How Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe Became a Symbol of Paris

The Arc de Triomphe and Place de Charles de Gaulle sit along the Axe Historique (Historical Axis) of Paris, which extends from the Louvre Museum to La Défense. The triumphal arch isn’t the only one along the axis. At one end, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which was modeled on the Roman arches of Septimius and Constantine, sits between the Louvre and the Tuileries Garden. That one is about a third of the size and was also commissioned by Napoleon.

At the far end of the axis, La Grand Arche was built “as a strong unifying symbol for the bicentenary of the French Revolution” in 1989 and was a project French President François Mitterand. It was designed by Johan Otto V. Spreckelsen and is more than double the size of the Arc de Triomphe.

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Arc de Triomphe

An aerial view of the Arc de Triomphe, which stands in the center of the Place de Charles de Gaulle, where 12 avenues, including the Champs-Elysées, meet.

Roger Viollet Getty Images

With all these arches in Paris and around the world, what makes the Arc de Triomphe special?

“I don’t know that it was structurally novel,” says LeBlanc. Arches were well known at the time it was made, although Napoleon’s was particularly massive. “What was unique was that it didn’t have pilasters and columns.”

The Arc includes many notable sculptures, with work by artists François Rude, Jean-Pierre Cortot and Antoine Etex on the pillars. Other surfaces include additional reliefs and the names of generals and battles.

Beneath the Arc de Triomphe are the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, added in 1921, and the eternal flame, which is rekindled each evening. Due to its scale, the Arc de Triomphe is known for offering one of the best views of the city from the observation deck at the top.