September 10, 2023

Napoleon, The Preserver of Knowledge


An excerpt from, "Napoleon Bonaparte and the books" By Marielle Brie, Napoléon Cologne le Blog, July 5, 2020:

Once the young general was assigned to the small army of Italy, it was still in the books that Bonaparte prepared his departure. He plunged into it so much and so long that he arrived late own marriage with Joséphine on March 9, 1796 , it was not for lack of having ardently desired this union … The day before, Napoleon had gone to the National Library to consult the books likely to familiarize him with the country which was to make his glory. No doubt he borrowed books or procured them to study at home until late at night. Determined and scrupulous, the preparations for the Italian campaign were made above all by numerous readings which diverted and monopolized the fiancé to the point of making him reject his necessary presence near Beauharnais. Between duty and passion, we will judge the impossible choice that tugged Napoleon!

A few days after 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799), the books again revealed the interests of the future Napoleon I. The new Consuls undertook to share the library of the Directory; one can imagine Napoleon as an enthusiastic supporter of this decision. Each therefore chose the books which he would make better use of and the rest formed the library of the Council of State. Napoleon’s sights were taken without surprise on the history and military art books. The taste for reading never passed and whether he was Consul or Emperor, he never stopped reading. But our man was on the move and the time of ebook was still far too far away to foreshadow the ease of traveling light! Not having the concern of transporting the heavy works of his library, it was decided – several times – to create a campaign library, the project took a long time to materialize …

An excerpt from, "How Napoléon’s invasion ‘revealed Egypt to the world – and to itself’" By Marc Daou, France 24, May 5, 2021:

The French revolutionary strain of the Enlightenment regarded Ancient Egypt as the ultimate origin of civilisation – and so the expedition was seen as a way of “bringing civilisation back to its cradle”, said Solé.

“It was in this spirit that Napoléon – who explicitly disavowed any link with the Crusades – went to conquer Egypt,” he said.

Indeed, Napoléon told his troops as they landed at Alexandria: “The people we will be living alongside are Muslims; their first article of faith is, ‘There is no other god but God and Muhammad is his prophet’. Do not contradict them; treat them as you treated the Jews and the Italians; respect their muftis and their imams as you respected the rabbis and bishops.”

Having long modelled himself on Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, Napoléon cemented this instruction with a classical reference – reminding his troops that, “the Roman legions protected all religions”.


The Description de l'Égypte (English: "Description of Egypt") was a series of publications, appearing first in 1809 and continuing until the final volume appeared in 1829, which aimed to comprehensively catalog all known aspects of ancient and modern Egypt as well as its natural history. It is the collaborative work of about 160 civilian scholars and scientists, known popularly as the savants, who accompanied Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt in 1798 to 1801 as part of the French Revolutionary Wars, as well as about 2000 artists and technicians, including 400 engravers, who would later compile it into a full work. At the time of its publication, it was the largest known published work in the world.

When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, he brought with him an entourage of more than 160 scholars and scientists. Known as the French Commission on the Sciences and Arts of Egypt, these experts undertook an extensive survey of the country's archeology, topography, and natural history. A soldier who was part of the expedition found the famous Rosetta Stone, which the French linguist and scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) later used to unlock many of the mysteries that long had surrounded the language of ancient Egypt. In 1802 Napoleon authorized the publication of the commission's findings in a monumental, multi-volume work that included plates, maps, scholarly essays, and a detailed index. Publication of the original Imperial edition began in 1809. It proved so popular that a second edition was published under the post-Napoleonic Bourbon Restoration. The "Royal edition" (1821-29) from the collections of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is presented here.
For Gibbon, the Library of Alexandria was one of the great achievements of the classical world and its destruction—which he concludes was due to a long and gradual process of neglect and growing ignorance—was a symbol of the barbarity that overwhelmed the Roman Empire, allowing civilization to leach away the ancient knowledge that was being re-encountered and appreciated in his own day. The fires were major incidents in which many books were lost, but the institution of the library disappeared more gradually both through organizational neglect and through the gradual obsolescence of the papyrus scrolls themselves.

Alexandria is, in that telling, a cautionary tale of the danger of creeping decline, through the underfunding, low prioritization and general disregard for the institutions that preserve and share knowledge: libraries and archives. Today, we must remember that war is not the only way an Alexandria can be destroyed.
Video Title: Napoleon's Description of Egypt with Louis Marchesano and Peter Bonfitto. Source: The Getty. Date Published: February 7, 2014. Description:
Napoleon attempted to conquer Egypt in 1798. Although the military campaign ultimately failed, the legacy of this expedition is documented in the monumental publication "Description de lÉgypte," the first comprehensive study of Egypt. 

In this video, Louis Marchesano and Peter Bonfitto discuss Napoleon's oversized volumes on display in the exhibition Connecting Seas: A Visual History of Discoveries and Encounters.
Video Title: Richard Ovenden - Burning the Books. Source: Blackwell's Bookshops. Date Published: September 4, 2020. Description:
Richard Ovenden talks about his brand new book 'Burning the Books:A History of Knowledge Under Attack'