Before MAGA: Mithras, Phrygian Caps, and the Politics of Headwear

A second century CE fresco of a Tauroctony (sacrificial killing of a bull) by the god Mithras from a Mithraeum in Capua, Italy (image via

In the ancient world, headgear was a primary way of identifying with a glance, the status, trade, gender, ethnic background, and religion of an individual. One could often spot a craftsman in their conical felt hat (in Greek, a πῖλος, in Latin a pileus or pilleus) or recognize a farmer from their wide-brimmed caps used to keep the sun off while bringing in the harvest.

While elite Roman men were often seen without hats, women and those of certain social statuses frequently had their heads covered while in public. In the fourth century BCE, a round straw hat with a raised center called a tholia came into vogue among Greek women. Moreover, a Roman woman in mourning used a head scarf called a ricinium that was likely dark in color. During mourning, this scarf replaced the traditional female head covering called a palla and told people who encountered her that she was a widow.

A Hellenistic woman wearing a tholia hat, polychromy ceramic (330-100 BCE), (image via Walters Art Museum)

Hats were also a way of identifying foreigners in both life and art. The pileus was a hat popular within the area of Phrygia, an Anatolian kingdom which is now part of modern-day Turkey. It was made of either wool or felt and the top slumped forward. This Phrygian cap, as we call it today, was a way of identifying easterners like Amazons, Dacians (of modern Romania and Serbia), or Phrygians. Ancient artists often depicted mythological figures said to be from the eastern Mediterranean in this headware, men like the Trojan Aeneas, Ganymede, or Perseus.

Kylix with the head of an Amazon wearing a dotted Phrygian Cap and laurel wreath (fourth century BCE), ceramic (image via Walters Art Museum, CC0)

The cap was also part of the iconographic clothing worn by the god Mithras, an eastern deity born from a rock who would later become popular in the Roman Mediterranean during the second and third centuries CE. Mithras was an Indo-Iranian god at the center of a mystery cult — meaning that initiates kept many of the rites and beliefs secret. He was fashioned as a sun-god and bull killer within his Roman context.

And temples, constructed to honor him, called mithraea, were a reflection of the cosmos itself. Often Mithras was depicted in the center, slaying a bull. Frescoes and reliefs of Mithras preserve the stunning color that decorated these underground mithraea. Their existence under the earth often helped to preserve the color so they may be viewed today. By some counts, 400 archaeological sites show evidence for the worshipping of the god and his cosmos.

A fresco of a Tauroctony (sacrificial killing of a bull) by the god Mithras from a Mithraeum in Capua, Italy (second century CE) (image by Carole Raddato via Flickr)

At first, the Mithraic cults were popular among slaves, freedmen (i.e. slaves that had been manumitted), and Roman soldiers. Women were excluded from participation. Over time, the cult caught on and began to be acknowledged by the upper ranks of the social orders — all the way to equestrians, senators, and the emperor himself. Its early popularity with the hoi polloi has many parallels with the beginnings of Christianity, particularly that the birthday of Mithras was dated to December 25.

Early Christians don’t appear to have had as much affinity for the Phrygian cap as the followers of Mithras did—at least at first. However, Christian art did continue to use the Phrygian cap as a way of indicating the eastern identity of…

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