Capping Liberty

The Invention of Numismatic Iconography for the New American Republic

Liberty’s Cap: The Origins of a Numismatic Symbol

The image of Liberty with her attributes of a cap (pileus) and staff (vindicta) go back to classical Greek and Roman conventions. The pileus originated in Greek iconography as the hat of the Dioscuri, the twin horsemen Castor and Pollux, sons of Zeus and the swan Leda. Their distinctive hats were the remnant of the eggs from which they were hatched. In the Roman Republic, during the ceremony of enfranchisement, a slave was touched with a special staff known as a vindicta and given a pileus to wear as a public sign of his freedom. The vindicta and pileus, separately and together, came to be a symbol of liberty and were used on the coins minted under the magistracy of various members of the families who opposed the Gracchi, Pompey, and Julius Caesar, and then later by Roman emperors as a sign of their commitment to the freedom of their subjects.