14 books directly related to Maximilien Robespierre 📚

All 14 Maximilien Robespierre books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre

By Norman Hampson,

Book cover of The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre

Why this book?

This is my own favourite. Realising that he could not make up his mind whether he loved Robespierre or hated him, Hampson staged his own dilemma by presenting Robespierre’s life through an imagined set of conversations between a version of himself and three fictional members of the public. Witty and insightful and superbly researched below the water-line, this brilliantly experimental biography is a neglected masterpiece.


Pauvre Bitos ou Le Dîner de Têtes

By Jean Anouilh,

Book cover of Pauvre Bitos ou Le Dîner de Têtes

Why this book?

Anouilh shapes his play in parallel reference to two of the most traumatic periods in French history: the immediate aftermath of the 1945 Liberation and the end of the Terror with the death of Robespierre. In post-war France, a group of friends hit on a plan to explore what twisted logic shapes the individual who gets caught up in the violence of oppression. They invite a local man, one Bitos, to attend a masked dinner where each of the guests will take on the role of a prominent figure of the Revolution, Bitos himself, who has greatly profited by collaboration with the occupiers, to take on that of Robespierre, whom Thomas Carlyle referred in his magisterial History of the French Revolution as the ‘sea-green incorruptible’, from the tinted spectacles he wore.

Carlyle’s prose is lush, baroque, strong meat but well worth dipping into. The idea is brilliant as a vehicle to probe motive, the thinking that lay beneath the florid rhetoric and to expose the man whose very first sight of the guillotine to which he had consigned thousands was from the tumbril that carried him there. One day, he inadvertently encountered the public executioner, Sanson, the man who worked the dread machine, and, in the words of the chronicler, his face froze as if he’s just seen a snake.

Anouilh doesn’t peddle judgement, rather he allows admission to carry its own self-condemnation.


The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

By David P. Jordan,

Book cover of The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

Why this book?

Jordan’s is probably the most elegantly written of the five studies and stands out for providing a particularly generous allocation of space to Robespierre’s voice, telling the story of his life as much as possible through his own words. At the same time, Jordan’s intellectual biography is quietly attentive to providing a sense of the complex political environment in which any French revolutionary statesman had to act.


Robespierre

By J.M. Thompson,

Book cover of Robespierre

Why this book?

Thompson published his life of Robespierre in 1935, yet despite its age, it belies its age and is well worth a look. It is a heavyweight two-volumed biography, that is profoundly researched yet gracefully written. Extraordinarily comprehensive, it spans from shrewd analyses of Robespierre’s ideas and actions down to some of the most trivial (and fascinating) minutiae of his life. Thompson was ordained as a priest, subsequently renouncing his faith, and his study is particularly interesting on Robespierre’s contentious religious ideas.

His conclusion that Robespierre was ‘the embodiment of the revolutionary spirit of the French people' is, however, more than a little worrying. Maybe Robespierre is one of those enigmatic characters who is always with us!


A Place of Greater Safety

By Hilary Mantel,

Book cover of A Place of Greater Safety

Why this book?

A compelling historical fiction with the background of the French Revolution. The book describes the three main figures from the outside province to Paris who made the agitated and bloody history. Camille was related to the capture of Bastille; Danton made the execution of Louis XVI and Robespierre—the Terror. They enjoyed the happiness of power, but also paid a heavy price for it. We can see how humanity was lost in the turbulent revolutionary storm. 


Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

By Simon Schama,

Book cover of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

Why this book?

There are so many good books on the Enlightenment era, but my favorite ones have tended to deal with events in France. Among my preferred reads is Simon Schama’s Citizens, which I first breezed through in graduate school when it appeared in 1998. Citizens not only provides stunning, jaw-dropping insight into the events of the revolution, it confers an unforgettable texture to the main characters. (The images I have of Danton and Robespierre still come from the pages of this book, despite having read many other works on the same subject.) In recent years some critics have taken the author to task for being “against” the revolution. This still doesn’t bother me a bit. Regardless of the supposed politics or leaning of the author, this is an extraordinary book.


The Gods Will Have Blood

By Anatole France,

Book cover of The Gods Will Have Blood

Why this book?

I have read no better evocation of how the mechanics of the Terror actually proceeded and intruded on the populace. The story is compelling, the characterisation vivid, the overall effect to make the reader shudder with disbelief that such disgusting activity should have been fenced round with nay, enshrined in, the supposed legitimacy and defence of law, the very safety of a government’s measures to protect the public. Cicero invoked, here: the supreme point of law is the safety of the people. The reference of the title is to the human sacrifices in the Inca culture. At one point, such was the volume of bloodshed from the guillotine in the Place du Trône [present day Place de la Concorde] a veritable river, as the merciless blade of the ax (the sword of justice’) plunged down in it its grooves onto one neck after the other, day after miserable, gory day to the dry-throated beat of the funerary kettle drums, that plans were laid to build a sluice, a sangueduct, to carry it away.


Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

By Ruth Scurr,

Book cover of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

Why this book?

Intriguingly, Ruth Scurr’s approach is to give Robespierre ‘the benefit of any rational doubt’ in all the major decisions facing him as a politician. Almost like Robespierre’s best friend, she tries ‘to see things from his point of view’ when seeking to explain his acts. The result is a study that subtly draws the reader in, yet is far from a whitewash. Indeed the more problematic aspects of Robespierre’s character and policies including his drift towards violence, repression, and terror stand out all the more starkly as a result of this fundamentally sympathetic and thoughtful approach.


Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution 1793-1794

By Olivier Blanc,

Book cover of Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution 1793-1794

Why this book?

Blanc discovered in the National Archives in Paris a remarkable cache of letters kept in an old tin labelled as the property of Fouquier-Tinville, the Public Prosecutor of the French revolutionary Tribunal. He was a man who in sending off the last batch of victims to be beheaded, even after hearing that Robespierre was dead and with him, the Terror, said ‘justice must run its course’

The letters, written by prisoners on the eve of their own execution, to wife, family, plangent pleas to be remembered – some containing a little keepsake: a shirt stud, maybe – were never delivered, but, on Fouquier’s order, impounded as possible evidence. Post mortem? What was the point? The letters are heart-rending, sad, pathetic, drained of hope, but as poignant a souvenir of the effect of the vicious law which was sending their authors to the scaffold as any you will read. Fouquier, whose own unapologetic letter is here, once declared that ‘the ideal time to elapse between arrest and death is 24 hours’. Summary justice indeed. Appeal? The thought…


Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution

By Marisa Linton,

Book cover of Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution

Why this book?

After 1792 French revolutionaries had to confront European armies and internal counter-revolution in a battle for the survival of the Revolution – and their own lives. The Jacobins saved the Revolution, but an enormous cost in human life. Marisa Linton takes us inside the personal dimensions of this deadly struggle, examining how personal friendships and alliances among revolutionary leaders disintegrated into recrimination and killings. By the Year II (1793-94) the policies of “terror” unleashed at the armed enemies of the Revolution had been extended to other revolutionaries believed to lack the authenticity necessary to the practice of republican “virtue”. Linton unravels the deadly logic of suspicion at a time of violence and acute fear which underpinned this “politicians’ terror”.  


Terror: The French Revolution and Its Demons

By Michel Biard, Marisa Linton,

Book cover of Terror: The French Revolution and Its Demons

Why this book?

Few studies of the French Revolution by French historians have been made available in English. This is a loss for non-French readers, for it is France’s own revolution after all. No one knows the subject in such formidable depth as do their best historians, and Michel Biard is indubitably one of the very best of his generation. While I myself collaborated in the writing of this book, my principal reason for recommending it here is that it makes Michel Biard’s work more widely available. This up-to-date book appeared in French in 2020, under the title, Terreur! La Révolution française face à ses démons. This study confronts the enigma of ‘the Terror’ head-on, comparing myth and reality. Be prepared for it to challenge many of the assumptions about the French revolutionary terror familiar from school, film, and literature. 


Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland

By Siân Reynolds,

Book cover of Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland

Why this book?

Jean-Marie Roland and Marie-Jeanne Phlipon (later Madame “Manon” Roland) were the Revolution’s power couple, their lives both entwined and contrasting with Robespierre’s. Their fascinating and tragic story, expertly researched and retold by Siân Reynolds, has much to tell us about the power and passions of the Revolution and the personal relationships at its heart. We also learn much about provincial life, parenthood, and a companionate marriage. The Rolands were initially political allies of Robespierre, and “Manon” sought to cultivate personal friendship with him, but their bitter falling-out would be fatal for them in November 1793 – and ultimately for Maximilien in July 1794.


Paris in the Terror

By Stanley Loomis,

Book cover of Paris in the Terror

Why this book?

Loomis bases his account on the life and work of three principals in the Revolution: Jean-Paul Marat, the sanguinary demagogue, self-styled ‘People’s Friend’ and proponent of some of the grimmest excesses of the Terror; Danton, the moderate, whose increasing distaste for those excesses and his clash with Robespierre ultimately took him to the scaffold; Robespierre, the prissy, virginal, orphaned lawyer who had once argued passionately against the death penalty and then oversaw the herding of droves of citizens – mostly not aristocrats but largely what the French call the "menu peuple", humble artisans, shopgirls, social nobodies – to the guillotine. Inflexible as a Commandment, he became increasingly obsessed with ‘virtue’ in the twisted belief that legislation alone can enjoin decent behaviour or "civisme". Danton, the ebullient bon viveur rebuffed this nonsense cheerily: ‘Virtue,’ he said ‘is what I do with my wife every night.’

Loomis writes vividly, his book is replete with anecdote – some of it of rather dubious provenance, admittedly – but he evokes brilliantly the claustrophobic atmosphere of a time of overheated emotions, the propensity for wild hyperbole, inflammatory rhetoric, distorted manipulation of fact, wildly engrossed report, overblown journalism, the paranoia and toxic climate of suspicion, and the sheer horror of living in the French capital through one of the nastiest periods of any nation’s history.


Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

By Peter McPhee,

Book cover of Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

Why this book?

Maximilien Robespierre will always be associated in people’s minds with ‘the Terror’. In reality, he was not a dictator, but one of a group of committed revolutionaries in the National Convention. Within hours of his execution in July 1794 a myth began to circulate that he had been the sole mastermind behind ‘the Terror’. This myth was a way of exculpating the men who had also backed terror during the crisis of the ‘Year II’. Afterward, it was so much simpler for them to lay all the blame onto Robespierre. McPhee’s profound knowledge of the Revolution enables him to situate Robespierre in his context, showing not just how Robespierre affected the course of the Revolution, but how the Revolution changed Robespierre. This is simply by far the best recent study in English of Robespierre’s life.