What is a Napoleon complex and was he really short? How does it sum up Joaquin Pheonix's character?

Records from his life that noted down his height may not be an accurate reflection of his stature

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Anticipation is building ahead of the release of the Napoleon film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the famed French military commander. The film is a biopic looking at the life, successes and tribulations of one of the most famous world leaders of all time.

His legacy endures more than 200 years after his death - and so does the phrase 'Napoleon complex' that is associated with the man. But what does it mean?

The Napoleon complex, also know as small people syndrome, is normally attributed to people who are not very tall. Its characteristics include overly aggressive or domineering behaviour. Along with this, there is the implication that such behaviour is to compensate for the subject's physical or social shortcomings. Many regard it as a derogatory stereotype.

Joaquin Phoenix in "Napoleon," premiering in theatres around the world on 22 November 2023 (Apple/ Columbia Pictures)Joaquin Phoenix in "Napoleon," premiering in theatres around the world on 22 November 2023 (Apple/ Columbia Pictures)
Joaquin Phoenix in "Napoleon," premiering in theatres around the world on 22 November 2023 (Apple/ Columbia Pictures)

It is indeed a syndrome named after the man himself - Napoleon, who was the first Emperor of the French. It has long been suggested that supposes that Napoleon compensated for his lack of height by seeking power, war, and conquest.

This was used as propaganda by the British who sought to diminish their enemy and rival. For example, in 1803 he was mocked in British newspapers as a short-tempered small man. Much of this was the work of British cartoonist James Gillray (1756-1815). His depictions of the French general were so popular and influential that at the end of his life, Napoleon is even reported to have said that Gillray “did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down.”

Was Napoleon really short? How tall was he?

It depends on where you read about it and who you ask as historians fail to agree here. According to history.com, he was probably of average height.

With the pre–metric system French measures, he was only 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 1.67 meters, or just under 5’6”, which is a little above average for a French man in the early 1800s.

Napoleon will be released in the US and the UK on November 23, 2023, before streaming on Apple TV+ at a later date.

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