Five feet, two inches tall –or was he?

Yes, but no.

Napoleon is believed by many to have been a shorty.  Perhaps so by today’s standards, but he was above average height for the period in which he lived.

During the Napoleonic wars, the British Tory press depicted Napoleon as shorter than average.  This perception took hold and persists to this day.  Napoleon complex is a supposed inferiority complex where short people compensate for lack of height with over-aggressive behavior.  The clichéd image of Napoleon in popular culture is of a comically short petty tyrant.


The misunderstanding over Napoleon’s height arose over the differences between the English and French systems of measurement.  The French Revolutionary government established the first legal basis for the metric system in 1795.  Implementation was poorly managed and the system was widely unpopular.

By imperial decree, in 1812, Napoleon instituted a revised system.  Under it, the pied (foot) was 1/3 metre, with 12 pouce (inches) in each pied.

While the French system of metre, pied and pounce were similar in concept to the English Imperial yard, foot and inch, the French units were actually 9.3% larger.

Under the 1812 French units, if Napoleon was about 5 pied (feet), 2 pouce (inches) in height, he would be just under 5 feet, 8 inches by the English system.  The average height of European men at the time was about 5 feet, 3 inches.

Perception misconception.


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