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Hello and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 3.50, The Second Coalition. So we spent all of last week with Napoleon in Egypt. This week, we are going to double back and follow the developments in Europe while Napoleon’s army was trapped in the east. And as we will see in a moment, it was largely because Napoleon had gone east that things were going to start to go so badly for the French back home. Because everyone else, it’s about to form a new anti-French coalition dubbed by history the Second Coalition.
To wind the clock all the way back to the fall of 1797, the French Directory was feeling pretty good after the Treaty of Campo Formio. And with the coup of Fructidor having purged closet royalists and frankly anyone promoting a generous peace with France’s enemies, they were also feeling pretty aggressive. If you remember from two episodes back, the French negotiators at the Congress of Ristat were pretty well trying to dictate terms to get an even better deal for themselves. The deal Bonaparte had made at Campo Formio was actually pretty unpopular in the post-Fructidor halls of the Directory. So the talks at Ristat had quickly ground to a halt as the French tried to extract further concessions from the Germans.
But it wasn’t just French hubris that was stalling out the Congress of Ristat. Every one of the nearly 2,000 component parts of the Holy Roman Empire were trying to work the Congress to their advantage. In particular, the secular princes who had lost the lands west of the Rhine wanted to be compensated with lands east of the Rhines, and they eyed the various ecclesiastic principalities as the best source of new territory. So a bunch of the secular German princes actually now saw the French as diplomatic allies rather than enemies, because as we all know, there is nothing the French like more than stripping the Church of Land and giving it away practically for free. These princes were already pretty annoyed at the Habsburgs for not fighting harder to protect the left bank properties, and then when Bonaparte swung through Ristat on his way back to Paris in December 1797, he made the Austrians agree to pull out of the critical fortress city of Mainz, and that is when the princes just threw up their hands. The Habsburgs were abdicating their imperial responsibilities, so why even bother supporting them anymore? In response to the withdrawal from Mainz, the German journalist Joseph Gorres wrote, On 30 December 1797, the day of the handing over of Mainz, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, there died peacefully and blessedly at the ripe old age of 955 years, 5 months, and 28 days, as the result of total enervation and a final stroke, completely conscious and comforted by the Holy Sacraments, the Holy Roman Empire of ponderous memory.
And he was not far off. This was the beginning of the end. The Holy Roman Empire would formally dissolve just shy of 10 years hence after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1806, and many of the seeds that helped that disillusion along were planted at the Congress of Ristat.
The Austrians, for their part, were blissfully unaware of their impending doom. They surveyed the scene and said, well, look, the French didn’t beat us that badly. Sure, Bonaparte kicked us around in Italy, but every time the French had crossed the Rhine, we had booted them right back across again. So even as the Austrians were agreeing to things in principle, it was clear that they were beginning to view Campo Formio as a mere ceasefire rather than the beginnings of a stable peace. So though the Congress agreed to French control of the left bank in March 1798 and then compensation to the affected princes with ecclesiastic property in April, there was an awful lot of kicking the can down the road going on. And then Bonaparte and 40,000 men sailed for Egypt a month after that, and that’s when the Congress of Ristat really ground to a halt. The French thought they were about to conquer like the whole Mediterranean, and the Austrians just watched the one guy who had really given them trouble sail far, far away.
The Directory’s supreme confidence that they were on their way to being masters of the whole world then got a little boost in the spring of 1798 when the Irish suddenly rose up in rebellion against the British.
Bonaparte had convinced the Directory that attacking England itself would be folly, but helping to drag the British into a quagmire in Ireland? That still seemed like a perfectly reasonable ambition. Patriotic Irishmen in Paris, particularly the famous revolutionary wolf Tone, had been telling the French for years that all the Irish needed was money and guns and a stiff backbone made up of professional French soldiers, and they could make serious trouble for the British in Ireland. Trouble that would hopefully culminate with independence for Ireland. Now they had tried this and failed once before, as we all know, in 1796, but that was just because of the weather.
The failed French invasion of 1796, though, had put the British on notice that the Irish might actually be serious about rising up. So the British authorities had begun to play Protestant patriots, mostly up in Ulster, against Catholic patriots. Both sides wanted an independent Ireland, and they had come together to form a coalition called the United Irishmen, but the British were doing a pretty good job convincing the Protestants that the Catholics were just going to turn around and hand independent Ireland over to the Pope. With the Patriot movement internally divided, the British authorities then cracked down hard in March 1798. Ireland was put under de facto martial law, and the authorities swept through Dublin arresting everyone identified as a potential rebel leader.
But though the sweep was thorough, the British didn’t get everyone, and the patriot leaders who remained at large decided they needed to get going now or lose any chance they might have. So these leaders planned a general uprising that would begin in Dublin and the surrounding counties and then hopefully spread across the island, and they set it to begin on May 23, 1798. Unfortunately, on the eve of their revolt, the entire plan was betrayed, and so when the Irish patriots in Dublin started gathering at their agreed rendezvous points, they were surprised by sudden swarms of British troops. The insurrection in Dublin itself was quashed before it even started.
Now a few of the rebel groups in the surrounding counties managed to get their uprisings off the ground, but they were all put down within a matter of days. Then a little late to the party, up in Ulster, Protestant patriots decided to join the already semi-failed uprising in early June, but then they too were swiftly defeated within days. Now to deal with this sudden flare-up of rebellion, the British ministry appointed a new Lord Lieutenant to Ireland, a man with both military and administrative experience, and that is our old friend Charles Cornwallis, he of Yorktown.
And the rebellion that Cornwallis dealt with was by no means over. Down in the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin, a rebel general and about a thousand men managed to open up a guerrilla campaign that wound up lasting for years, even as the general himself surrendered in October 1798. The real action was even further south in Wexford. Wexford was not supposed to be the center of the rebellion, but it sure turned out to be. An uprising there began on May the 27th after the initial rebel defeats in Dublin, but once it got going, the patriots soon had an army 10,000 strong. They expelled the British authorities, declared themselves to be the colonel of a new Irish republic, and then attempted to break out of Wexford County and spread the rebellion. But in a series of battles in June, the rebels were defeated, culminating finally with a legitimately major engagement called the Battle of Vinegar Hill that pitted 20,000 Irish against 18,000 British. When the Irish were beat at Vinegar Hill though, that was pretty much the end of the Irish rebellion of 1798.
So I know what you’re thinking. This is a podcast about the French Revolution. Why are we talking so much about what’s going on in Ireland? Where the hell are the French? Well, that’s exactly what the Irish are thinking too.
Not exactly Johnny on the spot. The French did not land their first wave of support until August the 22nd. And that first wave of support was just a thousand men under General Jean Joseph Humbert. Yes, they landed two months after the rebellion had been pretty well suppressed. And when they did, they landed way up in northwest Ireland, which was nowhere near the center of the action. But when Humbert landed, he told the locals, look, another 3,000 guys are on the way. Do you want our help or not? About a thousand Irishmen rallied to Humbert’s banner. And a few days later, this combined French-Irish army actually beat 6,000 British militia forces in a battle that is called the Castle Bar Races. Because first, the British raced to block the French advance on the fortress of Castle Bar, and then the British raced away from the French when they got hit with their very first professional bayonet charge. After this initial victory, Humbert’s plan was to march up into Ulster, hopefully rally a bunch more Irish to join the fight. But the French found few supporters and no one really in the mood to take up arms. I mean, you guys heard the rebellion was actually crushed two months ago, right?
So Lord Cornwallis then gathered up two pretty massive forces of about 15,000 men each, mostly militia, to protect Dublin and then go track down the French invaders. It took a while, but in September 1798, Humbert’s little army was finally cornered and surrounded. Humbert surrendered on September the 15th. And the French soldiers were allowed to be taken prisoner under civilized terms and then be repatriated to France. Their Irish comrades, on the other hand, were either summarily shot or, if they ran, tracked down and hanged. And that was the way it went all through the rebellion of 1798. After every confrontation, Irish rebels were shown zero mercy.
So wait a minute, you say, what about the other 3,000 French? Funny thing about that, they took their sweet time getting moving and they didn’t land in Ireland until the middle of October 1798. That is, a good four months after the initial rebellion had been crushed and a month after their French brothers had surrendered. This latest and stupefyingly late attempt by the French to land troops in Ireland then itself came to disaster. When they reached the Irish coast, a British naval squadron pounced and after three hours fighting forced the French fleet to surrender. The great Irish revolutionary, Wolf Tone, was one of those captured and that’s how he winds up convicted, treason, and hanged in November 1798. If I decide to cover the Irish Revolution, we will talk more about Wolf Tone, I promise.
So by now, the fall of 1798, the Directory’s supreme confidence has been a bit shaken. Their efforts in Ireland were coming to naught, just as they were digesting news of Nelson’s destruction of Bonaparte’s fleet at Abacur Bay. And it was that French defeat, more than anything else, that really got the ball rolling on the second coalition because it brought in two new players into the game, the Russians and the Ottomans.
Ever since the fall of the Bastille, Catherine the Great’s Russia had been one of revolutionary France’s harshest and most consistent critics. The Russian court was also the most stable and generous benefactor of the emigre princes, where Austria and Prussia and Britain treated the emigres as a nuisance. Russia showered them with money, gifts, and if any of them made it to St. Petersburg, they received a warm reception. But as you may have noticed, Russia was nowhere to be found when the first coalition formed against France in 1793. Oh sure, Russia closed its ports to French shipping, but Catherine declined to participate in any actual fighting. As she herself declined to participate though, she was actively pushing the Austrians and Prussians to declare war. No doubt hoping that if they got bogged down fighting the French, that she would enjoy a much freer hand in Eastern Europe. The Russians were in the process of jumping up and down on the Ottomans, and Catherine planned to move next on Poland as soon as she was done. Now as we’ve seen, things didn’t exactly work out as Catherine planned. And when she did make her move on Poland, Prussia and Austria were right there to make sure that the subsequent Polish partitions didn’t go on without them.
After the third Polish partition in 1795, Catherine was still looking south towards Turkey and Greece as the center of Russian foreign policy rather than west towards France. And she secured a secret promise from the Austrians during the negotiations over Poland to support a Russian move south if she decided to go for it. It really wasn’t until Bonaparte started whipping the Austrians in Italy that Catherine finally decided that the French republic she so loathed might actually pose a threat to her rising empire.
As the Austrians were getting pushed out of Italy, she promised to raise 64,000 men to come join the fight. But even here, her pledge came with a major qualification. The now neutral Prussians had to pledge an equal number of troops, which the Prussians had no intention of doing. So it’s safe to say that Catherine the Great hated the French Revolution with every fiber of her being. She really did. But as long as no vital Russian interests were at stake, that hatred never translated into action. Russian foreign policy changed almost overnight in November 1796. Specifically November the 17th, 1796, because that was the day Catherine the Great died and her unstable son Paul I inherited the throne.
Paul was even more anti-revolutionary than his mother, and he had spent a lot of time amongst the French emigres, and so when he became Tsar, he tossed aside whatever prudence his mother had been laboring under and decided to make Russia aggressively anti-French. Before the Leoben peace preliminaries were signed in April 1797, Paul offered to mediate between the Austrians and French, but his thumb would have been on this scale the whole time. The French abandoning the left bank of the Rhine would have been a prerequisite to any peace mediated by Paul. When the Austrians signed the Leoben peace preliminaries, the Tsar was incensed that they had given in to French demands, and he started escalating Russia’s involvement in the West.
As the Treaty of Campo Formio neared completion in September 1797, Paul declared himself the protector of Malta, one of the few independent islands in the Western Mediterranean. Then in the early months of 1798, Russian spies began to report that the French were massing a huge invasion force in the Mediterranean under General Bonaparte. Where they were headed was of course a mystery, but Tsar Paul and his ministers decided that the French were going to take a stab right at Russia, maybe try to fight their way into Poland and revive the Polish revolutionary cause, which would have been an insane thing for the French to do. Mucking around in Poland brings in Prussia and Austria and Russia all crashing down on their heads simultaneously. But that didn’t stop Paul’s paranoid flights of fancy. So Russian escalation escalated. They were now in close contact with the British, who were naturally urging the Russians to join the fight. And soon enough, Russia had a fleet patrolling the North Sea, which freed up much needed British ships to go beef up their Mediterranean fleet. Then it should come as no surprise to learn that when Bonaparte seized Malta, Tsar Paul took it as practically a declaration of war.
And if Bonaparte’s invasion was pushing Russia in the direction of open war, when the destination of the French invasion turned out to be Egypt, that put Russia’s longtime enemy the Ottomans on alert. Now the Ottomans were frankly shocked to discover that they suddenly had something to fear from revolutionary France. So among the amazing accomplishments of Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt was the creation of something that would have been unthinkable just a few months earlier. A Russo-Turkish alliance.
The Russians and Turks were, at that point, about as bitter a pair of enemies as you were going to find anywhere on Earth. And since the middle of the 18th century, Russia had been pretty well beating up on the Turks, most recently in a war that had run from 1787 to 1792. Basically since the mid-1700s, Russia has been expanding at the Ottoman Empire’s expense. The Turks and the French, meanwhile, had always gotten along fine. I mean, yeah, the French Republic was in every way the polar opposite of the Ottoman Sultanate, but they were quite a ways away from each other, and the French and Turks had been trading partners and diplomatically friendly for as long as anyone could remember. So even as the French were cutting off the king’s head and beheading the entire aristocracy or so the stories went, the Turks were still inviting French military advisors and engineers to come over and help them modernize their empire.
The first hint that France might be a danger to the Ottomans was when Bonaparte extracted all the Ionian islands that had once belonged to the Venetians. That put France right at the Ottoman Empire’s doorstep. And then they were shocked to find that that fleet massing in Toulon was on its way to Egypt. I mean, sure, Egypt is one of the more independent regions of our empire. But still, you know, hey, that’s ours. What are you doing? To say nothing of the fact that Istanbul was fed by Egyptian grain. The Turkish capital was hit hard by the French invasion of the Nile Delta.
But at first there seemed little they could do about it. They were no match for the French on their own, and massing an army to go to Egypt might leave the rest of their territories under garrisoned. Yes, the Ottoman Empire was big, but that did not mean everyone was happy to be a part of it. But Nelson’s smashing victory at Abakir Bay changed the whole equation. Suddenly Bonaparte’s expedition was not this ultra-modern powerhouse that couldn’t be stopped. It was a stranded and unsupported orphan trapped in a foreign land.
The British now ruled the Mediterranean Sea, and the Russians were saying, hey, we need to set aside our differences and do something about what Paul I was calling the frenzied French Republic. And so that was how the Ottomans got into it, and why they wound up sending armies into Egypt, as we saw at the end of last week’s show. So at the end of 1798, the craziest thing of all happened.
The Russian fleet in the Black Sea was allowed to sail through the Bosphorus and into the Mediterranean to undertake a joint mission with the Turks to expel the French from all those islands in the Ionian Sea. I mean seriously, just six months earlier, the thought of the Turks inviting the Russians to sail on through past Istanbul would have been unthinkable. But the Russians just waved as they sailed by, on their way to fight their now mutual enemy, the French.
Meanwhile back in France, the French were well aware that Europe was mobilizing against them. So to get going on their own mobilization, the on-again, off-again General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, now a delegate in the Council of Five Hundred, introduced in early September 1798 a new conscription law that would soon bear his name. The Jourdan Law prescribed compulsory military service for all unmarried men ages 20 to 25.
These young men were supposed to register according to their birth dates, and if the government elected to activate the draft, they would be taken in cohorts from youngest to oldest. And wouldn’t you know it, just a few weeks later, September 24th to be exact, the government activated the draft. But as usual, conscription proved to be very tough.
The initial levy was set at $203,000. But as the men came forward, nearly $60,000 were deemed medically unfit for service. The process of determining fitness for service was left to local administrators, who made a habit of exempting friends and relatives, neighbors, or anyone with a spare bit of cash.
And of the $143,000 deemed fit for service, only $97,000 actually showed up on the day that they were told to show up, and of those $97,000, about $25,000 deserted on the trip between their hometowns and the front lines. So of the 200,000 men who were supposed to be reinforcing the armies along the Rhine and in Italy, only about $74,000 actually made it by the spring of 1799.
And just to jump ahead a little bit here, these conscription issues were terribly alarming for the Directory, because by the spring of 1799, war will have been officially declared. So in April 1799, the Directory is going to alter the Jourdan law to allow for replacements to be purchased and volunteers to take the place of those drafted. This new system was supposed to raise another 75,000 men, but only 57,000 actually reached the front.
Now these issues have two major impacts on the future of France. First, France is about to get pushed around in the campaigns of 1799. And second, it would further cement the professionalization of the French armies. The great patriotic amateurs who enthusiastically volunteered for the revolutionary armies of old now gave way to men who made the army their career, their way of life, and their home. This widened the chasm between civilian and soldier that helped make Bonaparte’s empire possible.
Nowhere was the Jourdan law more despised than in Belgium, where the locals would be subject to French conscription for the first time. As I mentioned a few episodes back, this basically meant that Belgium in the fall of 1798 is the Vendée in the spring of 1793. The local peasants are already mad about revolutionary attacks on their traditional church and native aristocracy, and now they are infuriated that Paris is planning to draft them to go fight and die for the very men who exploited them.
So the minute officials came round to start registering Belgians for the draft, riots broke out. And these riots soon led to a full-blown peasant uprising in October 1798 that not only tied up badly needed French resources as the Directory tried to pacify the region, but it also helped convince the burgeoning Second Coalition that the French Republic’s hold on the territories it had acquired since 1795 was very, very weak.
The British and Russians, for example, were soon deep in talks about a joint invasion of the Netherlands to expel the French occupation. But that would not be enough to help the Belgians currently in revolt. None of them had any experience or training or weapons to keep their uprising going for very long. So though the Belgian countryside raged, by December 1798 the French army had the region mostly back under control. So as 1798 came to an end, it was pretty clear to everyone that, come the spring, war would resume. But still, the Austrians were not necessarily eager to get back into it. I mean, really. Though Tsar Paul was promising a huge army, that, for the moment, was still just talk. The British were, as always, interested only in their own interests, and all anyone could get out of the Prussians was a pledge of neutrality. Which was nice. But the still-as-of-yet unofficial Second Coalition was not exactly the most stable thing on Earth. The Austrians had no desire to get caught fighting the French alone again, so they were not eager to pull the trigger on anything just yet.
And that is when the Kingdom of Naples forced everyone’s hand. Encouraged by the British, and with extravagant promises of support from the Russians, the still-independent Kingdom of Naples that controlled the deep south of Italy decided that the French position in Italy was weak, and that the Neapolitan army could boot the French out of Rome, and then roll up the peninsula and squeeze the French out of Italy altogether like some giant tube of toothpaste.
The Austrians had told the Neapolitans bluntly to not do anything to provoke the French without Austrian approval, but the Neapolitans just ignored them. On November 12, 1798, a Neapolitan army crossed the border with the new Roman Republic. This attack caught the French general running Rome, a guy named Jean-Étienne Championnet, by surprise, and he had to scramble to get his garrison out of the city before it was trapped. The Neapolitans occupied Rome on November 26, but this occupation would be extremely short-lived.
Championnet regrouped and reinforced his army, and then came storming back into Rome, pushing the Neapolitans right back out the door they had come in. And then Championnet just kept going. Pretty soon, he had chased the army all the way back to Naples, blew through whatever part of it hadn’t run off, and then just occupied Naples. The Neapolitans begged the Austrians for help, but Austria said, no, we told you not to do anything, we are not coming to help you.
And then up further north, the French used the Neapolitan attack as an excuse to go re-invade the Piedmont and occupy it rather than letting it just live on as a defeated but still independent kingdom. Then in January 1799, General Championnet abolished the kingdom of Naples and declared it to now be the Parthenopean Republic. This was in defiance of an order from the Directory to not form any new sister republics. We have enough on our plate as it is. But Championnet fancied himself the next Bonaparte, and so went ahead and did it anyway.
The establish of the Parthenopean Republic put Championnet at loggerheads with the Directory’s representative, who was dispatched to Naples to supervise the occupation. The Directory wanted to break this precedent of the army creating new political units, and so the representative immediately claimed jurisdiction over all land, spoils, and money that the French were seizing. Championnet, of course, was having none of this, and expelled the representative from Naples by force.
Unsure of who was actually to blame for this drama, the Directory recalled both men, but then quickly decided General Championnet was absolutely to blame, relieved him of command, and court-martialed him. It was time to bring the army to heel, they thought. Either that or get toppled by them by the end of the year. You know, whichever.
Aside from the creation of the Parthenopean Republic, the misadventure of the Neapolitans put enormous pressure on Austria to finally make a decision about whether or not to go back to war. The Russian ambassadors were giving Vienna an earful about not leaping to the aid of Naples. They were now saying either start mobilizing for a coming war or we will not send our armies over and you’ll be left to face a clearly aggressive France all by yourself.
Then when the French found out that the Austrians were in fact letting Russian troops enter Habsburg territory, French ambassadors started giving Vienna an earful, they said expel the Russians from your territory or we will declare war. Stuck in the middle, the Austrians finally decided to side with the Russians. The Russians would not be expelled, and if that meant war with France, then so be it.
But on the eve of the war, the Second Coalition did not have a clear objective, nor even similar objectives. The Russians were looking to be an ascendant power in Europe, in Italy for sure, probably Greece eventually too. This was of course unacceptable to all their partners. The Ottomans didn’t want them in Greece, the Austrians and British really didn’t want them in Italy. Meanwhile, the British wanted the Netherlands back badly, but no one else really cared about that. And the only other thing the British wanted was some kind of stable balance of power on the continent. So if the British decided one of their new partners was getting too far out in front of the rest, you could pretty well bank on the British doing something to block them.
The Ottomans meanwhile just wanted to get the French out of Egypt and the Russians off their backs. Once the French were expelled from Egypt, who knows how committed the Turks would be to further anti-French action. And as for the Austrians, the Austrians didn’t really know what they wanted, just to roll back the French I guess, restabilize their fracturing Holy Roman Empire.
The French Directory meanwhile was stuck between its ambitions and the realities of their situation. General Jourdan had gone back to the German frontier in November 1798, surveyed the situation, and wrote back extremely pessimistic reports about the preparedness of the armies stationed along the Rhine and Danube frontiers. Most of the best men and supplies had either been diverted up to the men still camped along the English Channel, or had sailed away with Bonaparte. Jourdan asked the Directory for more supplies—reinforcements, guns, shoes, blankets, anything, everything—but he got almost none of it. Because the Directory A. did not have much to spare, and B. they were in a bit of a bubble when it came to how vulnerable they really were. The map of Europe clearly showed them controlling a string of sister republics with large armies stationed everywhere. But that was all on paper.
In reality, Jourdan was right. If the Austrians and Russians decided to, say, strike at Italy or up into Switzerland, he was going to have a heck of a time fighting them off. But the Directory was unconcerned with such dour predictions. Using the pretext of the Russians crossing the Austrian frontier, the Directory declared war on March 12, 1799, and the war of the Second Coalition had begun.
Next week, we will begin with a string of French defeats in Italy and Germany and Switzerland that threaten to undo everything the French had achieved since 1795. Then we will head back to Paris for yet another political coup, a coup that will help set up the final coup of Brumaire that will end the Directory once and for all. And of course, we will also see Napoleon Bonaparte return home to save France. And maybe while he was at it, seize control of France, and then go conquer all of Europe.
While Bonaparte was off trying to conquer Egypt, the rest of Europe mobilized against France.
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