The Pre(r)amble: Over the past few months I've gotten interested in the development of history and historiography in Victorian England, and how the Victorians saw themselves reflected in and contrasted by past societies. I've read several historians who claimed that the nineteenth was a uniquely 'historical' century, in which rising secularism, the idea of progress, and other broad trends pushed historical explanations to the fore, so that they increasingly supplied the "just-so" stories of the new generations. To give an example, as the British Empire reached its height there was a resurgence of interest in ancient Rome, which was used to analyze, support, and critique British imperialism.

This in turn got me wondering if there were comparable movements in nearby European countries during the second half of the 19th century, particularly in France and the German states. For this question I'd like to ask about the French.

My Question: Was there a comparable interest in history in France during the later half of the nineteenth century? If so, what periods were of interest, and what uses were they put to? Did history make itself known in art and literature? Was it used by or against the French state, or in relation to French colonialism?

Important Caveats:

  • I suspect that history in France under Napoleon III would have been dominated by the shadows of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Revolution, so I want to be clear that I'm asking about how the French used history outside of their own living memory. An answer about, say, the attitude of the Second French Empire to the French Revolution, is not what I'm looking for. But if there were French historians commenting on the Revolution in the guise or context of, say, Greek classicism, that would be a perfect fit.

  • Finally, though I've used Second French Empire as a conveniently narrow frame of reference, I would be very happy with answers that touched on the adjoining Second and Third Republics. My main area of interest is the second half of the nineteenth century.

  • Might Sant-Simonism (in French; the English article is a rather light) be what you're looking for? Jun 29, 2017 at 6:13
  • @DenisdeBernardy: Probably not. A quick look through the article uncovers a great deal of interesting information about an early-19th century political movement, I but I didn't see explicit reference to their using history or history writing in their discourse, expect perhaps in the most grandly abstracted sense. If the Saint-Simonians consistently wrote about specific historical events in reference to their politics then that might be closer to mark.
    – Random
    Jun 30, 2017 at 18:39
  • 1
    The French article on the "Second Empire" might make it more explicit.Saint Simon is pretty much all over the place. Jun 30, 2017 at 20:28
  • Update: The answer to this question is found at length in Chapter 4 of Napoleon III and His Regime: An Extravaganza.
    – Random
    Apr 21, 2018 at 5:47

1 Answer 1


Of the three countries, Britain, France, and Germany, France was the least dynamic economically in the late 19th century, and hence the least likely to hearken back to Rome or other classical civilizations.So yes, there were intellectual movements in France but they were in no way comparable to those in England. Put bluntly, they had the least to celebrate or brag about.

The "least dynamic" part can be seen in an abridged version of the table of past GDPs for the three countries.

GDP in billions of 1990 USD in the chosen years and countries:

(country)    | 1820 | 1870 | 1913
Britain      |   36 |  100 |  225
France       |   36 |  72  |  144
Germany      |   27 |  72  |  237

France's GDP was equal to Britain's in 1820, but had fallen way behind by 1870, and even further behind by 1913. France's GDP was equal to Germany's in 1870, but Germany was growing faster, having started off a lower 1820 base, and was way ahead of France's and comparable to Britain's, by 1913. So the two better candidates for the Roman style historiography were Britain and Germany.

Then why Britain? For a couple of reasons. Britain had been occupied by Rome and Germany (mostly) had not. (It is noteworthy that Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" was written by a British and not a German. Also, Britain had a large maritime empire with plenty of overseas trade. In this one regard, France was more like Britain than was Germany, which was landlocked and "continental.

In other respects, Germany was more "British" than the British. Germany had the faster growth rate, starting out from a lower 1820 base. Germany also had a capital goods economy, and outdid the British in iron and steel, chemicals, and electricity. In these regards, both Britain and Germany were more like the practical, engineering oriented Rome than was France.

AS discussed in another post, France had a more luxury goods oriented economy, one that the Romans might have considered "effete." It drew its inspiration from the luxury trade of the Middle East and Mediterranean, at least during the Middle Ages, and later from the Italian Renaissance. But neither Italy nor the Ottoman Empire could provide the "anchor" to France that Rome did to Britain.

Put another way, Britain celebrated Rome in the 19th century because it was then the "new Rome." France was closer to (non-Roman) Italy, Greece, and the Ottoman empire than to Rome, but those three empires were (at the time) much less prestigious than Rome. Also, France was never occupied by any of them in the way that Rome occupied Britain, so France's connection to those countries was more tenuous than Britain's to Rome.

  • These are good and interesting points, and I'm grateful to them; but the question wasn't whether or not France drew on Roman antecedents specifically, but about how they drew on history in general. Aside from that, since I first asked the question I've also discovered that the Third Empire actually did draw significant comparisons to Rome -- the 1851 coup that brought Napoleon the III to power was named "project rubicon", and the emperor himself said that he wanted "to be a new Augustus" in reference to his massive rebuilding of Paris.
    – Random
    Aug 6, 2017 at 21:38
  • Around the same time, in contrast, a French writer put down that "London may become Rome, but it will certainly never become Athens; that destiny is reserved for Paris." Perhaps he was recognizing the dominance of French cultural power, rather than the imperial legacy of Napoleon. Either way, I've found some tantalizing tidbits of the kind of historical dialogue I'm looking for, but not yet enough to get a clear idea of its full character and extent.
    – Random
    Aug 6, 2017 at 21:42
  • @Era: I am sure that the French "tried," but there are reasons why those efforts aren't as well known. 1) They weren't as successful as the British and 2) because they were less successful, fewer people jumped on the bandwagon. Still, they had a better connection to Rome than the Germans, and did more than the Germans as a result. But they were overshadowed by the British in both regards.As another poster pointed out, France may have been closer to Athens, but it was never part of the Athenian sphere of influence (with the possible exception of Marseilles.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 6, 2017 at 21:44
  • Fair; though I still think the state use of history is worth considering, even if it was ultimately less successful. (Tellingly, I just uncovered that Napoleon III was scolded by one of his ministers for spending too much time reading Roman history and patronizing archeology, apparently as a means of avoiding his political frustrations. That Napoleonic dream I suppose ...) Anyway, thanks for your answer. :)
    – Random
    Aug 8, 2017 at 22:16
  • @sempaiscuba: In case you didn't know, you have an "instant" following on Politics SE when "your" question was migrated over there.politics.stackexchange.com/questions/23453/… If you registered, on that site, it would be your third highest ranked site, where it more than doubled its upvotes as when it left History SE.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 8, 2017 at 23:38

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