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History of Paris

Join the nuances of Paris’ rich history amidst centuries of emperors, monarchs, scholars, intellectuals and artists that have made the City of Light as fascinating as it is.

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Paris’ history goes a long way, and so does its name: the first archeological evidence of people living where Paris sits today dates from around III BC, when the Parisii, a sub-tribe of Celtic origin, inhabited the area near the Seine, especially on the Cité and Saint-Louis islands. The Romans took an interest in the Paris basin and conquered it around the year 52 BC, defeating the Parisii and renaming the town Lutetia, later renamed to the Gallicised Lutèce. Paris’ new conquerors built walls, palaces, a circus (the Arènes de Lutece) and thermal baths (Thermes de Cluny), eventually expanding the city to the left bank of the river Seine over the following centuries.

Lutèce became one of the most prosperous cities within the Roman Empire. However, once the empire made its decline evident and the threat of a Hun invasion began to feel real, its inhabitants started to abandon the city. When Attila the Hun moved its army south, Sainte-Geneviève asked the city to pray to God for protection. Attila went straight past the city and, in time, Sainte-Geneviève was declared the patron saint of Paris (the Pantheon was actually built in her honor). 

After the Franks settled in and created the kingdom of Gaulle, Hugh Capet (who owed his name to the long cape he used to wear) was elected King of France in 987, making Paris its capital. Here is when construction of the Notre Dame and la Sainte Chapelle took place. Phillip II Augustus, a later king, would build a great wall surrounding the city, start construction work on the Palace de Louvre and pave the streets. It is during this time that the Sorbonne is founded, transforming the city into the world’s main cultural center.

Yet, the following years were tainted with religious persecutions and political intrigue, seeded by the Hundred Years’ War with the English, who occupied the city. Charles VII of France finally reclaimed the city from English rule in 1436, after various failed attempts (one of them leaving Joan de Arc severely wounded). The kings that followed his rule did so amidst religious revolt and, after years of Catholic and Protestant massacres, Henry IV decided to grant religious tolerance to Protestants under the Edict of Nantes. This decision ultimately cost him his life and, during his 24th assassination attempt, a Catholic fanatic finally succeeded in taking his life.

Considering Louis XIII, his son, would be king at the tender age of eight, his mother, Marie de Médicis, took power. She commissioned the Palais du Luxembourg, with its breathtaking gardens. The young king took over when he turned 15, but real power was exercised by his counselor, Cardinal Richelieu. During Louis XIII’s reign France’s royal power was greatly expanded, the Sorbonne was rebuilt and Paris continued to steadily grow.

Louis XIV – Louis XII’s son – is, quite possibly, France’s most renowned king. Called the “Sun King” during his entire reign, his court undertook lavish projects in order to make Paris fit for such an important king. Under Richelieu and Mazarino’s wings, Louis XIV did with the country what he pleased. He despised Paris and moved his entire court to Versailles, where he had an entire palace specially built for his court. His reign, lasting 72 years, was the longest of Modern times.

His great-grandchild, Louis XV, succeeded him. The Place de la Concorde, the Pantheon and France’s military school were built under his reign, known in history as the ‘Century of Light’. By this time, the city had a population of 500,000 inhabitants and 25,000 houses, having grown far beyond its medieval boundaries. Paris reached new heights of prestige as a center of the arts, sciences and philosophy: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot, among others, where already seeding the philosophical principles behind the revolution.

On July 14th, 1789, the revolution reached it most bloody apex with the Storming of the Bastille. The French people overthrew the monarchy in September 1972, and Louis XVI and his queen were guillotined at the Place de la Concorde. What followed was years of blood-thirsty terror under Robespierre’s dictatorship, where those who opposed the Revolution – or weren’t revolutionary enough – were hastily sent to the guillotine. In 1974 a moderate group seized power and Robespierre and his allies followed the same fate.

Amidst France’s hopelessness, Napoleon Bonaparte’s presence began to strengthen. A coronel in the French army, Napoleon’s impressive military tactics and victories impressed the French Directory created to rule France after the Revolution. In 1795, after military campaigns in Italy and Egypt, Napoleon returns to France, mounts a coup d’état, establishes a consulate and proclaims himself as the consul of France. Paris was neck-deep in misery and completely deteriorated after the Revolution. Napoleon took the task to bring Paris back to life and, after proclaiming himself as emperor at Notre Dame, he set off to make Paris the most beautiful city in the world. He built the Arc de Triomphe, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, the Église de la Madeleine and the Palais Brongiart, among others. His later military failures in Russia and Spain ended his rule and the city was once again invaded by the English, the Prussians and the Russians. 

After a series of unfortunate attempts to regain power, the monarchy was defeated and Napoleon III was elected president of France following the Second Republic. Not satisfied with the role of President, he declared himself Emperor of France. He decided to make Paris a more modern city, appointing Baron Haussman to the task.  Unhealthy medieval neighborhoods were taken down and grand boulevards – such as the Champs Elysees – were built. This is the time in which the Opera Garnier and the Les Halles market were erected and where neighboring arrondissements were annexed to the city (La Villete and Montmartre). Streets were illuminated by thirty thousand gas-fueled lampposts and the Paris we all know and love today finally started to take its current form.

Yet, Paris’ million inhabitants were not happy. The Industrial Revolution had people working 17 hours straight among other injustices and living conditions weren’t exemplary. Parisians took over the Tulleries, from where Napoleon III ruled the country. The Prussians took advantage of the situation and besieged Paris. Parisians, desperate from hunger, surrendered. Louis Adolphe Thiers – the republican leader – signed the treaty and accepted punitive damages that were too much to bear in the eyes of many Parisians. A revolt broke out and the republican government fled to Versailles. Different political ideologies got together and formed the Commune of Paris, a small socialist government focused in the capital city. The republican government decided to overtake the city once again, district by district, killing over 10,000 Communards on its way. The Commune lasted a meager eleven weeks. The Père Lachaise Cemetery holds a monument to those killed during these events.

By the end of the 1908s, France’s Third Republic was still politically unstable but the 1989 World Exhibition marks the beginning of the country’s Belle Époque with construction of the Eiffel Tower. In 1900, its first metro was constructed. Paris was also home to the Olympic Games in 1900 and 1924. More neighboring cities were annexed, bringing the city’s total population to 3 million.

The First World War had little to no effects on the city, despite being victim to occasional bombardments from German troops. During the Second World War, Paris was occupied by the Germans in 1940. Adolf Hitler commanded that the city be destroyed but General Dietrich von Choltitz ignored his orders. The wars, a strong decrease in birthrates and the city’s sheer incapacity to lodge any more habitants led to a sharp drop in population. Paris lived one of its best times during the post-war era: great thinkers such as Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Prevert and others were easily spotted sitting at one of the city’s famous cafés, rapidly discussing their ideas and leading Paris’ thriving intellectual current.

In May 1968, students and factory workers rebelled against the Fourth Republic and President Charles de Gaulle was forced to resign. George Pompidou, Gaulle’s successor, took great measures to further instill Paris as a cultural city. In 1977, three years after his death, the controversial Pompidou Centre was inaugurated in his honor. Giscard d’Estaing and François Miterrand, the presidents that followed, continued to strengthen Paris and its rich architectonic patrimony.  The Musèe d’Orsay was inaugurated in 1989 on the Revolution’s bicentennial anniversary and great attractions such as the Grand Louvre, the Opera-Bastille and the Grande Arche de la Defense were built.

Today, the Paris we all love and admire is true to its rich history. Its 2.2 million people live in a dense, cosmopolitan capital that works as an epicenter for an entire metropolitan area housing almost 12 million people – one of Europe’s largest. Paris is considered to be the most romantic and beautiful of all cities worldwide. Its deep-seeded cultural legacy remains firm and the city continues to be the world’s capital of culture, fashion, food, art and design.

Called the City of Light and City of Fashion, its long succession of monarchs (and their huge palaces, gardens and cathedrals as extensions of their equally huge egos), its notable culture-ridden citizens and the long list of intellectuals and artists that called and continue to call it their home, have left a permanent imprint in each of Paris’ neighborhoods. Fortunately, it is now your turn to discover them all. 

For more information about history  or other Paris cultural attractions, contact us and we will gladly send you further material about any subject of your interest. We will e-mail this information at no cost within 72 hours and it will be specific to your requirements.



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