Who was the Roman God Janus?

A statue of Janus

The Greeks very much influenced the Roman religion. However, many features of the Ancient Italian religions were retained by the Romans. One of the most distinctive Roman deities was Janus, the god of entrances, gates, and transitions. He was the animistic soul or spirit of doorways and entrances and all their associations. There is no counterpart of this enigmatic deity in Greek religion and mythology. Janus played an important role in Rome's public religion, and an understanding of him can help us know the Roman worldview and its values.

Origin of Janus

Janus was an ancient god and probably originated in Italy, but he may have been based on a very ancient Indo-European deity. It has been argued that he was of foreign origin and that the early Romans adopted his cult. More likely, the deity may have been related to an Etruscan prototype. We know that the Etruscans greatly influenced the early inhabitants of the city on the Tiber.

The name Janus is probably derived from the old Italic word for an arch. Janus in the Republican and Imperial period was not considered to be one of the Capitoline Triad, of the most important gods. However, there is evidence that once, he was almost the equal of Jupiter, the King of the Gods in Latin theology. Janus was known to have several cult epithets, and Janus may be a conflation of earlier deities.[1] There was no priesthood dedicated to performing rites for the god, but many public rites and ceremonies were held in his honor. They were conducted by rex sacrorum ("king of the sacred), one of the most senior priests in Rome.

Like many myths, the story of Janus may have been based on some person. Many later Romans believed that Janus was the first king of Latium. In mythology, it was claimed that he lived at either the ends of the earth or heaven's extremities. There is no one story about the god and what has been handed down to us is very fragmentary. He was even perplexing to the Romans. [2]

The myths and cult of Janus

Bust of Roman priest

Janus, in many myths, is related to transitions and to change. There are stories that he was present at the creation of the world when it moved from chaos to order, from nothingness to life. Many believe that he was originally a creator god, whose role shifted over time. Roman creation myth has this deity enabling the beginning of the world and even the births of the other Gods.[3]

Indeed, there are possible references to Janus as Jupiter's father, but many scholars have disputed this. Janus arrived by ship, in many legends, and was well received by the Roman god of agriculture. At this time, Saturn had created a Golden Age for humankind, and Janus assisted him. Later there were several cults in honor of the deity of beginnings, endings, and transitions. His main worship place was the Janiculum, which was not strictly speaking a temple but an enclosure. There were many temples and shrines to this god throughout Rome.

In his role overseeing his transitions, Janus was also held to be responsible for admission to the heavens. It was also believed that he was the guardian of time and was responsible for the calendar. Many saw him as a result as the guardian of the cosmos.[4]

In the early history of the city of Rome, Janus intervened several times to help the Romans. In one myth, when the city was under attack by the Sabines, he turned a cold spring into a hot spring and helped defeat the attackers. According to many antiquarians, the first temple dedicated to God was built by Numa, but his worship goes back to Romulus. Janus was often associated with Portunus, the god of bridges and thoroughfares. In this incarnation, he was concerned with traveling, trading, and shipping.

There are also stories told that Janus was the God who invented money and initiated commerce, for reasons that are not entirely clear. As a result of this, many merchants worshipped him. Janus had a relationship with nymph Camasene, and they had a son called Tiberinus. He was drowned in the river, and this led to it being renamed the Tiber. Janus, in many myths, was the father of several children, including Canens and Fontus. Canens was the goddess of song, and Fontus, the deity of wells and springs popular in the public religion. In most myths, Janus was Saturn's brother, and their father was the primeval sky god.

Rituals and the God of doorways

Temple of Janus on a coin

Janus was a ubiquitous presence in Rome and its many colonies, especially in Italy. As god of beginnings, he was typically invoked at the beginning of political assemblies and religious ceremonies. Janus was invoked as the first of any gods in regular liturgies. He was also honored at weddings, deaths, and other important transitions in life. God also oversaw seasonal events such as planting, harvests, seasonal changes. Archaic rituals and rites were often conducted during these auspicious events.

He was especially associated with celebrations around the New Year. There were often shrines to Janus at bridges, doors, and arches anywhere that involved transitions and movement. There were many ceremonial gates known as Jani. These free-standing structures were entered and excited because they were regarded as auspicious. In mythology, Janus is shown as having good relationships with Jupiter, Juno, and other important gods. It is widely believed that January was named after Janus, and this is given credence because the deity was associated with the New Year. Janus was represented in Roman art as bearded and had two faces pointing two ways. Some representations of Janus have him with four faces.

Janus and War

One of the misconceptions about Janus is that this God was associated with war. This was not the case as the god of transitions and changed. He was the patron of the movement from war to peace and from peace to war.[5] The Romans widely believed that Janus presided over the start and the end of a war. For a war-like people like the Romans, this was very important. Therefore Janus was often invoked in preparation for war and even its conduct.

The Janiculum was believed to be the pace where Janus resided at different times. The remains of the building have been tentatively identified, but this has been disputed. Janus was also associated with the rites of the Salii, which were groups of patricians who practiced archaic rites[6]. They performed rituals at the beginning of the beginning and end of the warm season. In the ancient world, wars were seasonal and mostly occurred in the Spring and Summer. There were two bronze doors at the temple site. When the Republic and later the Empire was at war, the doors were opened, which symbolized that the citizens were at war.

At the start of every war, priests would ceremoniously close open the bronze doors. When there was peace, the doors would be ritually closed. Rome was constantly at war with its neighbors, and the doors of the Janiculum were never shut. According to the great historian Livy, the doors were only ever shut three times in the Republic's entire history. Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, made great propaganda because he closed the doors for the first time in centuries. It symbolized the end of the civil wars that had plagued the later Republic. When a Republican army left Rome to go on a campaign, they were sure to exit the city via Jani. The double-faced being was central to the civic religion right through the Imperial period.

In 390 AD, Emperor Theodosius the Great ordered the closure of pagan temples. This ended almost a millennium of rituals at the Janiculum, which was turned into a church. However, in the mid-6th century AD, some Roman opened the door for the last time, when the Byzantines were under siege from the Goths. This may indicate that even after the Christianisation of the Empire, there were still some who revered the old God[7]. It was once argued that many witches honored the god Janus in their rituals, but most scholars have rejected this.

The meaning of Janus myths

An understanding of the god Janus offers us a unique insight into Roman and Italic religion and worldview. It should be noted that the Greeks also had a god of entrances and doorways, but he was a minor figure. The Romans attached great importance to him because he embodied two of the most important principles in life and the world: transition and change.

For many in Ancient Italy, change was fearful. Like many traditional societies, they appreciated stability and lived in fear of disorder. Any change was a time of risk and danger. Janus was the embodiment of change and liminality.[8] By worshipping Janus and wining his favor, the ancient Latins believed that change could be managed and less fearful. The beginning of the day, month, and year, both calendrical and agricultural, were sacred. The two-faced god could help Romans to succeed in their daily enterprises.

As a mediator between beginning and endings, he was esteemed and feared by the ancient Italic peoples. Similarly, he was the god of transitions and beginnings, which was important concerning war and harvest. Janus was a force who could ensure that things started and ended well. As the god of transitions, he was associated with important life-events such as birth and marriage. His support was, therefore, crucial for the maintenance of the social order and society. Janus embodied transition and change, and these were crucial principles in the Universe.[9] This god was used to explain the constant change in the world and its unpredictability. By personifying these elemental forces, the Romans believed that they could manage these. As a result, they believed that they could control the so often beyond their comprehension forces.

According to Livy and another Roman writer, Romulus and others believed that they could negotiate with the Pantheon. By worshipping the two-faced god, they were negotiating with some of the forces that controlled their lives. Janus was one of the Roman gods of time, and he personified the dual nature of time. Like him, time, as experienced by humans, was at once forward-looking and backward-looking. We see here how a myth was used to interpret reality and even to structure it.

Myths often encapsulated some rudimentary philosophy for ancient peoples, and Janus's stories are a good example of this. This god helped Romans survive in a hostile world. He also helped to explain the world. Most importantly, he helped explain the endless process of beginnings and endings and the cycles of peace, war, life, death, etc., that were a condition of the cosmos. Janus was often shown as holding the key and guarding the gates of heaven. This symbolized that those who comprehended this mysterious figure's duality could fully comprehend the universe [10].

Conclusion

Historians often depict the Romans as imitators of the Greeks in religion, culture, and worldview. This was only partially true. The beliefs of the greatest Empire in the Classical World were shaped by Hellenic civilization. However, the Romans continued to have a distinct culture and identity. This is seen in the singular figure of Janus. This god of the door, beginnings, transitions, and many other facets of life, was essential to Rome. He was the personification of forces that the Romans wanted to control or minimize.

Janus was the embodiment of the flux and change of the cosmos and could be useful in their control and management. The Romans were a warlike people, and Janus presided over the start and conclusion of wars and, therefore, was of critical importance in the Republic and the Early Empire's Public Religion.

Further Reading

Taylor, L. R., & Holland, L. A. Janus and the Fasti. Classical Philology, 47(3), 137-142 (1952).

Ferguson, John. The religions of the Roman Empire. Cornell University Press, 1985.

Burchett, Bessie R. "Janus in Roman Life and Cult." A Study in Roman Religions, Menasha (1918)

References

  1. Purcell, Nicholas. "Janus." In Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Classics. 2015
  2. Taylor, R. (2000). Watching the skies: Janus, Auspication, and the Shrine in the Roman Forum. Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, 45, 1-40
  3. Taylor, p. 13
  4. Forsythe, Gary. Time in Roman Religion: One Thousand Years of Religious History. (London, Routledge, 2012), p. 113
  5. DeBrohun, J. B. (2007). The gates of war (and peace): Roman literary perspectives. War and peace in the ancient world, 256-78
  6. DeBrohun, p.121
  7. DeBrohun, p.121
  8. Warrior, V. M. Roman religion (Vol. 1). (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006), p 119
  9. Warrior, p. 134
  10. Warrior, p. 201