A Brief History of the City of Paris

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Podcast Transcript

Located on the banks of the River Seine lies the city of Paris. 

Paris has a long history dating back over 2000 years. During its long history, it has seen wars, plagues, and kings and emperors.

Today it is the most visited city on Earth, home to some of the world’s greatest works of art, and one of the largest and most important cities in Europe. 

Learn more about the history of Paris and how a small river settlement grew to one of the major cities in the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The history of Paris dates back over two thousand years. The first known settlement in the current location of Paris was the Gaullic town of Lutetia. 

The settlement was established sometime in the third century BC by the Gallic tribe known as the Parisii. Paris is named after the Parisii and not Paris, the son of King Priam, the leader of the city of Troy.

There may have been a neolithic settlement at the same spot, but little is known about it. It could have been founded as early as 8000 BC. 

There is also a great deal of doubt as to the exact location of Lutetia on the river. Julius Caesar, in his Gallic Commentaries, recalls a trip to Lutetia to meet with the leaders of the Gallic tribes.

When the Romans conquered Gaul, they turned Lutetia into a Roman city complete with public baths, temples, an amphitheater, and a forum. It was the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis.

By the end of the Western Roman Empire, the city became known as Parisus in Latin, which would then later become Paris in French. 

With the decline of Rome, a Germanic tribe known as the Franks arose. They were united under King Clovis, who established Paris as his capital in 508. 

With the wealth of the city, it became a prime target for the Vikings, which sacked the city in 845. They returned in 856 and 861 but were repelled by the Franks, who were prepared. 

They came back once more in 885 and laid siege to the city for several months but were ultimately defeated by Odo, Count of Paris. Odo, in large part due to his defense of the city, was later elected king of West Francia, which was the precursor of the kingdom of France.

By the 12th century, Paris had become the dominant city in France. It had become the political, economic, cultural, and religious center of the country. 

It was during this period that Paris began many of the construction projects which would come to define the city. Notre Dame began construction in 1163, and the Louvre began its first construction as a castle and a fortress in 1190. 

Also, in 1190, the University of Paris was established. 

By the early 14th century, Paris had a population of 200,000 people and had become the largest city in Europe. 

As with most cities at this time, it was an extremely filthy place. It was so bad in Paris that were literally streets named after fecal matter and urine. 

In 1370 construction began on the Paris sewers. The sewers have been in operation ever since and have been constantly maintained and upgraded over the last 700 years. 

The population peak in the early 14th century was short-lived, as the plague killed a quarter of the population in the city between 1348 and 1349. There were 36 separate plagues that broke out in the city over the next 30 years for a variety of diseases. 

On top of the disease, Paris was also subject to invasion. Edward III pillaged the countryside around Paris in 1346, and the city of looted by the English ten years later. 

Between 1420 and 1436, Paris was ruled by the English. The French king had retreated to the Loire Valley, and Henry VI of England was actually crowned King of France in Paris in 1431.

By the time the English left in 1436, Paris was not the city it was before. The population was half its size, and the city was in poor shape. While still technically the capital of France, the French kings would live in the Lorie Valley for almost 100 years until 1528, when King Francis I moved his residence back to Paris.

Things were much better for Paris in the 16th century. The population by 1500 had rebounded back to 250,000. There was a building boom under King Francis I. He became the first king to live in the Louvre. He began construction of the Hotel de Ville, the Paris city hall.

The printing industry in Paris exploded, with the number of printing houses second only to Venice.

Francis’s son Henry II continued to build in Paris, also adding his own wing to the Louvre. 

Perhaps the defining event of the 16th century was religious conflict. In August 1572, Protestant officials were targeted for assassination, which spread to a general slaughter of Protestants in Paris by Catholic mobs. This became known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which will be the subject of a future episode. 

The 17th century saw continued construction. Henry IV completed the Pont Neuf, which is the oldest bridge in Paris today. Oddly enough, Pont Neuf translates to “new bridge’.

His widow Marie de Medicis constructed the Luxembourg Palace and the Luxembourg Gardens, which remain one of the highlights of the city.

Louis XIII built the square courtyard of the Louvre, and his chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, conducted several major construction projects of his own, including the Palais-Royal.

In the late 17th Century, Louis XIV removed most of the city walls and had them replaced with grand boulevards. 

He also constructed the Palace of Versailles outside of Paris and moved his court there from Paris.

By the mid-17th century, the population of Paris had reached 400,000. 

The 18th century saw Paris become the center of the Enlightenment and was dominated by King Louis XV, who reigned for 70 years, starting in 1715.

Cafe culture exploded during this period. From 1723 to 1790, the number of cafes in Paris went from 323 to 1800. Cafes became the center of debate, discussion, and news dissemination. 

The Montgolfier Brothers conducted the world’s first hot-air balloon flight.

Louix XV built the Champs-Élysées as part of an expansion of the city. 

By 1780, the city had grown to a population of 600,000 and was the second-largest city in Europe after London. 

The French Revolution brought radical changes to the city. There were beheadings in public squares, including that of the king, churches were nationalized, and a reign of terror hung over Paris. 

The population of the city actually dropped considerably during the years of the revolution. From 1789 to 1801, over 100,000 people left Paris.

In 1795, one of the major elements of Paris was established by the revolutionary government. They divided the city into 12 sections known as arrondissements. The arrondissements start with the arrondissements one at Louvre and then sequentially spiral outward. 

Today, there are 20 arrondissements, and they are the primary method of navigating the city. 

If you were to go back in time and visited Paris at the start of the 19th century, you’d certainly recognize many of the major landmarks. However, it wouldn’t quite feel like the Paris of today. 

It was the 19th century when Paris became the city that we think of as Paris. This transformation started with Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Napoleon wanted to make Paris into an imperial capital on par with ancient Rome. He ordered the construction of many of the bridges across the Seine, including the first metal bridge in Paris, the Pont des Arts.

In 1806 he began construction of the Arc de Triomphe, which wasn’t actually completed until 30 years later when he was no longer in power.

He built a new canal to bring fresh water into the city, as well as a reservoir to hold it and a series of fountains throughout the city to distribute the water.

Had Napoleon not been disposed, he probably would have further changed the city. He had plans for the construction of the world’s largest palace in what is today the 16th arrondissement. 

Even without Napoleon, Paris continued to grow rapidly in the 19th century. 

In 1815, Paris had 660,000 inhabitants. At the start of the reign of Louis-Philippe in 1831, it had a population of 785,000, and by the end of his reign in 1848, it surpassed a million people. 

Under the reign of King Louis-Philippe, construction began on Les Halles, the giant central food market which was eventually demolished in the 1970s. 

The first train stations were built also built. However, with the massive growth of the city, there was also extreme poverty. This is the Paris of Les Misérables. 

Under Napoleon III, the borders of Paris were formally expanded, absorbing several bordering communities. He added eight new arrondissements, bringing the total to 20, which is the modern size of the city. 

He created a large public works program to employ out-of-work Parisians, as well as to rejuvenate the city. 

Paris’ major train stations, Gare de Lyon and Gare du Nord, were built. The Paris Opera house was constructed, which became a showpiece of the city.

Parks were also built such that everyone in the city was no more than a 10-minute walk from a park. 

Perhaps most importantly, under Napoleon III, many of the old, dilapidated neighborhoods were demolished and replaced with wide boulevards. New building codes specifying how buildings along the boulevards had to look. They all had to be the same height and look roughly the same. 

If you notice a distinct architectural style in Paris to all the buildings, this was due to Napoleon III.

Paris also became the first major city to adopt outdoor gas lighting along the major boulevards. Near the end of his reign, Paris had 56,000 gas lamps, which earned it the nickname “The City of Light.”

The year 1870 saw the removal of Napoleon III and the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. 

In 1871, a revolutionary government took control of Paris and established the Paris Commune from March 18 to May 28, which again will be the subject of a future episode. 

The end of the reign of Napoleon III and the Paris Commune ushered in what is known as the La Belle Époque, or the Beautiful Era, which lasted until the start of the first world war.

The latter part of the 19th century saw Paris host several world fairs, which I’ve touched on in many previous episodes. 

The Basilica of Sacré-Cœur began construction in 1873 and was completed in 1914. 

The Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889. It was intended to be a temporary structure built for the 1889 world’s fair, but it quickly became the iconic image of the city as it was never taken down.

In 1897, the first of the Paris Metro subway lines were built. 

Paris of 1900 would have looked very different from the Paris of 1800 and much closer to the Paris of today.

During the first world war, Paris came close to being occupied by the Germans, but it was saved due to the Battle of the Marne, where 600 Parisian taxis shuttled 6,000 soldiers to the front lines. 

After the war, the demographic makeup of the city began to change. People from French possessions around the world began to come to Paris, including such distant places as Vietnam, Senegal, and Algeria. 

Paris reached its peak population in 1921, with 2.9 million people living in the 20 arrondissements.

In June 1940, Paris was occupied by Nazi Germany. It had been declared an open city, and it was occupied without a fight. 

In 1945 when the Germans left Paris, Hitler gave the order to destroy most of the city and its landmarks. The order was ignored by the military commander of Paris, Dietrich von Choltitz. 

Post-war Paris saw changes in demographics. Immigrants from around Europe and from French colonies arrived in larger numbers. Many people began to move to Paris suburbs, which saw large increases in population. 

Paris had been run by an administrator appointed by the national government since Napoleon Bonaparte. However, in 1977, Parisians were able to democratically elect their own mayor for the first time in almost 200 years.  The first mayor was Jacques Chirac, who went on to become the President of France.

While there have been public works in Paris since the end of the war, there has never been anything like the widespread changes which occurred in the city in the 19th century. Great pains have been taken to make sure that Paris keeps its look and feel. 

Many modern office buildings and commercial structures have been built on the outskirts of Paris, leaving the character of the central city relatively untouched.

Many of the newer structures in Paris have been smaller in scale, such as the glass pyramid outside the Louvre designed by the architect I.M. Pei, which was built in 1988. 

Perhaps the biggest event in Paris of the last several years was the fire that gutted the Notre Dame Cathedral in 2019. Construction is underway to restore the cathedral to its former glory.

Today, Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world, with an estimated 18 million people who visited annually before the pandemic. 

The current population of Paris proper is 2.1 million people. However, the greater Paris urban area has a population of 13 million people, making it the second largest urban area in Europe, behind only London. 

Paris has also become a very diverse city with people settling there from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, as well as people from all over Europe.

A 2009 study found Paris to be the third most economically powerful city in the world after New York and London. It is considered to be the world’s center for fashion and luxury goods. 

Paris is unquestionably one of the great cities of the world. 

There is only so much information you can cram into a daily podcast about a 2000-year-old city. Everything I’ve mentioned in this episode could be an episode of its own. 

The only way you can really understand Paris is to go and visit it yourself.