Romanos the Melodist (ca. 485 – ca. 560)

Byzantine hymnographer and deacon. Born in Ḥimṣ (Emesa), Romanos earned the surname ‘the Melodist’ by composing hymns in Greek which, for the last 1,500 years, have been regarded as masterpieces. Although he is sometimes credited with developing a new Greek poetic form, the kontakion, it is more accurate to call him the perfector of this genre: his hymns are the most perfect examples of this form, whose invention antedates him. The kontakion is credited with introducing the ‘accent’ (or ‘Byzantine’) metric into Greek poetry (contrasted with the earlier ‘quantitative’ or ‘Hellenic’ metric). Romanos’s kontakia have also been singled out as the first examples of chancel drama, and the predecessor of the medieval mystery and passion plays. Romanos’s hymns are rhetorically elegant, theologically sophisticated, aesthetically sublime, and psychologically profound; Karl Krumbacher termed him ‘the greatest Church poet of all time’.

Little is known of Romanos’s life. The liturgical ‘Menaia’ and ‘Synaxaria’ of the Byzantine Orthodox Church are our sole sources. They state that he was born in Emesa and was ‘of the Hebrew race’. He became a deacon in Beirut, and then moved to Constantinople during the reign of Anastasius I (r. 491–518). There he lived in the ‘temple’ of the Theotokos in the Kuros. It is reported that in his sleep the night before the Feast of the Nativity, Mary appeared to him in a vision and gave him a scroll to eat. He then awoke, ascended into the pulpit, and began to sing one of his most beautiful and subsequently well-known kontakia: ‘Today the Virgin gives birth to the super-essential one’. Famed during his own life for his popular hymns, he is reported to have composed about a thousand kontakia, although only 59 have been preserved. (Another 29 kontakia have been attributed to Romanos, but Maas and Trypanis correctly reject them. The Akathistos hymn of the Orthodox Church has sometimes been attributed to him, although without convincing evidence.) Because Romanos references the destruction of Constantinople by earthquakes and subsequent fires, his death must be placed after 552 or possibly 555, for in those years earthquakes devastated Constantinople.

From an historical and textual standpoint, Romanos’s hymns are significant for four reasons. 1. They are a window into the layperson’s mind at the time of Justinian, for Romanos was writing for the common person. The hymns are not the high theology argued between bishops, vying for political advantage. Rather, the hymns are pastoral works, addressing the concerns of the average person and communicating the mysteries of the faith in a form understandable to the laity. 2. Romanos’s hymns provide strong evidence for a link between Syr. Christian culture and the Greek, Byzantine world. Romanos’s dependence — both literary and structural  — upon the Syriac Ephrem is demonstrable. Both his literary corpus and the account of his childhood in Syria suggest that Romanos was bilingual: his scansions often require that Semitic names be scanned as in Hebrew or Syriac. Romanos’s hymns often address the same themes as Ephrem’s, and sometimes both share the same illustration, metaphor, or even turn of phrase. Indeed, the form of the Syriac madrāšā (stanzas, a refrain, an acrostic, with rhyme) closely parallels that of the kontakion. Other forms used by Ephrem’s Syriac hymns and sermons (the memrā, which is a metrical sermon, and the soghithā, which has a dramatic, epic element, and which often uses dialogue in a free recreation of a biblical episode) find their distinctive characteristics transplanted into the Greek world in the kontakia of Romanos. As a literary form, the kontakion was clearly derived from Semitic (specifically, Syriac) poetic forms. And the Syriac corpus of Ephrem was clearly Romanos’s model for his Greek hymns. 3. Romanos’s Greek hymns furthermore betray his dependence on Syriac literary sources. His appropriation of Ephrem has been discussed; but he also used Syriac biblical texts, sometimes verbatim. He often quotes the Gospels in the form of Tatian’s Diatessaron, or in forms found only in Syriac sources (e.g., in the Old Syriac Version of the NT). This further underscores his dependence on Syriac sources. 4. Romanos’s hymns occasionally contain ancient Judaeo-Christian traditions from what later became ‘extra-canonical’ Gospels. An example is the ‘light’ (or ‘fire’) in the Jordan River at Jesus’s baptism (also in the ‘Gospel according to the Hebrews’); another is that, on the night Jesus was arrested, Peter weeps at the door of the High Priest’s house before denying Jesus (when Peter hears the cock crow and then weeps, that is his second episode of weeping) (so also the ‘Gospel of the Nazoraeans’).

[Bibliography updated by M. Doerfler]

    Primary Sources

    • M.  Carpenter, Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine melodist (2 vols.; 1970–3). (ET)
    • J.  Grosdidier de Matons, Romanos le Mélode. Hymnes (5 vols.; SC 99, 110, 114, 128, 283; 1964–1981). (Greek with FT)
    • J.  Koder, Romanos Melodos. Die Hymnen (2 vols; 2005–6). (GT)
    • P. Maas and C. A. Trypanis, Sancti Romani Melodi Cantica. Cantica Genuina (1963). (Greek)
    • P. Maas and C. A. Trypanis, Sancti Romani Melodi Cantica. Cantica Dubia (1970). (Greek)

    Secondary Sources

    • J. H.  Barkhuizen, ‘Romanos Melodos: Kontakion 8 “On the Three Children”’, Acta Patristica et Byzantina 16 (2005), 1–28.
    • J. H.  Barkhuizen, ‘Romanos the Melodist: “On Adam and Eve and the Nativity”. Introduction with annotated translation’, Acta Patristica et Byzantina 19 (2008), 1–22.
    • S. P. Brock, ‘From Ephrem to Romanos’, in StPatr , vol. 20, ed. E. A. Livingstone (1989), 139–51. (repr. in Brock’s From Ephrem to Romanos [1999]).
    • G.  Frank, ‘Romanos and the night vigil in the sixth century’, in Byzantine Christianity, ed. D. Krueger (A People’s History of Christianity; 2006), 59–78, 225–6.
    • eadem, ‘Dialogue and deliberation: The making of the sensory self in the Hymns of Romanos the Melodist’, in Religion and the Self in Antiquity, ed. D. Brakke et al. (2005), 163–179.
    • J.  Grosdidier de Matons, Romanos le Mélode et les origines de la poésie religieuse à Byzance (1977). (incl. further references)
    • A.  de  Halleux, ‘Hellénisme et Romanité de Romanos le Mélode’, RHE 73 (1978), 632–41.
    • A. C.  Mahr, Relations of passion plays to St. Ephrem the Syrian (1942).
    • M. Papoutsakis, ‘The making of a Syriac fable: From Ephrem to Romanos’, LM 120 (2007), 29–75. (with discussion of Romanos’s possible dependence on Yaʿqub of Serugh)
    • W. L.  Petersen, The Diatessaron and Ephrem Syrus as sources of Romanos the Melodist (CSCO 475; 1985). (incl. further references)
    • W. L.  Petersen, ‘A new testimonium to a Judaic-Christian Gospel fragment from a hymn of Romanos the Melodist’, VC 50 (1996), 105–16.
    • L.  Van Rompay, ‘Romanos le Mélode: Un poète syrien à Constantinople’, in Early Christian Poetry. A Collection of Essays, ed. J. den Boeft and A.  Hilhorst (Supplements to VC 22; 1993), 283–96. (with further references).


How to Cite This Entry

William L. Petersen, “Romanos the Melodist,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Romanos-the-Melodist.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

William L. Petersen, “Romanos the Melodist,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Romanos-the-Melodist.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Petersen, William L. “Romanos the Melodist.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Romanos-the-Melodist.

A TEI-XML record with complete metadata is available at https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Romanos-the-Melodist/tei.

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