What is a Phrygian Cap?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Phrygian cap is a hat named named for Phrygia, an ancient kingdom in Anatolia, now known as Turkey. This distinctive hat played a role in both Ancient Greek and Roman societies, and many European cultures adopted it at some point. During the French Revolution, the cap acquired special symbolism, becoming an emblem of liberty and freedom. It appears in many works of art, where it is used as a symbolic device.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

For the Greeks, the Phrygian cap indicated that someone was not from mainland Greece, as these hats were worn primarily in Anatolia. In Rome, it was given to manumitted slaves when they received their freedom. Someone in this hat, therefore, could be identified as a citizen of the Roman Empire, with all the rights and privileges that entailed. Some people have suggested that since many slaves came from Anatolia, the cap was a symbol that the slave had returned to his or her roots.

Classically, this hat is red, although other color variations can be found. It is conical and made from a soft material, which causes it to bend, typically in a forward direction, rather than standing straight up. A traditional Phrygian cap also has no brim. This basic design makes the cap very easy to create, and this is likely part of why it has been so popular at various points in history.

The headwear became a symbol during the French revolution, appearing on the heads of revolutionaries and in revolutionary art. It reached a pinnacle on the head of Marianne of France, an icon of the French state and values who is typically depicted with this hat. It also appears in seals and works of art from many nations, and even on the flags of a few countries.

A Phrygian cap can be seen on the seal of the United States Senate, on some Liberty Dollars, on the coat of arms of Argentina, and on many Mexican coins, among other places. While these caps are not often worn anymore, many people are familiar with their symbolism, especially artists and sculptors, who may integrate one into a piece to send a very specific message.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


In addition to these statements, the Phrygian Cap was used in many of the ancient "mystery" religions - notably that of Mithraism. Too, there are Egyptian and Hebrew interpretations that involve the symbolic use of the cap (Paul, in Eph 6, for example, references the cap).

The cap held a large symbol, or idea, that the wearer - usually one who was highly initiated in the mystery - had power over chaos (or chaotic element) - thus, in a way, they had become a god (apotheosis being a very ancient concept).

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