The Roman god Janus is known today primarily from depictions of his two faces which look in opposite directions.
Janus, or Ianus, as he was originally called in Latin, is the god of gates and doors, or ianua. He is also god of beginnings, endings, and transitory stages, which can be seen as the end of one phase and the start of another.
In pre-Christian Rome, he was honoured at the beginning of every harvest, every planting, marriages, and births. He was also invoked during any event seen as a beginning, and seen as presiding over transitions such as that from primitive to civilised life, from country or rural living to city or urban living, from time of peace to time of war, and from childhood to adulthood.
Originally, he was depicted as having one bearded face and one smooth face, which could represent adulthood and youth, or possibly, the sun and the moon.
Later representations show him with two bearded faces. This depiction appears on many Roman coins.
Even later, by the 2nd century BCE, he had four faces, possibly representing the four cardinal points of north, south, east, and west.
There is one tradition which claims he came from Thessaly, in Greece, to Latium, home of the Latins, in what is now Italy. There, he was welcomed by Camese, with whom he shared the kingdom.
Their marriage produced many children, including Tiberinus, who was later added, as genius, or spirit, of the river Tiber, to the 3000 rivers, children of Oceanus, the ocean which encircles the world, and Tethys, a sea goddess. Tiberinus, as a river god, helped Aeneas travel from Troy to Latium after the Trojan War. He also found Aeneas’s descendants, Romulus and Remus, and gave them to the she-wolf, Lupa. He then married their mother, Rhea Silvia.
When Camese died, Janus remained sole ruler and first king of Latium. He sheltered Saturn, or Cronus in Greek, after he was overthrown by his son, Jupiter, or Zeus.
It was Saturn who, in gratitude for his hospitality, gave Janus the ability to see both past and future. It may be that the double-faced head of Janus came from this ability.
Janus presided over the Golden Age and introduced the use of money, taught the people how to cultivate the land, and laid down the early laws.
He was deified after death and became protector of Rome.
When Romulus and his men, the first Romans, acquired wives via the Rape (abduction) of the Sabine Women, the Sabines, led by their king Titus Tatius, attacked Rome.
Tarpeia, daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, governor of the citadel on the Capitoline Hill, betrayed her Roman countrymen and opened the city gates in return “for what they bore on their arms.” She believed she would receive the golden bracelets they wore, but was instead crushed to death by their shields and thrown from a rock which still bears her name: the Tarpeian Rock.
Janus, protector of Rome, caused a hot spring to erupt, burning the would-be attackers and forcing them to flee.
Since that time in Rome’s early history, the gates of Janus’s temples remained open in times of war so he could render aid.
His most famous sanctuary was a portal on the Forum Romanum, through which Roman legions passed on their way to battle. He also had a temple on the Forum Olitorium.
In the 1st century CE, a temple to Janus was erected on the Forum of Nerva. It had four portals and was called Janus Quadrifons.
By the time of the Roman Republic, only one of the royal functions, the rex sacrorum or rex sacrifilicus, survived. These were priests who regularly sacrificed to Janus.
Today, Janus is commemorated in the name of the month January. Ianuarius, as it was originally called, was the eleventh month of the Roman calendar but is now the beginning of the year.