The Plague of Cyprian, c. 252

Tracey J. Kinney

The Crises of the Third Century

The so-called ‘Plague of Cyprian’, named for its best-known chronicler, Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, broke out around 249 CE amidst an already chaotic time in the Roman Empire. Throughout the third century the Roman Empire had been shaken by a series of internal and external crises. Successive military defeats created unrest within the Roman Army. Powerful commanders in the army raised a series of pretenders to the Imperial throne, often supporting whichever candidate promised the greatest rewards. Successive emperors debased the imperial currency in an effort to maintain power, until, at the local level, much of the Roman economy gave way to a barter system. High taxation generated popular unrest and in parts of Gaul and on the Iberian Peninsula, armed resistance movements rose up to resist the demands of the tax collectors. Meanwhile Rome’s enemies continued to probe the borders of the Empire, placing a further strain on the Imperial treasury.

Cyprian, “On the Mortality”

  1. ALTHOUGH in most of you, dearest brethren, there is a stedfast mind, firm faith, and soul devout, which wavers not before the manifold instances of this present mortality, and like a bold and rooted rock, under the swelling storms of this world, and the fierce floods of time, repels, not suffers from, their blow, and is but proved, not overcome by temptations; yet since I observe amongst your number some, who either through weakness of spirit, or poverty of faith, or the satisfactions of the life below, or tenderness of sex, or (what is a greater thing) through wandering from truth, do less strongly stand, and put not forth the divine unconquerable energy of their breast, there must be no dissembling or hiding of the matter, but so far as my poor powers extend, we must in the fulness of vigour and in words collected from the lessons of the Lord, extinguish the cowardice of a softened temper, so that he who has begun to be the servant of God and Christ, may before God and Christ be found walking worthy. For he, dearest brethren, who fights for God, who, stationed in the heavenly camp, breathes things divine, ought to own himself to be what he is, in order that we may not be trembling or faultering amid the storms and tempests of this world ; since the Lord foretold that these things would come; and with the instructive exhortation and doctrine of His warning voice, training and establishing the people of His Church, to all endurance of future things, hath prophesied and taught that wars and famines, and earthquakes and pestilences, would arise in every place. And lest any unprepared and sudden terror should disturb us at the access of adversity, He forewarned us that in the last times evil things should wax worse and worse. Lo, the things which were spoken are come to pass; and as those things are come to pass which were foretold, so those will follow r which yet are promised; the Lord Himself giving assurance, and saying, When ye see all these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. [Luke 21].
  1. Dearest brethren, the kingdom of God has begun to be nigh at hand; reward of life, and joy of eternal salvation, and perpetual happiness, and possession of Paradise lately lost, already, while the world passes away, are coming nigh; already heavenly things are succeeding to earthly, and great to small, and eternal to transient. What place is here, for anxiety and solicitude? Who amid these things is tremulous and mournful, except in whom hope and faith are wanting? It is for him to be afraid of death, who hath not willingness to come to Christ; and for him to be unwilling to come to Christ, who does not believe that he has begun to reign with Christ. For it is written that the just lives by faith. [Hab. 2] If thou art just, and livest by faith, if thou truly believest in God, why, as one who will be with Christ, and secure of the promise of the Lord, dost thou not embrace that call to Christ which is given thee, and for that thou art delivered from the devil, make thyself joyful in the deliverance? Symeon of a surety, that just man, who was truly just, who kept the commandments of God in fulness of faith; when it had been divinely told him, that he should not die before he had seen Christ, and the infant Christ had come with His Mother in the Temple, acknowledged in spirit that Christ was now born, concerning whom the prophecy had been made to him, and having seen whom, he knew that he was soon to die. Rejoicing therefore in the nearness now of death, and secure of being presently called away, he took the Child into his hands, and blessing God, cried out and said, Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation [Luke 2]; proving surely and bearing testimony, that then for the servants of God is peace, then free, then tranquil rest, when, rescued from these turmoils of earth, we gain the port of rest and of eternal security ; when we put away this death, and come to immortality. …
  1. Some however there are, who are moved in thought, because the influences of this disease have made their attack on ourselves, as much as on the heathen ; as if the end of a Christian’s faith was this, to enjoy in happiness the world and life, unliable to contact of evil; not as one, who, enduring here all adverse things, is reserved unto the future joy. It moves some, that this mortality should be common to us as to others. Yet what is there in this world, which is not common to us with others, so long as this common flesh is ours, according to the law of the first nativity? Even so long as here we are in the world, we are in equality of the flesh joined with the race of man, but in spirit separate. Where-fore, until this corruptible put on incorruption, and this mortal obtain immortality, and the Spirit guide us unto God the Father, whatsoever are the troubles of the flesh, are our common portion with the race of man. [1 Cor. 15] When therefore the earth pines in an unfruitful barrenness, famine makes no difference of one from another; when any city is occupied by a hostile assault, the capture lays its desolation equally upon all. And when the becalmed atmosphere suspends the rain, there is equal drought to all; and when the abrupt rocks dash a vessel in pieces, the voyagers suffer together an unexpected shipwreck. Disease of the eyes, attacks of fever, ailment of any of the limbs, is as common to us as to others, so long as the common flesh remains in this world upon us. Nay, if the Christian recognizes and masters on what condition, on what law he has become a believer, he will find, that he has more to endure in this world than other men, because he is to be struggling more with the assaults of the Devil. The divine Scripture teaches and forewarns us, saying, My son, when thou comest to the service of God, stand in righteousness and fear, and prepare thy soul for temptation [Ecclus. 2]. And again: In pain endure, and in thy low estate have patience; for gold and silver is tried in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation [Ecclus. 2]. …
  1. Doubtless, let him fear to die, and only him, who, unborn of water and of the Spirit, is the property of hell-fire; let him fear to die, who is without title in the Cross and passion of Christ ; let him fear to die, who is to pass from death here into the second death; let him fear to die, on whom at his going away from life, an eternal flame will lay pains that never cease; let him fear to die, on whom the longer delay confers this boon, that his tortures and groans will begin later. There are many among ourselves, who die in this pestilence; that is, there are many among us, who are at liberty from the life below. This pestilence, as to Jews and heathens and Christ’s enemies it is a plague, so to the servants of God is it departure to their salvation. That without distinction between man and man, the just and the unjust die alike, think not, because of this, that the good and the wicked pass to the same end; the righteous are called to their refreshing, the unrighteous hurried into punishment; the faithful obtain a speedier deliverance, the unbelieving a speedier retribution. We are inconsiderate and ungrateful, dearest brethren, concerning the divine bounties, and account not of that which they bestow upon us. Behold, virgins depart peaceably and securely in their full honours, unfearing the threats and corruptions and polluted places of coming Anti-Christ; boys, escaped the peril of their unsafe years, happily arrive at the reward of continence and innocency; the delicate matron is no longer in dread of torture, obtaining ransom, by an early death, from fear of persecution, and from the hands and torments of the slaughterer. By the terrors of mortality and of the times, lukewarm men are heartened, the listless nerved, the sluggish awakened; deserters are compelled to return ; heathens brought to believe ; the congregation of established believers is called to rest; fresh and numerous champions are banded in heartier strength for the conflict, and having come into warfare in the season of death, will fight without fear of death, when the battle comes.
  1. This further effect, dearest brethren, how suitable, how necessary is it; that this pestilence and plague, which appears full of terrors and gloom, is a trial of the righteousness of each, and puts the minds of mortal men into a balance; trying whether those that are in health tend them that are sick; whether relatives are dutifully affected towards their kindred; whether masters feel pitifully towards servants who are languishing; whether physicians keep from leaving the sick who entreat their aid; whether the passionate reduce their violence of temper; whether the avaricious can quench even by fear of death the insatiable heats of their feverish covetousness; whether the proud bend the neck; whether the reprobate remit their daring; whether, their dear ones being carried off, the rich even then do any wise dispense and give when they are to die without heirs. Were it that none other boon were brought by this mortality, herein greatly has it been of profit to Christians and the servants of God, that learning to be not afraid of death, we begin to look on martyrdom with desire. Trainings are these for us, not losses; they give to the mind the praise of courage, and by contempt of death prepare it for the crown.
  1. But some one may here in opposition say, It is for this cause that I have sorrow in the present mortality, in that having made myself ready for confession, and having devoted myself to bear my passion with my whole heart and in fulness of virtue, I am robbed of my Martyrdom, being anticipated by death. But in the first place, Martyrdom is not in your control, but in the condescension of God; nor can you say that you have lost, what you know not that you merit to obtain. And, besides this, God the Searcher of reins and heart, beholder and inspector of hidden things, sees thee, and praises and approves; and He who perceives that the virtue was ready in you, will measure to your virtue its reward. Had Cain, when he brought the offering to God, already slain his brother? And yet God foreseeing already condemned the fratricide which he conceived in his heart. As in him the evil intention and purpose of wickedness was anticipated by a foreseeing God, so also in the servants of God, in whom confession is intended, and Martyrdom conceived in mind, a will devoted to what is good is crowned by God the Judge. It is one thing for will to be wanting when Martyrdom is offered; another, in absence of the Martyrdom, for will to be present. As the Lord finds when He calls you, so also He judges of you; since Himself bears witness and says, And all the Churches shall know, that I am the Searcher of the reins and heart. For neither doth God require our bloodshedding, but our faith; since neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Jacob, were slain, yet merited they to be honoured first among the Patriarchs, for the merits of faith and righteousness; into whose feast is gathered whosoever is found faithful and righteous and laudable. …
  1. Furthermore, whereas the world hates the Christian, wherefore love that which hates thee? and not rather follow Christ, who both redeemed and loves thee? John in his Epistle cries out and says, warning us lest we be not made lovers of the world, while we indulge in carnal desires; Love not, says he, the world, neither the things that are in the world ; if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him ; for all that is in the world is lust of the flesh, and lust of the eyes, and pride of life, which is not of the Father, but of the lust of the world; and the world will pass away and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever, even as God abideth for ever [John 2]. Rather, dearest brethren, in fulness of spirit, firm faith, and hearty courage, let us be prepared unto all the will of God; shutting out our dread of death, and thinking of the deathless-ness which comes beyond it. Herein let us manifest that we live as we believe; on the one hand, by not lamenting the departure of them we love; and on the other, when the day of our own summons comes, by going without delay and with a ready mind, unto the Lord who calls us.
  1. Ever as the servants of God ought thus to do, now ought they to do so much more, in a world which has begun to crumble, and is beset with storms of harassing calamity; for seeing ill things are begun, and since we know that worse are impending, we ought to account it our greatest gain, to take our departure hence the sooner. If the walls of your mansion were tottering with age, the roof shaking above you, and the edifice, wasted and wearied out, threatening an instant ruin of its time-enfeebled structure, would you not in all haste go forth from it? If, when you were on a voyage, a swelling and troublous tempest tossed up the waves in its strength, and betokened impending shipwreck, would you not hurry forward to the port? See a world tottering and going down; witnessing to its own dissolution, not merely in the old age of things, but in their conclusion; and thank you not God, are you not rejoiced, that, escaping by an earlier removal, you are rescued from overhanging ruins and shipwrecks and plagues?


Questions for Consideration

  1. How does Cyprian explain this outbreak of disease?
  2. What can we determine about the purpose of this document?
  3. What stands out in Cyprian’s account of the spread of the disease and its effects?


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The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Tracey J. Kinney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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