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The History of Paris

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From Lutetia to the Napoleon Bonaparte Empire, from the declaration of the Republic to the Paris Commune: Paris was right at the heart of events that marked French history and shaped its present. Here is a look back to the birth of this major city.


Antiquity : Gaul

Even though the site of today’s Paris has been inhabited for 90000 years (Mesolithic period), the city’s history really began in the 3rd century BC. At this time, the Parisii, a tribe in Gaul, took up residence in this area, a strategic crossing point towards the north of the country and for the trading route of the Seine river (ou for the river trade along the Seine river). Aware of the strategic importance of the location, Julius Caesar sent his troops to crush the Gauls.
This was in 52 BC and is known as the battle of Lutetia, won by the occupying forces. A roman city was then built on the left bank of the Seine, along the northern slope of Sainte-Geneviève hill.
Lutetia started to take shape. At the end of the 1st century AD, the “Arènes de Lutèce” amphitheatre and the Cluny public baths were constructed. The baths were supplied with water from an aqueduct alongside the Bièvre, a river which has since been buried under the city. These buildings reflect a lifestyle which was typically Roman.
In the 4th century, Lutetia became a garrison town for troops fighting the Barbarians on the northern and eastern frontiers of Gaul.. The city moved to the Île de la Cité wich was fortified and renamed Paris.
In 451, an event took place which made the history books: the nun Saint-Geneviève succeeded in diverting the course of Attila the Hun and his army who wanted to take the city. She became the patron saint of Paris.

The Middle Ages: at the heart of the Kingdom of France

In 508, Clovis, king of the Franks, made Paris the capital of his kingdom. In the 8th century, the centre of the Carolingian Empire shifted to the Northeast. Yet the city took on a new dimension under Hugues Capet. Capet, Count of Paris was elected King of France in 987 and founded a new dynsasty, the Capetians. Then Louis VI, known as Louis the Fat, built a fortification, the Châtelet, around the rebuilt Grand-Pont (currently the Pont au change).
The construction of Notre-Dame cathedral began in 1163 (and was completed in 1345). Then, Philippe Auguste, a great urban planner, left his mark on Paris by surrounding it with walls and building the fortress of the Louvre. Paris is consecrated capital under his reign. In the 13th century, Paris was the most populated (approximately 200,000 inhabitants) and the richest city in the West. Up to this period the city was governed by one man, the King’s provost. In 1268, the powerful boatmen’s guild adopted its motto, « Fluctuat nec mergitur » (the boat is beaten by the waves but does not sink), which later became that of Paris. In the 14th century, the municipality enjoyed real authority, yet over the following centuries was regularly brought to heel by the royal powers.
In the 15th century, Paris was occupied by the English for sixteen years.

The modern era: the birth of royal squares

In the middle of the 16th century, under the reign of François 1st, the capital grew in beauty with Renaissance constructions, such as the new Louvre and the Hôtel de Ville. At this time, several historic buildings were built, including the Natural History Museum and the Luxembourg Palace. From the reign of King Henri IV, the city has the role of honouring the sovereign and praising his power. Royal squares were created for this purpose: Place Dauphine for Henri IV, Place de la Concorde for Louis XV, Place des Vosges for Louis XIII, etc.
1648 saw the beginning of the Frond, a people’s uprising which lasted until 1653. In 1680, Louis XIV left the Louvre Palace, which was until then the residence of the Kings of France, to take up residence in Versailles, to the west of Paris. He died there after a 72-year reign.

The Bastille: symbol of the Revolution

On 14 July 1789, Parisians appalled by the King’s pressure on the new assembly formed by the third estate, took siege of the Bastille fortress, a symbol of absolutism. This event is the start of the French Revolution and the decline of the divine right of monarchs in France. On 17 July, the national tricolour flag with the colours of Paris (blue and red) and of the King (white) was adopted at the Hôtel de Ville by Louis XVI. Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the first Mayor, was elected on 15 July 1789. The Republic was declared for the first time in 1792. In 1793, Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette were executed on the Place de la Concorde. The Reign of Terror took hold. Then, a coup d’etat by Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the French Directory and put an end to the Revolution.

Prefect Haussmann transforms Paris

Napoleon was crowned emperor in Notre-Dame cathedral in 1804. He gave Paris the Ourcq canal, the embankments, the creation of the sewerage system, a numbered house system, etc. Later, the barricades went up in the capital: the July revolution toppled Charles X in 1830. Six years later, under Louis-Philippe, work is completed on the Arc de Triomphe. The 1848 Revolution led to the proclamation of the 2nd Republic. In 1852 and during the Second Empire, the capital is transformed under the leadership of Prefect Haussmann. He doubled the width of traffic lanes, made pavements commonplace, etc. He also created 2,000 hectares of woodland and planted 90,000 trees along major roads. He developed an approximately 500-km-long sewerage network. The five train stations were completed in 1847. Between 1855 and 1880, the sales price of buildings increased by 136%. The 3rd Republic was declared in 1870 at the Hôtel de Ville. The Prussians invaded Paris. The Paris Commune was crushed during the ‘Semaine sanglante’ (bloody week). The outcome was 20 to 30,000 victims, a third of the city was burned down and the Hôtel de Ville destroyed. Paris, under siege, lost its status as capital of France for a time. In 1889, the Eiffel Tower was opened during a universal exhibition. In 1910, Paris was once again flooded when the Seine burst its banks in its hundred-year cycle.

Paris and the two World Wars

In World War One, Paris was saved from the German offensive by the Battle of the Marne. However, the city could not escape German occupation from 1940 to 1944. The collaborationist State, governed by Marshal Pétain, is based in Vichy. In London, the free France organised its forces led by General de Gaulle. In 1942, 12,000 Jews were arrested and gathered together at the Vélodrome d’Hiver to be deported. Paris was liberated on 25 August 1944. The following day, General de Gaulle paraded down the Champs-Élysées. The city was saved: the German commander Dietrich von Choltitz, in charge of defence in Paris, disobeyed Hitler’s order to demolish the capital’s historic buildings.

From Montparnasse tower to the tram’s comeback…

Many tower blocks were built in the city in the 1960s. In May 1968, a student revolution took place around the Sorbonne University (5th arrondissement). In the early 1970s, the Paris ring road, the Montparnasse tower and the Palais des Congrès convention centre were completed. In 1977, Jacques Chirac was elected Mayor of Paris: the first mayor since 1871. Many important buildings continue to flourish: the Opera Bastille, the Grande Arche de la Défense, the Stade de France, etc. In 2001, the new City Hall team, led by Bertrand Delanoë, took charge of the city. In December 2006, the tramway made a comeback in the south of Paris: the first to be operated in the capital in 69 years!


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