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Was Napoleon Short? Origins of the 'Napoleon Complex'

November 13, 2019 in History

By Una McIlvenna

A prominent cartoonist’s mocking depiction of the French emperor managed to stick through the centuries.

One of the world’s most instantly recognizable cultural icons, Napoleon Bonaparte is usually depicted with one hand in his waistcoat—and short and aggressive. His supposedly small stature and fiery temper has inspired the term the Napoleon Complex, a popular belief that short men tend to compensate for their lack of height through domineering behavior and aggression.

But was Napoleon really short?

In fact, he was probably of average height. According to pre–metric system French measures, he was a diminutive 5′2.” But the French inch (pouce) of the time was 2.7 cm, while the Imperial inch was shorter, at 2.54 cm. Three French sources—his valet Constant, General Gourgaud, and his personal physician Francesco Antommarchi—said that Napoleon’s height was just over ‘5 pieds 2 pouces’ (5’2”). Applying the French measurements of the time, that equals around 1.69 meters, or just over 5’5”. So at 5’5” he was just an inch or so below the period’s average adult male height.

British Cartoonist James Gillray’s Famous Depictions

“Buonaparte hearing of Nelson’s Victory swears by his Sword to Extirpate the English from off the Earth.”

So if Napoleon was of average height, where does the legend of his small stature come from? It was, in fact, largely the work of one man: the British cartoonist James Gillray (1756-1815). Gillray’s caricatural depictions of the French general were so popular and influential that at the end of his life Napoleon said that Gillray “did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down.”

From the start, Gillray satirized Napoleon as a thundering, boastful character, if not necessarily short. In 1798, the English Admiral Horatio Nelson destroyed the French Fleet at the Battle of the Nile. In Gillray’s cartoon, “Buonaparte hearing of Nelson’s Victory swears by his Sword to Extirpate the English from off the Earth,” Napoleon brandishes a bloody sword and boasts of the many military victories he has already carried off—so many that the speech bubble threatens to overwhelm the image. But in this image he is more muscular than small. It was a later cartoon that ushered in the diminutive image we are so familiar with today.

“Maniac-raving’s-or-Little Boney in a strong fit,” 1803.

Gillray’s cartoon “Maniac-raving’s-or-Little Boney in a strong fit” (1803) was a satire of a genuine diplomatic incident which had occurred on March 14, …read more


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