Thomas Arentzen's new book, revised from his 2014 Lund University dissertation, investigates the portrayal of the Virgin Mary in the poetry of Romanos, the sixth-century Christian who wrote several dozen metered works on various topics. It joins an expanding scholarly conversation about the poet that has emerged in force in the last decade. Georgia Frank, Leena M. Peltomaa, and Sarah Gador-Whyte have contextualized and interpreted the corpus of Romanos, particularly its treatment of Mary, as has Derek Krueger, who has co-authored work with Arentzen and edits the series in which this book appears. Arentzen frames his contribution as a corrective to two other approaches he discerns among prior studies of Mary's role in Christian thought: those that emphasize Mary's special capacity to convey information about her child (which is to say, a Christological focus), and those that place depictions of the Virgin inside the framework of monastic ideology. By contrast, Arentzen proposes to see Mary as a “separate sacred persona,” irreducible to the limited domains of theology or asceticism (164). There was, he argues, a “geographically and temporally specific” figure of Mary, given a voice by Romanos, that is distinctive to sixth-century Constantinople (32).
A long first chapter introduces several issues that are meant as general background to observations made later in the book, then culminates in a plan of the chapters to follow and an explanation of Arentzen's approach. Orienting the reader to the style of his work, Arentzen notes that, in place of a logically-progressing analysis that might treat topics and arguments in succession, he has decided instead to “follow the narrative development of individual hymns” by Romanos (44). That is to say, the book is organized as an annotated reading of Romanos's work; each of the remaining three main chapters is devoted to commenting on a single work by the poet, supplemented at times by germane passages from other selected writings in the poet's corpus.
Thus, in Chapter Two, “On the Verge of Virginity,” we follow along as Arentzen reads and interprets Romanos's piece On the Annunciation, for which the full text of the Greek and an English translation have been provided as Appendix 1. The poem is an extended representation of the scene from the Gospel of Luke in which the angel Gabriel meets Mary to inform her of her incipient pregnancy. Dialogue between the two of them alternates with monologues for each, which serve to represent their thoughts, assumptions, and apprehensions about their encounter. Later in the poem a third character appears—Joseph, who had been absent during Gabriel's visit. Romanos has Mary upbraid Joseph for leaving her alone: “Why didn't you guard my virginity?” she asks. This moment is the key to Arentzen's observations about the poem, for he argues that Mary is concerned that she has been left alone with a man, and a majestic, powerful, fearful one at that. Her concern opens a new interpretative option, namely, that below the explicit words of the poem lay an implicit erotic energy. The meeting, along with other details from the poem, makes Mary an emblem “to whom longing and desire may be extended” (86). “By whom?” is a question I will address in a moment.
Chapter Three, “The Mother and Nurse of Our Life,” investigates how Romanos portrays Mary as a lactating woman. The text that structures the chapter is the poem On the Nativity I, in which we see Mary in her childbed and watch as she speaks with her new baby and greets the Magi come to honor him. The poem also contains a handful of references to Mary nursing her newborn. Arentzen draws from these and several other pieces an extended trope of nursing that goes beyond newborns to speak of Adam nursing, or David nursing, or even the listener who hears Romanos's work recited nursing. The chapter traces sexualized undertones around nursing that Arentzen locates in the poem; he argues that because Mary, lactating, is also a virgin, her portrayal as a nurse is transgressive. Religious figures can, of course, be sexualized by ancient authors; it is a common theme in early Christian hagiography, one well-explored by Virginia Burrus for example (whose work is not utilized in this book). But the playful, transparently suggestive prose in this chapter brought me to wonder about the observations’ historical accuracy. Did audiences in Constantinople hear of the newborn nursing and become excited, thinking that they might step in, such that “[d]ivine lips and the congregation's lips alternate—at the tip of a nipple,” as Arentzen styles it? (98) Did they understand that hearing the poem would be like making “a penetrating entry” into “Mary's Cave of Delights”? (96). Were these scenes of breastfeeding really a “tantalizing experience for both mothers and sons among the congregants,” as Arentzen claims? (105, emphasis mine). Breasts, especially nursing breasts, are not uniformly eroticized across cultures. Romanos's poem is obviously working at the boundaries of status available to women—mother and virgin, nurse and bride—but the actual amplitude of its potential sexualization of Mary is difficult to discern beneath the veil of Arentzen's liberal exposition.
Chapter Four and a short conclusion seek to establish Arentzen's central claim, that Romanos's Mary is not subordinate to other divine figures. Rather, she is her own character, who holds a place of great importance in the religious drama of sixth-century Christian performance in the city of Constantinople. The chapter follows the outline of Romanos's second poem On the Nativity, often supplementing the discussion with additional passages from another work, On Mary at the Cross. Arentzen observes how, in these poems, Mary speaks independently, her “dramatized voice” giving her the central place in Romanos's creations. (122). The way she speaks is “a complex phenomenon, both bigger and more intricate than nursing or eroticism.” (121) To support this claim, Arentzen turns to the concept of paradox, noting that Mary's bold speech stands out only because it is not what is expected of a woman, particularly a virgin woman. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Romanos's Mary is made extraordinary by comparing her to a general set of suppositions about what women were thought to be or assumed to do. To construct the Constantinopolitan cultural matrix of assumptions about women, Arentzen reaches to a very broad set of sources, literature ranging from Plato's Republic to a treatise by Symeon the New Theologian; encylopedic articles on Byzantine attitudes toward women also bear much weight in this book's figuring of what women were or were not expected to do and be. It seemed a strange oversight that Averil Cameron's foundational work in precisely this regard—the paradoxical nature of Mary—did not figure in the chapter, whether for use as a foil or as a launch for a larger observation. In this, and its overly wide range of references, the chapter does not entirely succeed in capturing a distinct culture of sixth-century Constantinople against which Mary might be seen.
These concerns are important, but on the whole, Arentzen's work in the volume is close and detailed. Its attention to Romanos and his poetic craft is most welcome. Readers interested in late ancient Constantinople and the beginnings of the Byzantine world will find much to relish. Those especially who have followed the recent flourishing of scholarship around hymnography, evident in the work of Laura S. Lieber, Ophir Münz-Manor, and Susan Ashbrook Harvey, will happily receive this book as a new step into the exploration of performance and audiences in late ancient religious traditions.