493: The Linguist and the Emperor by Daniel Meyerson

by Gerard

493.1092: Meyerson, Daniel. The Linguist and the Emperor: Napoleon and Champollion’s Quest to Decipher the Rosetta Stone. New York: Ballantine, 2005. 267 pp. ISBN 0-345-45067-1.

Sadly, non-European languages are consigned to the Dewey dustbin. If a work’s not about English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, or Greek, then it gets stuck in the 490s. Egyptian languages (and more specifically, hieroglyphics) get placed in 493—Non-Semitic Afro-Asiatic languages. Since this is about the biography of the person who deciphered the writing systems of ancient Egyptians, we get 493.1 (for Egyptian writing systems) + 092 (biography).

[It occurs to me that maybe I haven’t been including enough details about the plot of the books I’ve been reading, so with the below review (and those to follow), I will try to give a lot more information about the texts. Let me know if I’m boring anyone.]


Meyerson’s Linguist and the Emperor follows the historically separate lives of Napoleon Bonaparte (famed ruler of post-Revolution France) and Jean Francois Champollion, the eventual decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Napoleon Bonaparte (also known as Napoleon I) was born in 1769 on the French island of Corsica. After attending military school and graduating as a second lieutenant in 1785, he quickly rose to the rank of General by 1793. In 1797, he tried to kill three birds with one stone by capturing Egypt for the French Republic. This would give France more power and trade abilities, cripple British supply lines to India, and quench his thirst for honor and glory. Napoleon was always a classicist at heart and envisioned himself alongside the great conquerors of the past: Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Charlemagne.

In order to truly understand what (and who) he was conquering he brought along a contingent of 167 scholars from different scientific areas to catalog every facet of Egyptian life, flora, fauna, and culture. Among the scientists were the mathematician Jean-Joseph Fourier (who we will meet later) and the engineer Pierre-Francois-Xavier Bouchard. While building a fort near the port city of Rosetta in July 1799, Bouchard discovered the massive tri-lingual stone now known as the Rosetta Stone. It was subsequently brought back to France, but was quickly transferred to the British in 1801, after they defeated the French army in Egypt.

Enter Jean-Francois Champollion. Born in 1790, he did not make it to Egypt during Napoleon’s campaign. From an early age, however, he showed an amazing aptitude for languages. He would often despair about the fact that he had to learn math and science because it wasted precious language time. By the age of 20, he had mastered two dozen languages, including Coptic, Chaldean, and Ge’ez (Ethiopian). While at school in Grenoble, he met and astounded Fourier (see above) with his intimate knowledge of Egyptian history and culture.

After working with Fourier for a number of years (and declaring that he would be the one to decipher hieroglyphics), he started corresponding with Thomas Young, a British polymath and natural philosopher, but was quickly rebuked (Young wanted the acclaim for himself). Champollion and Napoleon did meet, however. In 1815, when stopping Grenoble to enlarge his military base, the supreme general spent an evening with the young linguist to relive his old days in Egypt.

Eventually, Champollion works out the meaning of the hieroglyphs, correctly sussing out that they are a mixtures of pictographs and letter sounds, that must be mixed together to form a representation of the ancient language. There really isn’t much of an “Aha!” moment, but after years of laborious study, he did indeed achieve his goal.


As for the work itself, Meyerson employs a strange tone of melodrama throughout the entire book. You can tell by the staccato writing style and the overuse of exclamation points that he’s trying to punch up the tension/significance of every event in the book. There’s also a lot of jumping back and forth in history. I know the goal is arrive at the stunning conclusion that a boy, who at first could not read, managed to leap-frog all his competitors and fully translate a heretofore dead language, but if you research thoroughly enough and present a nuanced history, then you don’t need the constant showmanship. He also spends way too much time relaying the story in the future tense; we get a lot of exposition on what characters will do (but haven’t done yet) and it gets rather annoying.

The book also weaves in and out of many stories all at once. In one chapter he talks about the history of the Egyptian city of Alexandria from the simultaneous perspective of Ptolemy, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon. While inventive, it can be very disorienting, especially when paragraphs are only a few sentences long.

I think a better presentation would to have the first half of the book document the early military history of Napoleon and his Egyptian campaign and end with the 1799 rediscovery of the stone. The second half would pick up in 1790 with Champollion’s birth and take us to the astonishing decipherment. Books like this one are what happen when you watch too many Tarantino films.

Books left to read: 847

Estimated project finish date: August 6, 2017