AoH Book Club: Paul Strathern on Napoleon in Egypt

With Napoleon's adventures in Egypt part of the new Ridley Scott film, we spoke to Paul Strathern to find out what really happened.
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Paul, your book was published 15 years ago to great acclaim. Why did you write it, after all it’s the only book you’ve written on the Napoleonic period.

First and foremost I wrote Napoleon in Egypt because it was such an gripping story – one which included everything from ambitious adventure and military ‘glory’ to the inevitable betrayals and disasters of political reality. Here was narrative history writ large

It’s often said that when Napoleon arrived in Egypt he had dreams of emulating Alexander the Great – was he seriously contemplating reaching India?

Napoleon harboured ambitions to rule France, and turn it once again into the great European power. He was outwitted in this aim by Talleyrand, the leader of the corrupt and ineffective ruling Directorate, who saw the Egyptian Campaign as a way of getting Napoleon out of the way.

Napoleon embraced this fate, turning it to his advantage, declaring: ‘Europe is a molehill…Everything here is worn out…tiny Europe has not enough to offer. We must set off for the Orient, that is where the greatest glory is to be achieved’.

Napoleon was still in his twenties, yet every apparent setback only seemed to serve his megalomania. It is difficult to accept that such a complete novice on the political scene clearly saw himself as a man of unlimited power. However, his words speak for themselves: ‘I saw the way to achieve all my dreams…I would found a religion, I saw myself marching on the way to Asia, mounted on an elephant, a turban on my head, and in my hand a new Koran that I would have composed to suit my needs. In my enterprises I would have combined the experiences of the two worlds, exploiting the realm of all history for my own profit.’

Napoleon brought with him a 40,000 man army, but also an army of scientists, artists, mathematicians and writers. Was this intended to be a conquest of the Enlightenment?

This is where Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign has its echoes in contemporary history. In the years preceding the publication of Napoleon in Egypt, the United States and its allies had invaded Iraq. One of the major ambitions of this war was to convert the Arabs to the European way of thinking: liberal democracy, elections, free-market capitalism and the like. The Arab world neither understood such ‘civilisation’, nor wished to become a part of it.

Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt was merely an early version of this ‘civilising’ aim. His intention was not only to conquer Egypt but also to introduce into its culture the enlightenment ideas which had proved so successful in Europe.

Napoleon’s attempt to introduce democracy to Egypt may have been filled with good intentions, but they were in fact doomed to farce. When he set up a ruling council of local muftis and leaders, he invited them to discuss amongst themselves how they wished to rule the country, and then take votes on what they had decided. For the Egyptian leaders such matters were simply incomprehensible. They sat in silence, not knowing what on earth to do.

How should we view the campaign – that we learnt much about our (in the global history sense) past and ancient Egypt, rather than a traditional military aspect?

The discoveries made by the scientists whom Napoleon took on his expedition would reveal for the first time the full extent of Ancient Egyptian civilisation. This would prove a revelation to European intellectuals, causing them to rewrite the entire notion of the origins of our culture.

Famously the Rosetta stone was discovered, or rediscovered, by Pierre-François Bouchard. Was that the most important discovery?

The Rosetta Stone was but one of many important discoveries made by Napoleon’s expedition.

The full extent of the knowledge which the French gained in Egypt would be collected from the many intellectuals who took part in this ‘expedition’. These writings, drawings, maps and so forth would be transported back to France, where they were initially collated under the auspices of the mathematician Jospeh Fourier. This master work, named Description de l’Égypte, would begin appearing in 1809. It would extend over 20 volumes, and not finally be completed until 1823.

Ironically, it would not include any detailed work on the Rosetta Stone, which was confiscated by the British when they arrived in Egypt.

How much of a blow to Napoleon was Nelson’s victory at the Nile?

Bonaparte and his chief of staff in Egypt, by Gérôme

Nelson’s supremely skilled victory at the Battle of the Nile, where he succeeded in destroying almost the entire French fleet, marked the turning point in Napoleon’s campaign.

Napoleon’s campaign would in all likelihood have failed under any circumstances, but with his fleet destroyed Napoleon no longer had any reliable contact with France, means of replenishing his army, or access to news of what was happening in Europe.

It was this defeat which probably sowed the seeds of Napoleon’s ultimate decision to desert his army and return to France.

Following the Battle of the Nile, Napoleon made one desperate attempt to overcome this disaster. He decided to march on Constantinople (Istanbul) and thus take over the Ottoman Empire.

This campaign was thwarted by British naval power, which relieved Napoleon’s siege of Acre, which stood in his path on the route to Constantinople.

Have you seen Ridley Scott’s new movie, and what do you think of his suggestion for Napoleon’s motivation to leave Egypt (ie to return to Paris and an unfaithful Josephine)?

Ridley Scott’s film is riddled with factual inaccuracies. For instance, Napoleon certainly never fired a cannon at the Great Pyramid. However, taken as an adventure story, the film gives at least some idea of the phenomenon that was Napoleon, and his effect upon history – information which might not otherwise have gained such wide currency.

Josephine certainly played a leading role in Napoleon’s life, but she was not the prime reason for him deserting his army in Egypt and returning to France. And unlike her portrayal in the film, she was in fact considerably older (and more emotionally knowing) than Napoleon. She was constantly unfaithful to him (as he was to her), and had such rotted teeth that they were compared to a row of cloves. (Her shame at this prompted her always to dine alone, never actually eating when she attended any public banquet.)

You have a new book out in February, Dark Brilliance: The Age of Reason from Descartes to Peter the Great. What can we expect from that?

Between the end of the Renaissance and the start of the Enlightenment, Europe lived through an era known as the Age of Reason. This was a period which saw widespread advances in the arts and sciences. Artists such as Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Van Dyk flourished across Europe. Likewise, scientists such as Newton, Hooke and Pascal continued the revolution instigated during the Renaissance by Galileo. Philosophy advanced through rationalists such as Descartes and Spinoza, as well as empiricists such as John Locke, whose ideas would later play such a formative role in the American Constitution. Society began to investigate its own workings. Political theory began to take on a more profound practical aspect with The Leviathan by Hobbes. Ideas on economics emerged from such disparate figures as the maverick Englishman Sir William Petty and the French Mercantilists who advised Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’  on how to run France. All this was achieved against a background of extreme political turbulence and irrational behaviour on a continental scale in the form of internal conflicts and international wars

Indeed, the Age of Reason was born during the Thirty Years War, a brutal conflict which devastated central Europe. Yet out of this came the Peace of Westphalia, which formulated the idea of the independent nation state, that still holds sway to this day. The Thirty Years War was followed by the English Civil War, which posed a serious threat to the prevailing belief in the Divine Right of Kings. It was such turbulence which prompted Hobbes to write his Leviathan. Many of the greatest works and advances of the Age of Reason were prompted by the Unreason which gripped Europe.

In some cases, the leading figures themselves incorporated both aspects of this divided era. Perhaps none more so than the Italian artist Caravaggio, whose often violent scenes dramatically capture effects of light and darkness, both literal and metaphorical: a conflict which frequently flared in his own brawling life, during which he committed murder, and may even have been murdered himself. The Italian Cardano, whose father had been a friend of Leonardo, was the leading Italian mathematician of his age, yet he still could not resist stealing the ideas of others. He was also a notorious gambler, boasting that not a day passed without him partaking in some form of gambling. Aided by his pioneering work in probability theory, he understood the odds better than his opponents – even so, he could not resist cheating, and was lucky to escape with his life on more than one occasion.

This age also saw the development of European empires across the globe. The English and the Dutch East India Companies were pioneers of intercontinental trade with Asia and the development of capitalism, ousting the earlier Portuguese trader-explorers. Yet the  methods employed by these companies in India and Indonesia  often involved grotesque barbarism. The beginnings of world-wide commerce also witnessed the beginnings of the African slave trade. And despite the long decline of  gold-rich Spain, this country still managed to destroy the Inca civilization.

The Age of Reason and Unreason is intended to illustrate such paradoxes during the first century or so of the Modern Age, during which the foundations of our present world were laid. Like the Renaissance, it was positively inspired by many of the ideals of the pagan Classical world. At the same time, esoteric practices which dated back to the Ancient World, such as alchemy, witchcraft and numerology. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Robert Boyle, the Anglo-Irish ‘father of modern chemistry, who despite laying the foundations of modern experimental chemistry continued covertly with his mystical alchemical practices. More astonishingly, so did Isaac Newton, whose meticulously calculated concept of gravity would transform our entire world view, as well the pursuit of mathematics. When his posthumous papers were finally scrutinised in the 20th century it was found that he had devoted more of his time and effort attempting alchemical transformations and calculating the mythical proportions of the Temple of Jerusalem than he had on the genuine  modern science he did so much to introduce.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the Ancient Roman playwright Terence, who famously declared: ‘Nothing human is alien to me’. The ambiguity inherent in this remark could well be taken as a motto for the Age of Reason and Unreason.

Paul Strathern is a historian and the author of Napoleon in Egypt: The Greatest Glory, which is highly recommended.