Myth 2) Napoleon was short
Because there isn’t a great amount to say about Napoleon’s height, I’ll keep this short. Napoleon was actually around 5″7 (170cm) which makes him about average for the age. Napoleon was also 5″2 (157cm) which makes him well below average for the age. Nope, this isn’t a mistake. It represents the fact that there were two accepted European measurements in use during the nineteenth century: the first British, the second French. And depending which unit of measurement you subscribe to, Napoleon can quite accurately be described as both.
The post-mortem carried out on Napoleon marked his height as 5″2. It was performed by his personal physician, Frenchman Antonio Antommarchi, but it was done so on the British-held island of St. Helena and signed off by British doctors. For reasons other than height, the British had never really seen eye to eye with Napoleon, decades of war and all that… So it makes sense that after the great man’s death they would have wanted to (quite literally) belittle him—especially when they didn’t have to technically lie in doing so.
That said, while Napoleon might not have been short for his time he did pale in stature alongside the company he kept. To say nothing of his generally tall officers and bodyguards, Napoleon would always enter the battlefield flanked by the crème de la crème of his infantry, the Old Guard. Entry into the prestigious unit meant meeting certain height requirements: 5″10 in English measurements for a grenadier (178cm) and 5″8 (173cm) for a chasseur.
This explains why Napoleon was known among his own army as le petit caporal or “the little corporal”. It has to be said that, despite being rather endearing, the nickname certainly didn’t help later rumors. Ultimately, it’s rather fitting that it was Napoleon who wrote, “what is history but a set of lies agreed upon.” For it was such a lie, about the small stature of one of history’s biggest figures, that has turned out to be one of the most enduring.