The Phrygian cap is a soft, usually red, brimless conical-shaped bonnet widely recognised as a symbol of freedom. It owes its name to Phrygia, an ancient region of central Anatolia, part of modern Turkey. Ancient Greek sources portrayed the inhabitants of this area as sporting the unusual headgear. But its precise origins are murky – with some evidence of its usage by the Scythians and other ancient Iranian peoples.


What did the Phrygian cap symbolise?

Phrygia was linked to slavery in the Classical world and the cap denoted a Phrygian who had gained their freedom.

Some scholars compare the Phrygian cap to the Roman pileus, which was ceremoniously placed upon the head of a freed slave. However, in ancient Greece the Phrygian cap usually identified its wearer as a foreigner, whereas the pileus explicitly denoted a freed slave during Roman times.

When did the Phrygian cap become a modern symbol of liberty?

During the Age of Enlightenment and the Atlantic revolutions of the late 18th century (the largest being the American War of Independence), the cap’s association with liberation from tyranny saw it become one of the period's most ubiquitous emblems.

A Phrygian cap is sometimes depicted above fasces – a bundle of rods with an axe blade that served as a Roman symbol for authority and, notoriously, was the namesake and emblem of fascism in the 20th century.

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The Phrygian cap and the United States of America

Although the Phrygian cap was incorporated into the seal of the US Senate, its popularity as a national symbol became contentious in a country where the enslavement of people was rife.

In 1854, a sculptor’s design for a statue of Liberty wearing the cap atop the rotunda of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC, was scotched by the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. According to the future president of the Confederacy: “American liberty is original, and not the liberty of the freed slave.” The finished statue sports a helmet instead.

The Phrygian cap as a symbol of Revolutionary France

In France, the cap first came to prominence during the Revolt of the Papier Timbré 1675 in Brittany. This was a tax protest against the ancien régime – the political and social system of France before the French Revolution – that also became known as the revolt of the ‘bonnets rouge’ (named for the caps the protestors wore).

However, it was during the French Revolution that the Phrygian cap reached iconic status, and it would appear in republican heraldry above fasces.

Marianne – the national personification of the French republic – is also depicted wearing a Phrygian cap. As the embodiment of emancipation, her most famous portrayal is in Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting, ‘Liberty Leading the People’, where she guides a throng of revolutionaries through the streets of Paris.

Crowds gather around Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting, ‘Liberty Leading the People’. (Photo by Sergio Gaudenti/Sygma via Getty Images)
Crowds gather around Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting, ‘Liberty Leading the People’. (Photo by Sergio Gaudenti/Sygma via Getty Images)

From prints showing King Louis XVI wearing the bonnet rouge to its adorning the heads of the radical working-class sans-culottes of Paris, the Phrygian cap became seared into the visual memory of the French Revolution.

The Phrygian cap as a symbol of anti-colonialism

As an ancient marker of freedom from slavery, the Phrygian cap also became a powerful touchstone for anti-colonial uprisings.


The most notable example was the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), during which enslaved people established the world’s first republic governed by people of African descent. To this day, Haiti’s coat of arms shows a Phrygian cap atop a palm tree.


Danny BirdStaff Writer, BBC History Magazine

Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine. Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine and previously held the same role on BBC History Revealed. He joined the brand in 2022. Fascinated with the past since childhood, Danny completed his History BA at the University of Sheffield, developing a special interest in the Spanish Civil War and the Paris Commune. He subsequently gained his History MA from University College London, studying at its School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)