Mediterranean world into their imperial project. By leaving tax collection in the hands of the local gentry, and bestowing citizenship liberally, the Romans co-opted elites across three continents into the governing class and thereby managed to command a vast empire with only a few hundred high-ranking Roman officials. In retrospect, it is surprising how quickly the empire ceased to be a mechanism of naked extraction, and became a sort of commonwealth.

Note that last part:  Rome “became a sort of commonwealth.”  It conquered much of the Western world and incorporated one-quarter of the earth’s population, but the conquered territories were generally better off under Rome than they had been before — benefiting from citizenship, expanded trade, and growing standards of living.  It was a remarkably stratified society, but its benefits extended even to the lower orders.  (For more on this issue, see my earlier post about Walter Scheidel’s book on the social benefits of war.)

At the heart of the Roman system were three cultural norms that guided civic life: self sufficiency, reciprocity, and patronage.  Let me focus on the latter, which seems to be dangerously absent in our own society at the moment.

The expectation of paternalistic generosity lay heavily on the rich, ensuring that less exalted members of society had an emergency lien on their stores of wealth. Of course, the rich charged for this insurance, in the form of respect and loyalty, and in the Roman Empire there was a constant need to monitor the fine line between clientage and dependence.

A key part of the grand bargain engineered by Rome was the state’s responsibility to feed its citizens.

The grain dole was the political entitlement of an imperial people, under the patronage of the emperor.

Preparation for famine — a chronic threat to premodern agricultural societies — was at the center of the system’s institutional resilience.  This was particularly important in an empire as thoroughly city-centered as Rome.  Keep in mind that Rome during the empire was the first city in the world to have 1 million residents; the second was London 1500 year later.

These strategies of resilience, writ large, were engrained in the practices of the ancient city. Diversification and storage were adapted to scale. Urban food storage was the first line of redundancy. Under the Roman Empire, the monumental dimensions of storage facilities attest the political priority of food security. Moreover, cities grew organically along the waters, where they were not confined to dependence on a single hinterland.

When food crisis did unfold, the Roman government stood ready to intervene, sometimes through direct provision but more often simply by the suppression of unseemly venality.

The most familiar system of resilience was the food supply of Rome. The remnants of the monumental public granaries that stored the food supply of the metropolis are still breathtaking.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we in the U.S. could face the challenges of climate change and pandemic as a commonwealth?  If so, we would be working to increase the resilience of our system:  by sharing the burden and spreading the wealth: by building up redundancy to store up for future challenges; by freeing ourselves from the ideology of economic efficiency in the service of social effectiveness.  Wouldn’t that be nice.