Was Napoleon Bonaparte Really Short?

Napoleon's Height Revealed

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812
The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812. Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon Bonaparte is chiefly remembered for two things in the English-speaking world: being a conqueror of no small ability and for being short. He still inspires devotion and hate for winning a series of titanic battles, expanding an empire across much of Europe, and then destroying it all as a result of a failed invasion of Russia. He continued the reforms of the French Revolution (arguably not in the spirit of the revolution) and established a model which remains in some countries to this day.

But for better or wors the most famous thing most people believe about him is still that he was short.

Was Napoleon Really Unusually Short?

It turns out that Napoleon wasn't particularly short at all. Napoleon is sometimes described as being 5 foot 2 inches tall, which would definitely make him short for his era. However, there is a strong argument that this figure is wrong, and that Napoleon was actually 5 foot 7 inches tall, no shorter than the average Frenchman. Basically, Napoleon was average height, and the easy psychology doesn't work with him.

Napoleon's height has been the subject of many psychological profiles. He’s sometimes cited as the chief example of "short man syndrome," whereby short men act more aggressively than their larger counterparts to make up for their lack of height. Certainly, there are few people more aggressive than a man who defeated his rivals time after time across almost an entire continent and only stopped when dragged to a very small, far away island.

But if Napoleon was of average height, the easy psychology doesn't work for him.

English or French Measurements?

Why is there such a discrepancy in historic descriptions of Napoleon's height? As he was one of the most famous men of his era, it would seem reasonable to assume that his contemporaries knew how tall he was.

But the problem may have been due to a difference in measurements between the English and French speaking worlds.

The French inch was actually longer than the British inch, leading to any height sounding shorter to the English speaking world. In 1802 a doctor called Corvisart said Napoleon was 5 foot 2 inches by the French measurement, which equates to about 5 foot 6 in British. Intriguingly, in the same statement Corvisart said that Napoleon was of short stature, so it may be that people already assumed Napoleon was small by 1802, or that people assumed the average Frenchmen was much taller.

Matters are confused by the autopsy, which was carried out by Napoleon’s doctor, Frenchman Francesco Antommarchi, and gave 5 foot 2 as his height. But was the autopsy, which was signed off by a number of British doctors and in a British owned area, in British or French measures? We don’t know for sure, with some people adamant the height was in British units and others French. When other sources are factored in, including another measurement after the autopsy in British measurements, people generally conclude with the height of 5 foot 5-7 inches British, or 5 foot 2 in French, but there is still some doubt.

"Le Petit Caporal"

If Napolean's lack of height is a myth, it may have been perpetuated by Napoleon’s army, because the emperor was often surrounded by much larger bodyguards and soldiers, giving the impression of him being smaller. This was especially true of the Imperial Guard units which had height requirements, leading to them all being taller than him. Napoleon was even named the ‘le petit caporal’, often translated as ‘little corporal," even though it was a term of affection rather than a description of his height, further leading to people assuming he was short. The idea was certainly perpetuated by the propaganda of his enemies, who portrayed him as short as a way of attacking and undermining him.

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Wilde, Robert. "Was Napoleon Bonaparte Really Short?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/was-napoleon-bonaparte-short-1221108. Wilde, Robert. (2017, June 21). Was Napoleon Bonaparte Really Short? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/was-napoleon-bonaparte-short-1221108 Wilde, Robert. "Was Napoleon Bonaparte Really Short?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/was-napoleon-bonaparte-short-1221108 (accessed January 18, 2018).