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Kassia : a romance of Byzantium

by George Handrulis

  Print book : Fiction

2 of 2 people found this review helpful.
Definitely more fiction than history   (2011-06-06)


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by desertmother61

Kassia: A Romance of Byzantium should have been to Byzantine Studies what Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamozov is to Russian Studies or Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona is to the study of pre-statehood California History.  I was very keen to read this book as St. Kassiani is my patron saint. Instead, I found myself quite disappointed and sorry I had wasted my time.

The so-called 'thwarted romance' between the poetess Kassia and the Emperor Theophilus has long been popular in Greece and the Balkan lands, but practically unheard of in the USA.  Mr. Handrulis tried his hand at re-telling that story, but falls short.  While Mr. Handrulis does write about actual historic figures: the 9th Century Emperor Theophius, his wife the Empress Theodora and the poetess, composer, hymnographer and nun Kassia (She's known as St. Kassiane the Hymnographer in the Eastern Orthodox Church.), he uses a bit too much artistic license with this story.  In fact, when I did some fact checking, I discovered a considerable number of inaccuracies and outright errors in the book. Enough errors to detract from the enjoyment of the story.

A bit of background on the Theophilus/Kassia "romance." 

In 830 AD, the Empress Euphrosyne staged a "Bride Show" for the then 16 year old new Emperor Theophilus. Young women from all over the known world participated, including Kassia and Theodora.  One account holds that Theophilus was strongly attracted to Kassia, and she had feelings for him in return. However, Theophilus was leery of marrying a woman who may be intellectually his superior. So he decided to test her by making the comment that "from women came the baser things" implying all women, including Kassia were sinful unredeemable daughters of Eve.  This startled and offended Kassia, so she responded to Theophilus "but from women sprang the greater things..." reminding him that because the Virgin Mary gave birth to Christ the redeemer, women are free from the curse of Eve.  Becaues Theophilus felt embarrassed for being "schooled" and he couldn't handle the idea of having a strong willed woman for a potential Empress, he rejected Kassia and instead selected the allegedly more demure and submissive Theodora for his consort.  After losing the Bride Show, Kassia went on to become a nun and abbess and spent the rest of her days writing poetry and hymns.

Another legend holds that Theophilus, despite marrying Theodora and having seven children with her, carried a torch for Kassia throughout this lifetime.  When Theophilus knew he was dying he went to visit Kassia one last time at her monastery. When Kassia found out the Emperor was there, she realize she still had feelings for him but felt as though it were sinful for her to do so. So she left the courtyard and hid herself before she did something she might regret. However, Kassia had forgotten to take the poem with her that she was working on.  Theophilis enters the courtroom, weeps when he realizes she isn't there, and that he lost his true love due his own stubbornness, but the he sees the poem and picks it up. He added a line to the poem and leaves.  When Kassia re-emerges, she reads the poem with the added line, then continues the poem. That poem became her magnum opus, The Hymn of Kassiani, which is sang each Holy Week in Orthodox churches around the world to this very day.

Mr. Handrulis, in his novel, does include the 'bride show' account, but he also does a fair amount of speculation as to what else happened in the lives of those involved in this supposed triad.  The speculation made me more than a bit uncomfortable. To imply that a person who is considered a virgin saint in the Orthodox Church was an adulteress is not only disrespectful, but it also borders on blasphemy. How does one build a full blown passionate drawn out affair based on two sentences from a discourse some academics claim may have never taken place?

Another issue with the book, the tendency to use so much flowerly language and rely too much on sentimentality to tell the story. Yes, I realize writing styles were somewhat different in the 1930s than today, but even by 1934 standards it was a bit much.

If anyone wants to read the book, I say go ahead, but take it with a huge grain of salt like any other 'costume drama.'  If you want to know the real story of St. Kassiane, I recommend going elsewhere to find it.

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