I’m writing this post on October 1, the feast of St Romanos the Melodist (or St Romanus, sometimes Melodos instead of “the Melodist”). St Romanos was born in the late 400s in Emesa, Syria, and spent his professional career in Constantinople, moving to the imperial city during the reign of Emperor Anastasius I (r. 491-518). I won’t linger on the hagiography. While there, Romanos was enlisted as a professional hymnographer by the patriarch and composed a vast number of hymns for the different feasts of the church. Verses of some of these hymns have been incorporated into the round of liturgical hymn-singing in the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day. His greatest period of activity would be during the reigns of Justin (518-527) and Justinian (527-565); he died some time after 555.
He is claimed to have written around 1500 hymns. People typically balk at numbers like this, but I learned recently that in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, they have poets who compose a new hymn every Sunday and every major feast day. Most of these hymns are not written down and preserved, but some are. Besides being evidence for something mighty in Ethiopia and the ongoing life of Ge’ez as a literary language, this parallel makes me wonder if perhaps Romanos did write 1500 hymns, but only some of them were polished and published.
His hymns are quite long, taking after the hymns of our dear friend St Ephrem the Syrian. They often include dialogue, or an address on the part of the hymnographer to a character in a biblical scene. The hymns are steeped in Scripture and bring forth, in true poetry, the theology of the drama of salvation. I feel as though St Romanos is possibly the greatest theologian of the age of Justinian, although that usually goes to Leontius of Byzantium.
Allow me to close with a sample of St Romanos’ work, taken from the translation by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash and preserved by the Wayback Machine. This is the Prooemion from Kontakion 22; the Prooemion and first Ikos are still used in the Orthodox Church on the Third Sunday in Lent.
ON THE VICTORY OF THE CROSS
Acrostic: BY THE HUMBLE ROMANOS
Proemium 1. Idiomel.
The sword of flame no longer guards the gate of Eden,
For a strange bond came upon it: the wood of the Cross.
The sting of Death and the victory of Hades were nailed to it.
But you appeared, my Saviour, crying to those in Hades:
‘Be brought back
Again to Paradise’.
Nailed to the form of the Cross
As truly a ransom for many
You redeemed us, Christ our God,
For by your precious blood in love for mankind
You snatched our souls from death.
You brought us back with you
Again to Paradise.
All things in heaven and earth rightly rejoice with Adam,
Because he has been called
Again to Paradise.