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This page does not concern Cyprian, Metropolitan of Moscow.


Saint Cyprian (Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus), bishop of Carthage and an important early Christian writer, was born probably at the beginning of the third century in North Africa, perhaps at Carthage, where he was educated from his early childhood; he died a martyr at Carthage September 14, 258. He was of a wealthy and distinguished pagan background, the site of his eventual martyrdom was his villa. His conversion is unknown, but after his baptism about 245 - 248 he gave away a portion of his wealth to the poor of Carthage, as befitted a man of his rank. He was either of Punic stock or, as is sometimes claimed, a Berber.

His original name was Thascius; he took the additional name Caecilius in memory of the presbyter to whom he owed his conversion. He became a teacher of rhetoric.

In the early days of his conversion he wrote an Epistola ad Donatum de gratia Dei ("Letter to Donatus concerning God's grace"), perhaps De idolorum vanitate, a brief essay on the vanity of idols (if this work is genuinely his), and three books of Testimoniorum adv. JudŠes that adhere closely to the models of Tertullian who influenced his style and thinking, and are largely interesting as a document in the history of anti-semitism.

His contested election as bishop of Carthage

Not long after his baptism he was ordained deacon, and soon afterward presbyter; and some time between July 248 and April 249 he was chosen bishop of Carthage, a popular choice among the poor who remembered his patronage as good equestrian style, while a portion of the presbytery opposed it, for all Cyprian's wealth and learning and diplomacy and literary talents. Moreover, the opposition within the church community at Carthage did not dissolve.

Soon however the entire community was put to an unwonted test. Christians in North Africa had not suffered persecution for many years: the church was assured and lax. The intense following of martyrdom as a Christian career still lay in an unexpected future. Early in 250 the Emperor Decius issued the edict for the suppression of Christianity, and the "Decian persecution" famous to Christians began. Measures were first taken demanding that the bishops and officers of the church sacrifice to the Emperor, a matter of an oath of allegiance that was taken by Christians as profoundly offensive. The proconsul on circuit, and five commissioners for each town, administered the edict; but, when the proconsul reached Carthage, Cyprian had fled.

It is quite evident in the writings of the church fathers from various dioceses that the Christian community was divided on this occasion, among those who stood firm in civil disobedience, whatever price they actually paid, and those who buckled, submitting in word or in deed to the order of sacrifice. His secret departure was interpreted by his enemies as cowardice and infidelity, and they hastened to accuse him at Rome. The Roman clergy (the see was vacant at that time) wrote to Cyprian in terms of disapproval. Cyprian rejoined that he fled in accordance with visions and the divine command. From his place of refuge he ruled his flock with earnestness and zeal, using a faithful deacon as his intermediary.

For the context of the "Decian persecution" in the Empire, see the entry at Decius.

Controversy Over the Lapsed

The persecution was especially severe at Carthage, according to Church sources (Official sources are silent on this "Decian persecution.") Many Christians fell away, but afterward asked to be received again into the Church. Their request was early granted, no regard being paid to the demand of Cyprian and his faithful among the Carthaginian clergy, who insisted upon earnest repentance. tThe confessors among the more liberal group intervened to allow hundreds of the lapsed to return to the Church.

Though he had remained in seclusion himself, Cyprian now censured all laxity toward the lapsed, refused absolution to them except in case of mortal sickness, and desired to postpone the question of their readmission to the Church to more quiet times. A schism broke out in Carthage. One Felicissimus, who had been ordained deacon by the presbyter Novatus during the absence of Cyprian, opposed all steps taken by Cyprian's representatives. Cyprian deposed and excommunicated him and his supporter Augendius. Felicissimus was upheld by Novatus and four other presbyters, and a determined opposition was thus organized.

When, after an absence of fourteen months, Cyprian returned to his diocese, he defended leaving his post (guided by a vision, all for the good of the community) in letters to the other North African bishops, and a tract De lapsis ("On lapses"), and called a council of North African bishops at Carthage, to consider the treatment of the lapsed and the apparent schism of Felicissimus (251). The council in the main sided with Cyprian, it is said, and condemned Felicissimus, though no Acts of this council survive. The libellatici, i.e., Christians who had made or signed written statements {libelli "booklets") that they had obeyed the behest of the emperor, were to be restored at once upon sincere repentance; but such as had taken part in heathen sacrifices could be received back into the Church only when on the point of death. Afterward this regulation was essentially mitigated, and even these were restored if they repented immediately after a sudden fall and eagerly sought absolution; though clerics who had fallen were to be deposed and could not be restored to their functions.

In Carthage the followers of Felicissimus elected Fortunatus as bishop in opposition to Cyprian, while in Rome the followers of the Roman presbyter Novatian, who refused absolution to all the lapsed, elected their man as bishop of Rome, in opposition to Cornelius. The Novationists secured the election of a rival bishop of their own at Carthage, Maximus by name. Novatus now left Felicissimus and followed the Novatian party.

But these extremes strengthened the influence of the wise, moderate, yet firm Cyprian, and the following of his opponents grew less and less. He rose still higher in the favor of the people when they witnessed his self-denying devotion during the time of a great plague and famine.

He comforted his brethren by writing his De mortalitate, and in his De eleomosynis exhorted them to active charity towards the poor, while he set the best pattern by his own life. He defended Christianity and the Christians in the treatise Ad Demetrianum directed against a certain Demetrius and the reproach of the heathens that Christians were the cause of the public calamities.

Controversy Concerning Heretic Baptism

But Cyprian had yet to fight another battle, which broke to the surface in 255, in which his opponent was Pope Stephen I. The matter in dispute was the efficacy of baptism in the conventionall accepted forms, when it was administered by heretics.

Stephen declared baptism by heretics valid if administered according to the institution either in the name of Christ or of the holy Trinity. This was the mainstream view of the Church. Cyprian, on the other hand, believing that outside the Church there was no true baptism, regarded that of heretics as null and void, and baptized as for the first time those who joined the Church. When heretics had been baptized in the Church, but had temporarily fallen away and wished to return in penitence, he did not rebaptize them.

Cyprian's narrow definition of the Church led him to certain inferences that made him in this respect the connecting-link between his teacher, the rigorist Tertullian, and the Donatist controversy that split North Africa later, concerning the efficacy of the mass, when said by an unworthy priest.

The majority of the North African bishops sided with Cyprian; and in the East he had a powerful ally in Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea. But the position of Stephen came to find general acceptance. While, however, Cyprian defended his position with wisdom and dignity, Stephen showed a blind, blunt zeal; and there appears in his letters the claim of superiority of the Roman See over all bishoprics of the Church. To this claim Cyprian answered that the authority of the Roman bishop was coordinate with, not superior to, his own. Stephen broke off communion with Cyprian and Carthage, though perhaps without going as far as a formal excommunication of Cyprian.

Modern Roman Catholic writers make a special effort to show that the controversy concerned only a question of discipline, not of doctrine. The modern Catholic church holds dogmatically that baptism by heretics and even by atheists or other non-Christians is valid if intentionally done according to the manner that the Church prescribes.

Persecution Under Valerian

At the end of 256 a new persecution of the Christians under Valerian broke out, and both Stephen and his successor, Xystus (Sixtus) II, suffered martyrdom at Rome.

In Africa Cyprian courageously prepared his people for the expected edict of persecution by his De exhortatione martyrii, and himself set an example when he was brought before the Roman proconsul Aspasius Paternus (August 30, 257). He refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and firmly professed Christ.

The consul banished him to the desolate Churubis, whence he comforted to the best of his ability his flock and his banished clergy. In a vision he saw his approaching fate. When a year had passed he was recalled and kept practically a prisoner on his own villa, in expectation of severer measures after a new and more stringent imperial edict arrived which demanded the execution of all Christian clerics, according to reports of it by Christian writers.

On September 13, 258, he was imprisoned at the behest of the new proconsul, Galerius Maximus . The day following he was examined for the last time and sentenced to die by the sword. His only answer was "Thanks be to God!" The execution was carried out at once in an open place near the city. A vast multitude followed Cyprian on his last journey. He removed his garments without assistance, knelt down, and prayed. Two of his clergy blindfolded him. He ordered twenty-five gold pieces to be given to the executioner, who with a trembling hand administered the death-blow.

The body was interred by Christian hands near the place of execution, and over it, as well as on the actual scene of his death, churches were afterward erected, which, however, were destroyed by the Vandals. Charlemagne is said to have had the bones transferred to France; and Lyons, Arles, Venice, Compiegne, and Roenay in Flanders boast the possession of the martyr's relics.


Besides a number of epistles, which are partly collected with the answers of those to whom they were written, Cyprian wrote a number of treatises, some of which have also the character of pastoral letters.

His most important work is his De unitate ecclesiae. In this, which makes the one episcopate, not of Rome, but of the Church at large, the foundation-stone of the Church, occur the following statements: "He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother; . . . he who gathereth elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ" (vi.); "nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church" (ix.).

The most famous saying of Cyprian, usually though inadequately translated "Outside the Church there is no salvation," (embraced, e.g. by Pius IX's Errores , is found among his Letters, lxxii. Ad Jubajanum de haereticis baptizandis "Quia salus extra ecclesiam non est." His work De oratione dominica is an adaptation of Tertullian's De oratione; he also worked over Tertullian's De patientia in his work De bono patientiae.

The following works are of doubtful authenticity: De spectaculis ("On public games"); De bono pudicitiae ("The virtue of modesty"); De idolorum vanitate ("On the vanity of images", which may perhaps be by Novatian); De laude martyrii ("In praise of martyrs"); Adversua aleatores ; De montibus Sina et Sion. The treatise entitled De duplici martyrio ad Fortunatum was not only published for the first and only time by Erasmus, but was probably also composed by him and fathered upon Cyprian.

Posterity has had less difficulty in reaching a universally accepted view of Cyprian's personality than his contemporaries. He combined loftiness of thought with an ever-present consciousness of the dignity of his office; his earnest life, his self-denial and fidelity, moderation and greatness of soul have been increasingly acknowledged and admired. He was the type of a prince of the Church. The glory of his courageous and edifying martyrdom can not be extinguished by the earlier charges of cowardice. As a writer, however, he was in general by no means original or especially deep.

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Last updated: 12-24-2004 00:22:23