Turning Tragedy into Triumph
Napoleon landed back in France in October 1799. He might have expected an acrimonious response from the Directory (who, if they had been more powerful, would in all likelihood have punished him for desertion). But as it stood Napoleon returned home a hero. To some extent his exploits in Italy still very much carried his reputation. But, as had been the case upon his triumphal procession into Cairo earlier that year, it was more Napoleon’s gift of spin—being able to portray a tragedy as a triumph—that won the day.
The political circumstances surrounding Napoleon’s ascent made power ripe for the taking. The Directory were corrupt and disliked, their incompetency leading to rapid inflation rates which, for those who the revolution was apparently meant to serve, was making life considerably harder than it had been under the rule of the Bourbon monarchs. A string of recent victories against the Second Coalition had done nothing to pacify public opinion and French society, it was felt, was in desperate search for that elusive, intangible concept that all nations strive after: stability. Napoleon believed that he was the one to provide it.
Historical precedent showed Napoleon that he could only provide strong and stable leadership if he was alone at the helm. Just as Augustus had risen from the ashes of the Roman Republic’s most destructive civil wars to usher in a new golden age, so to would Napoleon by establishing himself at the head of French government. To do this, however, he would need support. And so in collusion with his brother Lucien (at this stage the Speaker of the Council of Five Hundred) and a number of directors Napoleon plotted the coup d’état that would overthrow the Directory and establish him in the dictatorial role of First Consul.
The events that followed (known to history as “18 Brumaire”) so closely mirrored a particular episode in Roman history that they almost seem scripted. Augustus’s predecessor Julius Caesar—a figure Napoleon greatly admired—had declared himself dictator in perpetuum (to his ultimate downfall) during the dying days of the Roman Republic. On the Ides of March 44 BC he was struck down in the Senate, stabbed 23 times by senatorial conspirators including Caesar’s nearest and dearest, Brutus. When Napoleon marched into the Council of the Five Hundred with his grenadier guard and demanded they draw up a new constitution, dissolve the Directory, and establish a Consulate, it momentarily looked like he would share the same fate.
But then, at the pivotal moment, his brother Lucien Bonaparte made a dash towards Napoleon, pointing a dagger at his heart, and swearing that if he thought his brother had aspirations of tyranny he would strike the first blow. Whether it was this theatrical display that won the council over or the armed men under Murat’s command who marched in immediately afterwards is debatable. But in the end the council dispersed and Napoleon had won. Far from falling victim to tyrannicide, as his great hero Julius Caesar had done, he instead emanated his office: that of the supreme, autonomously powerful First Consul.