Arc de Triomphe: 16 Facts and history

Get to know the history of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, from its construction, facts about the monument, famous marches, and commemorations.
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The Arc de Triomphe is one of the most symbolic monuments in France, famous for the unknown soldier buried at its base, along with the eternal flame. It is a place of pilgrimage as well as a place for celebration.

Located at the corner of the 8th and 17th arrondissements of Paris, it marks the start of the famed Champs Elysées and has become one of the most visited tourist attractions in Paris. But its history is as troubled as Paris’s, reflecting the ups and down, victories and defeats that the City of Lights has experienced.

So let’s explore a few facts about the Arc de Triomphe and find out why it is so special, shall we? Allons-y!

1. It was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Arc de Triomphe was initially commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806. He had been “voted” Emperor of the French just two years earlier in 1804, and wanted to make his mark on Paris.

In addition, he had just won a couple of famous battles earlier including the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 against Russian and Austrian troops, and the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806 against Prussian (German) troops.

The new Arc de Triomphe (Arch of Triumph) was meant to commemorate his victories and the status of France in Europe.

2. Earlier plans were for a giant elephant.

The large square where the Arc de Triomphe is located was previously considered for several monuments. After the Champs Elysées was constructed on old marsh land, the initial plans by in 1758 included a 3-level monument to be built in the shape of an elephant.

The plans were rejected, but Napoleon did commission giant elephant for Place de la Bastille on the other end of Paris. However, only a model was built and the project was never finalized.

3. It is part of the Axe Historique de Paris.

The Arc de Triomphe is an important part of the Axe historique de Paris ( meaning “historic axis of Paris”). It is a line of monuments and buildings along a series of broad avenues that extends from the center of Paris to the west.

It is based on the old “Voie Triomphale” or “Triumphal Way”, an old historic Roman road that existed in Italy.

Axe Historique de Paris

Today, along with Metro line 1, the historic axe of Paris informally encompasses the east side as well. There is a slight bend in the line to trace the line of the Seine River that flows alongside.

4. Each of the 4 pillars are dedicated to different things.

Each of the pillars of the Arc de Triomphe were sculpted by different sculptors and have different themes:

  • Le Départ de 1792 – by François Rude – honors the French First Republic after the French revolution of 1789.
  • Le Triomphe de 1810 – by Jean-Pierre Cortot – commemorates the Treaty of Schönbrunn and features Napoleon being crowned by the goddess of Victory.
  • Résistance de 1814 – by Antoine Étex – commemorates French resistance during the War of the Sixth Coalition during which Napoleon was defeated (the 1st time) and sent into exile
  • Paix de 1815 – by Antoine Étex – commemoration of the Treaty of Paris after the defeat of Napoleon (the 2nd time).
One of the pillars of the Arc de Triomphe
La Paix de 1815

The Arc de Triomphe has an overall height of 50 metres (164 ft), width of 45 m (148 ft) and depth of 22 m (72 ft).

5. Napoleon only saw a wooden replica.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat by the British meant that he never saw it finished. He did have a wooden mock-up constructed however, for his return to Paris to impress his new bride, Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria (after his divorce from Josephine).

6. Construction was completed in 1836.

Construction of the Arc de Triomphe was finally completed in 1836. The final cost was estimated to be around 10 million francs. On 15 December 1840, when Napoleon’s remains were brought back to France from Saint Helena, his coffin was passed under it on their way to his final resting place at Les Invalides.

Napoleon's tomb in Les Invalides
Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides

7. There is a 2nd Arc at the Louvre Museum.

In front of the Louvre Museum, you will see a 2nd arch that is slightly smaller called the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel.

Arc de Triomphe du Carousel in front of the Louvre

It was also commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte at the same time as the one on the Champs-Elysées to celebrate his victories across Europe. You can read more about the Arc de Triomphe du Carousel here.

8. The tomb of the unknown soldier lies underneath.

Under the Arc de Triomphe lies the tomb of the Unknown Soldier who was interred there on Armistice Day 1920, two years after the end of WWI.

The original plan was to bury the unknown soldier’s remains in the Panthéon, but a public letter-writing campaign led to the decision to bury him beneath the Arc de Triomphe.

An annual commemoration ceremony is held every 11 November on the anniversary of the Armistice of 11 November 1918. The inscription on the tomb reads

“ICI REPOSE UN SOLDAT FRANÇAIS MORT POUR LA PATRIE.”

English translation: Here lies a French soldier who died for the country.

9. The eternal flame was lit on 11th November 1923.

The Eternal flame was installed a few years later at 1923. The idea came from the ancient Roman eternal flame of the Vestal Virgins that was finally extinguished in 391AD.

Arc de Triomphe: 16 Facts and history 1

The French eternal flame commemorates the memory of soldiers who died in combat and never goes out and is revived every evening at 6:30 p.m. by associations of veterans or victims of war.

Even on June 14, 1940, the day the German army entered Paris, the flame was revived under the watchful eye of the invaders.

It is believed to have inspired Jackie Kennedy, who had lived in Paris as a student, and had visited as First Lady with the President in 1961. She asked for a similar eternal flame to be lit near the tomb of her husband at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

10. The names of famous battles and military leaders are inscribed on it.

The reliefs and sculptures on the Arc de Triomphe note important moments of the French Revolution and of the Napoleonic era.

Engravings on the inner arch of the Arc de Triomphe

It also includes the names of 158 battles fought by the French First Republic and the First French Empire are engraved it. In addition, the names of 660 military leaders who served during that period are engraved on the inner façades, with the underlined names signifying those who died on the battlefield.

11. Several armies have marched around the Arc.

Everyone from the German Reich to the Allied forces of WWII have marched down this illustrious avenue that has played such a symbolic role in French history.

Arc de triomphe with french flag
Arc de Triomphe at the west end of the Champs Elysées

Famous victory marches around or under the Arc de Triomphe include:

  • the Germans in 1871 – Franco-Prussian war
  • the French in 1919 – WWI
  • the Germans in 1940 – the invasion of France at start of WWII
  • French and Allied Forces in 1944-45 – end of WWII

After the interment of the Unknown Soldier, however, all military parades have avoided marching through the actual arch. The invading German Reich also observed the tradition to walk around instead of through, in 1940.

12. The roundabout is called Place Charles de Gaulle l’Étoile.

The roundabout where the Arc de Triomphe is located is called the Place de l’Étoile, meaning “Place of the star”. It connects 12 different boulevards together, including the famed Avenue des Champs Elysées.

On the Champs Elysées facing the Arc de Triomphe
On the Champs Elysées facing the Arc de Triomphe

It was renamed “Place Charles de Gaulle Étoile” after General Charles de Gaulle in 1970, the leader of resistance during WWII.

13. A plane once flew through the Arc.

Three weeks after the Paris victory parade in 1919 (marking the end of WWI), pilot Charles Godefroy flew his Nieuport biplane under the Arch. These days, this is strictly illegal.

14. A modern arch was built outside of Paris in the same style.

In 1989, a new modern arch was built at Place de la Defense directly in line with the Arc de la Triomphe.

Grand Arch in La Défense
Grande Arche in La Défense

Just outside Paris, the new arc is called the Grande Arche de la Défense and is meant to show the continuity of the triumph towards modern renewal of Paris and the country as a whole.

15. There is an annual parade on 14 July Bastille day.

Bastille day (14 Julliet) is celebrated in Paris with a morning military parade around the Arc de Triomphe and on the Champs Elysées.

If you want to see army tanks, troops with weaponry, firetrucks, and other governmental units who are France’s first line of defense, this is the place to see it. With planes, helicopters, and fighter jets joining overhead, it is a sight to behold.

14 Juillet Military Parade on the Champs Elysées in Paris, France
14 Juillet Military Parade on the Champs Elysées in Paris, France

It usually starts around 10ish around the Arc de Triomphe, heading down the Champs Elysées towards the Place de la Concorde and ending in the military headquarters at Les Invalides.

The parade is held annually, with one other foreign country usually invited as a special guest to participate as a sign of friendship.

16. Visitors are welcome to visit inside.

View from the top of the Arc de Triomphe
View from the top of the Arc de Triomphe

Inside the Arc de Triomphe, there are staircases as well as elevator leading to the top. There is an exhibition about the construction inside, as well as fabulous views of Paris and its monuments. You can buy your skip-the-line tickets here.

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If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more facts about Paris. A bientôt!

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