Janus (Ianos)

Category: Gods > Household Gods

1 Introduction

In his (sadly lost) Divine Matters (lat. Res divinae), the preeminent Roman scholar Varro classified twenty gods as certi dii, ‘certain, established gods’: Ianum, Iovem, Saturnum, Genium, Mercurium, Apollinem, Martem, Vulcanum, Neptunum, Solem, Orcum, Liberum patrem, Tellurem, Cererem, Iunonem, Lunam, Dianam, Minervam, Venerem, Vestam (Augustine, On the City of God 7.2). With their Greek translations, they are:

It is, to be clear, not just that these gods can be translated into Greek. Rather, this ready translatability is precisely what makes them ‘certain’ in the sense of ‘well established, universally known’ (universally, at least, within Varro’s cultural horizons). All the more is it curious that the very first god in the list, Janus, lacks a clear Greek translation. Why, in light of this, does he make the list? And why does he stand in such a prominent position?

The second question is easier to answer. In Roman cult, as will be discussed below, there was a convention of invoking Janus first and Vesta last when making offerings to the gods. As for the first question, it is in part the same fact which made Janus ‘certain’: unlike more obscure gods, he was constantly present in worship. For those who observed anything like normative Roman ritual norms, it was impossible to overlook him. Besides, he was widely worshipped in his own right, as a large number of surviving altars dedicated to him – often after the fulfilment of a prayer – attest.

In addition, he had an iconography which was not only distinctive, but unique: he was represented with two heads, fused together in the back and facing opposite directions. Moreover, this motif was widespread, easily identified as Janus, and not liable to invite conflation with any other divinity, popular or obscure.

Taken together, these things meant that Roman worshippers were unlikely to see Janus as a negligible figure or another name for some other god. He also played a prominent role in the legendary prehistory of Latium, since he was said to have been an early king, who welcomed Saturn after he was overthrown by his son Jupiter. In this way, he was integrated into the wider Greek sphere of mythology without being reduced to an established Greek figure.

Varro also had his own philosophical reasons for classifying Janus the way he did. According to Servius, his ‘certain’ gods were also said to be eternal, unlike other gods who had once been mortals (such as Hercules; Servius, On the Aeneid 8.275). Janus’ association with beginnings, and lack of mythological parentage, led Varro to connect Janus with the beginning of all things, as eternal and certain a god as there could be. Moreover, Varro divides his deities into masculine (1–12) and feminine (13–20), beginning with Heaven and Earth, respectively, where Heaven is represented by both Janus and Jupiter.

As Augustine quotes him saying: “Because, as I said in the first book, (subtitled) On Places, the two first principles of the gods are understood to be from Heaven and Earth, whence the gods are partly called celestials, partly terrestrials; (therefore,) as I previously made the beginning from heaven, when I talked about Janus, of whom some have said he is Heaven, some the Cosmos; so, I make the beginning of writing about the feminine gods from Earth” (quoted in Augustine, On the City of Gods 7.28; an analogue to the lost book On Places survives in Varro’s On the Latin Language).

But let this much suffice for an introduction and, with Janus’ grace, let us begin to write of him.

2 The character of Janus

“Father Janus, guarding Janus, two-headed, two-shaped god,
O wise creator of all things, o first principle of the gods,
For whom the thresholds creak, for whom the hinges sound,
For whom the golden bolts of the cosmos bellow open!”

Iāne pater, Iāne tuēns, dīve biceps bifōrmis,
ō cate rērum sator, ō prīncipium deōrum,
strīdula cui līmina, cui cardineī tumultūs,
cui reserāta mūgiunt aurea claustra mundī.

This short hymnic passage from the 3rd-century CE poet poet Septimius Serenus is happily preserved for us through the splendid didactic poem of Terentianus Maurus on Latin grammar (On Letters, Syllables and Meters 1893–1896). It is remarkably rich in its few lines, so that I will give it a brief commentary here.

  • Father Janus: ‘father’ (pater) is a title commonly applied to gods in Latin, but especially often to Janus. Most inscriptional dedications to him read Iānō Patrī, sometimes Ianō Patrī Augustō; more rarely just Iānō Augustō.
  • Guarding Janus: to guard (tu-) is one of the central roles of the gods. Things that are in the domain or sacred to a given deity are often said to be (in) their tūtēla (‘protection’).
  • Two-headed, two-shaped: a reference to the common iconography. Both words refer to the same thing (the rest of Janus’ body is not doubled), but the less specific bifōrmis serves to more common poetic epithets, such as trifōrmis (‘triple-shaped’, gr. trímorphos) for Hecate. The cultic epiclesis that corresponds to these poetic epithets is Geminus; a number of inscriptions read Iānō Geminō (or Iānō Geminō Augustō) .
  • Creator of all things: literally ‘sower of things’, but ‘all’ has to be added in English for the sense. ‘Sower’ (sator) can mean ‘father’, but since Janus is not described as a father in the sexual, genealogical sense, the more plausible interpretation is ‘originator, creator’.
  • First principle of the gods: the neuter term prīncipium, rather than something like ‘first of the gods’, reads as a reference to natural philosophy and its theories of first principles (gr. arkhaí). In other words, this is a philosophical interpretation of the god, not a mythological-genealogical one.
  • Thresholds … hinges … bolts: these circumlocutions for ‘door’ or ‘gate’ all point to the unmentioned word iānua, ‘house door, entrance’, which Janus’ name is derived from or related to. But instead of a prosaic guardianship over doors, Septimius lends this connection a musical, devotional character, as well as a metaphorical one: somehow the very gates of the cosmos move for Janus. We will return to this notion.

We also have a poetic prayer with some similar elements surviving (with some gaps) in an inscription from around 200 CE (off-site source, with more precise critical parentheses). Here, Janus is not prayed to for his own sake, but serves as an intermediary to Jupiter, invoked before him:

“Father Janus, who close the celestial temples of the gods,
Who open them when they are closed, and open, shut them,
Receive these prayers which I intrust to you in these new [books?],
And grant easy access to the [throne?] of Jupiter,
Who [takes care?] for the Roman state and Latium to [grow?],
And [creates?] stable and flourishing peace!”

Iane pater, qui templa deum caelestia claudis,
clausa tua reseras et reserata seras,
[accipe] vota novis haec quae tibi mando l[ibellis]
et faciles aditus da Iovis ad s[olium]
qui rem Romanam Latiumque au[gescere curet]
et pacem stabilitam et viridem [faciat].

It is now our task to explore these elements – his function as first and mediating god in worship, his primacy in a general sense, his two-headedness, association with gates and more cosmic roles – and the explanations they were given by the ancients.

3 Worship of Janus

We happily have a concrete example of how a formal rite involving a first offering to Janus worked in practice, from Cato’s On Agriculture 143 (which also includes instructions for rites without Janus):

(1) Prius quam messim facies, porcam praecidaneam hoc modo fieri oportet: Cereri porca praecidanea porco femina, prius quam hasce fruges condantur, far, triticum, hordeum, fabam, semen rapicium.

thure, vino Iano Iovi Iunoni praefato, prius quam porcum feminam immolabis.

(1) Before you harvest, (the sacrifice of) a preliminary sow must be made in the following way: the preliminary sow, (consisting of) a female pig, (is offered to) to Ceres, before which these crops are put together (as an offering): emmer, wheat, baley, bean, and rapeseed.

Prior, give to Janus, Jupiter and Juno of frankincense and wine, before you immolate the female pig.

(2) Iano struem commoveto sic: ‘Iāne pater, tē hāc strue ommovendā bonās precēs precor, utī sies volēns propitius mihī līberīsque meīs domō familiaeque meae.’

fertum Iovi moveto et mactato sic: ‘Iūpiter, tē hōc ferctō obmovendō bonās precēs precor, utī sīs volēns propitius mihī līberīsque meīs domō familiaeque meae mactus hōc ferctō.’

(2) Offer a heap (of offering-cakes) to Janus thus: “Father Janus, as I offer you this heap I pray to you with good prayers, that you may be willing to be propitious to me, my children, my house and my family.”

Offer and sacrifice (i.e., burn) thus an oblation-cake to Jupiter thus: “Jupiter, as I offer you this oblation-cake I pray to you with good prayers, that you may be willing to be propitious to me, my children, my house and my family because of this oblation-cake.”

(3) postea Iano vinum dato sic: ‘Iāne pater, tē hāc strue ommovendā bonās precēs bene precātus sum, eiusdem reī ergō macte vīnō īnferiō estō.’

postea Iovi sic: ‘Iūpiter, macte istō ferctō estō, macte vīnō īnferiō estō.’

postea porcam praecidaneam immolato.

(3) Afterwards, give wine to Janus thus: “Father Janus, as I offered you this heap I prayed to you well with good prayers, therefore on account of this be satisfied with the offering wine.”

Afterwards, to Jupiter thus: “Jupiter, be satisfied with this oblation-cake, be satisfied with the offering wine.”

Afterwards, immolate (kill) the preliminary sow.

(4) ubi exta prosecta erunt, Iano struem ommoveto mactatoque item, uti prius obmoveris; Iovi ferctum obmoveto mactatoque item, uti prius feceris. item Iano vinum dato et Iovi vinum dato, item uti prius datum ob struem obmovendam et fertum libandum. postea Cereri exta et vinum dato.

(4) Once the innards have been divided, again offer and sacrifice a heap to Janus, as you offered before; again offer and sacrifice an oblation-cake to Jupiter, as you did before. Again give wine to Janus and give wine to Jupiter, again as it was given before in connection to the offering of the heap and the dedication of the oblation-cake. Afterwards give the innards and wine to Ceres.


[Janus: archive; Janus – WIP.docx]

Pseudo-Codinus, Patria 2.2: On the Cult Statue of January (Ianouarios)

They narrate that the cult statue of January is four-shaped [i.e., four-headed] because of the four seasons. And some sculpt him as holding a key in his right hand, as the beginning and opening of the year, and (ruler) of the door (Thyreos), but others as making the sign for 300 with his right hand, and 65 with his left, representing the year; whence Longius contends that he is explained as Aeonarius, being the father of eternity (aeon).

Status: under construction