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How are Cleopatra and Napoleon Related?

Napoleon in Egypt
Napoleon in Egypt. Credit: Jean-Léon Gérôme / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

In the centuries since the deaths of antiquity’s greatest generals, namely Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, it was not uncommon for the military minds of subsequent eras to be compared to these towering ancient figures.

Napoleon Bonaparte, the foremost military mind of the 18th and 19th centuries, was no exception to this trend, especially at a time when a fascination for all things Classical gripped the educated elite of Europe.

Indeed, during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, the French officers frequently compared themselves to the ancient Romans and Macedonians, wishing to follow in the footsteps of the ancient conquerors. For one woman – Pauline Fourès – this led to an unlikely nickname, “Napoleon’s Cleopatra”.

The French Campaign in Egypt

Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt, also known as the French Expedition to Egypt, took place from 1798 to 1801. It was a military expedition led by Napoleon with the objective of disrupting British trade routes to India, establishing French influence in the region, and gaining access to Egypt’s strategic resources.

During the maritime journey to Egypt, Napoleon’s officers, who had formed a philosophical debate group, discussed at length whether their expedition would resemble the campaigns of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar more closely.

According to Dr. Agnieszka Fulińska, Napoleon “wished to be remembered as himself, the Emperor of the French, and not a modern Alexander or Caesar”. Nevertheless, Napoleon’s contemporaries were keen to draw comparisons, especially in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when interest in Classical history was widespread in Europe. His expedition to Egypt, the home of one of the greatest Classical civilizations in history only intensified comparisons.

Napoleon in Egypt
Napoleon in Egypt. Credit: Édouard Detaille / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Pauline Bellisle: Napoleon Bonoparte’s Cleopatra

During the military expedition to Egypt, Napoleon discovered that his wife
Joséphine de Beauharnais, who had not accompanied him abroad, had been unfaithful to him. He was devastated and resolved to divorce her upon returning home to France.

In the meantime, however, Napoleon met a French woman to whom he took a liking in Egypt. The wives and female relations of the French military personnel were not supposed to have accompanied them to Egypt, but some had snuck along anyway. Pauline Fourès (born: Pauline Bellisle) was one of these women. There was just one barrier preventing Napoleon from pursuing her, the fact that she was married.

Fourès had snuck onboard a ship to accompany her husband Jean-Noel Fourès on the expedition to Egypt. To get Jean-Noel, who was a cavalryman in the French army, out of the way, Napoleon sent him off on a series of duties as a courier which required him to leave Egypt.

Cleopatra and Pauline Fourès
Pauline Fourès (right) and Cleopatra VII (left) from whom she earned her nickname, “Napoleon’s Cleopatra”. Credit: Ecole Française / Sailko / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

With her husband out of the way, Fourès moved into a mansion next to Napoleon’s residence and became his mistress. Fourès, adorned in a general’s attire and a tricolor sash, enthusiastically entertained high-ranking officers in Napoleon’s army.

Her activities included arranging desert picnics, trips to the Pyramids, and hosting dinner parties, and receptions. As Bonaparte’s hostess, she embraced her role with energy and joy.

She would ride through Cairo, receiving cheers from the troops who affectionately called her “Napoleon’s Cleopatra.” For the French soldiers who imagined themselves as the conquering Romans in Egypt, Fourès was the Cleopatra to Napoleon’s Caesar.

The comparison to the ancient Ptolemaic queen of Egypt was certainly a flattering one. Cleopatra VII’s reputation as an intelligent, charming, and seductive ruler had survived well into the 18th and 19th centuries.

When her husband returned to Egypt, Pauline and Jean-Noel Fourès divorced. However, Napoleon and his “Cleopatra” never married. Pauline Fourès married twice more and devoted her time to painting and writing novels.

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