Roman God Janus: Origins, Symbol, Powers, and Abilities

Roman God Janus

In the Roman pantheon, Janus was the god of beginnings, gates, doors and transitions. Image: Head of Janus, Vatican museum, Rome

World History Edu explores the myths surrounding Janus’ birth story, meaning, worship, powers, significance, and symbols.

Summary

In ancient Roman religion, the deity Janus was one of the most well-known and revered deities among the people. A deity primarily in charge of doors and gateways, Janus was believed to usher people into a new phase or period of their lives. It was also believed that Janus had complete dominion over the concept of time.

He certainly did not have the lofty appeal as the likes of Jupiter, Vesta or Mars; however, Janus packed a real punch when it came to deciding change and transformation. The ancient Romans believed that he was the intermediary between one’s dreams and reality – between abstract entities and actualized goals. Ancient Romans believed that Janus had the key to doors or gateways; thus he stood guard at the door and transported people from what was to what is to become.

Being the deity in charge of transitions, Janus also stood between life and death, childhood and adulthood, war and peace, beginning and ending, and so on.

In terms of depiction, this Roman deity was portrayed with two faces – a symbol that reinforces his duality. His importance lied in the belief that he oversaw the beginning and ending of a period. Such was his significance that the gates to important buildings in ancient Rome were named after him. Being the god of beginnings, Janus’s name was given to the first month of the year, January.

Janus – a uniquely Roman god

Unlike many Roman deities that were derived from the Greek pantheon, Janus was unique in the sense that he was created by the Romans. It means that he had no Greek equivalent.

Meaning of his name

In Latin, his name – Iānus – can be interpreted as ‘doorway’ or ‘arched passage’. And unbeknownst to many people, the word “janitor” was derived from the Latin word ‘ianitor’, which in turn came from the word ‘ianua’, which means ‘door’.

According to the famous Roman authors like Cicero and Macrobius (Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius), Janus’ name is associated with the Latin word ire, which means “to go”.

A deity as old as time itself

Ancient Romans also believed that Janus was the god of time. In some accounts, he is described as deity who is as old as time itself. What this means is that Janus was present at the beginning of creation, making him the “master of time”. Some ancient texts state that Janus had to be present in order for the gate of Heaven to be attended to.

In order words, Janus’ role as the gatekeeper of doorways and gates applies to gates in heaven and on earth.

Residence

In some accounts, Janus was portrayed as the first king of Latium – a place in present-day Italy. As a matter of fact, the Romans believed that Janus’ royal residence was situated atop the Janiculum hill, near the river Tiber.

In one version of the myth, his home straddled the boundary between Earth and Heaven.

The god of peace and war

In ancient Rome, it was believed that the deity who oversaw the period between war and peace was Janus. In other words, without Janus, there could be no transition from one period to another.

Janus Geminus

Janus’ temple, Janus Geminus, was established by Numa Pompilius, Rome’s legendary second king. Due to his even-handed leadership style, Numa was greatly admired by his people. Sited in the Roman Forum, near the Senate House, Janus Geminus is said to have been closed its doors throughout the reign of Numa. This was because there was no war during Numa’s 43-year reign of peace and prosperity.

Role in the Roman Pantheon

In addition to being the overseer of doorways, frames and passages, Roman god Janus was in charge of the following key functions in the Roman pantheon:

Being the deity of transition and beginnings, Janus played a vital function in the Roman pantheon. For starters, the Romans called upon him at the start of every religious ritual.

Furthermore, Janus was believed to be the overseer of all forms of celestial or earthly transitions and beginnings. Those transitions could also apply to abstract ideas.

So, regardless of how minute or big the transition was, Janus was always present to preside over it.

The ancient Romans revered Janus as the force that initiated movements and motion. Thus no action in the cosmos could begin without his intervention.

In some versions of the story, Janus was associated with the sun and the moon as well as the phases and movements of other celestial bodies in the cosmos.

The god of every form of transition and change

The transition from childhood to adulthood was believed to be carried out by Janus. Thus Janus was concerned with every manner of change or transition taking place in the cosmos, symbolically and metaphorically.

The ancient Romans also called upon Janus in times of marriage ceremonies, child outdooring, and deaths.

A dual-faced god with the ability to see in both directions

Janus’ two faces allowed him to transcend the boundaries of space and time. He was portrayed as a deity who could see in both directions of time – the future and the past. This explains why he was described as the “master of time”.

Another implication of this ability meant that he could supervise the planting seasons and harvests. He was also present when things decayed.

Bringer of civilization

Ancient Romans credited Janus for ushering them from an era of barbarism and backwardness into a civilized society. This explains why some versions of the myth hold him in high esteem, almost in the same reverence as the Roman god Jupiter.

Association with coin mintage

Janus was revered as the deity who helped people into a new period or phase in their lives. Hence, a dual-faced figure was the commonest symbol associated with Janus. | Image: A bronze as from Canusium depicting a laureate Janus with the prow of a ship on the reverse

In ancient Rome, Janus’ sphere of influence extended to finance and the economy. For example, ever wonder why assēs – coins used during the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire – had the two-faced image of Janus? This was because Janus was praised as the first Roman deity to mint coins.

How was Janus worshiped?

It was believed by the Romans that Janus was worshiped as far back as in the era of Romulus, Rome’s legendary founder and first king. This means that he was indeed one of the oldest deities in the Roman pantheon.

The word jani in ancient Rome referred to ceremonial doorways or gateways that served as auspicious entrances or exists in or out of very sacred places and important cities.

It has been stated that the legendary second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, built Janus Quininus (or Ianus geminus) – a doorway/passage that the Romans opened during times of war and closed it during times of peace. When the gates of the passage were opened, sacrifices and other religious rituals were performed in honor of Janus.

Patron god of January

It’s been stated Roman consul Gaius Duilius built a temple in the Fforum Holitorium just after the Battle of Mylae in the mid-3rd century BCE. There was a statue in temple that had on its right hand the number 300 and on the left hand the number 65. Also in the temple were twelve altars, which scholars believe represented the months of the year.

As far back as the era of the legendary king Numa, the month of January (known in Latin as Ianuarius) was known as the month of Janus. January being the first month of the year further reinforces Janus’ status as the deity of beginnings.

Depictions and symbols of Janus

Common depictions of Janus in art see him as a either a bearded man or a man without a beard, with the latter often found on coins. Then there is his peculiar image – the two-faced depiction. His two faces are almost always shown facing in opposite directions. The reason for this had to do with his ability to look both forward and backward at the same time. And as stated above, he possesses the ability to transcend space-time boundaries.

Typical with many Roman gods, Janus is depicted with a staff in his right hand. The Romans believed that he used the staff to guide travelers embarked on a journey to safety.

In his other hand, he often carries a set of keys, which symbolizes his dominion over entrances, doors and gates.

In some artworks, Janus is portrayed with four faces, a symbol that raises the notion of the four-way arch revered in ancient Rome.

Epithets

As a very important deity in ancient Rome, Janus went by a number of epithets, including, Pater, Duonus Cerus, Iunonius, Patulcius, and Geminus.

More on Janus

  • Ancient Romans believed that Janus rained down hot boiling water to disorganize an attack by the Sabines against the Romans.
  • The terms terms Janus primus and Vesta extrema explains the invocation ritual that the Romans practiced. Janus was invoked first; while the goddess Vesta was invoked last.
  • The Agonium, a festival in honor of Janus, is believed to have been held on January 9 every year.
  • Ancient Romans associated Janus with a number of gods, including Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth; Quirinus (also known as Mars tranquillus – Peaceful Mars); and Portunus, the Roman god of keys, shipping, harbors, and gates.
  • The ancient Romans worshiped Janus as the deity that presided over all forms of beginnings – this could be abstract or concrete.

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