January 9 – The Feast of Janus

January is the month of Janus, the ancient Roman god of new beginnings and the patron god of windows and doors – yes, I’m serious. He is depicted as a man with a double face, able to look forwards and backwards at the same time. This symbolizes reflecting on the past and looking towards the future. Janus is invoked by those who are starting a new chapter in their lives, like moving, getting a new job, getting married, having kids, etc.

Bust of the god Janus, located in the Vatican Museum, Vatican City. Photograph by Fubar Obfusco (February 13, 2005). Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons.

Although the entire month of January was dedicated to the god Janus, he also had a specific feast day on January 9th, known as the Agonalia of Janus. An “agonalia” is a holy feast day that has live animal sacrifices. These sacrifices originally took place upon the top of the Quirinal Hill, one of the fabled Seven Hills of Rome; in archaic times, the Quirinal Hill used to be called the Agonal Hill, the Hill of Sacrifices. There were several agonalia festivals throughout the year dedicated to various gods. In addition to the Agonalia of Janus on January 9th, there was also the Agonalia of Mars on March 17th, the Agonalia of Vediovis (a Roman god who was sort of a mixture between the Greek gods Apollo and Asclepius) on May 21st and the Agonalia of Sol, the god of the sun, held on December 11th (1).

Ovid says regarding January 9th, “Janus must be propitiated on the Agonal day…Some believe that the day is called Agonal because the sheep do not come to the altar but are driven (agantur). Others think the ancients called this festival Agnalia, ‘of the lambs’, dropping a letter from its usual place. Or because the victim fears the knife mirrored in the water, the day might be so called from the creature’s agony? It may also be that the day has a Greek name from the games (agones) that were held in former times. And in ancient speech agonia meant a sheep, and this last reason in my judgement is the truth. Though the meaning is uncertain, the king of the rites, must appease the gods with the mate of a woolly ewe” (2).

The central event of the Agonalia was the sacrifice of a ram to the god Janus. The ancient Roman poet Ovid states that the sacrificial altar was decorated with garlands of purple violet flowers, and that the top of the altar was adorned with bowls that burned juniper incense and laurel leaves. “The altar was happy to fume with Sabine juniper, and the laurel burned with a loud crackling. He was rich, whoever could add violets to garlands woven from meadow flowers” (3).

The presiding priest was called the rex sacrificulus, “the king of sacrifices”, and the sacrifice took place at a location called the Regia, where the former kings of Rome used to reside. When the ram was brought to the altar, the priest would invoke the name of the god and ask whether or not the sacrifice ritual should continue. “Always, before he stains the naked blade with hot blood, he asks if he should, and won’t unless commanded” (4). When the god reveals to him that the sacrifice should continue (how this happens is never mentioned), then the ram is killed and offered to the god. Offerings of dates, figs, and honey within sealed white jars were also made to Janus as part of the ceremony (5).

Source citations:

  1. William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875. Pages 31-32; “Agonalia”.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  5. “Roman Festivals & Holidays”; William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray, 1875. Pages 31-32.


Please check out my “Today in Ancient Rome” series for more articles on the ancient Roman calendar. You can find the whole list by clicking here!

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