Magazine article The Spectator

Drang Nach Osten

Magazine article The Spectator

Drang Nach Osten

Article excerpt

NAPOLEON IN EGYPT : THE GREATEST GLORY by Paul Strathern Cape, £20, pp. 496, ISBN 9780224076814 . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Another book on Napoleon, or General Bonaparte as the author properly notes, though only because the man had not crowned himself emperor when he invaded Egypt. Insisting on calling him General Bonaparte, as an Englishman should, is now, alas, regarded as mere pedantry. If you type 'Napoleon' into the British Library catalogue, the result (13 May) is 10,861. So Paul Strathern, philosopher, mathematician, novelist and historian of the Medicis, is certainly labouring against the odds in offering us more. Except that his eclectic qualifications are probably as good as any historian's when it comes to making sense, and making interesting, the extraordinarily muddled, vainglorious adventure that was this half-military, half-philosophical expedition.

To begin with, the book leaps off the shelf-display into the hands: the dustjacket is a remarkably fine reproduction of a painting of 'Napoleon and his general staff in Egypt' by Jean Léon Gérôme, all sun and sand, heat and dust, camels, Bedouin and fine uniforms: East meets West (or vice versa). There are excellent illustrations within, too, some in colour, although it is a shade disappointing there are not more, for the glory of the expedition was not, in the end, the military side, the work of the soldiers, but that of the savants who accompanied Bonaparte and brought back so much that threw light on the mystery of the ancient Egyptians, not least, of course, the Rosetta stone, as well as a new fashion for all things near-eastern.

Was the enterprise a serious attempt to capture British India? It certainly does not measure up to the Napoleonic reputation for strategy, except for that part of his strategy which was purely the gambler's throw. Several recent histories have attempted to show that gambling was in fact all Napoleonic strategy ever really amounted to. This is what the general told his troops as they were assembling for embarkation (for the largest amphibious operation in history to that date):

Soldiers of the Army of the Mediterranean!

. . . You have campaigned in the mountains, in the plains and before fortresses; but you have yet to take part in a naval campaign. The Roman legions that you have sometimes rivalled, but have yet to equal, fought Carthage on this very sea ... Victory never forsook them ... Europe is watching you. You have a great destiny to fulfil, battles to fight, dangers and hardships to overcome. You hold in your hands the future prosperity of France, the good of mankind, and your own glory.

The ideal of Liberty that has made the Republic the arbiter of Europe will make it also arbiter of distant oceans, of faraway countries. …

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