A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SEINE RIVER
Neanderthal stone tools from as far back as 500,000 years ago have been discovered in the Seine Basin, notably in Chelles, a present-day suburb of Paris. From about 1000 BC Celtic tribes, the Gauls, lived in pockets along the Seine. Notably, the Parisii tribe settled on Île de la Cité, on the right bank of today’s Paris. Meanwhile, Source-Seine was a major destination and shrine to which Celtic pilgrims would flock for a cure.
Roman Empire, Rise and Fall
In 52 BC Julius Caesar defeated Gaul and incorporated it – and the Seine – into the Roman Empire. The Romans called the Seine Sequana; expanded river trading dramatically, fortified the settlements along the river; and built up the Gallic city of Lutetia, the ancient forerunner of today’s Paris. Roman influence began to decline as the empire crumbled, in part due to constant attacks by German tribes, and Clovis I, King of the Franks – one of the German tribes – became the first Christian king to rule Paris.
9th to 11th Centuries
During the 9th century, the Vikings pillaged the Upper Seine, destroying much of Rouen, and sailed the river south to attack Paris, laying siege to the city for a year to no avail. From then on the Paris basin remained under the dominion of a succession of French rulers, including Charlemagne, who made the region part of his vast kingdom stretching throughout Europe. The Seine north of the Paris region controlled by the Norman kings, descendants of the Vikings.
The Middle Ages
French kings made Paris the economic, political, religious, and cultural capital of France, while Normandy to the north became English territory and continually fought, unsuccessfully, to take Paris and its surrounds. After Joan of Arc, champion of the French king, was tried by English sympathizers and burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431, her ashes were thrown into the Seine from the Mathilde Bridge.
The French Monarchy
The area around the Seine centered on Paris was the seat of the Crown of France, the personal domain of the king of France, unlike the rest of the country, which continued to be ruled by feudal lords. In 1750 the royal administration began to clear out the bustling markets, laundry boats, and artisan workshops from the banks of the Seine to make the river more hospitable to navigation.
In 1864 Napoleon proclaimed that the region of Source-Seine belonged to Paris, and had a grotto built at the spring. So central to the identity of the French people was the Seine, that Napoleon’s will declared his wish to be buried “on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people [whom I] loved so much.” His wish was denied by Louis XVIII, who feared the burial of Napoleon’s remains by the Seine would incite political unrest.
The Seine was the site of the rowing, swimming, and water polo events of the 1900 Summer Olympics, and the Olympic rowing events in 1924. In 1944, during World War II, it figured prominently during the closing phases of the Battle of Normandy following the Allied D-Day invasion, when the First Canadian Army fought the beleaguered German 7th Army in the Forêt de la Londe on the west side of the Seine, cutting them off as they tried to escape across the river.
The Seine remains central to French life, culture, and identity. The port of Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine is France’s largest international shipping port, and the river runs through the wealthiest and most populated of the twenty-seven administrative regions of France, known as Île-de-France or the Paris Region. This district has more residents than Austria, Belgium, Finland, Portugal, Norway or Sweden. Economically, Île-de-France is the world’s fourth largest – and Europe’s wealthiest and largest – regional economy.
In the summer of 2002, a new Seine tradition began. Now every summer tons of sand, along with palm trees, beach chairs, ice cream stands, etc., are brought to the pedestrian banks of the Seine in Paris to transform them into beaches, known as Paris Plages, creating a mecca for urban sun-worshippers.