Classics of Infoporn: Minard’s “Napoleon’s March”

Map from “Cartographies of Time” courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press.

We at the The Dupuy Institute love infoporn, those amazing, information-laden graphics that at once render dense, complex topics instantly understandable to the masses. Wired, Jalopnik, and Gizmodo have tags dedicated to sharing the best examples of it. Wiktionary defines infoporn as “Information which does not serve a purpose other than to hold the attention of its audience; information for information’s sake.” Perhaps so, but we at TDI feel that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Betsey Mason, a co-author of National Geographic‘s All Over The Map blog, has a profile of one of the greatest purveyors of infoporn, Charles Minard. Minard created what is considered by many to be the iconic work of information graphics, “Napoleon’s March,” or “the Minard graphic.” Created in 1869, Minard’s map depicts Imperial France’s doomed 1812-13 invasion of Russia. It traces the advance and catastrophic retreat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armee, while simultaneously showing its gradually dwindling manpower. At age 88, Minard conveyed an essential understanding of the subject with an imaginative combination of spacial and quantitative information that continues to resonate and astonish nearly a century and a half later.

As Mason writes,

Today Minard is revered in the data-visualization world, commonly mentioned alongside other greats such as John Snow, Florence Nightingale, and William Playfair. But Minard’s legacy has been almost completely dominated by his best-known work. In fact, it may be more accurate to say that Napoleon’s March is his only widely known work. Many fans of the March have likely never even seen the graphic that Minard originally paired it with: a visualization of Hannibal’s famous military campaign in 218 BC, as seen in the image [above].

Go check out the full article and marvel at the power of infoporn.

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Shawn Woodford
Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling.

All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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One comment

  1. I beg to differ. I have rarely seen so much nonsense written on the Napoleonic Wars (especially if people make analogous observations and link previous times to comtemporary historiography and politics, marred by nationalism and feuds). In fact, there is as much propaganda and bias on this era as there is on WW2 (80 years are enough to make so many mistakes, how bad is it when you are jumping 200 or even 2000 years backwards?). The French and British archives have been open for a long time, yet only few cared to take a deep look inside. The same problem existed with the German archives post 50s. There are still a lot of myths roaming around the Napoleonic Wars, I went through so much literature and usually it is quite painful to read through some of the work. Many of these “illustrations” inherit tons of errors (nice art but it is childsplay, not to mention that 1 millimeter of thickness is not 10,000 dead and ancient force attrition is not always linear but the layman can think whatever he wants).
    On the other hand, ancient times are extremely difficult to assess. New digsites as well as reinterpretations and translations of primary sources forced reassesements of many postulates. Hannibal’s original route is incorrect and does not match the existing sources. He avoided the coast line and marched inland after moving along the Rhone, towards Ticinum (Boii confederation).
    “Hāc igitur, quā dīximus, aetāte cum patre in Hispāniam profectus est. Cuius post obitum, Hasdrubale imperātōre suffectō, equitātuī omnī praefuit. Hōc quoque interfectō, exercitus summam imperiī ad eum dētulit. Id Karthāginem dēlātum pūblicē comprobātum est.
    Sīc Hannibal, minor quīnque et vīgintī annīs nātus imperātor factus, proximō trienniō omnēs gentēs Hispāniae bellō subēgit; Saguntum, foederātam cīvitātem, vī expugnāvit; trēs exercitūs maximōs comparāvit.
    Ex hīs ūnum in Āfricam mīsit, alterum cum Hasdrubale frātre in Hispāniā relīquit, tertium in Italiam sēcum dūxit. Saltum Pȳrēnaeum trānsiit. Quācumque iter fēcit, cum omnibus incolīs cōnflīxit: nēminem nisi victum dīmīsit.
    Ad Alpēs posteāquam vēnit, quae Italiam ab Galliā sēiungunt, quās nēmō umquam cum exercitū ante eum praeter Herculem Grāium trānsierat, quō factō is hodiē saltus Grāius appellātur, Alpicōs cōnantēs prohibēre trānsitū concīdit; loca patefēcit, itinera mūniit, effēcit, ut eā elephantus ōrnātus īre posset, quā anteā ūnus homō inermis vix poterat rēpere. Hāc cōpiās trādūxit in Italiamque pervēnit.” […] and so on.

    It is actually impossible to give an exact overview, not to mention that most sources are unreliable (information on troops strength should always be treated with caution), as they were usually written from a Roman perspective (and often tainted by christian transmission, e.g. the “hedonistic, orgies of Nero and barbarous Caligula”, yet nobody realized that there were multiple reforms, as well as a high investment into the infrastructure with an improvement and widening of all major streets). I just love to see depictions of Hannibal being “black” (no he was Phoenician, Hetitiaa and Kanaa, Punic, hellenistic-hybrid, that would be closer to Lebanese, Nasamones were “pure Africans”, also the Barcas were a unique military caste, sitting in Carthago Nova, the Iberian colony but whatever) or read about the “conquest” of Russia, Borodino and the Shevardino redoubt… (no, there was never a conquest, that was not the goal, nor was it ” I have no army anymore” as his core units usually survived, even in the 100 days and he showed up with another 400,000 man Army in Dresden thereafter – this statement is the equivalent to Guderian’s “Kursk was the demise of the German Panzers”). Another one: Hitler, Napoleon comparisons, or (London school of economics and politics): Russia was the driving force in Napoleons downfall ( no, originally they had a pro french attitude, at least before the coup followed by a British alliance, Britain financed the coalition forces to fight the Imperial Army). One of the most disheartening events for Napoleon (at least it can be deduced from the diaries) were his first defeats against the Austro-Hungarian empire. For the Punic wars I prefer Cornelius Nepos, Livius and Appian but Polybius is okay.
    I wish there were books with higher quality like (fictious title): Waterloo/Toulon/Quatre-Bras/Ligny/Arcole/Somosierra/Lützen/Leipzig/Borodino/Smolensk/Eulau or (whatnot) statistical analysis, but there is a journal of roman warfare and ancient history, Rankov and Goldsworthy are usually decent.

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