The Phrygian cap is a soft cap with the top pulled forward often depicted as being red in color. It is historically associated with Eastern Europe and Anatolia, including Phrygia, Dacia, and the Balkans. In early modern times it came to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty. Perhaps one of the biggest connections modern culture has to the cap is the imagery of it on coinage. The Phrygian cap is seen on 20 centimes and seated liberty dollars to name a few.
By the 4th century BC the Phrygian cap was associated with Phrygian Attis, the consort of Cybele, the cult of which had by then become graecified. At around the same time, the cap appears in depictions of the legendary king Midas and other Phrygians in Greek vase-paintings and sculpture. Such images predate the earliest surviving literary references to the cap.
While the Phrygian cap was made of wool or soft leather, in pre-Hellenistic times the Greeks had already developed a military helmet that had a similar flipped-over tip. These so-called “Phrygian helmets” (named in modern times) were usually of bronze and in prominent use in Thrace, Dacia, Magna Graecia and the rest of the Hellenistic world from the 5th century BC up to Roman times. Also confusingly similar are the depictions of the helmets used by cavalry and light infantry, whose headgear also included stiff leather helmets in imitation of the bronze ones.
The cap only began to become a symbol of freedom when it got linked up with the pileus cap. In late republican Rome, the soft felt pileus cap was symbolically given to slaves when they were granted freedom, which granted them not only their personal liberty, but also freedom as citizens, with the right to vote (if male). Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Brutus and his co-conspirators utilized the symbolism of the pileus to signify the end of Caesar’s dictatorship and a return to the republican system.
These Roman associations of the pileus with liberty and republicanism were carried forward to the 18th-century, when the pileus was confused with the Phrygian cap, with the Phrygian cap then becoming a symbol of those values. Since then, around the world the Phrygian cap has popped up during many cases of war and battles for freedom.
In 1675, the anti-tax and anti-nobility Stamp-Paper revolt erupted in Brittany and north-western France, where it became known as the bonnets rouges uprising, named after the blue or red caps worn. Although they are not known to have preferred any particular style of cap, the name and color stuck as a symbol of revolt against the nobility and establishment. The use of a Phrygian-style cap as a symbol of revolutionary France is first documented in May 1790, at a festival in Troyes adorning a statue representing the nation, and at Lyon, on a lance carried by the goddess Libertas. To this day the national allegory of France, Marianne, is shown wearing a red Phrygian cap.
In the 18th century, the cap was often used in English political prints as an attribute of Liberty. In the years just prior to the American Revolutionary War of independence from Great Britain, Americans copied or imitated some of those prints in an attempt to visually defend their inherited liberties as Englishmen. Later, the symbol of republicanism and anti-monarchical sentiment appeared in the United States as headgear of Columbia, who in turn was visualized as a goddess-like female national personification of the United States and of Liberty herself. The cap reappears in association with Columbia in the early years of the republic, for example, on the obverse of the 1785 Immune Columbia pattern coin, which shows the goddess with a helmet seated on a globe holding in a right hand a furled U.S. flag topped by the liberty cap. The cap’s last appearance on circulating coinage was the Walking Liberty Half Dollar, which was minted through 1947 (and reused on the current bullion American Silver Eagle).
The U.S. Army has, since 1778, utilized a “War Office Seal” in which the motto “This We’ll
Defend” is displayed directly over a Phrygian cap on an upturned sword. It also appears on the state flags of West Virginia (as part of its official seal), New Jersey, and New York, as well as the official seal of the United States Senate, the state of Iowa, the state of North Carolina, and on the reverse side of the Seal of Virginia.
Many of the anti-colonial revolutions in Latin America were also heavily inspired by the imagery and slogans of the American and French Revolutions. As a result, the cap has appeared on the coats of arms of many Latin American nations. Such as, the coat of arms of Haiti, which includes a Phrygian cap to commemorate that country’s foundation by rebellious slaves.
The cap had also been displayed on certain Mexican coins (most notably the old 8-reales coin) through the late 19th century into the mid-20th century. Today, it is featured on the coats of arms or national flags of Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Paraguay.
No matter the true intentions of the Phrygian cap, it has been used around the world to represent revolution and freedom. Through art, protest, and war, the cap is forever a symbol of change and rebellion against tyranny.