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Byzantine Iconography

The orthodox icon as a place and way of multiple encounters

On the Divine Images I.16-17

Orthodox Art and Architecture

The honor and veneration of the holy icons

Byzantine Athens


Romanos the Melodist

C. A. Trypanis
The orthodox ethos, studies in Orthodoxy,
ed. A. J.Phillipou. Oxford 1964, 186- 199

There are two periods in the history of Greek literature when the Greek genius has produced original and spontaneous poetic forms, and in both cases it was the pronunciation of the language that determined the mould into which the poetry was cast. The first of these periods covers the eighth to the fourth centuries b.c., when quantitative rhythm was the basis on which the various classica l meters were built. The second, very little known in the western world, covers the time from the fourth to the sixth centuries a . d ., when the pitch had fully developed into a stress-accent, and a new type of poetry had to be conceived; for ancient verse, when read aloud, no longer sounded like poetry. At the same time the Greek nation had been drawn into the orbit of Christianity, and the new religion, with its Greco-Oriental background, brought a new impulse into Greek life and literature.

When we realize the vast weight of the tradition of classical Greek and Hellenistic poetry, and the influence which it inevitably exerted in the great Greek cultural centres of the East, in whose libraries it had been amassed; and when indeed we see the tyranny which its dead forms exercised over the whole course of Byzantine secular poetry, we cannot but admire the sudden and untrammelled outburst which led to the one great original form that Byzantine religious poetry producedthe K ontakion.

Of the many significant changes which the Greek language underwent during the period of the so-called Hellenistic Koine (300 B-c 300 A.D.), it is the changes in pronunciation which interest us most here. The immense numbers of Hellenized semi-barbarians, as well as the various Greeks who built up the great Hellenistic cities of the East, could not render accurately the delicate and musical pronunciation of Attic Greek, which was the basis of the Panhellenic Koine of the time. It was beyond them to utter the fine distinctions of its long and short vowels and diphthongs, or to retain the musical quality of the ancient accents. Thus a coarser and simpler pronunciation developed; the whole rhy thm of the Greek language changed; the musical pitch-accent gave way to the dynamic stress-accent, and so the ancient prosody on which ancient metres based their rules was lost for ever. By die end of the third century A .D. any classical poet, when read aloud in the current pronunciation in any part of the Greek-speaking world, would no longer conveyed die feeling of verse, the harmonious rhythm and measure, the main external elements which distinguish poetry from the prose writings of the same period.

Yet the history of Greek literature shows that poetry has always been a necessity for the Greeks, who, through all the storms of their long and perturbed life, have never lost their deep sensitivity to joy and sorrow the eternal sources of inspiration. Moreover, during the period with which we are concerned (the fourth to the sixth centuries) the fervor of the new Christian religion, with its deep devotion to its mysteries and admiration for its martyrs, was a great incentive to poetic creation. A poetry had therefore to be devised which could be recognized as such by a praying congregation, and not one which, by adhering to obsolete classical metres, could be enjoyed only when read privately by a limited number of classically - educated people, like the religious poetry of Methodius, Synesius, or Gregory of Nazianzus. Rhythm and integration, which are the foundations of beauty in poetry, were now sought in the number of syllables and the place of the accents within a line. At the same time, lines were grouped together into strophes, and an equivalence and balance both of form (in the number of syllables and accents within a line) and of content was cultivated, so that a rhythmic' poetic effect was achieved within the limits of the new Greek pronunciation.

Unfortunately the scanty and mostly anonymous poems which survive from this period do not allow us to trace exactly the course followed by this development; we do not know if the simpler Kata stichon hymns (poems having the same number of syllables and the same set accents in every line) are the older, or if evolved forms (with their elaborate strophes) developed later. However that may be, the simpler forms continue side by side wi the more evolved right up to the end of this period.

The view has been expressed, and to a certain extent seems we founded, that this impulse towards a new metric system came from a foreign poetry, and flourished in Greek because it was particularly fitted to the new pronunciation of the time, which rendered obsolete all the ancient forms. This impulse can only have, come through the influence of Syriac literature, for patristic studies have shown that the early Christian literatures of the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean were very closely connected, and the boundaries of nation and language were overstepped by the common Christian element. It is probable that Greeks and Latins took many musical and literary elements from the Semitic Christians who were closer to the source of Christianity. The strophic element in particular, which appears in the fourth to the sixth centuries, seems almost certainly to come from the influence of the Syriac. Not a trace of the ancient Greek strophic systems appears in it. But if this is due to oriental influence, the way in which accents used and blended with it, so as to produce new laws and rich forms, is purely Greek.

It is interesting to notice that in the Latin-speaking West, where the same changes were taking place for approximately the same reasons, rhyme was also developed; this was not introduced in Greek-speaking East until much later, when it was a direct re of the Frankish establishment in Greek lands in the thirteenth century, after the Fourth Crusade (1204) (1).

Out of this new rhythmic conception of verse, with its isometrically corresponding units, a conception which comes very close to that of the rhythmic prose of the early Christian era, developed the new elaborate poetic form, the Kontakjon. The word kontakion appears to be derived from the staff, the Kontos, on which the parchment was rolled. The Byzantine hymnodists, however, use a number of terms for this form, as we can see from the acrostic which was one of the main elements, and the sphragis of the poem : ὕ , ἔ , ὠ , , occasionally .

The kontakion in its final form, as it was developed in the hands of Romanos (2), the greatest poet of the Christian East, was a poetic sermon composed of a number (anything up to forty) of strophes called oikoi, all corresponding fully to one another, both in the number of syllables and in the position of accents in the line, and in regular pauses determined both by the rhythm and the content. All the strophes are bound together by an acrostic, in which the name of the poet very frequently occurs, and a common refrain. The kontakion proper is preceded by a prelude, a koukoulion , in a different metre, which ends in, and introduces, the refrain of the whole poem.

The kontakion appears to have been chanted almost like an oratorio. The music which accompanied all the kontakia of that period has unfortunately been lost, but it is evident that the melody, which was exactly the same for every strophe, determined the metrical schema, in this respect alone making the kontakion similar to the odes of Pindar and Bacchylides.

Of the kontakia we possess today, the earliest and the latest stable ones are both by Romanos, and belong to the reign of Justinian (c. 537-555 ) But, as the kontakion in the hands of Romanos presents its fullest development, and our scanty tradition has retained certain anonymous examples of a much less elaborate nature, it is probable, though we have no proof, that these represent earlier stages in this remarkable development. In fact we are able to trace the earliest foreign origins of this literary genre. Certain of its main elements, such as the acrostic and the refrain, can be found in the Greek literary tradition of the fourth and fifth centuries A .D.; but its real character, that of a metrical sermon, and the strophic element which determines its metrical form, are certainly due to the influence of Syriac literature, which in the early Christian era was much admired and translated by the Byzantine Greeks. In fact in the three important forms of Syriac poetry cultivated in the course of the fourth and the fifth centuries, the memra, the madrasa, and the sugita, we can find all the principal elements of the Byzantine kontakion. The memra is a metrical sermon, which differs from the kontakion only inasmuch as its metres are much simpler and it has no acrostic and no refrain. The madrasa always has a refrain (and a more complicated system of strophes) but not always an acrostic. The sugita is an antiphonal song with an obligatory acrostic, into which biblical episodes are also introduced, in the form of dialogues. There is nothing comparable to these Syriac forms in Greek literature of the fourth and fifth centuries.

On the other hand one should mention, as forerunners of the kontakion in Greek, the sermons in poetic prose of the fourth and fifth centuriesfor example those of Basil of Seleucia and such poems as the famous Parthenion by Methodius, Bishop of Olympus (d. 312), which however does not entirely disregard the ancient quantitative metres, or the Dialogue between Gabriel and Mary attributed to Proclus. There is also the early sermon of Bishop Melito of Sardis (3).

At the same time, all the artifices and elaborate adornment of the rhetoric of the Second Sophistic, and the late Hellenistic taste for complicated metre and rhythm, and the richness and clarity of Greek vocabulary and expression, were combined with the elements taken over from Syriac literature, the elements which the poetry of Ephraem, Narsai, Cyrillona and Jacob of Serugh gave to Byzantium. This new Greek religious poetry quickly spread through the Greek-speaking world, and in its next period, which is dominated by the figure of Romanos, it became the greatest literary achievement of Byzantium .

The biographical information we have about Romanos is extremely scanty. It is mainly based on the old synaxarion attached to his feast day, 1st October (4). From this we learn that Romanos was born in Syria and served as a deacon in Beirut. Later he came to Constantinople, in the reign of Anastasius I (491-518), and was attached to the church of the Virgin in the Ta Kyrou quarter, where, according to the legend, he was blessed with the gift of writing kontakia ... for in the course of a night the Holy Virgin appeared to him in a dream and gave him a scroll of paper, telling him: Take the paper and swallow it. The saint thought that he opened his mouth and swallowed the paper. It happened to be the festival of Christmas; and at once, rising from his sleep, he marvelled at this and gave praise to God. Then he went up into the pulpit and started singing:

Today the Virgin gives birth

to Him who is beyond substance.

Having composed kontakia for other festivals about a thousand, he departed unto the Lord.' We are also told by a later hymn composed in his honour that he was of Jewish origin and came to know the splendours of the court'.

Of all the cantica which Romanos composedeighty-five have come down to us under his namethe most famous is the one On the Nativity (5) . This is not only considered as his greatest poem, but also, together with the Akathistos, as the peak of the whole poetic genre of the kontakion. It consists of twenty-four strophes with the acrostic and is introduced by a koukoulion in which the elaboration of rhetoric exceeds all bounds.

In its structure this kontakion shows an excellent sense of form. The proemium( koukoulion) states the argument of the whole poem; the great news of the birth of Christ is revealed, and the outline of what is to follow is traced in a few lines. In spite of its rhetorical embellishment it retains a mystical tone and an impressive directness and brevity which lead into the refrain. The first strophe is an exhortation to the people to move in spirit towards the scene of the great drama. This is followed by a prayer of the Virgin (strophes 2-3), which shows her sincere and unassumed humility, and at the same time the extreme poverty of the surroundings into which the

King of Kings has chosen to be born.

See, there is no room for Thy maidservant at the inn;

For me no room, I say, not even a cave, for even that is not mine.

To Sarah, when she bore a child, was allotted a wide stretch of land; to me not even a wild beast's lair.

I used the cave which Thou of Thy Own will didst inhabit,

a little child, God of all time.'

Then comes the main body of the kontakion, which treats of the appearance of the Magi and their dialogue with the Virgin, in which the Wise Men relate the apparition of the Star and their journey, and finally offer their gifts. Here the poet displays all the freshness and the grandeur of his inspiration, for there is a biblical simplicity about all the scenes he describes, and the action proceeds regularly, without digressions. The description is made alive by the dramatic element of the dialogue, and in the hands of Romanos all the persons introduced, the Virgin, the shepherds, the Wise Men, are with great dexterity and delicacy reduced to minor, humble figures before the cradle of the Infant God, who, although He hardly ever participates directly in these scenes, is omnipresent and omnipotent all through.

The whole kontakion culminates in the exquisite prayer of the Virgin (strophes 22-24), which is the counterpart of the initial prayer (strophes 2-3). It is full of poetic vigour and tenderness. The Virgin is the voice of the whole world and all God's creation. Here we see at its height the Byzantine conception of the Virgin as the Mother Protector of the world, and the mediator for all suffering mankind.

I am not only Thy mother, O merciful Saviour,

not in vain do I give suck to the Giver of milk;

but for all men do I supplicate Thee.

Thou has made me the mouth and the pride of all my race,

and Thy creation has me as a strong cover,

a wall and a buttress.

To me do they look, who are cast out

of the Paradise of delight,

for I shall lead them back

and they shall see the reasons of all things

through Me, who bore Thee

a little Child, God of all time.'


The language used by Romanos in this, as in all his other kontakia, is fairly simple. It is based on the language of the literary tradition, the atticised literary' Koine, as taught in the schools of rhetoric and grammar in the Greco-Oriental world of the sixth century. There are, of course, a number of deviations and errors', for Romanos was not born a Greek, and presumably learnt Greek as a second language and not as his native tongue.

Later purists were inclined to look upon these as serious errors' and, although most of them occur quite commonly in the Koine of that period, they have been altered by later Byzantine copyists and made to conform as far as possible to Attic standards. For, in the interval of four centuries between the life-time of Romanos (ft. c. 560) and the date of the earliest extant manuscripts of his works, there was a decline in the endeavour, apparent at the beginning of the Middle Ages, to acknowledge and accept the new evolution which the language had undergone in the period of the Koine, and to include the new idiomor at least part of itin the written language and literature. This unifying tendency and desire for a common and reasonably alive language failed because of the reaction of the Byzantine Atticist movement, which took hold of literature and tried to purify the texts of even the most vulgar authors of the early Byzantine centuries. The works of Romanos did not escape, and we must assume that a number of simpler and more popular linguistic forms used by the poet were atticised wherever the metre allowed.

One of the most beautiful kontakia of Romanos, and one in which the dramatic element is most evident, is that composed for Good Friday, On the Passion of the Lord, and the Lamentation of the Virgin', known as Mary at the Cross ( 6).

The body of the poem consists of a moving dialogue between the Virgin, who in the company of other women is following Christ carrying His cross, and her Son, who tries to comfort her and explain the meaning of the mystery of the Passion. An air of divine calm and deep tragedy accompanies the action, and the opposed psychologies of the human Mother and the divine Son are beautifully brought out.

The first strophes, in which the Virgin approaches her Son and asks: What is she to do? Is she to follow Him, or is she to wait behind?', reflecting with anguish on the sudden change in His fortunes and His complete abandonment by His disciples (for not even Peter, not even Thomas, is near') can hardly fail to move.

Where art Thou going, my Child? For whose sake wilt Thou reach the end of this road? Is there another wedding in Cana, and Thou art hastening there,

that from water Thou wilt make wine? Shall I come with Thee, or rather wah for Thee? Give me an answer, my Son; do not pass by me in silence,

Who didst keep me in my purity, my Son, my God.

never hoped to see Thee in such necessity, my Son, nor did I believe that the lawless would so much rage, and raise against Thee lawless hands. Their little children are still crying to Thee, Hosanna, and still the road is filled with palms, and makes manifest how the licentious did acclaim Thee. Now, why has the worst been done? Alas, I wish to know how my light is extinguished, how to a cross is nailed my Son, my God.

Thou goest, O Child, to unjust slaughter, and nobody suffers with Thee. Peter goes not with Thee, who did say: Never shall I deny Thee, though I die; Thomas has deserted Thee, who said: With Thee shall we all die. And again the others, the intimates and friends, who were to judge the tribes of Israel, where are they now? Not one of them all, but one for ah, Child, dost Thou die alone; because Thou hast saved them all, because Thou hast loved them all, my Son, my God.

Jesus in his answer seeks both gently to comfort Mary and to explain the great mission of the Passion. She should not grieve as other women, for she is the (to whom grace was shown'), and should not make herself like those who have no understanding'. She is the one who stands in the middle of his bridal-chamber', and should not wither her soul like those who stand without' (strophe 5). And though His sufferings come from being conceived in flesh in her, it is through His suffering in this flesh that He is to save humanity, and her Son and God voluntarily undertakes this suffering (strophe 6).

The Mother promises to withhold her tears, but cannot understand why, when Christ has done such great miracles as the bringing to life of Lazarus and the cleansing of the leper, without suffering, He now wishes to hasten to His death. She beseeches Him: Do not hasten to the slaughter, do not love death, my Son, my God'.

Jesus goes on to explain how Adam, sick both in body and soul is weeping the anguish of his soul ' in the he depths of Hades, and Eve is sighing with him; and only He can cure them.

The Virgin is convinced, but her wounded mother s hear cannot bear the idea of separation, and takes courage once more to address Him: This I fear, that from the grave Thou dost go straight up to Heaven, my Child, and I, seeking to see Thee, weep and cry, Where is my Son, my God? (strophe 11).

Jesus consoles her again, telling her that she will be the first to see Him after His resurrection, holding in His hands the tokens of His victory-the cross, the nails, the spear-with which He cured the wounds of Adam and Eve; and she will be the happiest of all, and will cry out, He has saved my parents, my Son, my God' (strophe 12).

Mary is convinced that she should follow Jesus to the place of His death, and He tries to prepare and strengthen her for the great moment when the elements are moved, and the sky shall go blind', the earth and the sea hasten to disappear and the curtain of the temple be rent asunder and the mountains shake and the graves be emptied. If when thou dost see these things thou art afraid as a woman, cry to me, Spare me, my Son, my God ' (strophe 16).

In this grand and terrifying strophe the whole kontakion culminates it is one of the few Byzantine poems in which the Aristotelian pity and fear' is fully achievedonly to return in the last stanza to a peaceful prayer of faith, love and hope which is rendered to God by the whole congregation through the lips of the poet.

Occasionally the dramatic impulse displayed by Romanos bursts out into real passion and a certain oriental exuberance, which we may, perhaps, attribute to his non-Greek origin and early eastern training. These qualities are very marked in his kontakion On Judas (7), in which for 237 lines the poet piles abuse upon the treacherous disciple, thus giving vent to the full flood of his Christian indignation. A few lines will be sufficient to show the character of this poem:

Now was insatiety made manifest, and bottomless greed revealed, O ravenous, prodigal, implacable, most shameless, glutton, conscienceless, miser. What will you give me?, dost thou say to those who wish to buy the blood of Him who lives and is among us? What good thing was there that thou didst not have, of what hadst thou had no part? Thou hadst the things of heaven joined with the things of earth, and now dost sell thy God.

Be merciful, merciful, merciful to us; who dost suffer all, all men receiving' (strophe 15).

It is not only in dramatic impact and outbursts of pathos that Romanos excels: there is also a certain plastic quality about some of his kontakia. This is due largely to the liveliness of the dialogue, and it imparts a sense of life not alien to drama or good dialogue. One can almost see the characters living and acting before his eyes, so life-like does he portray them, and this impression must have been further enhanced by the great frescoes and mosaics on the walls of the Byzantine churches where the kontakia were chanted. For the subjects of nearly all the great kontakia were also those traditionally used by the icon painters who adorned the interiors of the churches. He plastic element is particularly evident in the Kontakion On Joseph II (8) where the poet speaks first of the nature of Virtue in a fully Platonic manner before coming to strophe 6, where the Devil is urging on the Egyptian woman to embellish herself as alluringly as possible for the great battle against Virtue.

The Devil escort of adultery came to work with the Egyptian woman in her evil, and he said: Strive with a man's strength, O woman, and as a strong, tried hook prepare the bait and catch the young man. Plait the tresses of thy head as nets against him. Adorn elaborately the appearance of thy face, ornamenting it with all rose- coloured trickeries. Brighten thy throat with necklaces of twisted gold, and above all wear a precious gown, and anoint thyself with many perfumes, for perfumes sap the will of young men. Before us lie battles strong and mighty. If he set purity against thee, do thou oppose lasciviousness to him. Do not be conquered, for we must not to be brought to mockery. He will say to you: I will not do what you wish, for the sleepless eye looks down on everything'.

The battle reaches its climax in the final strophes, where the struggle achieves supernatural dimensions and is waged between Woman (as the symbol of evil and lust) and Divine Grace and Prudence from above. The final victory rests with Virtue, with the garment of immortality' as the prize of Joseph the victor.

The raving woman . . . assails the prudent youth and grasps his robe and grasps his robe, and drags by force the modest Joseph, saying, Hear me, my beloved, come here and lie with me'. On one side the Egyptian woman was drawing him, and on the other Grace. The one cried, Sleep with me!' but from above Grace cried, Stay awake with me!' Together with her the Devil was bitterly struggling, and with her hands was clasping young Joseph strongly. But Prudence moved again to the fray, bringing her hand to his aid, and said, Though the garb of the prudent man may be torn, let his body not be polluted'. For from Him who sets the prize he shall receive as victor the garment of immortality, for the sleepless eye down on everything' (strophe 18).

The hymn is modeled on the metrical form of the Akathisto s, and is ne of the most beautiful and forceful of the hymns of Romanos.

Occasionally, however, Romanos reaches the heights of pure lyricism. He express himself with real tenderness of feeling, power and brilliance in certain strophes of his cantica as, for instance, in the kontakion On the Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia II (9).

On the few strophes which he published Cardinal Pitra wrote: in quo hymno nec sibi Romanus, neque lyrico ulli impar est'.

More brilliant than the sun shines forth the brightness of these saints. For the clouds may cover the sun, but no night can eclipse their light. The sun in risng casts forth flashes, but in setting he draws all this brilliant rays with him. But the joyous light shed by the all blessed ones is heralded by the day, and even the night stands in full awe before it, amazed how it had the power to shine through the stormy events. For it stood in all glory by Him who gives glory to the faithful, and heard Him say: You have given me glory on earth, I, too, in the sky, will avow my belief in you by giving you glory from heaven and a multitude of crowns' (strophe 3).

But often pure fervent lyricism deepens into a profound religious feeling, as we can see in the last strophe of his famous Easter Hymn, On the Resurrection VI (10) :

May my dead soul

be raised to life with Thy resurrection, Saviour;

may she not be worn by sorrow

and for ever after come to oblivion

of these songs

that make he: noly:

O Merciful

Thee do I beseech:

do not abandon him

who is speckled with sins;

for in transgressions

and in my sins

did my mother conceive me.



and full of compassion,

hallowed be Thy name for ever

in my mouth

and on my lips,

in my voice and in my song;

give grace to me

as I proclaim

Thy hymns;

for this is Thy power,

Thou who dost lift up

those who fall' (strophe 24).

But the dramatic impetus, the lively dialogue, the lyricism and other qualities of Romanos are frequently sacrificed to the interests of theological and polemic controversies, always tiring, but still more so when treated by a man with no real theological or philosophical training, and at tedious oriental' length, in some of his more epic' kontakia, for example the one On the three Children (11).

Problems of dogmatic theology entered into certain kinds of Byzantine religious poetry at a very early date. This we learn from the fact that in the course of the fifth century the writers of Troparia were divided into two groups, one for and one against the decisions of the Synod of Chalcedon (a.d. 451), and even before that from the famous Thaleia of Arius and all the Arian hymnic poetry. By the time of Justinian the practice seems to have become established, and Romanos, the greatest religious poet of the time, did not escape this tendency.

Not unnaturally his dogmatic opinions, and especially those connected with the nature of Christ, are very close to those held by Justinian and the Council of Chalcedon. He constantly supports the religious policy of the Emperor, and there are many references in his work to the two natures of Christ in their mysterious union which retains the specific qualities of both natures.

Nor does Romanos limit himself to a mere exposition of his dogmatic views. He frequently takes an aggressive attitude towards all heretical views and often attacks the teachings of Arius, the Nestorians, the Manichees and the Novatians. Only the Monophysites he treats with great caution, probably because the Empress Theodora was well known to have Monophysite sympathies. So he refrains from referring to them by name, but only attacks them indirectly by praising the two natures of Christ.

There is no doubt that, as in so much else in his kontakia, Romanos is drawing in his religious-dogmatic polemics on well- known older sources. Here again we have a good example of the superficial and light-hearted manner in which he uses his sources and launches his invectives. There is no real understanding of the views against which he is fighting, and he introduces no arguments worthy of the name to support his polemics. Usually he is content with the names of the heresy and its founder, and a catchword or a cheap pun with a line of abuse attached to it.

In his invectives against heretics and unbelievers Romanos includes the whole of ancient culture. It seems that he had no proper historical or literary education. The great men of antiquity, Homer, Pythagoras or Plato, meant nothing to him. They were just names which he could use for his rhetorical tricks, his Paronomasiae, or play upon the sound of words.

The attitude of the sixth-century Church, which regarded ancient literature and culture as dangerous and anti-Christianthe attitude which led Justinian to close the philosophic schools of Athens in 529 a.d. is taken up by Romanos, who always supported the Emperor's religious policy and brought it into his poetry. But again, just as in his polemics against heretical views, there is no understanding of the meaning of ancient culture, such as the Cappadocian Fathers had had two centuries earlier. Romanos shows a bigoted and narrow-minded desire to gain the approval of the state and society at its expense.

The assessment of Romanos as a poet of original ideas and true creative imagination is very closely connected with the problem of the sources he used when composing his great kontakia. As research in this field progresses (12) and investigation continues into the endless verbatim quotations from the Old and the New Testaments and into the numerous passages, ranging from single phrases to a full kontakion, which are dependent upon the writings of the great Christian orators and upon the lives of saints and martyrs, the originality of Romanos and his value as a great creative poet seem more and more open to doubt.

It is interesting to note that even heretical writers like Nestorius, against whom he wrote, were used by Romanos as sources for his work.

The technique employed by Romanos varied, of course, according to the sources which he used. Where he used a biblical source he had to expand and elaborate the brevity of the original in order to fill the long strophes of his cantica. On the other hand, where he used the lives of saints and martyrs the long-drawn-out legends had to be compressed and curtailed in order to fit into the framework of his oikoi.

This dependence on a number and variety of sources must be partly responsible for the fact that, though his style is to a certain degree cultured and personal, Romanos does not achieve in all his writings the same power and unity which characterize the great original writers.

But though Romanos depends in very large measure upon his various sources, it would be unfair to say that he has no independence or originality whatsoever. He often starts from a particular source or picture, and then develops it freely. He proceeds to dramatize it by the introduction of lively dialogue, furthering this effect by the use of forceful and beautiful adjectives, until he gives us something new, which we must acknowledge as such while no exact source has been found for the form which Romanos has given it.

Romanos may not attain to the profound understanding or human nature or the palpitating heights of lyricism which have made the great poets of antiquity unique in the history of literature. Nor does he display the deep religious fervour, tinged with mysticism, of some religious poets of the West, or even of some of the poetry of Symeon the Mystic, if we are to bring another, though later, example from Byzantium; but it would be unfair not to admit that in his long and lively narratives, with their grand pictures and visions of Christ, the Virgin, the patriarchs and the prophets, the martyrs and the saints, there is a richness of imagination and expression and a spontaneity and simplicity which is impressive. At the same time there are touches of deep and great art in his poetry. The sorrow and bewilderment of Our Lady, for example, in the kontakion On Mary at the Cross, truly reflects the sorrow of all mothers who have loved and lost their children. It cannot fail to move us.

Romanos represents in religious poetry the spirit of creative expansion and innovation which characterizes the great era of Justinian in so many fields. It was at approximately the same time that Musaeus wrote Hero and Leander, which has been called the last flower of the ancient Greek garden. The ancient world, with all that it had felt and thought, had passed away, and the ancient theatre lay dead. But in the splendid surroundings of the Byzantine churches with their flickering candles and their golden mosaics Romanos gave new life to the grand tradition of Greek poetry. It was he who revived the dramatic element and handed it down to the medieval Greeks in his great kontakia, for which he has fittingly been called , the Orator of the Lord'.


(1) As a relic of ancient rhetoric, it naturally appears very frequently in early Byzantine religious poetry.

(2) A good bibliography of Romanos down to 1959 is to be found in H. G. Beck, Kirche und theologische Literatur in byzantinischen Reich, Munich, 1959, pp. 425 ff.

(3) Twenty-five years ago his Paschal Homily was discovered and its now available in Papyrus Bodmer XIII, Méliton des Sardes, Homélie sur la Pâque , ed. Michel Testuz, Cologny- Genève, 1960.

4) The date when Romanos was canonized as a saint of the Orthodox Chruch is unknown. See S. Petrides, Byzantinische Zeitschrift II, (1902), pp. 258 f.

5)See Maas and C. A. Trypanis, Sancti Romani Cantica Genuina, Oxford 1963, pp. i.f.

6) Maas-Trypanis, op. cit., pp. 1 42 f.

7) Maas-Trypanis, op. cit., pp. 122 f.

(8) Maas-Trypanis, op. cit., pp. 354 f.

(9) Maas-Trypanis, op. cit., pp. 495 f.

10) Maas-Trypanis, op. cit., pp. 223 f.

11) Maas-Trypanis, op. cit., pp. 380 f.

(12) Of the eighty-five cantica which have come down to us under the name of Romanos modern scholarship considers twenty (all hagiographical) as spurious.

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