In Roman mythology, Janus was the god of doorways and of transitions in time. He was depicted as a double-faced head with the two faces looking in opposite directions. As the god of transitions, Janus was deeply associated with the notion of time.
Janus was one of the most ancient gods worshipped by the Romans. Unlike many other Roman gods, Janus has no Greek counterpart. The Romans invoked Janus at the beginning of each month, as well as at the new year. They prayed to Janus during important events such as birth, marriage, and harvest time. To the Romans, Janus signified transitions such as from primitive society to civilization, childhood to adulthood, and especially from war to peace and vice versa. The Romans built numerous temples in honor of Janus, and the name January for the 1st month of the year is a modern vestige of the deity.
As the god of beginnings, the Romans believed that Janus predated even Jupiter, the primary Roman god. According to tradition, Janus was the first king of Latium. His rule witnessed a golden age in which laws, coinage, and agriculture were introduced. The Romans believed that Janus had protected Rome from the legendary attack by the Sabines. In memory of this protection, the Romans left the gates of Janus’s temples open when Rome was at war and closed them during times of peace. In addition to temples, Rome also had many gateways called jani (the plural form of janus) which often bore the symbol of Janus. The most important janus was the Janus Geminus located in Rome. It had a gateway at each end through which the Roman legions would parade before departing for war. The coins of the Roman Republic also carried the double-faced image of Janus. The Roman Empire later often depicted Janus with four faces looking in opposite directions, known as Janus quadifrons. Two of these faces were often bearded and the others shaven.
Janus was known as the inventor of religion, festivals, temples, and coins. The Romans held him in very high esteem as the custodian of the universe. In this role, he transcended many other gods in importance. Janus was present in all aspects of time: beginnings and endings, sunrise and sunset, the progression of life, and during rites of passage. He was invoked on a wide variety of important occasions in Roman cultural life.
In the Roman religion, Janus was believed to have come from Thessaly in Greece. He was invited to rule Latium with Camese. The two became the parents of the god Tiberinus, who was the Roman river god. The Tiber River in Rome is his namesake. Janus was also the father of Fontus, the Roman god of springs. Worship of the god Janus in effect ceased with the decline of the Roman religion. Janus is often cited in popular culture in connection with personalities or ideas that have two opposing sides.
James P. Bonanno
See also Calendar, Roman; Rome, Ancient
Beard, M., North, J., & Price, S. (1998). Religions of
Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Dumezil, G. (1966). Archaic Roman religion. (P. Krapp,
Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Turcan, R. (2001). The gods of ancient Rome: Religion in everyday life from archaic to imperial times. New York: Routledge.