When Napoleon Bonaparte led the Army of the Orient into Egypt in 1798, he expected the Egyptians to welcome him as a liberator. They had, after all, endured centuries of chaotic rule by the Mamluks, an undisciplined army of slave descendants who had seized political power during the Crusades. Napoleon, meanwhile, promised order, religious tolerance, and admission to France's enlightened empire.
But it was not to be. As The Age of Napoleon podcast explains in compelling detail, Bonaparte, much like modern imperialists, tried to impose his order at saber point. The residents of Cairo balked, and by 1801 the French had retreated from Egypt.
Bonaparte's rise to power is one of the great sagas of modern history, and The Age of Napoleon chronicles it with Tolkienesque detail. Each episode focuses on a seminal period or battle in the Corsican's life, providing plenty of context for those unfamiliar with 18th century European geopolitics.
The Age of Napoleon is scripted, precise, and relatively modest in its episode-to-episode ambitions. The leisurely pace crescendos every so often with a truly thrilling event; in particular, the rebuff of a royalist uprising that nearly toppled France's revolutionary government is edge-of-your-seat stuff. Yet despite the show's biographical focus, it never lets Napoleon off the hook for using liberationist rhetoric to justify his imperial ends.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Age of Napoleon".