Shut the front door: Brexit, Walls, and the Roman God Janus

Statue of Janus from the Vatican Museum.

T.S. Eliot claimed that April was the cruelest month with its blossoming lilacs.

Cruel for producing hope, I suppose. No such problem exists in the dark, frigid, and bleak midwinter month of January. Even having survived “Blue Monday” and/or dry January, to look at the state of current political affairs is to see a universe in liminal chaos. The lyrics of the Clash’s “Should I stay or should I go” take on a new meaning in the uncertain future of Brexit, an outcome which even the most educated of augurs seems unable to predict. Across the pond, America struggles after a protracted political shutdown as looming issues of wall hang in the air. One is reminded of the menacing silence that pervades Dido’s kingdom as she awaits a lover’s riposte;

And work in the city was abandoned – the harbour, towers that had hardly been begun, the fortifications that were meant to keep them safe against a siege, the young men’s military exercises. The walls stood unfinished, intimidating no one, and the lazy cranes silhouetted against the sky.

Vergil, Aeneid IV, 86-89, translation by G.B. Cobbold 2011, 92.

These moments, standing in the doorway of history, can feel like an endless sentence of waiting for imminent change…. grappling desperately between hopes and fears. To whom do we turn in this desperate hour? As it happens, the Romans had a deity for just this sort of occasion, one after which the month January was named: Janus, the two-headed guardian of liminality; with one head facing towards the future, and the other looking back into the past. He may have some answers.

Who was Janus?

Janus was a distinctly Roman God. He had no parallel in the Greek pantheon. Often considered Rome’s primordial god, “Janus primus” was often the first deity addressed in prayers, although he was by no means the most powerful deity. Janus seems to have held numerous roles concerning transitions in time (season, years, day/sun and night/moon, youth and old age) as well as spaces (such as doorways, bridges) and states of being (war and peace). As in Christianity, where a start and end are laid out in letters of the Greek Alphabet (from alpha to omega), in Rome Janus was primus “first”, while a female counterpart Vesta was extrema “last”.  Understanding his role is complicated by a number of factors. The first is chronology: Janus enters Roman history under Rome’s 2nd King (Numa) in the 8th century BC and remains until the city’s last days under general Belisarius when, during a Gothic attack in AD 536, the doors to his shrine mysteriously opened. A fitting end for the god of liminal events.

In terms of material evidence, Janus survives on some of the earliest coins and a Republican victory temple, both of which date to the mid 3rd century BC. His temple and his image on coins continue throughout the Republic. While the change to an Imperial government results in the removal of his imagery from coins (at least until Hadrian and Commodus), Janus’ shrine in the Forum Romanum was renovated by Augustus and was depicted on the coins of Nero.

The sheer breadth of time and space that this deity occupied reflect both his value in society and the myriad of different portrayals of him that have survived. Making sense of these requires a two-headed approach, which not only considers different sources but also applies chronology to the differing roles that he played across a millennium or more in Roman history. Looking at Janus across such a span of time and space serves as an important reminder: while a single event or moment may feel like an epic transition, there are, in reality, many such moments in history.

What’s in a name? Reconciling Literary sources

Double headed Janus.. what god am I meant to say you are??   Ovid Fasti Book 6 line 85. 

Attempts to understand Janus’ name betray the innate challenges and complexities of reconciling different sources. Some scholars link Janus’ name to the Greek concept of Chaos (from the Greek chaskein ‘to gape”) and the action of opening (hiare “to open”) perhaps a bit like Pandora’s box: letting chaos out. This reveals another contradiction in the sources: does Janus represent peace (being let out) or chaos (being held in by the gates). Others have suggested that Janus is a composite of Jupiter and Diana (Sky & Moon). The difficultly in both these theories is their reliance on later sources (Paul the Deacon (8th c. AD) and Macrobius (5th c. AD), which reflect pervading literary views and a tendency to situate Rome in traditions of Greek mythology. Janus may have connections with Greek deities but a focus on Greek origins is somewhat at odds with his unique qualities as well as the context in which he enters Roman history: a fight between Latins and Sabines. What kind of God was Janus? We probably need to explore beyond literary accounts for an answer.

A more convincing theory comes from more contemporary sources such as Cicero, De Natura Deorum II. 67 and Ovid, Fasti 126-7. These accounts suggest that the name Janus derives from the Latin verb “to go”; reflecting transitional motion and the concept of beginning. Probably derived from this sense of action, “Ianua” is the Latin word for door (and the root of the word “Janitor”). This derivation fits better with the numerous roles that Ianus played: he occupied an unusual place with one face turned towards the future and the other turned towards the past. When we look back from the present, our perspective is shaped not only by our sources but from our stance in the present. Equally, our experience in the past can impact how we view the future, whether the unknown appears dark or bright. It is not only Janus’ name but also the duality with which he views the world that offer insights on the human experience.

War & Peace? Janus in Early Rome.

Sestertius of Nero depicting  closed doors at the Janus Geminus. AD 54-68.

In modern context, Janus would be described as “an influencer”. Named after the first month of the year, apparently during the reign on Numa Popilus (715-674 BC), Ianus emerges as a key figure, who often allied himself with Saturn, another distinctly Roman God (associated with the Saturnalia in December). Associated with the Janiculum hill and the road which led to Etruria, Janus has also been attributed (by later sources quoting Varro) to the Etruscan god of the sky. One example of his divine intervention was preventing the Sabine men from reclaiming their women by setting off a scalding volcanic spring of hot water. While his actions against the Sabines could be seen as polemic, the result was a state of peace between the two warring tribes.

After the ensuing battle, Numa apparently dedicated a walled roofless shrine to ‘The Janus Geminus” (also known as the Janus Bifrons, Janus Quirinus, or Porta Belli). The twin “geminus” doors refer both to the duality of the motion, open or closed, and to the two heads of Janus, one looking forward and one looking back. Returning to the idea of Janus as an entrapped force of chaos, the open roof and doors, which were seldom shut (save for a few liminal moments of peace), seem to represent an “open door” policy of vigilance. Rome is not closing its door to its neighbors but rather, leaving the portal open with the acceptance that inevitable altercations will likely ensue.

Map of Rome. The Argiletum runs between the Forum of Nerva & the Forum Romanum. Could the 4 squares at the end of Nerva’s forum be a base of the shrine?

Situated at the based of Argiletum (see MAP above) in front of the Senate building (between the Roman forum and later Imperial fora), Janus’ shrine was not a temple in the conventional sense. It was more of a monumental gateway connecting the different areas and people of the city. Although it was clearly valued throughout Roman history (Augustus’ Res Gestae 13, records 3 closures during his reign, followed by closures under Nero and Vespasian, and ending in the late 4th century AD with the Theodosian Code), no traces of the structure have survived nor has its exact location been established. The original structure, restored by Augustus and perhaps again by Domitian, was set in a context of constant change, which altered the meanings and associations of the shrine, as noted by the poet Martial X, 28, 3-6.

       Previously you lived on a passage in a small shack, where Rome and her masses trod  the thoroughfare: now your threshold is surrounded by Caesar’s gifts, and you have as many fora, Janus, as you have faces.

A limitation of the historical sources, as in the literary sources, is the fact the many accounts (e.g. Imperial: Augustus, Livy, Ovid, Plutarch; Late Imperial: Macrobius, Procopius Festus) are from an Imperial period, reflecting propagandist claims and subsequent spin doctoring. These sources were not interested in exploring who Janus was but rather, what Janus could represent for their captive audiences. It is not surprising, therefore, that the roles of Janus seem to change alongside the needs and values of society.

Janus and liminal moments of Victory in the Republic

Duilius’ Temple of Janus in the Forum Holitorium

To understand Janus’ role in Republican Rome, we have to look forward from early Roman history and backwards from the often propagandist accounts of the Roman Empire. Janus is attested through a number of sources from the 3rd century BC. Some of Rome’s earliest coins (ca. 280-276 BC) depict of Janiform (two youthful heads) of the Dioscuri (RRC 14/1). Material sources for Janus increased dramatically after Gaius Duilius, a successful novus homo general from the first Punic War, commemorated Rome’s first naval victory (The Battle of Mylae in 260 BC). Duilius’ honorary rostral column with a surviving dedication (recarved in the early Imperial period) was set up in the Forum, near the site of the Janus Geminius.

Duilius’ temple to Janus, likely set up during his tenure as censor from 258-253 BC, was built along the Via Triumphalis near the Porta Carmentalis, a main ritual gate to the city. This gate was also a double door, one for entrance (e.g. triumphal processions), one for exits (e.g. funerals) with an adjacent altar to Janus. Carmenta was a Nymph, goddess of past and future, and whose festivals fell on January 15. The temple, made from tufa in the Forum Holitorium (vegetable market) was visible from the Tiber and from the adjacent Janiculum hill. The dedication took place during the Portunalia (August 17th), a celebration of Portunus, god of doors, keys and ports. As a “victory temple”, Janus’ temple was not for everyday worship but served as a monument of victory, which provided practical storage space for the stalls in the market. It was probably built with the adjacent temple of Spes (Hope), also vowed in the first Punic War. The temple Juno Sospita (fertility, vegetation) soon followed. The context of the temple is significant: while the transition of seasons (going from one to another) fits these gods and goddess well, it would be an odd place for a God of chaos.

Aes Grave RRC 35/1. Coin from ca. 240 BC with bearded Janus (OBV) and a ship’s prow (REV) with the corvus shown (on top).

In terms of understanding Janus across a broad chronological spectrum, it is a series of primarily bronze/ copper alloy coins that weave an enduring tale of Janus’ role in Roman life. The coins depict a bearded two-headed Janus wearing a laureate crown on the front and an image of a Rome ship with the corvus (a grappling hook that was used to secure the victory over the Carthaginians). His image reflects Duilius’ vow to Janus (generals often prayed to a deity for success), the act of divine invention (again, connected with water) as well as the liminality of the victory: the crucial innovation that turned the tide  in Rome’s favour. These coins, minted after the war’s conclusion in ca. 240 BC, illustrate the duality of war and peace as paths that are intricately connected.

Janus features on dozens of coin types with ship prows for the next century (until the end of the third Punic War in 146 BC). These coins echo his relationship with the city alongside the tremendous booty of Rome’s conquests. His image continues in coins depicting Gallic victories (no longer only naval imagery on the reverse) such as Marcus Furius in 114-113 BC (RRC 281/1). Janus and ship prows were re-employed from the turn of the 2nd century BC through Sulla’s reign ca. 82 BC (RRC 381/). Forty years later, the son’s of Pompey the Great (Sextus & Gnaeus) revived the imagery yet again (RRC 471/1) in a Spanish mint, followed by a bizarre reworking of the coin in Sicily (45 BC): Sextus and Gnaeus portraits replace the heads of Janus.

Coin minted in Sicily ca. 45 BC.  Gnaeus and Sextus Pompey in a Janus-like pose with a ship’s prow and the legend “IMP” on the reverse (RRC 479).

This change reflects a fundamental transition in Roman society: individual portraits have taken the place of deities (RRC 479). In the space where “Roma” was traditionally written on the reverse is a 3 letter abbreviation: IMP(erator),  a reference to a general’s ultimate power and the root of the later term “emperor”.  Whatever checks the Republican constitution was meant to employ upon aspiring generals, this coin marks a liminal moment of transition towards a new era. A final verson of the coin was minted by Marc Antony in Asia Minor around 39 BC (RRC 530/1). The “twin” heads no longer look similar or necessarily both male, perhaps representing his reunion with Octavia at Ephesos (before he ditched her for Cleopatra). The use of this imagery by his rivals may explain why Augustus, who restored Duilius’ monuments after his naval victory at Actium, chose to leave this coin type in the past.

Conclusions: Will the Real God Janus Please Stand Up?

A close examination of different sources from varying periods does not reconcile the images of Janus into a single cohesive role, rather, it illustrates how Janus survived across time and space by adapting/ being adapted for different purposes. He was mutable as night and day, summer and winter, past and future. Marking transitions, Janus was celebrated across the Calendar, from the start of the year, to the ritual expiation in February, the start Army season (March 1) and the end (October 1st). He was also associated with the summer festival of the Carna, celebrated for a Nymph whose virginity he stole and whom he blessed with the power of the door hinge.  Perhaps the reason Janus did not have a regular temple or his own priests was that he was constantly moving from one transition, one season, or one journey to another. Trying to follow him through Rome’s history is an epic journey with a few lessons about liminal events, transitions and doorways.

Janus’ ubiquity belies attempts to lock him in his shrine. In understanding that Janus can’t be trapped by closing a door, another practical truth of “twin” doors emerges: one cannot open a door in one direction, whilst closing it in the other. One cannot win a triumph without death,  find peace without conflict, or embrace the future without accepting the past. Shutting the front door prevents movement in both directions, for those would enter and those who would leave. For some (the emperor Augustus) a closed door represented peace, for others (the poet Ovid) it represented a prison.

As a two headed deity, Janus makes the duality of existence seem natural and straightforward. In reality, it can be very difficult to stand still in a doorway, trying to examine the world with an awareness of bias (past and present). For those who only have one head, it is worth noting that the only time both perspectives can be seen simultaneously is when one is standing in the doorway; the precious moment before a decision is made. In this instant, all are invested with have the divine powers of Janus.

As we approach our own liminal ritual in the modern prophecies of Groundhog day, where Punxsutawney Phil prognosticates about an imminent future, perhaps one ought to make the most of this liminal period. Would anyone participate in dry January or Veganuary if he/she thought it would last a lifetime? Rather than feeling trapped in the doorway, perhaps one could use this moment to look back upon the past and contemplate the future. Embrace the moment in the doorway, while two options, two views points are still visible. If history has one lesson for us, it is that liminal moments are fleeting.






Published by

Dr. Abigail Graham

Classical Archaeologist and Rogue Epigrapher, lecturing at the University of Warwick. Coordinator of Epigraphic (studying inscriptions) training courses at the British School at Rome and the Centre for Study of Ancient Documents (Oxford). Passionate Enthusiast of the Roman world, particularly, connecting ancient and modern cultures. Current research: Reading monuments, ancient and modern perspectives. Incorporating theories of modern neuroscience, cognitive psychology and anthropology into our understanding of literacy and how people interacted with writing on public monuments and in rituals performances.

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