Imagine having two faces, one at the back of your head as well as one at the front. The ancient Italic deity Janus was so conceived, and as such was god of exits and entrances, of the gate and the doorway (Latin ianua, hence JANitor originally meant “doorman” or “gatekeeper”). Janus faced both in and out, forward and backward, protecting the prayerful within the home or city, defending against hostile forces from without. His most ancient cult was situated on the JANiculum hill, on the west bank of the Tiber river and originally outside Rome’s city walls. In times of total peace — rare in Roman times (and seemingly in our own) — the doors of his temple were closed. From the Janiculum’s summit (it was second highest of the hills in the area) priests known as augures (as in inAUGURal/inAUGURate) performed rituals called auspicia, which were designed to ascertain whether the gods were AUSPICIous/favorable or inAUSPICIous/unfavorable toward any proposed political or military undertaking.
Janus presided also over endings and beginnings, and was often the first god called upon in prayers. Romans named the first month of the year JANUary in his honor, and January 1 was called “Janus’ day,” Iani dies (as in DIary and carpe DIEm, “seize/harvest the day”). Typically depicted with a beard, like our Father Time, the deity looked back at events of the past year and forward to the annus novus (as in ANNual/centENNial/NOVice/NOVelty). In that Latin phrase, meaning “new year,” note that the adjective follows the noun, whereas in English modifiers regularly precede. That’s an aspect of the logic of the Romans’ wonderful language: The person or thing they were talking about, represented by the noun (“name,” Latin nomen, as in NOMENclature, a naming system, and NOMINate, to name a candidate for office), was usually mentioned first, and the characteristic or attribute, the adjective, was regarded as secondary and thus followed.
A while back I published "Ubi Fera Sunt" (as in UBIquitous and FERal), my Latin translation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are.” Young Max, carousing wildly through the house in his wolf costume, creates just enough mischief that his mom sends him to bed without any dinner. In his magical imagination, Max’s room grows into a mystical world where he can happily continue his ferocious adventures. The story fantasized by Max (I call him “Maximus” in my version, like Russell Crowe’s character in the movie "Gladiator") is very like a miniature Roman epic, with an ocean voyage, a year-long journey to unknown lands, and an encounter there with TERRIBLE beasts. The young hero, undeterred, rises above all these perils, mesmerizingly makes his mark in the densely forested world of the Wild Things, becomes their king, then sails safely back into his bedroom, where he finds dinner awaiting and, amazingly, still warm — a classic epic homecoming.
As he commences his mythic reign, Maximus shouts out to the Wild Things, Turba fera incipiat (think TURBulent/FERocity/INCEPtion), “Let the wild rumpus begin!” We might imagine our young hero first offering a silent prayer to Janus, who clearly smiled upon both the rumpus and Max’s safe return. As we voyage together into 2018, here’s hoping that all our rumpuses this year will be joyfully, happily, healthily WILD.
— Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is “Ubi Fera Sunt,” a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are,” ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.