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Tracing the Origins of Paris

Did you know that the site where Paris exists has been inhabited for more than 700,000 years ? Does Lutetia sound like a precursor to the city that we know as Paris today ? Did you ever walk by Cluny la Sorbonne without giving a second look to the Roman baths that have existed there for close to 20 centuries ?


Plan de Lutèce



From the earlier historical records, Lutetia (French 'Lutèce') is the ancestor of present day Paris from the pre-Roman and Gallic-Roman times around 52 BC. The Roman 'battle of Lutetia' happened around the area of ile-de-la-cité. At that time, the area was inhabited by the 'Parisii'- a Gallic boatsmen tribe. After conquering the area, Romans built the city on the left banks of the river on what is now Sainte-Geneviève hill (Montagne Sainte-Geneviève) near Panthéon. The city model was akin to other cities of the Roman Empire.The Roman urbanisation pattern can still be traced as rue Saint-Martin on the Right bank and rue Saint-Jacques on the left bank form the Roman main axis (cardo maximus).*


Part of the infrastructure that followed in building up the city has survived till this date. Roman baths at Cluny (near Sorbonne), the Forum (now rue Soufflot), the amphitheatre (arenas of Lutetia/ les arènes de Lutèce) and the theatre (rue Racine) bear the strength that has withstood the ravages of time. Boulevard Saint Michel, rue Saint Jacques on the left bank and rue Saint Martin, rue Saint-Denis on the right bank are historical heritage from a time gone by- these are the roads that were built in Lutetia during Roman Empire.

Lutetia was developed on Roman pattern and Christianised as Saint Denis was sent to convert the Gauls in the third century. As the Bishop of the city, he invited the wrath of pagan priests by his conversions. He was beheaded around 250 AD on what was to become Montmartre (mountain of martyrs). Around 280 AD, Lutetia was invaded and destroyed by barbarian invaders. The city was named Paris around 4th Century, around the rule of Julian the apostate. It is said that nun Saint Geneviève saved Paris from the attack of Attila-the Hun in 451 AD. She was honoured as the patron saint of Paris. Her tomb is in the church of Saint-Etienne du Mont near Panthéon. Saint-Denis is also regarded as the patron saint of Paris and France.



Sainte Genevieve

There are places and museums in Paris that allow us a peek in that historical era. In addition to walking tours following the trace of 'Antique Paris'*, there are monuments such as Cluny baths and boatmen's pillar (both at Museum National du Moyen Age), architectural vestiges of old buildings etc in addition to reconstructed scale models, 3D images (at Carnavalent Museum and Archaeologican Crypt at Notre Dame) etc.There are a number of projects pertaining to this work, that involve scientists, researchers, historians, academicians and archaeologists from Universities, CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research), Commission du Vieux Paris, Ministry of Culture and other such bodies, to regroup the pieces of history together.


National Museum of the Middle Age

The museum was founded in 1843 by the French state and by the contributions from a private collector. It is located at the prestigious sites of two exceptional monuments- the Gallo-Roman baths of Cluny (1st-3rd Century) and the Hotel of Cluny (13th-15th Century). The hotel of Cluny was built at the behest of Jacques d'Amboise (1485-1510), the abbot de Cluny (in Burgundy region) who wanted to have a residential area built for the abbots that were coming to Paris for studies.

The museum boasts of a rich collection of relics from Roman Empire, gothic sculptures, paintings, tapestries, goldsmith work and such like weaving a story around the daily life of the middle ages, of which the Boatmen's pillar is arguably the most famous and intriguing.

The baths are perhaps one of the oldest witnesses of the ancient architecture preserved in time. From the old city of Lutetia to the present city of Paris, the baths have survived centuries especially those on the north side. The baths were divided into three sections- the 'frigidarium' and two 'caldarium's- parts of these can be seen while walking on Boulevard Saint-Germain or Boulevard Saint-Michel. The 'frigidarium' has been reopened to public in May 2009 after a restoration break from 2000.


Museum Carnavalet

Situated in the heart of the Marais district, the museum is located at the site of two famous hotels- the Hotel Carnavalet (16th Century) and the Hotel Le Peletier of Saint-Fargeau (17th Century- l’hôtel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau).

Carnavalet museum offers a rich collection of archaeological vestiges of the city of Paris, scale models of old monuments, portrait of illustrious Parisians, souvenirs of daily life as well as an ensemble on the French revolution. This museum is also an important place handling the conservation of graphic arts, photographs, posters etc.


Archaeological Crypt of Notre Dame Square

Located under the esplanade of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the archaeological Crypte traces history of Paris based on various archaeological excavations conducted between 1965-1970 by the Commission of Antique Paris ('Commission du Vieux Paris'-département d'histoire de l'architecture et d'archéologie). It offers the visitors a panorama on the urban and architectural evolution of the île-de-la-cité- the historical heartland of Paris. The crypt is home to several vestiges from the Gallo-Roman era including sections of housing etc.


Addresses of the places mentioned in this article


Musée national du Moyen Âge et thermes de Cluny

(National Museum of the Middle Age and baths of Cluny)

6, place Paul Painlevé, 75005, Paris
Tel: +33 (0) 1 53 73 78 00
Metro: Cluny-La Sorbonne (Line 10), Saint-Michel/ Odéon (Line 4)
Bus: 21, 27, 38, 63, 85, 86, 87 (Bus stop: Cluny/ Dante)
RER C: Saint-Michel, RER B: Cluny - La Sorbonne

Opening Hours:

Open everyday frpm 09:15 AM- 05:45 Pm except Tuesdays, January 1st, May 1st and December 25th. Ticket counter closes at 05:15 PM


Adults: 8.50€/ 6.50€ (reduced), Free for European citizens of less than 26 years.
Free for everyone on first Sunday of the month.

Official website of National Museum of the Middle Age

Exhibition The Bath and The Mirror on bodycare and cleanliness rituals and object is on till September, 2009. A parallel exhibition on the same subject exploring Renaissance period is on at the Renaissance Museum in Ecouen (95). 


Musée Carnavalet

23, rue de Sévigné, 75003 Paris
Tel: +33 (0) 1 44 59 58 58
Fax : +33 (0) 1 44 59 58 11
Metro : Saint-Paul (Line 1), Chemin vert (Line 8)
Bus : 29, 69, 76, 96

Opening Hours:

Open everyday from 10:00 AM- 06 PM except Mondays, Public holidays and Sundays of Easter and Pentecost. Ticket counter closes at 05:30 PM


Free access for permanent collections.
Temporary exhibitions have entry tickets.

More info from the Official site of Carnavalet Museum (in French)


Crypte archéologique du parvis de Notre-Dame de Paris

1, place du Parvis de Notre-Dame, 75004, Paris
Tel: +33 (0) 1 55 42 50 10
Fax : +33 (0) 1 43 29 30 55
Metro: Cité/ Saint-Michel (Line 4)
RER C : Saint-Michel Notre-Dame
Bus : 21, 24, 27, 38, 47, 85 et 96

Opening Hours:

Open everyday from 10:00 AM- 06 PM except Mondays, Public holidays and Sundays of Easter and Pentecost. Ticket counter closes at 05:30 PM


Adults: 4€/ 3€ (reduced tariff), Youngsters (13-26 years): 2€, Free for children below 13 years.


Exhibition- The Great Monuments of Lutetia (les grands monuments de Lutèce) is on at the Crypt till September 2010.


Suggested Reading

  • 'Paris, a Roman city' « Archaelogical guide to France » by Didier Busson, Editions du Patrimoine, 2001. ISBN 2-85822-368-8; It is a paperback resource tracing the history of Paris in 144 pages, rich with 168 illustrations and 35 3D colour reconstructions.
  • Paris- a roman city is an excellent website in English to start discovering Paris (through images and 3D illustrations used from the above-mentioned book).
  • *The above mentioned website suggests a one-hour walking tour to discover the ancient Paris areas by giving corresponding areas of contemporary Paris. French Version is here.
  • Official website of Paris municipality

Photo Credits:

  • 'Lutetia or the first map of the city of Paris' (Lutèce ou premier plan de la ville de Paris tiré de Cesar, de Strabon, de l'Empereur Julien et d'Ammiam Marcellin) by Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville (1697-17). Ref : FRBNF38638308. 
  • Sainte-Geneviève in a 19th century painting by an unknown artist.