How Janus Became the Doorkeeper of Heaven and God of the Gods

Janus is a deity found in the religion and myth of ancient Rome. The Romans believed that Janus was the god of doors, beginnings and endings, and transitions. In accordance to the role he played, Janus is depicted as a two-faced god, Ianus Bifrons (‘Janus Twofaced’) one looking to the future and the other looking to the past. Occasionally, Janus was depicted as having four faces, in a form known as Ianus Quadrifrons (‘Janus Fourfaced’). The first month of the year, January, was named as such in honor of this god.

Who Is Janus?

Janus is an ancient god whose worship dates all the way back to the time of Romulus and even before the founding of Rome. Unlike many of the deities worshipped by the Romans, Janus does not have a Greek counterpart or equivalent. According to one myth, Janus was the first king of Latium, and is credited with bringing civil and social order to mankind. In doing so, he brought humanity from barbarity to civilization and this transition from one state of being to another is represented by Janus’ two faces.

Statue of Janus. (Panoramio / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Statue of Janus. (Panoramio / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

According to Roman mythology, Janus was the husband of Camasene, a nymph, and the two had a son, Tiberinus. It was from Tiberinus that the river Tiber gained its name. Prior to that, the river was known as Albula. Following Tiberinus’ death in the river or on its banks, however, its name was changed. In another myth about Janus, Saturn, after being exiled by Jupiter from the heavens, arrives in Janiculum (the city founded by Janus) on a ship. The god was received warmly by Janus and in return for his hospitality bestowed on the king the power to see both into the future and into the past.

Why Was Janus Such an Important God to the Romans?

The Romans regarded Janus as an important god, which is evident in one of his titles, divom deus , which means ‘the god’s god’. Before a sacrifice could be made to any of the other deities , Janus would first be invoked and a libation be poured for him. The rationale for this is that since Janus was the doorkeeper to the heavens, it was through him that all the other gods and goddesses may be reached.

The association between Janus and doorways is seen in the fact that many jani were built in Rome. These ceremonial gateways were free-standing structures used for symbolically auspicious entrances or exits. These gateways had a particular connection to Roman armies departing for war and there were both lucky and unlucky ways to march through a janus.

The Arch of Janus a quadrifrons triumphal arch in Rome. (lucazzitto / Adobe)

The Arch of Janus a quadrifrons triumphal arch in Rome. ( lucazzitto / Adobe)

What is the Most Famous Shrine Dedicated to Janus?

The most famous janus in Rome was the Janus Geminus (‘Twin Janus’), which was a shrine to Janus located on the north side of the Forum. This was a bronze structure with double doors on each end, with the cult statue in between them. According to tradition, the doors of the shrine would be left open during times of war and conversely closed during times of peace. According to the writer Plutarch, it was the legendary king Numa (the successor of Romulus) who initiated this tradition and during his reign the doors had always been closed, signifying that his rule had been a peaceful one. On the other hand, the poet Virgil states that the closing of the doors were meant to keep war in.

The closing of the doors of the Janus Geminus was a powerful symbol and was exploited by the Roman emperors. Augustus, for instance, boasted that the doors of were shut three times during his reign. The doors of the shrine were also shut during the reigns of Nero (in 66 AD) following the victory over the Parthians and Vespasian (in 75 AD) following the conquest of Jerusalem. Coins were minted to commemorate the occasion.

The Temple of Janus with closed doors, on a sestertius issued under Nero in 66 AD. (Mica / CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Temple of Janus with closed doors, on a sestertiu s issued under Nero in 66 AD. (Mica / CC BY-SA 2.5 )

While the Janus Geminus was the most important shrine to Janus, there were also other temples built in his honor. One of them, for instance, was erected on the Janiculum, while another was built at the Forum Holitorium (‘Vegetable Market’) by the consul Marcus Duillius to commemorate his naval victory over the Carthaginians at the Battle of Mylae in 260 BC.

The most obvious legacy of Janus in modern culture is the month January, which was named in his honor. In addition, the English word ‘janitor’ is derived from the Latin ‘ianitor’, meaning ‘doorkeeper’ or ‘porter’ and is a reference to this Roman god .

Bust of Roman depicting the deity of the Roman Janus. (Steve Best CHIUSO / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bust of Roman depicting the deity of the Roman Janus. (Steve Best CHIUSO / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Top image: Painted ceiling in Waltham Abbey parish church, depicting Janus facing both past and future. Source: Steve Day / CC BY-SA 2.0 .

By Wu Mingren

Updated on January 5, 2021.


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