Ah, the Arc de Triomphe, that gloriously symbolic archway in Paris that stands as a testament to France’s undying love for roundabouts and traffic chaos.
Located at the corner of the 8th and 17th arrondissements of Paris, it is the ultimate French paradox: a symbol of victory and commemoration, as well as a very photo-worthy ornate monument surrounded by gazillions of tourists and automobiles.
It marks the start of the famed Champs Elysées and is 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.
The Arc de Triomphe is famous for the unknown soldier buried at its base, along with the eternal flame. It has become a place of pilgrimage. But it is also infamous as a roundabout, with the cars and pedestrians going around it uninsured if they get into an accident.
So let’s explore a few fun and interesting 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.
- 2. Earlier plans were for a giant elephant.
- 3. Construction began on 15 August 1806, which was also Napoleon's 37th birthday.
- 4. It is part of the Axe Historique de Paris.
- 5. Each of the 4 pillars are dedicated to French victories.
- 6. Napoleon only saw a wooden replica.
- 7. It took 30 years to complete.
- 8. The final cost was over 10 million French Francs.
- 9. The Arc De Triomphe was modeled after the Roman Arch of Titus.
- 10. There is a 2nd Arc at the Louvre Museum.
- 11. The tomb of the unknown soldier lies underneath.
- 12. A commemoration ceremony is held annually on Armistice.
- 13. The eternal flame was lit on 11th November 1923 and has been burning for over 100 years.
- 14. Several foreign armies have marched around the Arc de Triomphe.
- 15. The names of famous battles and military leaders are inscribed on the pillars.
- 16. The sun sets in the exact centre of the arch, but only twice a year.
- 17. The roundabout surrounding the Arc is called "Place Charles de Gaulle l'Étoile".
- 18. There are 12 roads leading into the roundabout around the Arch.
- 19. A plane once flew through the Arch.
- 20. A modern arch was built outside of Paris in the same style.
- 21. There is an annual parade on 14 July Bastille day.
- 22. Visitors are welcome to visit inside.
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, after the 1789 French revolution had overthrown the old monarchy.
Napoleon 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. Today, along with the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame de Paris, it is part of the holy trinity of symbolic monuments of France.
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 elephant project was never finalized.
3. Construction began on 15 August 1806, which was also Napoleon’s 37th birthday.
The construction started on Napoleon’s 37th birthday on 15 August 1806. Some people argue that it could have been a gift for himself, which would be quite an expensive birthday present!
4. 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.
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.
5. Each of the 4 pillars are dedicated to French victories.
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).
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).
6. 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).
7. It took 30 years to complete.
Construction of the Arc de Triomphe was finally completed in 1836, around 30 years after construction began under Napoleon’s reign 1806.
The reason it took so long (along with the fact it was a complicated project, was that construction was halted in 1814, right after Napoleon abdicated.
The project resumed in 1823 by King Louis XVIII after the previous monarchy was reinstated.
On 15 December 1840, when Napoleon’s remains were brought back to France from the island of Saint Helena, his coffin was passed under it on their way to his final resting place at Les Invalides.
8. The final cost was over 10 million French Francs.
The final cost was estimated to be around 10 million francs, which today would translate to more than 65 million euros, or 75 million USD. An expensive birthday gift indeed!
9. The Arc De Triomphe was modeled after the Roman Arch of Titus.
If the popularity of the Arc de Triomphe seems universal, it is because it was modeled after the historical Roman Arch of Titus. Napoleon fancied himself a Roman Emperor and did not hesitate to borrow their imagery.
Old France had been conquered by the Romans and Julius Caesar, and there are plenty of Roman ruins and arches around France to provide Napoleon with inspiration for his arch.
10. 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.
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.
11. 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.
12. A commemoration ceremony is held annually on Armistice.
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.
13. The eternal flame was lit on 11th November 1923 and has been burning for over 100 years.
The Eternal flame was installed a few years after the start of construction, in 1923. The idea came from the ancient Roman eternal flame of the Vestal Virgins that was finally extinguished in 391AD.
The French eternal flame commemorates the memory of soldiers who died in combat and never goes out. The flame 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.
14. Several foreign armies have marched around the Arc de Triomphe.
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.
15. The names of famous battles and military leaders are inscribed on the pillars.
The reliefs and sculptures on the Arc de Triomphe note important moments of the French Revolution and of the Napoleonic era.
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.
16. The sun sets in the exact centre of the arch, but only twice a year.
With the Arc de Triomphe aligned with the historical Axe historique of Paris, twice a year the sun is aligned to set through the center. The exact day is difficult to predict, but it occurs usually in mid-May and mid-October.
17. The roundabout surrounding the Arc 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.
It was renamed “Place Charles de Gaulle Étoile” after General Charles de Gaulle in 1970, the leader of resistance during WWII.
18. There are 12 roads leading into the roundabout around the Arch.
There are 12 road arteries leading into the roundabout around the Arc de Triomphe and away from it.
The Arc and the roundabout have become known as towering masterpiece of French engineering, as well as the world’s fanciest obstacle course for daring motorists.
Cars entering the roundabout have the right-of-way and those in the roundabout must yield. However there are no lanes and if you are driving, you are best advised to stay in the outer lanes so that you can make it to your exit. (Hold on to your car insurance!)
19. A plane once flew through the Arch.
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.
20. 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.
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.
21. 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.
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.
22. Visitors are welcome to visit inside.
The area around the eternal flame is free to access. Just take the underground passage that is located at the edge of the Champs-Elysées to access the center. (Do not try to cross overhead where the cars are traveling!)
You can also climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe if you wish, although you will need a ticket.
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.
It does get very busy in the summer months so plan in advance. You can buy your skip-the-line tickets here.
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more facts about Paris. A bientôt!