Arc de Triomphe: History & Facts

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  • 0:00 A Monument to France's Finest
  • 1:49 Facts About the Arc De…
  • 2:57 Works Inspired by the…
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Often copied - and itself an adaptation of earlier Roman triumphal arches - the Arc de Triomphe is among the most famous landmarks in the world. Built to honor those who died in the Napoleonic Wars and a fitting neighbor to the French Tomb of the Unknown, it revitalized a standard in monument construction.

A Monument to France's Finest

Upon returning from vanquishing a foreign foe, it was common for Roman generals, and often emperors, to construct massive triumphal arches as a testament to their deeds, like the Arch of Constantine, for example.

Inspired by the tradition of Roman military victories in the face of an Eastern, and often Germanic, foe, Napoleon I ordered the building of Arc de Triomphe soon after one of his greatest victories at the Battle of Austerlitz. However, despite the otherwise-efficient Emperor's best-laid plans, construction on the site was slow. A smaller version of the Arc was completed in only a few short years. However, the main Arc de Triomphe, technically named the Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile, would take many more years. In fact, by the time that Napoleon brought his second wife, Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria, he ordered a wooden copy to be built in its place.

Arc de Triomphe

Upon the completion of the monument in 1836, it had become a central landmark in Paris. Much of the imagery on the Arc invokes victory over German enemies. Though the site of France's disgrace as Prussian (later German) troops marched through it in 1871, it was used as a propaganda piece during the First World War, with French troops again rallying against the Eastern foe, and was chosen as the site of the French Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Again used to shame the French in 1940, by the Germans, it was the nexus of celebrations in both 1944 and 1945, as well as military parades through the French capital today.

Facts about the Arc de Triomphe

The Arc de Triomphe is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world, but it also holds several symbolic messages to remind the observer of the power of France. In this respect, it is similar to the Roman arches that inspired it. Some of those symbols are:

  • Thirty shields, each with the name of each French victory in the Napoleonic Wars
  • Names of every general who served in Napoleon's armies

Some other interesting facts are:

  • The building requires cleaning on an occasional basis to ensure its white façade shines through the soot typical of a large city like Paris
  • The arch itself is fifty meters high and at the top affords the viewer panoramic views of the French neighborhoods surrounding the Champs-Élysées
  • While always a focal point for victory parades, both by the French and against the French (e.g., the Germans), since the internment of the French Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the arch itself, no army has paraded through the arch - including the Germans during 1940

Works Inspired by the Arc de Triomphe

The Arc de Triomphe has inspired works around the world. While those arches contemporary to the Arc are not mentioned (namely Wellington Arch in London), the Arc de Triomphe's influence cannot be ignored in two works in particular:

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