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The Debunker: Was Napoleon Short?

by Ken Jennings

The indisputable highlight of July is one day of patriotic celebration, a festival of fireworks, parades, and red-white-and-blue flags waving in national fervor. I’m speaking, of course, of July 14—Bastille Day, the most important holiday in France (apart from March 26, Jerry Lewis’s birthday). But even the Francophiles among you might be surprised at how little you really know about the birthplace of ballet, Brie, baguettes, and body odor. So crank “La Marseillaise” and allow quiz show champ Ken Jennings to help you out with his formidable! knowledge of all things French.

French Myth #1: Napoleon Was Short.

Psychologists, armchair and otherwise, often trot out the “Napoleon complex” to explain why the disproportionately short among us are also disproportionately scrappy. You know, Ted from accounting who yells sometimes in meetings, or that Gary guy who goes extra hard on “D” during pickup basketball games—they’re the modern descendants of Napoleon Bonaparte, overcompensating for his lack of height by conquering Europe. But there’s at least one problem with this theory: Napoleon wasn’t as short as you think. Au contraire - he was actually of average height for his time.


Napoleon’s autopsy recorded his height as 5’2”, which may be the source of much of the confusion. But the French pouce (“inch”) of the 19th century was slightly longer (2.71 centimeters) than its British equivalent (2.54 centimeters). In our units, Napoleon was actually a solid 5’6” or 5’7”—not a giant, maybe, but completely average for a Frenchman of his undernourished era. His nickname, the Little Corporal (le petit caporal) originally referred not to his size, but to his little-known status when he unexpectedly became a hero at the 1796 Battle of Lodi. It’s true that eyewitness accounts from contemporaries who met Napoleon sometimes comment on his “slight stature,” so he must have seemed smallish in comparison with the burly (and sometimes mounted) soldiers and bodyguards who surrounded him. But that’s a far cry from the 5’2” Munchkin many of us imagine today.

In fact, the whole idea of height-based inferiority complexes could be just as imaginary as The Little Corporal’s. In 2007, the University of Central Lancashire conducted a groundbreaking study on the subject by having dueling pairs of men rap each other’s knuckles with a ruler. Surprisingly, the shorter men tended to keep their tempers better than their less hobbit-like adversaries. The “Napoleon complex” may have met its academic Waterloo.

Quick Quiz: On what TV show did normal-sized actor Robert Vaughn (5’10”) portray secret agent Napoleon Solo?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.