Who Was the Ancient Roman God Janus?

A statue of Janus

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Janus is an ancient Roman, a composite god who is associated with doorways, beginnings, and transitions. A usually two-faced god, he looks to both the future and the past at the same time, embodying a binary. The concept of the month of January (the beginning of one year and the ending of the end) is both based on aspects of Janus.

Plutarch writes in his Life of Numa:

For this Janus, in remote antiquity, whether he was a demi-god or a king, was a patron of civil and social order, and is said to have lifted human life out of its bestial and savage state. For this reason he is represented with two faces, implying that he brought men's lives out of one sort and condition into another.

In his Fasti, Ovid dubs this god "two-headed Janus, an opener of the softly gliding year." He's a god of many different names and many different jobs, a unique individual the Romans regarded as fascinating even in their own time, as Ovid notes:

But what god am I to say thou art, Janus of double-shape? for Greece hath no divinity like thee. The reason, too, unfold why alone of all the heavenly one thou doest see both back and front.

He was also considered the guardian of peace, a time at which when the door to his shrine was closed.


The most famous temple to Janus in Rome is called the Ianus Geminus, or "Twin Janus." When its doors were open, neighboring cities knew that Rome was at war.

Plutarch quips:

The latter was a difficult matter, and it rarely happened, since the realm was always engaged in some war, as its increasing size brought it into collision with the barbarous nations which encompassed it round about.

When the two doors were closed, Rome was at peace. In his account of his accomplishments, Emperor Augustus says the gateway doors were closed only twice before him: by Numa (235 BCE) and Manlius (30 BCE), but Plutarch says, "During the reign of Numa, however, it was not seen open for a single day, but remained shut for the space of forty-three years together, so complete and universal was the cessation of war." Augustus closed them three times: in 29 BCE after the Battle of Actium, in 25 BCE, and debated the third time.

There were other temples for Janus, one on his hill, the Janiculum, and another built, in 260 at the Forum Holitorium, constructed by C. Duilius for a Punic War naval victory.

Janus in Art

Janus is usually shown with two faces, one looking forward and the other backward, as through a gateway. Sometimes one face is clean-shaven and the other bearded. Sometimes Janus is depicted with four faces overlooking four forums. He might hold a staff.

The Family of Janus

Camese, Jana, and Juturna were wives of Janus. Janus was the father of Tiberinus and Fontus.

History of Janus

Janus, the mythical ruler of Latium, was responsible for the Golden Age and brought money and agriculture to the area. He is associated with trade, streams, and springs. He could have been an early sky god.

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Gill, N.S. "Who Was the Ancient Roman God Janus?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/ancient-roman-god-janus-112605. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 28). Who Was the Ancient Roman God Janus? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-roman-god-janus-112605 Gill, N.S. "Who Was the Ancient Roman God Janus?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-roman-god-janus-112605 (accessed June 9, 2023).