——As we contemplate an uncertain but hopeful 2010, now is a good time as any to recall some ancient Roman traditions and influences, including one that has carried over to modern times:

  • First, the origin of the name January.  It is the Anglicized version of the Roman Ianuarius, the month of Janus, the two-headed god of gates, doors and portals. As the first month of the new year, it is symbolic of the past carrying over to the future, as shown in the New Year. Janus was the most important deity in the Roman pantheon that did not have a Greek equivalent.

  • The Temple of Janus itself was of tremendous significance to the Romans.  There were several throughout Rome; the main temple stood in the Forum, the seat of Roman government. According to Livy, these were built by the second Roman king Numa Pompilius, a wise king who tried to distract the early Romans from their evil and warlike ways by imposing religious rites and trappings.

  • Among the most important of these rites was the ceremonial opening and closing of the Gates of the Temple of Janus. In times of peace, the gates were closed. In times of war, they were open, and remained open for as long as Rome and her provinces were in conflict. The Gates were closed on three very rare occasions in the history of ancient Rome: The first was during all the reign of Numa. They were reopened when the next king went to war. They would remain open for another 400 years until the end of the First Punic War against the Carthaginians. Even then, they were closed for all of eight years, until another war with the Gauls opened them all over again. It was only until Augustus, some 300 years later, did the gates close again. After that, Rome was always engaged in some conflict or another that any talk of closing the gates for good became ridiculous.

  • January 1 was the official start date of the new consuls, the supreme leaders of Rome in the days of the Republic. Two were elected each year, for a maximum of one year.  Each had veto power over the other, an early form of checks and balances. In the investiture ceremony, an augur or official high priest would release a flock of birds, intuit their flight patterns then make interpretations as to whether the gods favored the coming year, or how best to approach it.  From this ritual reading of birds’ flight, we get the word inauguration, which we all know by now. Here in the United States, it is a big event that happens every four years.  A presidential inauguration – well, that needs no further explanation, does it?

Happy New Year! May the auguries for 2010 be good and positive! At the very least, read the patterns of the wild geese’s flight to be in your favor.

Copyright Anabasius 2010


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