Paris as an Historic City

Of historic cities in Europe of the first rank we can count but four: Rome, Istanbul, Paris, London. For in the first rank of historic cities we can only place those capitals which have been, continuously and over a long succession of ages, the seats of national movements dominating the history of Europe: cities which have been conspicuous in mass, in central place, and in vast extent of time. Rome first, Constantinople next, stand far before all other European cities in fulfilling these conditions: but after them come Paris and London. Such fascinating cities as Athens, Florence, Venice, Rouen, Cologne, Treves, Prague, or Oxford -- are all either far inferior in size and national importance, or else have known their epochs of glory only to die away for ages into small and local preeminence. Of all great capitals in the world, London has perhaps, during twelve centuries, suffered the least from violent shocks, from war and breaks in its history; and it may be said to retain the most complete and continuous monumental record for that period.

In the modern world, Paris is the only capital which can be placed beside London as an historic city of the first rank. The modern transformation of Paris has been even more destructive of the past than the modern transformation of London, and, at the same time, it is much more brilliant: so that what remains of the historic city is much more completely screened and overpowered in Paris than it is in London. Nor has Paris any ancient monuments which appeal to the popular imagination, with such direct voice as do our Abbey, and our great hall at Westminster, our Tower, our Temple Church, Lambeth Palace, and the Guildhall. Yet withal it may be said that, in a larger sense of the term, Paris is a city of even richer historic memories than London itself: richer, that is, to the thoughtful student of its history, though certainly not to the incurious tourist. If we take into account sites as well as extant monuments, if we call to our aid topography as well as archæology; if we follow up the early history of buildings which have been replaced, or are now transformed or removed; if we study the local biography of Paris from the days of Julius Cæsar to the days of Julius Grévy and Sadi Carnot -- especially, if we include in the history of Paris that of its suburbs -- St. Denis, Vincennes, St. Cloud, St. Germain, Versailles, -- then the history of Paris is even richer, more dramatic, more continuous than that of London itself.

Paris is by at least a century older than London in the historical record; for it now has almost two thousand years of continuous annals. Paris was a more important Roman city than London. It has far more extensive Roman remains. The history of its first thousand years, from the first century to the eleventh, of its early foundations, churches, palaces, and walls, is far more complete and trustworthy than anything we know of London. It did not suffer any such gap or blank in its history, such as that which befell London, from the time of the Romans until the settlement of the Saxons. The fathers of men still living have seen at Paris, in its Bastille, at St. Denis, in Notre Dame, and the other churches, in the Tuileries, in Versailles, and old Hôtel de Ville, relics of the past, records, works of art, tombs, and statues, before which the great record of our Abbey and our Tower can hardly hold their own.

The great era of destruction began little more than a century ago: the great era of restoration little more than half a century ago. Paris, too, has been the scene of events more tremendous and more extraordinary than any other city of the world, if we except Constantinople and Rome. London never endured any very serious or regular siege. Paris has endured a dozen famous sieges, culminating in what is, perhaps, the biggest siege recorded in history. London has never known an autocrat with a passion for building, has had but one great conflagration, and but one serious insurrection. Paris has had in Louis XIV., and the first and second empires of the Napoleons, three of the most ambitious despots ever known; and in a hundred years has had four most sanguinary and destructive revolutions. Battles, sieges, massacres, conflagrations, civil wars, rebellions, revolutions, make up the history of Paris from the days of the Caesars and the Franks to the days of the Terror and the Commune.

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