The enslaved man crouching in Ball’s Freedom Memorial is wearing a drooping hat known as a Phrygian cap, a garment with a complicated history in the symbolism of freedom and slavery in both the ancient and modern world.

What is a Phrygian Cap?

Slavery was omnipresent and brutal in the ancient world.  People were enslaved after war, when captured by pirates, or even could be sold by their families. There was no racial justification used to explain slavery, and people were enslaved from all around the Mediterranean and beyond.  In Rome, as the empire expanded, a vast influx of enslaved people came to the capital city from conquered territories.  Anatolia and the Black Sea area supplied a particularly large amount of slave labor, owing to a thriving slave trade that lasted for many centuries.  Many of the peoples from this region, including the Phrygians, were associated with a particular kind of headgear, a conical hat with a curved top that was called a Phrygian cap (you can see some on the heads of captured Dacians in the Lafreri engraving in this exhibit).  Slavery in Rome offered more opportunities for manumission than in Greece, and the ritual process involved shaving the person’s head and placing a pileus, another conical hat, on their head.  The pileus was then strongly associated in ancient Rome with the goddess Libertas, the personification of liberty. In the eighteenth-century, French and American revolutionaries conflated these two types of hats, and the Phrygian cap became a symbol of freedom. 

You can read more about Ball’s statue here.

This reverse of a sestertius coin minted for the emperor Nerva in 97 CE shows the goddess Libertas (freedom) holding a pileus in her hand. From the Wulfing Coin collection at Washington University, photographed by Elena Baldi.

Additional Bibliography:

duBois, Page. 2004. Slavery: Antiquity and its Legacy. Oxford University Press.

Joshel, Sandra, 2010. Slavery in the Roman World. Cambridge University Press.

Wrigley, Richard, 1997. “Transformations of a Revolutionary Emblem: The Liberty Cap in the French Revolution,” French History 11:2.