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Brief history of Paris

Paris, the largest city in continental Europe and the capital of France, is over 2,000 years old. The ancient Gallic tribe, the Parisii, gave their name to the city, but Julius Caesar renamed it Lutetia (Lutèce); fortunately the name did not stick!

Paris was founded on the "Ile de la Cité", an island where a natural north-south highway crosses the Seine River, some 233 miles (375 kilometres) upstream from the river's mouth on the English Channel. The island formed a natural defensive stronghold and offered a convenient crossing point over a river that separated the two halves of Gaul.

The Parisii settled on the island in the middle of the third century B.C.and prospered (they minted gold coins) until the arrival of the Romans under Caesar in 53 B.C.  A year later, they revolted under Vercingetorix (shades of Asterix here) but were crushed by Labienus, Caesar's lieutenant.

The Romans didn't have it all their own way though. They built a new town on the hills of the Left Bank, but the Germanic invasions at the end of the third century A.D. caused major destruction. As a result, they built a massive fort on the Ile de la Cité, which had the river as additional protection.

Political power moves to the Right Bank

After the fall of the Roman empire, the rulers of France settled on the island for the same reasons as the Gauls and the Romans. Trade flourished as the river, now The Seine, provided transportation as well as protection and the population grew.  Unfortunately, this led to the city, limited by the size of the island, becoming congested, unsanitary, and vulnerable to disease epidemics, especially plague. 

When this all became too much, the kings sensibly shifted to a new location on the right bank, where they built the Louvre, first a fortress, then a Palace.  From the 15th to the 17th century, the Louvre was France's political heart, but theIle de la Cité continued to dominate the spiritual life of the French kingdom, symbolised by the Cathedral of Notre Dame standing on it.

As the city continued to grow, it expanded on both sides of the river.  The right bank (as you face downstream) became the commercial centre; the left bank, with the University of Paris and the Grandes Ecoles, became the intellectual centre.  The area around the Sorbonne is called the Latin Quarter because Latin was the language of the university in the Middle Ages; consequently, everyone spoke Latin in that district.

Baron Haussman transforms Paris

By the late 1800's, Paris, not having had a fire like London, was a higgledy-piggledy mess. Napoleon III, not the most popular of monarchs, decided to totally renovate it.  His friend Baron Haussman devised a bold plan to beautify the city (and provide easy military options to quell any revolutionaries).  He built six and seven storey high, white stone buildings directly onto wide, tree-lined boulevards and avenues, creating expansive parks and sweeping vistas (where crowds could be controlled and cover was sparse). 

Paris became a chic centre of culture and the arts, as it remains, although perhaps a little faded.  This period was "La Belle Epoque" when whatever was fashionable was happening in Paris: Impressionism, the music halls, opera, scientific research and discovery.  And of course, legendary brothels. Scenes of Paris during this period have been immortalized in the works of painters such as Pissarro, Cassatt, Toulouse Lautrec, Utrillo, etc.

During World War I the Germans were prevented from reaching Paris, but they occupied the city during World War II from 1940 to 1944. Paris was also the scene of violence during the student and workers marches of 1968, and again in 2006 when outer immigrant neighbourhoods protested against their perceived neglect by the City and Government.

Paris History Links

WebMuseum Paris
Nicholas Pioch gives valuable background information on:

French History Timeline
From prehistory to Paris 1968! Although on a single (long) page, this is a great resource with plenty of links and incisive commentary.

Paris in the ThinkQuest Megacities Project
Read about the history, employment, housing, education, environment and future of Paris. See how the city has influenced the society in which it exists.

History of France from the New Grolier Encyclopedia
Just a page with references, but a little difficult to read on the fleur de lys background.

Wikipedia's take on history of Paris:


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