Mercié was a student at the French Academy of Rome when the Prussians invaded France in 1870. Shortly after the war had begun, he executed a group depicting the figure of Fame supporting a victorious soldier. When news reached Mercié in Rome that the French had surrendered, he decided to alter his group, replacing the victorious soldier with a defeated casualty, thus transforming an allegory of Glory to the Victors into one of Glory to the Vanquished. The figure of the fallen soldier was thought to represent Henri Regnault, a fellow sculptor of Mercié who was killed on the last day of fighting.
The full-size plaster model of Gloria Victis was exhibited at the Salon of 1874, winning the Medaille d'Honneur and critical acclaim. It was then purchased by the City of Paris for the sum of twelve thousand francs and then cast in bronze by Victor Thiébaut for eight thousand francs. The original bronze is now placed in a central courtyard at the Hôtel de Ville. The plaster version was re-exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878, alongside bronze reductions of the group by Barbedienne. Mercié's modern sculpture had become an instant classic, even receiving an entry in the Nouveau Larousse Illustré. The success of the group undoubtedly lay in the fact that it was admired not just on an aesthetic level, but also on a patriotic level, particularly in its commemoration of heroism in defeat. Critics also marvelled at the compositional daring of the group, balancing as it did two figures on the minimal support of one foot.