Modern France has its roots in ancient Gaul. In the 2nd century BC Rome intervened on the side of Massilia (Marseilles), a Greek colony founded in 600 BC, in its struggle against the barbarian tribes of the hinterland. The result was the formation, in 121 BC, of the Roman Provincia in what is now southern France; between 58 to 50 BC Julius Caesar seized the remainder. For more than four centuries Gaul enjoyed the benefits of Roman rule, and many ruins of aqueducts and bathhouses still dot the French landscape. After 395 AD the internal problems of the Empire encouraged barbarian penetration of Gaul. By 418, the Franks and Burgundians were established west of the Rhine, and the Visigoths had settled in Aquitaine. The period of the Merovingian and Carolingian Frankish dynasties (476-887) frames the Early Middle Ages.
Following his ascension, the first Merovingian king, Clovis (481-511), consolidated the position of the Franks in northern Gaul. Clovis came to believe that his victories were due to the Christian God. Clovis' subsequent conversion assured the Frankish rulers of the support not only of the Catholic Church but of the majority of their own subjects. The Frankish kingdom reached its largest extent under Charlemagne (768-814), who united modern-day France, Italy, and Germany under his rule. After Charlemagne's death, his grandsons divided the kingdom into the three parts that have largely survived to the present. France was a divided kingdom for much of the medieval period, but power gradually began to accumulate in the hands of the rulers of the Ile de France region centered around Paris. By the rise of the house of Valois in 1328, France was the most powerful kingdom in Europe. Its ruler could muster larger armies than rivals; he could tap enormous fiscal resources; and the king's courts maintained royal supremacy. The history of France in the Late Middle Ages is dominated by efforts of its kings to maintain their suzerainty, efforts that, despite French advantages, were long frustrated.
The Hundred Years War was an intermittent struggle between England and France in the 14th-15th centuries over a series of dynastic disputes, including the legitimate succession to the French crown. The war's turning point was reached in 1429, when an English army was forced to raise its siege of Orleans by a relief force organized by Joan of Arc. By 1453, England retained only Calais, which it finally relinquished in 1558. The French kings of the 16th century spent much of their time fighting the Hapsburg monarchs for control of Italy, while religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants led to a series of civil wars between 1562 and 1598.
The ascension of the Bourbon line of kings beginning in 1589 brought renewed stability to France, and the country soared to some of its greatest heights during the long rule of Louis XIV (1643-1715). Under Louis, France became the artistic and intellectual capital of Europe. From his magnificent palace of Versailles, Louis was truly the "Sun King", the absolute master of all he surveyed. The French military was the most powerful in Europe at this time, known for the elite Musketeer units that served as the king's personal guard. France was so strong at this time that the other European nations kept banding together to stop France from conquering them - a pattern that would be repeated in the French Revolution.
These intellectual developments, although significant by themselves, gave rise to a still more momentous change: the French Enlightenment. This movement was a cultural transformation based on rationalism, empiricism, and an amorphous concept of freedom found in the influential writings of figures like Voltaire (1694-1778) and Rousseau (1712-78). Compounding the situation was the bankruptcy of the French crown, which forced the king to call upon representatives of the people for additional taxes. Hence, what began in 1787 as a conflict between royal authority and aristocrats became a triangular struggle, with "the masses" opposing both absolutism and privilege. By any standard, the fall of the Bastille to the Parisian crowd in 1789 was a monumental event, a seemingly miraculous triumph of the people. But the French Revolution soon degenerated into a reign of terror and chaos. After a decade of violence and uncertainty, Napoleon terminated the bloodshed by overthrowing the French government in 1800, at the price of suppressing freedom altogether. In utter contrast to the Revolution, militarism became the defining quality of the Napoleonic regime. The French armies under Napoleon won victory after victory against all of the other great European powers, but decades of war led to the exhaustion of the nation and eventual defeat in 1815.
However, the revolutionary fervor of the French citizenry was undiminished by the Napoleonic experience, and led to further revolutions in 1830 and 1848. The latter revolution lead to the short-lived Second Republic (1848-1852), which was overthrown by Napoleon's nephew "Napoleon III" who instituted the Second Empire (1852-1870). Following defeat in the Franco-Prussia War, the Third Republic (1870-1940) was formed, which survived the First World War but collapsed in the face of the German invasion in 1940. After the war, the period of the short-lived Fourth Republic (1947-59) was succeeded by the Fifth Republic (the current one), adopted in September 1958 by popular referendum. Although shorn of its past colonial holdings and aura of military invulnerability, France today remains a major economic power and influential member of the European Union.