Napoleon in Egypt by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1867-68) 1

It was a time of enlightenment and a time of repression: an age of hope, an age of despair, a period of reaction and a period of reform. It saw the dawn of a new age, the twilight of monarchy and the death of divine right; it enshrined the moment when man the individual met the age of the soulless machine. Born out of the chaos and fire of Revolution it opened up a void between the last of the Middle Ages and the incipient beginning of the modern world. It was the age of Napoleon.

Bonaparte in Egypt by Gérôme

In the sands of Egypt and amidst the rolling dunes, were the remains of an Empire that had lasted for over three thousand years. Here one of the world’s earliest civilizations had been cradled and nurtured along the banks of the Nile. Everywhere there were ruins of temples and monumental statues that told of the pretensions of a bygone age, shards of pottery and even fragments of papyri blown hither and thither at the teasing insistence of the desert winds.

The Rosetta Stone

Napoleon came, he saw and he conquered, but his greatest victory was that over ignorance, his own innate inquisitiveness and fascination for the Orient helped resurrect the glories of the forgotten kingdom of Egypt. When his soldiers stumbled upon the Rosetta Stone they inadvertently found the key to understanding the wealth of knowledge preserved for centuries by the desiccating, vagrant sands. 2

The sight of tremendous pylons, Cyclopean walls, the all-pervading presence of the ancient past, blew the minds of scholar and soldier alike – and Napoleon had made sure that scientists and educated men full of the requisite erudition necessary were there to benefit from this cornucopia of intellectual delights. 3

Great Sphinx of Giza with Pyramids in the Background
by Eduard Hildebrandt - 1851

A view of the pyramids at Giza from the South (Anon) (

Many French scholars trudged through burning deserts with a thirst for knowledge just as great as their physical need to drink. Into parched wadis and desolate mountain fastnesses they stole, always at the mercy of ferocious bandits and suspicious tribes. The discoveries they made ensured that shortly after the French troops had left Egypt, and thanks to the genius of Champollion, the Pharaonic legacy was given to the world.

Entrance of Luxor Temple – Thebes

Artists from many nations were inspired and keen to go to the Holy Land themselves. Gérôme’s evocative painting of an Arab caravan outside a fortified town is clear evidence of the romanticism that a re-discovered Egypt evoked.

Arab Caravan outside a Fortified Town by Gerome

David Roberts (1796-1864), the Scottish painter toured the region between 1838 and 1840 and produced some wonderful pictures of the people and places of the area.

His group of Numidians in the Wady Kardassy is a fascinating glimpse into a truly lost world as far as most people today are concerned.

Dendera by David Roberts

Numidians in the Wady Kardassy by David Roberts

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was an English artist who developed a passion for the Holy Land. He was also a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and renowned for his attention to detail. It was said he could spend a whole day painting just one square inch of canvas. But the results speak for themselves.

He is renowned for the richness of his colours. One of his most famous paintings, The Shadow of Death (1851) is shown below.

Nazareth – Holman Hunt

Such was his devotion to the minutiae of his canvases and his determination to be true to life, that some of his paintings undoubtedly helped sustain the religious fervour of his age. Although suspiciously ‘Catholic’ to some contemporary Protestant commentators, his religious paintings were enormously popular.

The Shadow of Death (1851) by Holman Hunt

On a rather different theme, the Orient and especially the way it was seen by European males led to grandiose fantasies of a completely earthly nature.

Le Harem by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)

The vision of a compliant female, ever-ready like a modern battery, to energise the sexual feelings of her lord and master, is a fantasy many men are reluctant to dispense with.

Even indirectly, the French stimulated an interest in Egyptology for with the invasion of Italy one young man Giovanni Belzoni, the son of a barber began a peripatetic lifestyle: “The greater part of my younger days I passed in Rome, the former abode of my ancestors where I was preparing myself to become a monk; but the sudden entry of the French into that city altered the course of my education and being destined to travel, I have become a wanderer ever since.” 4

Belzoni went to Alexandria on June 9th 1815, a week before Waterloo and was to have a battle royal with the French ambassador over the acquisition of Egyptian antiquities. He was famous for removing and shipping to Britain, the head of the ‘Young Memnon’, actually the head of Ozymandias, the king in Shelley’s poem:

‘My name is Ozymandias, kings of kings,

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ 5

Back in France the turban became high fashion and the exotic nature of the Orient helped Napoleon in his quest for power. However, Napoleon was not one for glib fashions, especially the fashion for taking lovers. When in Egypt, he had been devastated to hear that Josephine had been unfaithful. His eyes had been opened and he was determined that no woman would ever hold sway over him again.

Once it had been Josephine who was in charge of their relationship, but as Napoleon’s star ascended, it was Josephine who realized just how lucky she was. In modern eyes she does not appear to be a stunner, she had poor teeth and is never seen smiling in any of her portraits.

Head of a  Woman in a Turban by Girodet

The Empress Josephine by François Gerard (1770-1837)

But Napoleon was smitten and he never forgot her, even when he married Marie Louise in the hope of siring an heir. And the Guard felt slighted, for Josephine was the epitomization of their luck. After Napoleon divorced Josephine his star began to wane and despite everything, her crass treatment of him in the early days and her many lovers, it was her name that as on his lips when he died in 1821.

France during the Empire was very much under the sway of the fair sex. With their low cut tops and figure hugging gowns, they were the centre of attention. Jean-Roch Coignet for one, felt uncomfortable to be so close to so much naked flesh. Napoleon was scandalized by the behaviour of some of the female Parisian elite.

Despite his many lovers when he was Emperor, he was rather a prude at heart.

In Gilray’s caricature of 1805, Barras is being entertained by Thérésa Tallien and Josephine, dancing naked before him. Talleyrand said of Tallien when she appeared at the opera in a white silk dress sans sleeves and sans underwear: “It is not possible to exhibit oneself more sumptuously!” 6

As the war between the sexes continued a surprising peace between England and France came into being at Amiens. Despite two centuries of British propaganda, Napoleon wanted peace in order to continue with his reforms at home.


With a navy purged of officers during the excesses of the Revolution, he hadn’t a prayer of invading England and it is debatable just how much he really believed in the invasion attempt himself. Early in 1805 he actually sounded out the British for a renewal of peace but, as so often, the answer was a derisive silence. Prior to Trafalgar he had actually ordered Villeneuve, his chief Admiral, to stay in port, but his orders were disobeyed. Even before the catastrophic naval defeat, his armies were on the march, for British gold had enticed Austria and Russia into war against him. The Battle of Austerlitz made a mockery of Trafalgar, not that one would notice it in a perusal of English textbooks. Pitt was right to say that the map of Europe could be rolled up for ten years. So why didn’t the English respond to Napoleon’s many appeals for peace prior to all this?

In Europe as a whole, the aristocratic ‘elite’ clung to their privileges and wallowed in the principal of divine right. The common man was, to them, beneath contempt. Hence they made war against Napoleon to stop the contagion of democracy and careers open to talent, from spreading. Even as the notorious Highland Clearances were happening in Strathnaver and elsewhere, other Scots were fighting for the English crown.

Meanwhile, from his exile in Edinburgh, and then from London in 1805-1814, D’Artois (1757-1836), the heir to Louis XVIII, planned his many attempts on Napoleon’s life

Napoleon did his best to mend and restore French society and he initiated an amnesty for the former French émigrés. He even took up ‘noble’ sports himself.

Napoleon on a hunt in the forest of Compiegne

Ironically, he was a poor shot. And when he accidently hit one of his companions, Marshal Massena, he forced Berthier to take the blame!


Berthier (1753-1815) above, was a phenomenon in his own right. He was an incomparable right hand man to his Emperor and Napoleon would have had far fewer victories without Berthier by his side. He ‘fell’ from a window shortly before the Battle of Waterloo and it is very likely that he was pushed by one of D’Artois’ agents. His place on June 18th 1815 was taken by Marshal Soult who was a very poor substitute. One of Napoleon’s soldiers even warned him before the battle that the Marshal was a traitor. Be that as it may, without Berthier, Davout and Murat, Napoleon failed to win the campaign.

Général Louis Alexandre Berthier
Unknown (contemporary painting from the early 19th century)

Game of billiards

The painting above gives some idea of the sprit of the age, with the ladies in their Grecian gowns and the gentlemen in frock coats and tall hats. The two pictures below add a little more of the flavour of the epoch.

The card game

In a café

Russia ought to have been a natural ally of France, but Tsar Alexander had pretensions of grandeur. The Treaty of Tilsit he signed with Napoleon in 1807 was quickly forgotten and he prepared for war. Equally, Napoleon deluded himself that he could defeat the Russian colossus in a quick war of manoeuvre. Both men were soon to be disabused of their assumptions.

Fire in a Village in Russia (Hermitage Museum)

As the French army advanced in 1812, the Russians fled, setting their own villages and towns ablaze. The peasants steeped in religious belief and with a passionate hatred of all foreigners, slaughtered the French wounded and stragglers whenever they got the chance. To them it was a Holy War against the atheist invader.

Russian street pedlar

No wonder Napoleon looks so thoughtful in Vereshchagin’s painting below. It was an unwinnable war and only when his Army had reached Moscow did Napoleon realize the fact. He had been warned by Caulaincourt, his former Ambassador to Russia, that Alexander would never surrender. Already Napoleon had been stunned by the fact that, after taking Lithuania without a battle, Alexander had not conceded defeat. He did not want a protracted war, he even still liked Alexander as a person, thinking him merely misguided and badly advised, yet if was a crucial mistake to equate the Tsar with Russia itself. The nobles and the peasants were united in their invading French Army.

Peace at All Costs /Bad news from France (known by either title)
by Vereschagin (1842-1904)
Hatred of the invading French Army

Bemused and unwilling to accept the obvious, Napoleon dawdled in Moscow as winter came ever nearer. In 1815 he was plagued by the aftereffects of the Tambora eruption, which played a significant part in his defeat at Waterloo. Similarly, in 1812, it seemed as if Nature itself was against him for, as Peter Ryan says: “In the winter of 1683 the Thames froze over and frost fairs were staged on the ice. Another cold spell at the beginning of the nineteenth century contributed to Napoleon’s reverses on the Russian front. Both of these events coincided with periods of sunspot scarcity.” 7

Crossing of the Berezina by Peter Hess (1792-1871)

Thousands died on the Retreat despite the immense bravery and fortitude shown by the Imperial elite, the Guard. In the tumult of the frozen multitude shown above, perhaps individual suffering is masked or obscured. In the painting below of two French Hussars on patrol in winter the atrocious conditions are obvious.

Two French Hussars on Patrol in Winter (Hermitage Museum)

For days and then weeks, the French Army staggered back towards France, starving, freezing and without hope of further support – their last reserves were needed to get them across the Berezina river. Bourgogne and Coignet made it back, tens of thousand of others perished in the snows. It was the beginning of the end for the Empire of Napoleon.

Cartoon from the Hermitage Museum Saint Petersburg


Cossacks on the march

Those who the peasants missed were harassed and killed by the Cossacks. So, despite all the benefits he had brought to Europe, free schools for ordinary citizens; careers open to talent; the property rights of French peasants established; industries sponsored and supported; war orphans cared for and maintained – the writing was on the wall. The wolves of the ancien regime, hungry and tired of the wilderness, now closed in for the kill.

Photo of Saint Helena taken in June 1970

His pleas for peace scorned and ignored by the Allies when he returned to Paris from Elba in 1815, Napoleon reluctantly started on his final campaign. His soldiers headed for the sodden fields of Waterloo, to forlorn glory and immortality. It was a noble end for men who had been true to their Emperor through thick and thin, amidst deserts and snowdrifts. They died with his name on their lips.

Napoleon sur son lit de mort – Horace Vernet 1826

After several miserable years on the windswept rocks of Saint Helena, Napoleon himself succumbed to an insidious death. Arsenic had poisoned his system - administered by Montholon a fellow Frenchman in the pay of D’Artois. Even when he was thousands of miles from anywhere, helpless and hopeless, his enemies refused to forget the past. Napoleon had allowed scores of former aristocratic enemies to live, if only they had promised to serve France. He had spared the lives of Talleyrand, Fouché, and Bernadotte who were traitors to their country, and countless others unprepared to accept the world of equality of opportunity that existed after the Revolution. His enemies had no such qualms.






1- I have added the sunburst to symbolize the Enlightenment and Napoleon’s own love of knowledge.
2- The Rosetta Stone discovered in 1799 had three scripts in hieroglyphics, Demotic and classical Greek, thereby enabling Champollion (1790-1832) to decipher the ancient Egyptian tongue for the first time. Champollion was a linguistic genius, unparalleled in his time or now.
3- “In all, 177 scientists, of whom many were young students, divided into eighteen disciplines. As a sign of his interest, Bonaparte listed himself among the geometricians.” From GENERAL MICHEL FRANCESCHI’s BONAPARTE IN EGYPT booklet produced by the International Napoleonic Society, p.16
5- Ibid., p.18 Ozymandias is better knows as Ramses who ruled from1304-1237BC.
6- Thérésa Tallien (1773-1835) See her name on Wikipedia for Talleyrand’s quote.





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