The History Of France: From the Roman Gaul to the Age of Napoleon

Gain an understanding of the major figures, events, and periods of French History.

The Capetian Miracle
Louis XIV
July 14th 1789
The defeat of 'La Commune'
By going through the Ardennes forest

Gaul: Pre-Roman History (Before 50 BCE)

Ancient France was populated by a Celtic people called the Gauls. These fierce warriors had an empire that stretched from modern Portugal to the Mediterranean coast around 300 BCE. They were known for their strength, bravery, and light hair. Today, the French word gaillard means a ‘strong, strapping person,’ in their honor.

They constructed the first French towns as hill forts and worked iron, bronze, and gold as well as created ornate musical instruments such as the ‘carnyx,’ a giant horn. They lived mostly in tribal groups. It’s estimated that, when Julius Caesar arrived to subjugate them, they were splintered into as many as 60 distinct groups, making them much easier to conquer.


Resistance against the Romans was led by Gaulish hero, Vercingetorix, whose name translates to ‘Victor of a 100 Battles,’ and who was later immortalized by a pristine statue built by Napoleon. After 8 years of brutal fighting, the Romans were victorious and Vercingetorix was sent to Rome as a prized prisoner, revered even by his enemies.

Roman Gaul (50 BCE - 486 CE)

Roman rule was a transformative period for France. The first 2 centuries occurred during the ‘Pax Romana,’ a time of peace and tremendous prosperity for the empire. The Gaulish language was slowly replaced by Latin, and Christianity was introduced during the 2nd century CE. Although early Christians were persecuted in Gaul, Gauls were allowed to be full Roman citizens – multiple Roman Senators, and even Emperors Claudius and Caracalla, were born in Gaul.

The 3rd century CE saw the strength of the Roman empire start to crumble as Gaul began suffering a series of invasions from ‘barbarians’ like the Franks, the Vandals, and the Visigoths. Initially, some of these Germanic peoples chose to settle and accept Roman rule. During this period, commoners began seeking out local lords for protection from the invaders, a process that would see the feudal system emerge. King Clovis of the Franks ended the period of chaos and united Gaul under his reign, naming the new kingdom as France.

The Merovingians and Carolingians (486 - 987)

Clovis I founded the Merovingian dynasty of Frankish kings when he united all of Gaul with Paris as his capital. They were often called the ‘Long-Haired Kings,’ because their leaders kept their hair long as a symbol of power, while their soldiers were forced to keep theirs short.


Charles Martel, ‘The Mayor of the Palace,’ served as the de facto ruler of France and initiated the Carolingian dynasty, putting an end to a line of weak Merovingian rulers. He fought multiple conflicts from 718-732 to stabilize France and his power. His son ‘Pepin the Short’ would be the first to crown himself, but it would be Martel’s grandson, Charlemagne, who would change history.

Charlemagne conquered most of western and central Europe, ultimately being crowned the first ‘Holy Roman Emperor’ by the Pope in 800 CE. However, quarreling amongst his 3 grandsons would force the Emperor to split in 3 parts in the ‘Treaty of Verdun’ in 843. In turn, all 3 would be weakened by constant raiding from Scandinavians for the remainder of their reign.

The Capetians and Valois (987 CE - 1328 CE)

When Hugh Capet was elected King by French nobles in 987, France was at a low point, besieged by raiders on all sides. His direct line would rule for over 300 years, slowly increasing in power and uniting France. The Capetians would also establish such institutions as the Crown’s legal courts, or ‘Parlements,’ the representative assembly or ‘Estates General,’ and royal local officials called ‘Baillis.’

A large reason the Capetians outpaced their rivals was their remarkable stability, sometimes referred to as the ‘Capetian Miracle,’ with the Crown being passed directly from father to son for an astonishing 341 years. They also started a tradition of granting younger sons prestigious titles to let them maintain status and dissuade them from any attempted coup. While other kingdoms dealt with constant fracturing and infighting during periods of succession, the Capetians were able to maintain and continuously expand their territories until they controlled all of France.

Valois (1328 CE - 1589 CE)

The House of Valois was a branch of the Capetians, coming to power when Philip VI inherited the crown with the death of his Capetian cousin. The beginning of their reign was dominated by the ‘100-Years War’ with England, in which much of the country was destroyed and held by Britain. France won in 1453, partly thanks to Joan of Arc, who convinced the crown prince to let her lead an army to alleviate the siege of Orleans, winning a stunning victory.

The later part of the Valois dynasty was dominated by the ‘Habsburg-Valois’ Wars. These were a series of conflicts from 1494-1559, mostly in Italy, as the French Valois sought expansion, bringing them into conflict with the Holy Roman Hapsburgs. When Francis I was defeated and captured at the battle of Pavia in 1525, he was forced to give up the French region of Burgundy to secure his release.

The remainder of the dynasty saw both the French Renaissance take place, as well as internal violence as Protestants and Catholics vied for control.

The Bourbons (1589-1792)

The Bourbons were another branch of the Capetians who gained the Crown with the death of a cousin. After his cousin was assassinated by a priest, the newly crowned Henry IV converted to Catholicism and issued the ‘Edict of Nantes’ in 1589 to grant religious tolerance to bring stability to France. He was assassinated in 1610, and power went to Cardinal Richelieu, who navigated France to a victory over the Hapsburgs in the ’30 Years’ War.’

Louis XIV is most famous for claiming ‘divine right,’ and building the Royal palace at Versailles. Divine Right was the concept that his authority came from God, essentially giving him absolute power over his subjects. He used Versailles to subjugate his nobles, forcing them to dwell there and dote on him, while the brilliant minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, helped France achieve a massive global empire by the time of his death in 1715.

Louis XV took over the throne and oversaw a loss of foreign territory in the ‘7-Years War’ with Britain, but also saw the French Enlightenment take place. Such vaunted thinkers as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau made Paris the intellectual capital of the world during that time.

The French Revolution (1774-1799)

Constant conflict nearly bankrupted France by time Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, had the throne. Supporting the American Revolution used up the last of the Crown’s finances, forcing a calling of the Estates General, the French Parliament, in 1789.

The ‘3rd Estate’ represented 97% of the population but was outnumbered in the assembly by the 1st and 2nd Estate, made up of Priests and Nobles. Therefore, they were forced to carry all of the tax burdens. In protest of the system, they broke off to form the ‘National Assembly’ at the palace tennis court. Word of the split reached Paris, causing violence and the ‘Storming of the Bastille’ on July 14th. The ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’ was adopted on August 27th, and a new constitution featuring a constitutional monarchy was adopted in September 1791.

A radical group known as the Jacobins considered the new government too conservative and staged a coup. They seized power and the revolution devolved into chaos as they declared war on their neighbors and began using the guillotine to execute thousands, including the royal family.

The Age of Napoleon (1799-1815)

Out of the chaos, General Napoleon Bonaparte rose through brilliant military victories, eventually leading him to power in 1799 and being crowned Emperor in 1804.

The ‘Napoleonic Wars’ lasted from 1803-1815. To help fund these conflicts, Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803. He conquered most of Europe but had several setbacks. In 1805, the naval Battle of Trafalgar was a major victory for the British as they destroyed the French fleet and ended any chance of an invasion of England.

Napoleon continued to win on land until his army was broken by the ‘Scorched Earth’ tactics of Russia in a failed 1812 invasion, losing ¾ of his army. He was eventually defeated by a coalition of Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia, and Sweden, and was forced to abdicate his throne in 1814, being banished to the isle of Elba.

Less than a year later, in February 1815, Napoleon escaped back to the mainland and raised an army to start his ‘Hundred-Days Campaign.’ He was defeated at Waterloo in July 1815. Although his reign was short, his legacy lives on as he established the metric system, public education, and countless other administrative reforms.

The Restoration and 2nd Republic (1815-1870)

The Bourbons returned to power with the crowning of Louis XVIII in 1814, which was known as the ‘Restoration.’ Reactionary forces dominated the administration and intensified their influence with the ascension of Charles X in 1824. Finally, the people revolted in 1830 in what was known as the ‘July Rebellion,’ forcing Charles to give up the throne to his more progressive Bourbon cousin, Louis Phillipe, who ruled the ‘July Monarchy’ through a period of peace and prosperity. When he too began cracking down on political rights, he was overthrown in 1848 by Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon, who was president for a few years before being declared emperor and becoming known as Napoleon III.

This ‘Second Empire’ saw France begin to industrialize and continue to expand its overseas holdings. Railroads began to be built, Paris was redesigned by Baron Haussman, and people left the rural countryside to begin working in urban factories.

The Second Empire ended when it suffered a massive defeat during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

3rd Republic (1870-1940)

After the Prussian victory in 1870, yet another uprising, ‘La Commune,’ erupted in 1871. Its defeat ended the monarchy and began the start of the ‘3rd Republic.’ Vital rights were guaranteed at this time, such as the freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and the right to join unions. The French Empire increased its size by conquering territory in both Africa and southeast Asia. Mandatory education, a strict separation of church and state, and industrialization all were implemented during this era.

In 1914, France was drawn into World War I due to its alliances. The ensuing war killed 1.4 million French soldiers as trench warfare and new technology brought murder to an industrial scale. The victory did little to cover France’s losses, but the economy did recover during the roaring twenties before plummeting in the great depression of the 1930s.

World War II and Vichy France (1939-1944)

The 3rd Republic was ended by defeat at the hands of the Nazis in World War II. When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, both France and Great Britain declared war. At the time, France was thought to have had the largest and most prestigious army in the world, as well as a massive line of fortifications along the border with Germany, the ‘Maginot Line.’

They were well prepared for a rerun of WWI’s plodding trench warfare but utterly vulnerable to the Nazi’s technology-powered ‘Blitzkrieg’ strategy of high-speed attack. The Germans successfully penetrated the allied line by going through the Ardennes forest, and then scorched their way through the allied interior. Prime Minister, Marshal Petain, surrendered and ceded northern France to German control, retreating to southern France and declaring the Vichy government.

Meanwhile, Charles De Gaulle led France’s government in exile, continuing the fight for the remainder of the war abroad while resistance fighters continued the fight within until the liberation of Paris from Nazi rule in Auguest 1944.

Modern France (Post 1948)

France recovered from the devastation of the war, shedding its colonial holdings on its way to becoming a progressive modern economic power. Though much of the country had been devastated during the fighting, the ‘American Marshall Plan’ helped inject France with funds to rebuild and recover. Decolonization saw conflicts in southeast Asia and North Africa, leading to independence for several former French colonies, including Vietnam and Algeria. France freed all of its African colonies at once in 1960, bringing its overseas empire to an end.

France also joined the ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organization’ (NATO) and worked with allies against the communist Warsaw Pact for the duration of the Cold War. France’s economy has seen continued growth over the past half century, and progressive reforms have given it a high standard of living. Its continued tourism has made it one of the world’s most visited countries in the world.

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