In my trip to Paris, a Parisian friend of mine, Pierre Chopinaud, took me around the Premiere Arrondissement (Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements which number spirals outward from the smallest in the center). We then stumble upon the Place Vendôme, a square in the Premiere where in the center stands La Colonne Vendôme. Pierre then told me the story about La Colonne Vendôme: The column was build by Napoleon to celebrate his winnings (the Battle of Austerlitz, to be exact). The stone column is covered by bronze bas-relief plates depicting the battle, made out from the cannons taken from his enemies. On top of the column stands Napoleon dressed as Julius Caesar.

La Colonne VendômeLooking at Napoleon viewing himself as a “great historical figure from the past”, I began to think about the Napoleon complex. It is a term in psychoanalysis to describe somebody who suffers from inferiority complex because they are short, and overcompensate by doing or thinking something grand. It can be generalized as somebody who try to do or thinking about big things because they suffer from perceived handicap. The archetype of this case is, of course, Napoleon himself. He thinks that he is short so he overcompensate by doing the extreme: trying to conquer Europe (which he nearly succeed in doing so).

Now the question is, was Napoleon so short? According to the report of Francesco Antommachi who autopsied Monsieur N after he died in exile at the island of St. Helena, Napoleon measured 168 cm in height, which is actually the average height of Frenchmen in the 19th century. The problem at that time is that almost everybody use different units of measurement. Antommachi reported Napoleon’s height to be 5 ft 2 inches in French units (1 foot = 12 inches), where 1 French inches equals 2.71 cm. This is different than the Imperial unit used by the British Empire, where 1 Imperial inches equals 2.54 cm. Thus according to the Imperial units, Napoleon’s height of 5 ft 2 inches is only 1.57 m. That really give an impression of shortness for everybody! Beside, his soldier called him Le Petit Corporal, means “The Small Corporal.”

Napoleon in his study by Jacques-Louis David (1812)The term Le Petit Corporal could lead to some mistranslation among non-francophones if we literally translate petit as “small,” when in fact it could be an expression of closeness or intimate. A french calls his boy/girlfriend as petit(e) ami(e), meaning boyfriend or girlfriend and not little friend. Napoleon is known for his closeness with his soldiers and it is said that in battle he often do things that was meant to be a corporal’s job, like reloading the cannons. Hence the nickname.

One more thing. Napoleon is often surrounded by his Imperial Guards, his elite soldiers selected from the best breed of his army. Most of them are over 6 ft tall, and that made Napoleon look short.

Now in the light of the fact that Napoleon is not that short and has the average height of a 19th century Frenchmen, is the term Napoleon complex still fit to the definition? Napoleon didn’t have a perceived handicap due to his height, but he did great things. I guess it’s time to find a new term for that definition now since the archetype no longer fits the description. The Bush Complex? :p

Written by Tri L. Astraatmadja

After living for 10 years in Europe as a Master's student, PhD researcher, and a postdoc, in 2016 Tri L. Astraatmadja moved on to the United States for a second postdoctoral appointment at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington DC. He is now in his third postdoc at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD.

1 comment

  1. Ever think that his handicap is not his height, but his ‘lenght’?
    Of course, of his ‘you know what’.

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