Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and ends, of choices, of passage and doors. He is bifron (“two-faced”) and represented (see illustration) with one face turned towards the past, the other towards the future. He is celebrated on January 1st. His month, Januarius (“January”), marks the beginning of the end of the year in the Roman calendar.
His temple is located on the forum of Rome. It is ritually opened in times of war and closed in times of peace. One of the hills of Rome, the Janiculum, is dedicated to him. He is a god of first rank in the Roman religious hierarchy, the only one with Jovis – Jupiter and Mars – Marspiter to be called “God the father”, Januspater.
Janus is written Ianus, in classical Latin, Ian, in archaic Latin, in the Song of the Salians.
The etymology of its name is formed on the root *iā coming itself from the Indo-European root *ei-(“to go”), abstract term corresponding to the notion of “to pass”. This etymology corresponds to the meaning given to it by the Ancients. Janus responds to the concept of “passage” and is generally honored as a god of introduction. He is linked to the passage of time (janitor, the gatekeeper).
This was the interpretation that Ovid and Cicero already gave it:
The linguist Julius Pokorny also points out the probable assimilation of the Slavic first name Jan, Jana with the Judeo-Christian Iohannes (“John”). There is perhaps an ancient syncretism, the feast of St. John in winter and summer corresponding mutatis mutandis to that of Janus in winter and its parenid Carna in June. Pokorny links, with another suffix, this Latin Ianus to the German Jahr, the English year (“year”) and to the Greek ὥρα, hôra (“hour”). Janus would be as such, an abstract god of time, theological-mythological equivalent of the Greek Chronos.
Two other etymologies have been proposed by ancient scholars to explain the name of the god and his nature.
One, proposed by Paul Diacre in the 8th century, and which modern critics consider “purely fanciful”, is motivated by the meaning of openness and proposes, for radical, hio, hiare, hians (“to open, to gap”), from which Ianus, Janus would derive by the loss of the initial aspiration. He brings him closer to the god Chaos who precedes the creation of the world. Ovid, without establishing an etymological link, already brought Chaos closer to Janus: “In the past I was called Chaos, and this link with the Greek Chaos is considered forced and useless, the function of “opener” of the god Janus being sufficient to explain his place at the beginning of time.
The other, proposed by Nigidius Figulus, also refers to the notion of passage, of opening, and makes Janus a dual being, equivalent to both Diana and the Roman Apollo:
“There are some who say that Janus is the same at once as Apollo and Diana, and that these two deities are veiled under his name alone. Indeed, as Nigidius relates, the Greeks honor Apollo under the name of Θυραῖος (Thyrean), whose altars they set up before their gates, to show that he presides over entrances and exits. With us the name Janus indicates that he is also the god of gates, since his Latin name is the equivalent of the Greek word θυραῖος . Nigidius expressly said that Apollo is Janus and Diana, Jana.”
This etymology has the support of Arthur Bernard Cook who makes Janus a god of the sky and the day (dies in Latin). It is that of Jupiter, Jovis and, perhaps, a “duplicate” in their Roman pantheon of this god. Nevertheless, the form *Dianus postulated by Nigidius is nowhere attested.
He is Pater (“father”) in Januspater. This cult epithet, reserved as it is said above to the only Jupiter and Mars, marks his primordial role in the Roman pantheon. He is celebrated in the very ancient songs of the Salians, as the deus deorum (“god of gods”).
Two cult epithets of the god are Patulcius (“the one who opens”) and Clusius (“the one who closes”) “because the doors of his temple are open during war and closed during peace.”
He is Bifrons (“two-faced”) in Ovid and Geminus (“double, twin”) in Macrobius who also qualifies him as Quirinus (“Roman”).
He is Consivius (“sower”), which marks the link with his role of initiator, of creator. This very ancient god is the only one mentioned, with Ceres, goddess of growth, in the Song of the Salians.
He is still Junonius (“Junonian”). Macrobius explains:
“Just as the ides were dedicated to Jupiter, so we know, by the testimonies of Varron and the Pontifical Book, that the calendas were dedicated to Juno. This is why the Lorentines, faithful to the religious practices of their fathers, preserve the name of Kalendaris to Juno, which these gave to her in her cult. Moreover, they invoke this goddess on the day of the calendas of each month, from March to December. The Romans do the same: besides the sacrifice offered to Juno in the Curia Calabra by the minor pontiff, the queen of the sacrifices offers her in her royal residence a sow or a sheep. It is from this goddess that Janus, as we have said, takes his name from Junonius; because, while all the entries are dedicated to this god, the days of the calendas of each month seem to be attributed to Juno. Indeed, since the ancients observed to begin their months with the new moon, and believed that the moon was the same as Juno, they would have rightly dedicated the calendars to this goddess.”
Juno, who presides over childbirth and menstrual cycles, has a role related to that of Janus, who in turn is also related to her. They are particularly associated during the Tigillum Sororium, on October 1st.
Janus is still said to be catus “wise”, “astute as possible” quantumvis vafer.
Janus is represented with two opposite faces, one facing the past and the other facing the future. A statue of Janus marks with his hands the number three hundred and sixty-five, to express the measure of the year. It is perhaps, given that the Roman calendar has 355 or 377 days, the statue of Janus “consecrated in the temple of this god by Augustus and brought from Egypt,” a country where the calendar counts 365 days and which Pliny hesitates to attribute to Scopas or Praxiteles.
Janus is associated with the beginning of the year, the beginning of the month, the calendas and the dawn, the daybreak. Well attested by the ritual formulas, he enjoys the first place in the invocations and sacrifices.
Ovid reports what is perhaps the ritual prayer to the god on New Year”s Day:
“God with two faces, it is from you that the year starts to pass without noise; you who, without turning your head, see what no other god can see, show yourself favourable to the chiefs whose active solicitude gives rest to the Ocean and security to the earth, which lavishes its treasures on us; show yourself favourable to your senators, to the Roman people, and, with a sign, tighten the doors of your candid sanctuary.”
This last sentence is to be understood as a poetic metaphor: “…and bring us peace.”
On this day, a priest places on his altar a cake of wheat mixed with salt. January 1st is the day of the New Year”s gifts in the form of dates and dried figs, of honey that the Romans offer to each other, accompanied by wishes of good year between men and prayers addressed to the gods, more “effective” in this day than in any other: “An omen,” he says, “is attached to the beginning of all things; every first word is listened to with a fearful attention; it is the bird seen the first which makes law for the augur. The temples have just opened; the gods lend their ears; none of the prayers uttered by the mouths of mortals are lost, every syllable of them resounds in the heavens.”
Janus is invoked “not only at the beginning of January, but also on the first day of every month, the calendas, dedicated to Juno. Varro, in the fifth book Of Divine Things, says that there are twelve altars dedicated to Janus, for each of the twelve months.”
Horace prays to him as the masculine counterpart of Mater Matuta: “O father of the morning, Janus (perhaps this name is more to your liking), you whom every man, on waking, invokes before the daily task.” Georges Dumézil thinks that this habit makes him a solar deity. “When he rises, he opens the day, when he sets, he closes it.”
On January 9, during the Agonalia, the rex sacrorum sacrifices a ram on the altar of the god, a logical choice because the ram that walks at the head of the flock is the natural victim of the god who occupies the first place.
On March 30, that is to say at the end of the month dedicated to the god of the war, “it will be necessary to pay homage to Janus, and at the same time to the soft Concord, to the salvation of the empire, to the genius of the peace.”
Janus is invoked at the time of the declaration of war to an enemy people according to an old formula reported by Tite-Live, established at the time of Numa Pompilius where the fetial one declares: “Listen, Jupiter, and you, Janus Quirinus, and you all, gods of the sky, the earth and hell, listen: I take you as witness of the injustice of this people (and it names it) and of its refusal to restore what is not its own. Besides, the elders of my country will deliberate on the means of reconquering our rights. This consecrated formula informs us indirectly on the fact that Mars is not yet, at the time of the foundation of Rome, a warlike god, otherwise he would have been invoked at the time of any solemn declaration of the hostilities.
The oldest temple dedicated to the god Janus, in Rome, is located near the Roman Forum:
“He (Numa Pompilius) raised the temple of Janus. This temple, built at the bottom of the Argilete, became the symbol of peace and war. Opened, it was the signal that called the citizens to arms; closed, it announced that peace reigned between all the neighboring nations. Twice it has been closed since the reign of Numa, the first, under the consulship of Titus Manlius, at the end of the First Punic War, the second, under Caesar Augustus, when, by an effect of the goodness of the gods, we saw, after the battle of Actium, peace acquired to the world, both on land and on sea. “
During the wars, the doors of the temple of Janus are opened, sacrifices and oracles take place inside to foresee the outcome of the fighting. The doors remained closed in times of peace, an extremely rare event in the essentially warlike Roman society. Macrobius relates a legendary -and inaccurate- fact: the Viminal and the Janiculum are far from each other and from the Forum where the temple of Numa- to explain this custom:
“During the war against the Sabines, on the occasion of the kidnapping of their daughters, the Romans had hastened to close the door which was at the foot of the Viminale hill (to which the event which followed made give the name of Janiculum), because the enemies were rushing there. But as soon as it was closed, it opened by itself; this happened a second and a third time. The Romans, seeing that they could not close it, remained in weapons and in great number on the threshold of the door to guard it, while a very sharp combat took place on another side. Suddenly, the rumor spread that Tatius had put our armies to flight. The Romans who were guarding the door fled frightened; but when the Sabines were ready to burst through the open door, it is told that, by this door, it left the temple of Janus torrents of water gushing with great force, and that several groups of the enemy perished or were burned by the water, which was boiling, or swallowed up by its impetuosity. Because of this event, it was established that in times of war the doors of the temple of Janus would be opened, as if to wait for this helpful god in Rome.”
At the time of the war with the Sabines, the first war waged by the young Roman nation, Rome was an open city. Rome did not close its doors until peace was established. “When peace was concluded,” says Livy, “Tarquin did indeed continue the stone wall whose construction had been interrupted by the Sabine war, and fortified the city in all the part that was still open.” Ovid proposes another explanation, more abstract: “so that the people, left for the war, do not meet any obstacle with its return, the finished war, so that the peace does not find any exit.”
Marcel Renard associates Janus with another place in Rome, the Tigillum Sororium, the “Sister”s Beam”. It is a monument whose erection goes back to the battle of the Horatii and the Curiatii. The young Horace, victorious over the Curiatii, returned to Rome and killed his sister, who was the wife of one of the Curiatii and lamented the loss of her beloved. “Go, with your mad love, to join your fiancé, you who forget your dead brothers, and the one who remains to you, and your fatherland. Perish thus any Roman woman who dares to mourn the death of an enemy.” Condemned for this crime, the young Horace was finally acquitted but, “after some expiatory sacrifices, placed across the street a post, a kind of yoke under which he made his son pass, his head veiled. This post, preserved and maintained in perpetuity by the Republic, still exists.
The anniversary of this ceremony takes place on October 1, the date that in the Roman calendar marks the end of the “war season.” It is a ritual of purification, equivalent to the one that consists in passing the defeated enemy under a yoke to remove its harmfulness or in passing the victorious armies under a triumphal arch to neutralize the soldiers, rid them of their warlike strength and return them to civilian life.
Tacitus informs us about the existence of a temple to Janus, built on the Forum Holitorium by Caius Duilius and restored by Tiberius.
Beyond the Janiculum gate, outside the walls of Rome, twelve altars to Janus had been erected, one for each month of the year.
The Arch of Janus is the temple of Janus Quadrifrons, “with four pediments”, so named because of its square architecture.
In France, the temple of Janus of Autun is a temple dating from the Gallo-Roman period but it is uncertain that it is dedicated to this god.
In the Roman religion, the gods are abstract powers. “Among the Romans, the Mediterranean myths were brought from heaven to earth, and the heroes are no longer gods but great men of Rome.”
Ovid, in the Fastes, stages a dialogue between himself and Janus. He asks him the reason of his presence on the Roman ace. The god answers him:
“You could, he said, recognize me in this double image, if age had not altered the features. As for the explanation of the ship, here it is: the god who is represented armed with a scythe, chased by Jupiter from the sky, his empire, had already wandered in all the universe, when his ship entered the river of Etruria. It is in these regions that I remember having given him asylum; that is why, for a long time, they bore the name of Saturnia, and the name of Latium also expresses that a god had come to hide there. Posterity engraved a ship on its currency, to testify of the hospitality that a god had received. I myself also occupied the left bank of the Tiber. I had nothing to do with war; I kept the peace; I watched over the gates; and he added, pointing to his key: “These are my weapons.”
Janus and Saturn are two gods of the passing of time. The Saturnalia celebrated during the winter solstice dedicated to Saturn, precede the first of January, the feast of the god Janus.
What about the surprising association between time and the nave? The ace of brass, the monetary unit of Rome, is decorated with the Janus bifrons and a ship”s bow. Flipping a coin is called capita aut navia? (and other Roman coins also bear a nave on the reverse (see illustration). The iconological association between the god and the ship is motivated by the concept of “passage” and crossing of the Tiber and intimately linked to Portunus, the god of ports, while Janus is the god of gates. The Janiculum is located “beyond the Tiber” in relation to the Capitol. The Tiber was a natural border of Rome with Etruria. Hence the Ovidian description of Janus as an Etruscan king. This association between Janus and the passage of the Tiber, explains the erection, by Caius Duilius, of a temple dedicated to Janus, after his naval victory, the first that the Romans won, at the battle of Mylae. This temple was inaugurated on August 17, the day of Portunalia, feast of Portunus. Pliny notes dryly: “the real weight of the pound of copper was decreased during the First Punic War, the Republic not being able to face its expenditure; and it was decreed that one would strike aces of two ounces. One gained thus five sixths, and one liquidated the debts. The mark of these new aces was on one face a Janus with two faces, on the other a spur of ship. “
What Ovid relates below seems to mix two founding myths of Rome during the war with the Sabines, “historicized” differently by Titus Livius where :
In Ovid, this gives :
” told me at once the war of Tatius, descendant of Oebalus; how a perfidious guard, seduced by gold bracelets, had shown the way of the citadel to the chief of the Sabines. Then, as today, existed this fast slope by which you descend from the Capitol, in the valley and on the side of the public places. Already they had arrived at the door of which Juno, to lose you, had removed the locks; not daring to engage a fight against this august goddess, I took advantage of my attributions to thwart her projects in my turn. It is to me that it belongs to open a passage to the fountains, I opened it; I made spout out the waters in sudden sheets, after having taken care to emblaze sulphur under the frozen source, so that this boiling torrent closed the way to Tatius. The ruse succeeded, the Sabines were pushed back. The danger once passed, the place took again its first form; it was there that one raised a temple to me. “
This providential volcanic source is called Lautolae by Varro, who makes a connection between Janus and the primitive boat (a hollowed out trunk), the Tigillum Sororium (a trunk serving as a lintel). The burning driftwood that gives final victory -and peace- has become a bubbling torrent in Ovid. During the Portunalia, the Romans burned clavis (“keys”, in Roman times, simple wooden bars used to close the door).
Carna is the goddess of Janus. Celebrated on the first of January, she opens the year and the days get longer, celebrated on the first of June, she opens the second part of the year and the days get shorter – hence her association with Phebus and light on the one hand – the days are long in June – but with a cave and a certain concealment: she hides from the light or “hides the light” in a way.
“The first day is dedicated to you, Carna, goddess of the hinges. She opens what is closed, she closes what is open; such are the attributes of her divinity. Not far from the banks of the Tiber rises the ancient wood of Helernus, where pontiffs still go to offer sacrifices. She was taken for the sister of Phoebus, and it was not an insult to you, O Phoebe. If some young lover addressed passionate words to her, she answered at once: “There is too much daylight here, and the day is for many in modesty; lead me towards some secluded cave, I will follow you.” Janus sees her; at the sight of her, he becomes inflamed; he tries by gentle words to soften this inflexible beauty: the nymph, according to her custom, begs him to find a solitary asylum; she pretends to follow him, to accompany him; but soon the guide is alone; he has just been abandoned. But it is in vain, O fool! Doesn”t Janus see what is happening behind him? He already knows where you are hidden. It is in vain, I tell you, for under the rock where you take refuge, he clasps you in his arms, he possesses you and cries out, “For the price of your favors, for the price of your lost virginity, I submit the hinges to your power.” And at these words, he gives her a hawthorn branch, to ward off any fatal adventure from the doors.”
Is Carna Venilia? Ovid says that with this nymph, Janus had a child, Canens, who married Picus, son of Saturn. Mythologically, Ovid unites the children of the two gods of time. This marriage is unhappy. Canens dies on the banks of the Tiber.
Comments from Christian authors
Janus is an abstract deity associated with the passage of time, with doors. Under the name of Forculus – a pun on foris (“door”) – he is mocked by Tertullian who vilifies the Roman pantheon:
“I do not speak of Ascensus, god who helps you to ascend, nor of Levicola, who presides over the slopes, nor of Forculus, under whose protection the doors are, nor of Cardea, goddess of the hinges, nor of Limentinus, to whom the threshold is consecrated, nor finally of all those whom the doorkeepers adore.”
In this passage, the nymph Carna mentioned by Ovid becomes Cardea, quoted among the indigitamenta.
Saint Augustine repeats the Tertullian attack word for word, criticizing a lack of “theological logic”:
“Why are Forculus, who presides over the gates, and Limentinus, who presides over the threshold, male, while Cardaea, who watches over the hinges, is female?”
The Latin gods are losing the battle under the blows of the Christian preachers. They spread the word of Christ, who takes up the metaphor traditionally associated with the ancient Latin god of doors and passage:
“I am the door: if anyone enters by me, he shall be saved; he shall go in and out.”
Around 1600, Maïer interprets the god in a concrete and alchemical sense:
“By the two-headed Janus we understand a matter, or one thing, called rebis and containing two things, or if you prefer, it is the double mercurial substance.”
In the eighteenth century, the Benedictine Pernety will write in turn:
“Janus with two faces means, according to the alchymists, the matter of the philosopher”s stone, which they call rebis, as made and composed of two things.