Two-headed Janus [on a coin]

After 211 BCE


The Classical World : Greco-Roman Era : Hellenistic Period : Italy and Islands

Two-faced Janus is the only Roman god who can 'see his own back.' His dual nature reminds us of the 'back side' of our own psyches and challenges us with the realization that the unconscious is also double.

On the obverse or 'heads' of a one-as Roman coin (equivalent to a penny) appears the head of the god Janus. Considered by the ancients as two-faced (bifrons) or two-headed (biceps), the deity's two identical faces here share a single neck and are depicted in profile facing away from each other to the left and right (technically, the god is looking forward and backward). Janus's features on this coin are far from classically Roman. He is shown as a mature, bearded man with a large fleshy nose, bulging eyes, and full lips; the hair of the head, roughly rendered, probably carries a headband. Indeed, the poor quality of this stamped relief is reflected in the quality of the coin itself, which is little more than a flat round piece of metal struck at Rome. On the reverse or 'tails' of this coin appears the prow of a war galley, the same image that appears on other coins, whose heads, however, depict different deities with each denomination.

Cultural Context
The Romans, perhaps more than people of other cultures, were very concerned with proper beginnings: if a matter began well it would end well. On January 1, the first day of the solar year, sweets were exchanged as gifts in order that 'the whole course of the year may be sweet, like its beginning' (Ovid, Fasti 1.188); on the same day the people worked lest 'idleness infect the whole' (1.168). At the beginning of war, the army would march from Rome by way of an auspicious gateway in the Forum as priests prayed, careful to name the gods in proper order. The first god named in any Roman prayer, when more than one deity was being addressed, was not-as one might expect-Jupiter, chief of the pantheon: it was instead Janus, god of all 'beginnings' ('Janus, Jupiter, Father Mars ... ye gods in whose power are both we and our enemies,' Livy 8.9.6). The first month, Januarius, was named for Janus. That auspicious gateway in the center of the city was really the rectangular temple of Janus, equipped at either end with doors to allow passage, doors that were kept open in times of war but closed as unnecessary in times of peace (an all-too-rare occasion). The god Janus is mentioned in the Salian Hymns, among the earliest extant fragments of Roman literature, and was judged by the ancients themselves as the oldest, and first, of all the gods of Italy.

Scholars are of two minds, as to how the god himself originated. According to one idea (the 'sky theory'), the J of Janus is a corruption of di, an Indo-European root for 'light' (in the same way that the Z in Zeus is a corruption of di in Greek); thus the name refers to a creator god of the bright sky. A second theory traces the name to the Latin word for 'door' janua (cf. jani, 'arches,' janitor, 'doorkeeper'). Certainly, doors are where events 'begin' while the two-faced form of this deity can be attributed to a door's facing within and without, its being the point through which one both enters and leaves.

The Latin poet Ovid provides data for both views in the account of his 'religious experience' of Janus:
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 ones thou dost see both back and front. While thus I mused, the tablets in my hand, methought the house grew brighter than it was before. Then of a sudden sacred Janus, in his two-headed shape, offered his double visage to my wondering eyes. A terror seized me, I felt my hair stiffen with fear, and with a sudden chill my bosom froze. (Fasti, 1.63ff.)

Although Ovid's statement here is probably a literary device, it nevertheless describes the disturbing attributes of a genuine experience of a numen (a Latin word for 'god' that also means 'nod,' since it was the nodding of a god's head that signified divine assent). In the passage, Janus goes on to reveal that he was once the 'chaos' that differentiated into the world--but not completely, since 'my front and back look just the same.' And he claims the typical sky-god attribute of viewing in opposite directions the 'whole world' (1.283f.).
In the passage, Janus says that he sits at 'heaven's gate ... and regulates the goings and comings of Jupiter himself.' The god reminds Ovid that 'every door has two fronts [or 'faces,' frontes], this way and that, whereof one faces the people and the other the house-god.' That explains the shape of Janus, who is heaven's janitor, 'free to look both ways without budging.' In the rare instances of a full-bodied image of Janus, there is always a staff in his right hand and a key in his left.

Archetypal Commentary
Although the Romans were convinced that Janus was exclusively their own, they may have borrowed him unconsciously from fellow Italians, the Etruscans, who at an earlier date worshiped a similar deity, named Ani. When the religious syncretism with Greece was in full sway by the second century BCE, Janus would remind Greco-Roman culture of the 'two-headed Hermes/Mercury' figures that stood at roadsides to guard two directions at once. Georges Dumézil has pointed out that the Scandinavian god Heimdallr 'especially recalls Janus, both in space and in time. Stationed 'at the limits of earth,' 'at the furthest point of the sky,' he is the watchman of the gods; 'born in the beginning,' he is the ancestor of humanity'--yet distinctly inferior in rank to the high god Odin, as Janus was to Jupiter (332-333). For popular Christianity, St. Peter took on some of these qualities when he received from Christ the 'key' to the Kingdom; it is despite--or because of--his two-faced personality that Peter is expected to be the janitor at the 'gates of Heaven.'

These parallels may well seem to be so many variations on a common Indo-European background; however, Frazer points to the very different culture of Suriname in northeast South America. There, villagers place at their gate a block of wood, carved on either side with the two faces of a god who wards off evil powers. Frazer notes:
Clearly this double-headed fetish at the gateway of the Negro villages in Suriname bears a close resemblance to the double-headed images of Janus ... and we can hardly doubt that in both cases the heads facing two ways are to be similarly explained as expressive of the vigilance of the guardian god. (193)

Material or Technique
Relief: bronze coin


Rome, Italy

Repository or Site
British Museum, London, England