A peculiar headwear, shaped like a conical hood with a curved tip, mistakenly became a symbol of freedom and republicanism between the 18th and 19th centuries, following its spread during the French Revolution. As a result, many American states also incorporated it into their emblems upon emancipating from Spanish rule. This is the Phrygian cap. Want to know why it’s called that and what the historical error consisted of?

The recent popular protests in France left, among other curious images, that of a protester dressed as Marianne, the allegorical personification of the Republic embodying the famous principles of Liberty, equality, fraternity.

As the origin of the character seems to be artistic (often attributed to the painter Honoré Daumier or the sculptor François Rude, although the name is a reference to the Spanish Jesuit Juan de Mariana), it is logical that its iconography is quite defined: Greco-Roman attire, flag in hand, and head adorned with a Phrygian cap. Delacroix immortalized its apotheosis in Liberty Leading the People, a scene from the 1830 Revolution.

The reason for the cap’s name is obvious: it comes from Phrygia, a region in Asia Minor that extended across most of the Anatolian Peninsula (modern-day Turkey).

A rich area where important cities and kingdoms flourished in Antiquity, hence its constant dispute among Lydians, Persians, and Romans initially; later between Seljuks and Crusaders; and eventually among Byzantines, Ottomans, and Mongols. The use of this garment is commonly attributed to the Phrygians, as depicted in Hellenistic art.

There are several examples, starting with Attis, the charioteer of Cybele. Cybele was a Phrygian goddess, Mother Earth, whose servant was in love with her and self-castrated during his forced wedding to a princess.

Bust of Attis with Phrygian cap
Bust of Attis with Phrygian cap/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Attis is always depicted with this accessory, and, in some versions of the myth, his thwarted wife was the daughter of King Midas, the King of Phrygia, who also appears wearing the same cap in paintings, sculptures, and reliefs. Another example would be the Trojans and, by extension, the inhabitants of other barbarian peoples such as the Thracians or the Scythians.

It was also a distinctive element of Mithras, the solar god of second millennium BC Persia, whose cult later spread among Roman legionaries, with additional features, as he protected against attacks and rewarded loyalty. Mithras left two significant cultural legacies.

One is his birth date on the winter solstice, supposedly imitated for Christ’s birth, becoming the origin of Christmas on December 25. The Mithraic cult persisted until the 4th century AD, rivaling Christianity in popularity (by the way, the Three Wise Men did not have their royal character until the 3rd century; before that, they were just magi, wise men, or Zoroastrian astrologers depicted with Phrygian caps instead of crowns).

Mithras’s other legacy is the headgear he used, which French revolutionaries adopted, confusing it with the pilleus. This confusion makes sense due to their resemblance, but, while there is some difference in shape, the most significant difference lies in their background and the meaning they held: in Rome, the pilleus was worn by freed slaves as an identifying symbol. In other words, it was worn by liberti, those who had legally gained freedom, hence the inspiration it would later provide.

However, the pilleus originated from Greece, specifically from the pilos: a kind of conical felt or leather hat (that’s what it means in ancient Greek) or essentially a petasos (a typical hat for young people) without wings. If petasos was commonly used to represent Hermes in paintings, sculptures, and reliefs, the pilos was used to identify Castor and Pollux, the brothers of Helen of Troy, sons of Zeus and the Spartan princess Leda in mythology.

Why? Because the father of the gods transformed into a swan to seduce her, and she, after the subsequent pregnancy, gave birth to them in eggs, whose rounded shape resembled the pilos.

Regular users of the pilos were peltasts, light infantry soldiers who, unlike hoplites, did not wear armor or helmets. Hoplites sometimes placed the hat under the helmet as padding, although it seems that this caused it to move and become uncomfortable. Hence, from the 5th century BC, a bronze helmet with a pilos shape became popular among Spartan hoplites, who had already abandoned armor, lasting until the Hellenistic period. Thucydides noted that piloi barely protected Spartans against Athenian arrows at the Battle of Sphacteria.

In fact, if the pilos gave rise to the pileus helmet, the other hat gave rise to the Phrygian helmet, which, despite its name, was found in many places, from Thrace to Magna Graecia, passing through Dacia (as seen on Trajan’s Column) or Parthia (visible on the Arch of Septimius Severus). It was a little later, in the mid-4th century BC, when new combat methods introduced by Theban Epaminondas, followed by Macedonians Philip and Alexander, forced a return to armor and the development of helmets with more protection. Thus, the Phrygian helmet, which became widespread in phalanxes, was very similar to the Thracian (itself similar to the pilos), except that it was topped with a lobe, just like the cap.

But, as we mentioned, it was the Roman version of that garment, the pileus, that truly transcended as a symbol. When a slave owner wanted to grant freedom, there were two possible forms of manumission: solemn or non-solemn. The first, known as pretoria, was subdivided into Inter amicos (with five friends as witnesses), Per epistolam (through a letter written by the owner), and Per mensam (the slave was invited to dine at his owner’s table).

In the second form, the slave became a Latini iuniani (Latin citizen, not Roman), which could also be achieved in various ways: Per censum (enrolling the slave in the census), Per vindicta (before a magistrate), In sacrosancta ecclesia (in the church, in the Late Empire), and Per testamentum (by testament).

Part of the ceremony included the praetor touching the slave with a rod called vindicta and declaring him free. Then, the freedman shaved his head and covered it with a pileus as a symbol of his new social status. Often, everything was limited to this last part of the process, leading to the ritual being considered manumissio minus iusta, that is, a less bureaucratic or formal form of manumission than the previous ones.

Livy even mentions an expression, servos ad pileum vocare, which literally means “calling slaves to the use of the pileus”; that is, to freedom, as it was promised to them when Rome was in danger, and their collaboration in defense was needed. Another example of its metaphorical nature is the pileus that the assassins of Julius Caesar exhibited on a pole because they had freed the Romans from his tyranny. Hence, its metaphorical revival in the 18th century is understandable.

There were precedents: during the so-called Révolte du papier timbré (Revolt of the stamped paper), a popular uprising in French Brittany in 1675 against the high taxes decreed by Louis XIV (which affected, among other things, stamped paper, hence its name), the insurgents adopted a blue or red bonnet as an identity element. However, it was in 1790 when the Phrygian cap made its appearance, assimilated to the revolutionaries.

It was first documented in May, adorning an improvised statue during the festivities in Troyes and Lyon. These constituted the first figures of Marianne, although she was still referred to as Libertas at that time. The Phrygian cap became a distinctive symbol of the uprising lower classes, much like the wide pants that earned them the nickname sans-culottes (culottes were pants worn with silk stockings, typical of the nobility). The association was so strong that the Marquis de Villette described it as the civic crown of the free man and the French regeneration.

To avoid degrading its allegorical character, the Duke of Valmy (François Christophe Kellermann, father of François Étienne, the famous marshal of Napoleon) proposed that the Phrygian cap have an honorary consideration that only those who earned special merits could wear. He did not succeed, and instead, it was declared a symbolic hairstyle, mandatory for officials as a replacement for the wigs of the aristocrats; only convicts were prohibited from wearing it. The demand gave rise to another typical image of the time: women knitting the Phrygian caps while the guillotine worked relentlessly.

The Phrygian cap was prohibited with the arrival of the Restoration, although it sporadically resurfaced with each revolutionary outbreak. Louis Philippe of Orleans had the insight to assume that symbol and others, making it a national heritage, although later insurgent groups also claimed it, such as anarchists or extreme right-wing counter-revolutionaries in the early 19th century. As mentioned at the beginning, even today, some of these garments are still seen in demonstrations.

In reality, France was not the only place where it was used as an allegory of freedom, and, in fact, it had already become part of republican movements even earlier when American colonists wore one for Columbia (the personification of America, in the manner of Marianne). The newborn United States served as an example for Latin American countries that broke away from Spain and other European powers, which is why many of their emblems and flags bear a Phrygian cap; the purest example would be Haiti, after all, a nation born out of slavery.

Some also identify the Catalan beret with the Phrygian cap, although the origin is not clear, and it is true that it was a type of headwear widely spread throughout the Mediterranean, especially among sailors; hence, it is found in numerous places, from the Levant to the Balkans, passing through Ibiza, Naples, Corsica, Sardinia, Upper Provence, Sicily…

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 24, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en El gorro frigio, un símbolo de libertad basado en una confusión histórica


J. David Harden, Liberty caps and liberty trees. Past and present | David Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World | Peter Hunt, Ancient Greek and Roman Slavery | E. McClung Fleming, Symbols of the United States: From Indian Queen to Uncle Sam | Nicholas Sekunda, Adam Hook, Hoplitas, guerreros de leyenda. 480-323 a.C. | Wikipedia

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