Table of Contents
Many think that all Roman gods are just renamed copies of the “original” Greek deities. However, that’s not the case. Meet Janus – the Roman god of time, beginnings and endings, transitions, change, war and peace, as well as… doors.
Janus was a peculiar deity in many ways, including in how he was worshipped, what his name actually means, and his murky origins. More has been left unknown about this deity that has been preserved through history, so let’s try to quickly go over what we do know about him.
Who was Janus?
A husband to the nymph Camasene and a father to the river god Tiberinus after whom the famous river Tiber is named, Janus was best known as a god of doorways. In fact, in Latin the word for a doorway is januae and the world for archways is jani.
Janus was much more than just a god of doors, however. Worshiped from before the city of Rome was even established, Janus was one of the oldest, most unique, and most revered gods in the Roman pantheon.
God of Time, Beginnings, and Transitions
First and foremost, Janus was viewed as a god of time, beginnings, endings, and transitions. However, Janus was different from Saturn, the father of Jupiter and Juno, and the Roman equivalent of the Greek god of time Cronus. While Saturn was also technically a god of time (as well as agriculture), he was more a personification of time.
Janus, on the other hand, was a god of time as in “a master of time”. Janus was a god of the beginning and end of various events such as the seasons, months, and years. He marked the start and end of life, the beginning and end of journeys, of an emperor’s rule, of different stages of life, and so on.
God of War and Peace
As a god of time and time intervals, Janus was also viewed as a god of war and peace. This is because the Romans viewed war and peace not as events but as states of being – as in wartime and peacetime. So, Janus presided over the start and end of wars too. Janus’ name was always invoked when an emperor started a war or announced peace.
Janus wasn’t a “god of war” the way Mars was – Janus didn’t wage war personally nor was he necessarily a warrior. He was just the god who “decided” when it was time for war and when it was time for peace.
God of Doorways and Arches
Janus was especially famous as a god of doors, doorways, arches, and other gateways. This can seem insignificant at first but the reason for this worship was that doors were viewed as time transitions or portals.
Just as a human walks through a door to transition into a different space, time goes through similar transitions when a certain event ends and a new one begins.
This is why many gateways and arches in Rome were dedicated to and named after Janus. Most of them had not only a religious significance but also a militaristic and governmental one. When the Roman legions marched out of the gates of Rome to go to war, Janus’ name was invoked, for example.
Additionally, Janus’ “temple” in Rome wasn’t technically a temple but an open enclosure with large gates at each end. At times of war, the gates were left open while in times of peace – they were closed. Naturally, because of the constant expansion of the Roman empire, almost all time was wartime so Janus’ gates were open most of the time.
We should also mention the other Roman god of gates – Portunus. While the latter was also a god of gateways, he was more associated with the physical act of traveling through doors and was worshipped as a god of keys, harbors, shipping, trading, livestock, and traveling. Instead of that, Janus was viewed as a god of gates more metaphorically and symbolically.
Patron God of January
Janus is also believed to be the namesake of the month of January (Ianuarius in Latin). Not only is the name similar, but January/Ianuarius is also the first month of the year, i.e. the beginning of a new time period.
However, it’s worth noting that there are also ancient Roman farming almanacs that point to the goddess Juno, Queen Mother of the Roman pantheon, as being the patron deity of January. This isn’t necessarily a contradiction as it was normal in most ancient polytheistic religions for more than one deity to be dedicated to a certain month.
Janus in Greek Mythology
Janus notably doesn’t have an equivalent in the Greek pantheon of gods.
This isn’t as unique as some people might think – numerous Roman deities didn’t come from Greek mythology. Another such example is the aforementioned god of doors Portunus (although he is often wrongly conflated with the Greek prince Palaemon).
Still, most of the more famous Roman gods indeed come from Greek mythology. That’s the case with Saturn (Cronos), Jupiter (Zeus), Juno (Hera), Minerva (Athena), Venus (Aphrodite), Mars (Ares), and many others. Most of the Roman gods who don’t come from Greek mythology are usually smaller and more local.
Janus is an exception in that regard as he was one of the most significant and widely worshipped gods in all of Rome’s history. His presence in Roman culture and religion is quite old too, as his worship predates the establishment of Rome itself. So, Janus was possibly an ancient tribal deity that was already worshipped in the region when the ancient Greeks came from the east.
Why Did Janus have Two Faces?
There are many depictions of Janus preserved to this day. His face(s) can be seen on coins, on doorways and arches, on buildings, on statues and sculptures, on vases and pottery, in scripts and art, and on many other objects.
One of the first things you’d notice when looking at such depictions, however, is that Janus is almost always shown with two – usually bearded – faces rather than one. He can also have four faces in some depictions but two seems to be the norm.
The reason for this is simple.
As a god of time and transitions, Janus had one face that looked into the past and one – into the future. He didn’t have a “face for the present” but that’s because the present is the transition between the past and the future. As such, the Romans didn’t view the present as a time in and of itself – just as something that passes from the future into the past.
Importance of Janus in Modern Culture
While not as famous today as Jupiter or Mars, Janus does have a pretty significant role in modern culture and art. For example, the Janus Society was established in 1962 in Philadelphia – it was an LGBTQ+ organization famous as the publisher of the DRUM magazine. There’s also the Society of Janus which is one of the largest BDSM organizations in the US.
In art, there’s the 1987 thriller The Janus Man by Raymond Harold Sawkins. In the 1995 James Bond film GoldenEye, the film’s antagonist Alec Trevelyan uses the nickname “Janus”. The 2000 history journal of the University of Maryland is also called Janus. Another interesting use of the name is that cats with a diprosopus disorder(partly or fully duplicated face on the head) are called “Janus cats”.
FAQs About Janus
Janus is the god of entrances, exits, beginnings and endings, and time.
Janus was a Roman god and didn’t have a Greek counterpart.
Due to the domains he ruled over, Janus was associated with the middle ground and dual concepts such as life and death, beginning and ending, war and peace, and so on.
Janus was male.
Janus’s consort was Venilia.
Janus is represented by two faces.
Who are Janus siblings? Janus’ siblings were Camese, Saturn, and Ops.
Janus was a uniquely Roman god, with no Greek equivalent. This made him a special deity to the Romans, who could claim him as their own. He was an important deity to the Romans, and presided over many domains, most notably beginnings and endings, war and peace, gates, and time.