By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek ….
 

ANCIENT ROMANS KNEW even less about the prehistoric origins of their religion than we do, since we have knowledge from centuries of archaeology. Latin writers of the Classical era tried to connect their own native Italian gods to the prestigious gods of ancient Greece, with their complex genealogies and deep cultural and artistic associations. So Jupiter is Zeus, Juno is Hera, Minerva is Athena, Bacchus is Dionysus, and so on.

But some Roman gods had no Greek counterpart. Foremost among these is Janus, god of doorways, beginnings and endings.

The first month of our calendar is called January in his honor. Roman artists represented Janus with two faces: one looking right (forward into the future), the other looking left (backward, into the past). Beginning in the third century BCE, this striking, powerful image appears on Roman coins.

Ancient coins depicting Janus or similar figures (“janiform heads”) include common types, as well as some of the most spectacular and rare.

Cast Bronze

Around 240 BCE the head of Janus appears on the massive, crudely cast bronze as of the Roman Republic. Initially these weighed about 285 grams; by 212 BCE they had fallen, through successive reductions, to about 66 grams. On Harlan Berk’s list of the “100 greatest ancient coins” (Berk, 60), this type–the aes grave as–ranks as #34. High-grade examples typically sell for around $3,500 USD and up.

At about the same time, the Etruscan city of Velathri (Volterra, about 133 miles [214 km] northwest of Rome) issued heavy cast bronze coins depicting Culsans, a beardless two-faced god wearing a pointed hat. We know the Romans derived much of their religion from the Etruscans, but the connection between Janus and Culsans (a god of the underworld) is unknown. Under a U.S. State Department agreement with Italy, such coins may no longer be imported into the United States.

Coinage is conservative, and the Janus design remained remarkably consistent, even after reasonably sized struck bronze coinage replaced heavy, awkward and easily counterfeited cast bronze. A weird variant appears on coins issued in 45 BCE during a period of civil war by Sextus Pompeius, son of the commander Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known in English as “Pompey the Great”). Pompey was assassinated in Egypt in 48 BCE. His son placed his late father’s portrait on his coins as a janiform head. On some examples, the right-facing portrait bears the features of Sextus, or his elder brother, Gnaeus Junior. In a 2013 German auction, a particularly sharp example of this type sold for 800 euros[1].

Culsans, the Etruscan Janus?

Quadrigatus and Denarius

Heads with two faces appear on many silver coins of the Roman Republic during the second and first centuries BCE, but they are not Janus (although some catalogues incorrectly describe them as such). These youthful, beardless faces belong to the twins Castor and Pollux–the “Dioscuri” of Greek mythology–adopted by the Romans.

Janus does appear, however, on a denarius of 120 BCE issued under the authority of an official named Marcus Furius, who inscribed his own name and pedigree (M FOVRI L F – “M. Fouri, son of Lucius”) around the god’s head. This coin is fairly common, with good examples often appearing at auction for under $100.

Temple of Janus

Janus also has a temple at Rome with double doors, which they call the gates of war; for the temple always stands open in time of war, but is closed when peace has come. The latter was a difficult matter, and it rarely happened, since the realm was always engaged in some war
Plutarch, Life of Numa. 20:1
[2]

The little “temple” of Janus in the Roman forum near the Curia (the old Senate house) was a peculiar structure. It was open-topped with stone side walls and bronze arched double doors at either end. A statue of the god stood inside.

Although no trace of it remains, we know how it looked thanks to coins of Nero struck in the years 64 and 65 CE. On the sestertius we see the entire shrine; on the gold aureus we see only a set of doors. In the inscription, Nero proudly takes credit: “He closed the doors of Janus having established peace for the Roman people on land and sea.” Possibly the finest known example of the sestertius recently sold for over $56,000 in a European auction[3].

What the statue looked like is suggested by a number of later Imperial coins. A gold aureus of Hadrian struck between 119 and 122 shows the bare-chested god standing, holding a long staff. The same image appears on a sestertius of Antoninus Pius struck circa 140. A bronze as datable to 124–128 presents a somewhat different image of Janus Quadrifrons (three guesses what quadrifrons means); we can just barely make out three faces (the fourth faces to the rear).

Mad Commodus

Possibly struck for New Year’s Day 187, a magnificent bronze medallion of Commodus, the demented ruler played by Joaquin Phoenix in the film Gladiator (2000)[4], represents the emperor himself as one face of Janus. A cataloguer for Numismatica Ars Classica observes that:

The portrait that faces right bears the obvious features of Commodus, and the orientation of the bust favors him; the portrait facing left has entirely different features, and it presumably represents Janus. However, it may have been taken – at least in jest – to represent Cleander, the former slave from Phrygia who had risen to become Commodus’ prefect and indispensable servant.

In 2007, this exquisitely bizarre piece sold for over $74,000[5].

Calling on Janus

The name of Janus appears on only a few Roman coins. Romans assumed that any head with two bearded faces was Janus, so there was little need to identify him with an inscription. There is no letter “J” in classical Latin, so the name was written IANVS. On coins it appears as IANO (in the dative case, as a dedication “to Janus”).

A denarius of the short-lived emperor Pertinax (January – March 193) invokes “Janus the Preserver” (IANO CONSERVAT)[6]. Apparently the last appearance of Janus on a Roman coin, the reverse of a very rare gold aureus of Gallienus struck at Rome in 260 is dedicated “to Father Janus” (IANO PATRI). Only two examples of this coin are known, both pierced to be worn as amulets[7].

Janiform Heads

Not every head with two faces is Janus.

Numismatists use the term “janiform” as a catch-all for heads with two faces. Janus was always bearded, but we see coins with two beardless faces on the same head, and even heads with one male and one female face.

The Greek island of Tenedos issued such coins for centuries. A magnificent early didrachm (ca. 490-480 BCE) in archaic style sold for $180,000 in a 2012 auction[8]. A tetradrachm in Hellenistic style (ca. 180 BCE) brought over $24,000 in a 2008 European sale[9].

Perhaps the most startling ancient coin featuring janiform heads is a little (9 mm) silver obol attributed to an “uncertain mint, possibly Tarsus” circa 400 – 380 BCE.

The obverse bears a janiform head with a male face to the left and a female one to the right. But the reverse is unique – a bearded “triform” head with three faces sharing two eyes. It may be coincidental, but this has a strong resemblance to images of the Hindu creator god Brahma, who has four heads, one facing each of the cardinal directions (symbolizing his omniscience). I cannot find another example of this design in classical numismatics, although it may be related in some way to Janus Quadrifrons. In a recent auction this rare and remarkable piece sold for over $14,000[10].

* * *

Notes

[1] Gorny & Mosch Auction 216, 15 October 2013. Lot 2847.

[2] http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Numa*.html

[3] Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 94, 6 October 2016. Lot 123.

[4] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0172495/?ref_=nv_sr_1

[5] Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 40, 16 May 2007. Lot 748.

[6] Roma Numismatics Auction XII, 29 September 2016. Lot 809. Realized $779 USD.

[7] The sole example to appear at auction went for $2,400 USD. Lot 758 in the New York Sale III, 7 December 2000.

[8] Classical Numismatic Group (CNG) Triton XV, 3 January 2012. Lot 1002.

[9] Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 48, 21 October 2008. Lot 96.

[10] Nomos Auction 12, 22 May 2016. Lot 112.

References

Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Atlanta, GA (2008)

Foss, Clive. Roman Historical Coins. London. (1990)

Müller, Valentine. “The Shrine of Janus Geminus in Rome”, American Journal of Archaeology 47 (1943)

Plutarch (John Dryden, transl.). Plutarch’s Lives. New York (1975)

Stevenson, Seth. Dictionary of Roman Coins.

Syme, Ronald. “Problems about Janus”, American Journal of Philology 100 (1979)

Taylor, Lily R. and Louise Holland. “Janus and the Fasti”, Classical Philology 47 (1952)
 


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