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Ancient Greek Hats: Headwear in Antiquity

Hermes wearing a petasos
Italian depiction of the god Mercury (Greek: Hermes) wearing a petasos, a wide brimmed ancient Greek hat. Credit: Sailko / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

When we think of ancient Greece, the stereotypical image is often that of a wise philosopher in flowing white robes or a hoplite in gleaming bronze armor, but the ancient Greeks also wore a variety of hats for both form and function.

Beyond serving a practical or stylistic purpose, ancient Greek hats also often acted as marks of profession, social status, or national belonging. Some designs even inspired helmet adaptations for military use.

The ancient Greeks devised some of these designs themselves, whereas others they adopted from the other civilizations of antiquity, with whom they traded and fought in equal measure. Although most ancient Greek hats have long since gone out of fashion, traces of their influence still exist today.

The petasos, the quintessential hat of ancient Greek farmers

Greek god Hermes wearing petasos hat with caduceus
Greek god Hermes wearing a petasos hat with caduceus. Attic red-figure cup, ca. 480 BC–470 BC. Credit: Public Domain

The petasos was the ideal hat for farmers, shepherds, and travelers on long journeys. It was typically made from wool, felt, leather, straw, or an animal skin, and its wide brim offered protection against the sun and rain.

A chin strap prevented the hat from being blow away in windy conditions or falling off if the wearer was riding a horse at speed. For this reason, the petasos was a popular choice for cavalry, particularly in Athens. Since mounted warriors were typically members of the aristocracy in Classical Greece, we are able to discern from depictions on pottery that the petasos was also worn by the rich when they were on horseback.

This particular style of hat probably originated in Thessaly but was popular across the ancient Greek world. As noted by Professor Larissa Bonfante, the petasos was also a popular choice among the Etruscans of Italy and the Thracians, who bordered the Greeks to the north.

The humble petasos even found favor among the Olympian gods. Hermes, the messenger god was often depicted on Greek pottery wearing the petasos.

The pileus hat

Man wearing a pileus/pilos hat depicted in the red-figure style. Third quarter of the 4th century BC. Credit: Louvre Museum / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.5

The pileus hat, sometimes also called the pilos, was a brimless conical hat worn by ancient Greek workmen, sailors, travellers, and soldiers, predominately in the Archaic and Classical periods, although Hellenistic era depictions also exist.

The pileus hat was typically made of felt and was also worn by the Romans, Illyrians, and Etruscans.

Around the 5th century BC, the pileus hat inspired the design of the pilos helmet. The helmet was essentially the same as the hat, with the main exception being that it was cast in bronze to offer the wearer protection.

Although the pilos helmet lacked the aesthetic refinement of many other ancient Greek helmet designs, it was cheap to produce and offered unobstructed vision of the battlefield. For these reasons, it became a popular choice for soldiers in the ancient Greek world.

The Phrygian cap

Bust of Attis as a child wearing the Phrygian cap, Parian marble, 2nd century AD, probably during the reign of Hadrian: the portrait bears ressemblance to those of Antinous
Bust of Attis as a child wearing the Phrygian cap, Parian marble, 2nd century AD, probably during the reign of Hadrian: the portrait bears resemblance to those of Antinous. Credit: wikimedia commons / Carole Raddato CC BY 2.0

To the ancient Greeks, the Phrygian cap often typified foreigners or “barbarians” in their artwork, particularly in black and red figure pottery depictions.

The earliest known depiction of a Phrygian cap was found in the ancient city of Persepolis in Iran, although it was popular with a wide variety of peoples, including the Persians, Dacians, Thracians, Medes, Scythians, and of course the Phrygians themselves.

The Phrygian style hat was a soft conical cap with the apex bent over. The Greeks depicted a mixture of real and mythological figures wearing it on pieces of pottery. The Amazons of Greek myth were typically depicted wearing the Phrygian cap, but so too were the Scythians, an enigmatic culture of nomadic horse riders on the fringes of the ancient Greek world.

A type of ancient Greek helmet, named by modern historians, is also referred to as “Phrygian”. This is because the helmet features a similar forward inclined apex. It is unknown whether it was directly inspired by the hat, but this particular ancient Greek helmet became very popular in ancient Greek armies, particularly among the soldiers of Alexander the Great.

The kausia, the ancient Greek hat still worn today?

Kausai (left) pakol (right)
Am ancient Macedonian kausia hat as depicted on a terracotta figurine, c. 300 BC (left) and a modern pakol hat (right). Credit: British Museum / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Mostafameraji / CC0 Wikimedia Commons

The kausia was a flat hat worn by the ancient Macedonians. Macedonian kings may have worn a fancier purple kausia with a white diadem wrapped around it.

The kausia was worn by the soldiers of Alexander the Great during their long campaign eastwards into Asia. After Alexander’s death, the hat remained a popular choice in Macedon as well as in the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, in what is today predominately Afghanistan, but also  Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, as well parts of Pakistan and Iran.

Some scholars of history, like Bonnie M. Kingsley, believe that the kausia is still worn today. Owing to the similarities between the kausia and a hat called the pakol worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan in present times, historians like Kingsley argue that the hat continued to be worn long after other traces of Alexander’s conquests in the region faded into antiquity.

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