Janus: two-faced god of beginnings

As we enter a new year, many of us find ourselves both reflecting on the past and making plans for the future. This dual outlook is embodied by the two-faced god Janus, who governed the first month of the year in ancient Rome, and from whom we have the month January in English and in a number of other languages, such as the French janvier, Spanish enero, and German Januar.

Image: Art Institute of Chicago [CC0]

Janus presides over beginnings and endings, passages and transitions, doorways and gateways, whether physical entry points between home and the outside world, city and countryside, or invisible ones like the connection between human and divine through prayer. He was said to have invented coinage, and appears on a number of coins with his characteristic two faces. (A coin with the two-headed god serves as the fitting logo of Janus Films, an American distribution company that focuses on international art-house cinema, counting the superb Jacques Demy musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, as well as the films of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, among its titles.) He is sometimes depicted with a staff, illustrating his role as a guide to travellers starting their journey, or a key, representing the countless portals within his purview. Occasionally, instead of two faces, Janus is shown with four faces, each one looking towards a different cardinal direction. Because of this guise, a similarly four-faced triumphal arch in Rome has been dubbed the Arch of Janus (though the monument probably had nothing to do with the god in antiquity).

Rome’s temple of Janus was a place of great symbolic significance. One story attached to the deity, who was invoked when war was declared and peace was made, takes place in the early days of Rome, after the Romans had abducted the Sabine women as their wives. The Sabine men fought back. As Philip Matyszak relates: ‘The Romans were pushed back to the city gate and closed it as they retreated. However, the gates mysteriously reopened and the Sabines came storming in, only to be swept away by a boiling spring which spontaneously erupted from the temple of Janus.

‘From there onward it was decreed that when Rome was at war the gates of the “temple” (which was more of an arched passageway) should stand open so that the god could more easily exit to help his people. In times of peace the gates were closed, which might have required the liberal use of oil, since during the long history of the Roman Republic the gates were only closed twice.’

Further reading
The Gods and Goddesses of Greece and Rome: a guide to the classical pantheon by Philip Matyszak was recently published by Thames & Hudson (ISBN 978-0500024188; £30).