April 8th 1820: Venus de Milo discovered
On this day in 1820 the famous Ancient Greek sculpture the Venus de Milo (created between 130 and 100 BC) was discovered on the Aegean island of Milos by a peasant named Yorgos Kentrotas. It represents the goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite and so has been called the ‘Aphrodite of Milos’. He found the statue in the ancient city ruins of Milos in two main pieces along with fragments of the arms and a plinth which revealed the sculptor to be Alexandros of Antioch. The arms and plinth have since been lost. Kentrotas and French naval officer Olivier Voutier dug around the area and uncovered the statue and had it bought to the Louvre in Paris where it remains today.
February 26th 1802: Victor Hugo born
On this day in 1802, the French novelist Victor Hugo was born. His most famous works are the novels ‘Les Misérables’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’. ‘Les Misérables’ tells the story of the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris and has since been adapted into a hugely successful musical. Hugo lived to age 83 and died on May 22nd 1885 in Paris.
February 8th 1828: Jules Verne born
On this day in 1828, the French author Jules Verne was born in Nantes, France. Verne is famous for his groundbreaking science fiction novels like ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ and ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’. He is the second most translated author in the world. He died in March 1905.
December 1st 1761: Marie Tussaud born
On this day in 1761 the French creator of wax sculptures, Marie Tussaud, was born in Strasbourg. She created her first wax figure, which was of Voltaire, in 1777 aged 16. During the French Revolution, Tussaud narrowly escaped execution and then went on to make the death masks of famous victims of the Revolution such as Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre. She went on to found the famous ‘Madame Tussauds’ wax museum in London which has since expanded to other branches in New York, Bangkok, Amsterdam and many others.
October 16th 1793: Marie Antoinette executed
On this day in 1793 the widow of French King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, was guillotined. Her husband was executed as part of the abolition of the monarchy during the French Revolution in 1793. Marie was subsequently tried and convicted for treason to the principles of the revolution and then executed. Antoinette was initially liked by the French people, but they came to dislike her as the tide turned against the monarchy. There is a common misconception that her last words were “let them eat cake”, however there is no evidence for this.
“Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”
- Antoinette’s last words to the executioner after she stepped on his foot
August 19th 1944: Liberation of Paris begins
On this day in 1944 Paris began to rise up against Nazi occupation during World War Two, with the help of Allied forces. The struggle continued until German surrender on August 25th. Paris had been occupied since 1940.
July 15th 1799: Rosetta Stone discovered
On this day in 1799, the Rosetta Stone was found in the Egyptian village of Rosetta during Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign by Captain Pierre-Francois Bouchard. The stone is inscribed with a decree by King Ptolemy V and is written in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script and Ancient Greek. Thus, the stone provided a breakthrough in the translation of hieroglyphs, making the previously indecipherable script understandable. The British defeated the French in 1801 and took possession of the stone. It was transported to the British Museum in London and remains there still as one of the museum’s top attractions.
200 years ago - June 24th 1812: Napoleon’s invasion of Russia begins
On this day in 1812, 200 years ago, Napoleon’s Grand Armee crossed the Neman River, thus beginning his invasion of Russia. This ill-planned invasion was a major turning point in the Napoleonic Wars as France’s failure weakened Napoleon’s army and his reputation. Napoleon had failed to supply his army well, and the Russian scorched earth policy didn’t allow the French to ‘live off the land’ as they previously had. Thus, the Grand Armee was poorly supplied and this was exacerbated by the onset of Russian Winter; almost 400,000 French soldiers died. Napoleon abandoned the invasion and it ended in December 1812. This very significant event in European and world history occurred 200 years ago.
March 6th 1779: Jomini born
On this day in 1779, the French general Antoine-Henri Jomini was born in Switzerland. He served in the French army during the Napoleonic Wars and later joined the Russian army. Jomini is famous for his military theory and extensive writings on strategy which continued to be used in military academies years after his death in 1869. Together with Carl von Clausewitz he is considered one of the leading figures in military theory.
February 10th 1755: Montesquieu dies
On this day in 1755 the famous French political thinker of the Enlightenment, Montesquieu, died aged 66 in Paris. He was born to a noble family in 1689. Montesquieu is best known for his theory of the separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary in a government. His thinking was implemented in many national constitutions, most notably the American. He died of a high fever in 1755 and was buried in the Église Saint-Sulpice, Paris.
December 14th 1812: Napoleon’s invasion of Russia ends
On this day in 1812, Napoleon’s Grand Armée was expelled from Russia when the last French troops left, thus ending the French invasion of Russia. France’s failure was a decisive turning point in the Napoleonic Wars, and turned the tide of the war against the French and in favour of the coalition against them. Napoleon had begun the invasion in June 1812, but by the end his army of around 685,000 was down to 120,000. This was partly because his tactic of getting resources by ‘living off the land’ was thwarted by the harsh Russian winter and the Russian scorched earth tactic.
November 21st 1694: Voltaire born
On this day in 1694, the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire was born. His full name was François-Marie Arouet, and he was born in Paris. He is best known for his writings promoting civil liberties; his overall writings amount to over 2000 books and pamphlets. His work influenced the thinkers of the American and French Revolutions.
September 4th 1870: Napoleon III deposed
On this day in 1870 French Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was deposed. He was overthrown due to his poor leadership in the Franco-Prussian War, which resulted in decisive Prussian victory and French humiliation. The Emperor was even captured by the Prussians himself at the Battle of Sedan. Three days after that debacle he was removed from power. The Third Republic was declared and the monarchy abolished, thus making Napoleon III the last French monarch.
August 10th 1793: Louvre opens
On this day in 1793 the Musée du Louvre was officially opened in Paris, France. It originally housed 537 paintings which were mostly confiscated from the monarchy and church following the 1789 revolution. It was briefly renamed after French emperor Napoleon I, but after his defeat and fall from power it returned to its original name. It is now one of the largest museums in the world and the most visited art museum in the world. It now houses around 35,000 works, including famous paintings such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
July 14th 1789: Storming of the Bastille
On this day in 1789, French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille fortress in Paris. They seized weapons and released the seven prisoners held there. The Bastille had represented royal authority and its fall was a major turning point in the revolution that eventually toppled the French monarchy. The day is commemorated in France as a public holiday.