The Truth About Napoleon's Personality Disorder

In 1806, a British political cartoon lampooning Napoleon Bonaparte mockingly dubbed him "Tiddy-Doll." While "Tiddy-Doll" sounds like the name of a naughty toy you play with alone in your bedroom, History explains that it played on the name of London-based gingerbread vendor Tiddy-Dol Ford. Napoleon's Bona-counterpart in the cartoon baked miniature gingerbread kings to feed his need for conquest. Perhaps a more apt comparison would have depicted Napoleon as a rolling pin preparing to flatten Europe like dough because in reality, the British feared he would steamroll the continent. But cartoonist James Gillray made a point of trying to cut Napoleon down to size.

For years, Gillray caricatured the French emperor as a comically small man with a colossal ego. An 1803 work referred to him as "Little Boney" and showed him boasting endlessly about military victories. In 1805, Gillray famously portrayed him as being half the size of Britain's prime minister and using a little sword as a carving knife. And Tiddy-Doll the baker roasted Napoleon by punningly comparing him to a doll. The emperor wasn't amused. After the Tiddy-Doll cartoon, Napoleon told the British government to stop the press from teasing him. Naturally, the mockery persisted.

Height-based slights were baked into Napoleon's image, making him synonymous with overcompensation. This gave rise to the widespread belief in a so-called Napoleon complex, according to which short men try to overcome their height through aggression and imperiousness. Is this perception justified, or does the evidence fall short?

Napoleon's shortness was a tall tale

According to History, Napoleon Bonaparte's physician listed his height as a little over "5 pieds 2 pouces," an imperial measurement which translates to about 5-foot-5 (1.69 meters) in modern terms. The average male height at the time was just an inch or two taller. Some sources such as History Collection place Napoleon's actual height at 5-foot-7, which would mean he didn't fall short of average height in the slightest. In other words, "Little Boney" wasn't nearly as little as the British indicated. They were trying to get a rise out of him, and he rose to the occasion.

Napoleon was still a massive overcompensator, though. Born in Corsica to a snobby father whose noble title belied the dire financial straits of his family, via History, Napoleon grew up in a run-down house without much space to move around. He felt embarrassed by his father's haughtiness and fixation on gentility. When Napoleon attended a French military academy, he became deeply self conscious about his Corsican roots. He spoke a Corsican patois, and his hollow nobility attracted mockery. He struggled to make friends, and built up a thin-skinned arrogance as his defense mechanism. Ironically, Napoleon might not have had a Napoleon complex at all. Psychological Seth Rosenthal told Psychology Today, "A Napoleon complex is essentially being narcissistic."