The Phrygian cap is a soft, red, conical cap with the top pulled forward, worn in antiquity by the inhabitants of Phrygia, a region of central Anatolia. In sculpture, paintings and caricatures it represents freedom and the pursuit of liberty.
The Phrygian cap was also worn by King Midas to hide his donkey ears given to him as a curse by Apollo. Some variations of the myth note that Midas' subjects mistakenly took this to be a fashion statement and started wearing the tall peaked caps.
In vase-paintings and other Greek art, the Phrygian cap serves to identify the Trojan hero Paris as non-Greek; Roman poets habitually use the epithet "Phrygian" to mean Trojan. The Phrygian cap can also be seen on the Trajan's Column carvings, worn by the Dacians, and on the Arch of Septimius Severus worn by the Parthians.
The Macedonian, Thracian, Dacian and 12th century Norman military helmets had a forward peaked top resembling the Phrygian cap. The same soft cap is seen worn by an attendant in the murals of a late 4th century Thracian tomb at Kazanlak, Bulgaria (illustrated).
In late Republican Rome, the cap of freedmen served as a symbol of freedom from tyranny. A coin issued by Brutus in Asia Minor 44-42 BC, showed one posed between two daggers (illustrated). During the Roman Empire, the Phrygian cap (Latin: pileus) was worn on festive occasions such as the Saturnalia, and by former slaves who had been emancipated by their master and whose descendants were therefore considered citizens of the Empire. This usage is often considered the root of its meaning as a symbol of liberty.
The cap was especially adopted during the French Revolution, along with other symbols adopted from classical Antiquity: to this day the national emblem of France, Marianne, is shown wearing a Phrygian cap. The bonnet rouge, which eventually appeared on almost every conceivable manufactured article, made its appearance early in the Revolution. It was first seen publicly in May 1790, at a festival in Troyes adorning a statue representing the nation, and at Lyon, on a lance carried by the goddess Liberty. In 1792, when Louis XVI was induced to sign a constitution, popular prints of the king were doctored to show him wearing the bonnet rouge. The bust of Voltaire was crowned with the red bonnet of liberty after a performance of his Brutus at the Comédie-Française in March 1792. The spire of the cathedral in Strasbourg was crowned with a bonnet rouge in order to prevent it from being torn down in 1794. By wearing the red Phrygian cap the Paris sans-culottes made their Revolutionary ardour and plebeian solidarity immediately recognizable. During the period of the Great Terror, the cap was adopted defensively even by those who might be denounced as moderates or aristocrats and were especially keen to advertise their adherence to the new regime.
The cap was also incorporated into the symbol of the late 18th century Irish revolutionary organisation the Society of the United Irishmen. The English Radicals of 1819 and 1820 often wore a white "cap of liberty" on public occasions.
The Phrygian cap is used to symbolize liberty in numerous artifacts in the Americas. For example, an effigy of "Liberty" was shown holding the Liberty Pole and Phrygian cap on some early United States of America coinage. 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, New Jersey, and New York, as well as the official seal of the United States Senate (left), the arms of the North Carolina Senate, and on the reverse side of the Seal of Virginia.
Many of the anti-colonial revolutions in Mexico and South America were 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.
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 Nicaragua, El Salvador, Argentina, Colombia, Haiti, Cuba, Bolivia and Paraguay.
In 1854, when sculptor Thomas Crawford was preparing models for sculpture for the United States Capitol, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (later to be the President of the Confederate States of America) insisted that a Phrygian cap not be included on a statue of Justice on the grounds that, "American liberty is original and not the liberty of the freed slave" (Gale, p. 124). The cap was not included in the final marble version that is now in the building.
The seal of Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, also contains a Liberty Cap. The college, endowed by Founding Father John Dickinson at the behest of Benjamin Rush, was the first to be chartered in the new Republic.
Washington Irving also propounded the surprise of his famous protagonist, Rip Van Winkle, by noting among the unexpected details of the re-awakened Rip's newly post-revolutionary village a "tall naked pole, with something on it that looked like a red night cap..."
A Phrygian cap is worn by "Bonhomme Carnaval", the official symbol and ambassador of the Quebec Winter Carnival.