First settled by the Gauls around 250 years BCE, Paris was destined to become an early stage for European history. Its location, with the river Seine running through it, an extensive water way with a number of tributaries, and its lush, rolling hills, made it a natural settlement for the Parisii tribe gaining a livelihood through barter and trade. Lutetia, as it was then called, gained the immediate attention of Julius Caesar, who began mapping out a plan for the settlement’s structure. By the second century, CE, the town was home to a population of nearly ten thousand people. It boasted a forum with a basilica, and possibly a temple. It had a theatre, amphitheatre and public baths. It was already becoming a centre for the arts and education, with libraries, public speaking engagements, gardens, exercise facilities and conference rooms. Craftsmen and trades people met daily to serve the needs of the inhabitants and to discuss business.
Lutetia flourished during its years as a Roman city, reaching its apex during the fourth century CE. At the same time that it prospered, it also became a major line of defence for the territories of the Gauls, who were beginning to feel the effects of the barbarian invasions. The people of Lutetia abandoned the west bank during this time period, and erected ramparts around the Île de la Cité. They were afflicted not only with foreign invaders, but peasant uprisings and political upheavals.
Julian the Apostate was appointed supreme commander of Gaul operations in 357, and set up his headquarters in Lutetia. He was well-received by the towns people, who declared him emperor. A basilica and a palace were erected in the years 365 -366, welcoming Emperor Valentinian I. At the same time, the town’s name began going through a metamorphous. The town began being referred to as civitas parisiorum; the City of Paris, a name that existed simultaneously with “Lutetia” throughout the early middle ages.
Even as Paris developed as a centre for enlightenment, a city of grace, benefiting from Roman architecture and receiving Roman protection, currents of discontent continued to rumble through its countryside during the first millennia. The Franks began emerging as their own powerful political force, spreading out through the present day countries of France and Germany. While some Franks remain loyal to Roman occupation, others did not, waging a series of battles in the Gothic settlements along the Rhine.
The Franks became one of the most powerful political forces within the region, creating a hereditary monarchy. The Carolingian Empire, that lasted between the years 800-888 CE, was the final stage of the early medieval realm of the Franks. At the height of Carolingian glory, the empire had a population of ten to twenty million people and had crushed all German opposition. As the empire began to crumble, it was attacked by Vikings from the north and west, and faced internal conflict from Italy to the Baltic. Kings continued to be appointed, but there was no longer a recognised Roman emperor. In 987, Hugh Capet was elected the “first king of the Franks”.
Paris never lost its appetite for art, even when the Roman Empire began going into decline. The Gothic style, which influenced medieval architecture throughout Europe, has its roots in France. The first Gothic Cathedral was built at St. Denis, near Paris, in 1140. Within a century, its high, sweeping arches, giant stained glass windows, ornate columns and mosaics had become the model on which all other early European cathedrals were based.
Construction for Norte Dame began in 1163, during the reign of Louis the VII. Not satisfied with the more humble Paris Cathedral, Saint Étienne, which had been the “Parisian Church of the Kings” since the fourth century, Bishop Maurice de Sully, pressed for a more imposing and architecturally pleasing cathedral. Norte Dame was the first Gothic structure to use the “flying buttress” as a means of arched exterior supports to relieve stress on its complex construction and thinner walls. While other embellishments continued to alter its building plans along the way, the structure was eventually completed in 1345.
Historically, Paris has trembled more with the forces of inner turmoil than it has from the destruction of foreign invasion. Its political face changed and evolved under the pressure of its inhabitants as it began splitting from the Roman Empire into a self-ruling force of its own. Ancient monuments and structures were dismantled to make way for new definitions in defence and architectural design. The monarchy flourished throughout the middle ages, bringing a sense of grandeur to the city, yet as the eighteenth century began winding to a close, even the hierarchy of aristocratic appointment was challenged and ultimately destroyed.
There were a number of underlying causes that led to the French Revolution. The country was deep in debt following the American Revolution, and attempted to recover its financial losses through heavy taxation. Several years of poor harvest had added the face of hunger to the working classes, who bitterly opposed the new taxation system. The Enlightenment years had added new definitions of liberty to the rebellious populace. In 1789, the new definitions were given a voice.
The assault on the Bastille in July of 1789 led to the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens. The next ten years witnessed the abolition of feudalism, and a vicious struggle between liberal assemblies and right-wing supporters of the monarchy intent on thwarting major reforms. The hierarchy collapsed in 1793 with the execution of King Louis the XVI, and marked the Reign of Terror that would end with the execution of Robespierre in 1794.
The French Revolution marked the beginning of the end of the monarchy throughout the world. Napoleon Bonaparte took the reigns of power after a four year experiment in executive council called the “Directory” ended with accusations of corruption. The emerging politics of France accelerated the rise of democracy and republicanism globally, as well as the spread of modern ideologies, such as liberalism, socialism, nationalism and secularism.
Even during World War II, it chose to face its conflicts internally instead of externally. When Germany invaded France, its people chose the appearance of surrender rather than risk the destruction of their beautiful cities. The French Resistance came to symbolise one of the most fierce underground resistance movements ever seen. Paris today continues to be a city that embraces change but clings to ideals in aesthetic tastes. It champions lofty endeavours and indulges romantic notions. Its past is as active as its present, and lays the foundations for its future. There will always be a Paris, because Paris is as much an idea as it is a city.
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