Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Cyprian, Archbishop of Carthage, Martyr

[Saint Cyprian of Carthage]Article

A.D. 258

Thascius Cyprian was a native of Carthage, his father being one of the principal senators of that city. He made great improvements in philosophy and all the liberal arts, applied himself to the study of oratory and eloquence with great success, and was made public professor of rhetoric at Carthage. This employment was anciently most honourable, and all this time he lived suitably to the rank of his birth, in great pomp and plenty; in honour and power, wearing a splendid attire, and never stirring abroad without a pompous retinue, and a crowd of clients and followers waiting upon him. He tells us in his book to Donatus, that he had lived a long time amidst the fasces, which were the Roman emblem of the supreme magistracy; but he deplores that he was then a slave to vice and evil habits. The far greater part of his life he passed in the errors of paganism, and he was upon the borders of old age when he was rescued from the darkness of idolatry, and the servitude of vice and errors.

There resided at Carthage a holy old priest, whose name was Cecilius. With him Cyprian contracted an acquaintance, and by his discourses on the excellency of the Christian religion, he began to relish exceedingly its divine truths, and the sanctity of its precepts; but still his carnal heart made strong efforts in favour of the world and his passions. He describes, in his book to Donatus, the struggle which he felt within himself, as follows: “I lay,” says he, “in darkness, and I floated on the boisterous sea of this world a stranger to the light, and uncertain where to fix my feet. I then thought what I was told of a second birth, and the method of salvation by it, propounded by the divine goodness, extremely hard and impracticable. I could not conceive how a man could receive the principles of a new life from the sacred laver of regeneration, cease to be what he was before, become quite a new person, and though still retaining the same bodily constitution, put off the old man, and be entirely renewed in the spirit of his mind; for how (thought I with myself) is so great an alteration possible or practicable? How shall I do to leave off on a sudden, and in an instant, radicated customs, in which I am grown old? How can one who remains still in the midst of those objects which have so long struck and charmed his senses, strip himself of all his former inclinations and inveterate habits? These time and continuance have made natural to me, and they are closely rivetted in the very frame of my being. When is it known that a person is transformed into an example of constant frugality and sobriety, who has been always accustomed to sumptuous and dainty fare, to live in plenty, and to indulge his appetites without restraint? How rarely does a man become content with plain apparel and unornamented dress who hath been used to sparkle in gold and jewels, and embroidered garments! The man of ambitious views, who pleases himself, and glories in the ensigns of power and authority, can never love an inglorious private life. In like manner, there is almost a necessity, that wine should engage, that pride should swell, that anger should inflame, that greediness of gain should devour, that ambition should amuse and please, and that lust should tyrannize over a man who hath long indulged such inclinations. These, and such as these, were frequently my soliloquies; for, as I was deeply entangled and ensnared in the errors of my former life, which I judged it impossible for me ever to disengage myself from, I gave way to the solicitation of my usual vices, added strength to them by indulgence, and despairing of any possible cure, hugged the chain which had become natural to me, so that I looked upon it as a part of myself; but as soon as the life-giving waters of baptism had washed out the spots of my soul, my heart had received the light of the heavenly truth, the Spirit of God had descended upon me, and I was thence become a new creature, presently all my difficulties were surprisingly cleared, my doubts were resolved, and all my former darkness was dispelled. Things appeared easy to me, which before I looked upon as difficult and discouraging: I was convinced that I was able to do and suffer all that which heretofore had seemed impossible. I then saw that the earthly principle which I derived from my first birth, exposed me to sin and death; but that the new principle which I had received from the Spirit of God, in his spiritual birth, gave me new ideas and inclinations, and directed all my views to God.” He goes on professing all this to have been in him the pure gift and mercy of God, and ascribing it wholly to the power of his grace; which, he adds, we are bound continually to ask with earnestness and humility, as by it alone we are enabled to will and to do.

Cecilius, the holy priest, was the happy instrument in the hands of God, of his conversion; and Cyprian ever after reverenced him as his father and guardian-angel, and to express his gratitude would from that time be called Thascius Cecilius Cyprian, joining the name of his benefactor (whom he acknowledged under God the author of his spiritual life) with his own. Cecilius had, in return, the greatest confidence in his virtue, and on his death-bed recommended his wife and children to his care and protection; for he had been married before he was raised to the priesthood. Cecilius left behind him the most excellent character for all good qualities, and Cyprian became, as it were, the heir of his piety, says Pontius. This author takes notice, that the fervent convert set himself with great eagerness to read the holy Scriptures, and to inform himself of all those lessons which would be of use to him. in his great design of obtaining God’s favour. Finding the sacred oracles very copious in the commendation of purity and continence, he made a resolution to practise those virtues for the more easy attainment of true perfection. Soon after his baptism he sold his whole estate, and gave almost all the money, and whatever else he possessed, for the support of the poor; by which, says Pontius, he gained two points of principal importance, renouncing and despising all secular views (than which nothing is more fatal to all the true interests of piety and religion) and fulfilling the law of charity, which God himself prefers to all sacrifices. With the study of the holy scriptures Saint Cyprian joined that of their best expositors, and in a short time became acquainted with the most approved ecclesiastical writers. He was particularly delighted with the writings of his countryman Tertullian, scarcely passed a day without reading something in them, and when he called for them, used to say: “Reach hither my master,” as Saint Jerom relates. But though he admired his genius, and the variety of his learning, he was upon his guard not to imitate any of his faults or errors. 1 Saint Cyprian led a retired penitential life, and by the fervour of his conversion made such wonderful progress in the exercises of a virtuous life, that whilst he was yet in the rank of the Neophytes or persons lately baptized, at the earnest request of the people he was raised to the priesthood; his extraordinary merit being judged sufficient reason for dispensing in the rule laid down by Saint Paul against admitting Neophytes to holy orders.

During the short time that he served the church in the sacerdotal functions he did many great things; and within less than a year after, Donatus, bishop of Carthage, dying, the clergy and people conspired to demand that he should be raised to that high dignity in the church. At the first news of this motion, the humble servant of Christ fled, judging himself unfit for so weighty an employment, and begging that some more worthy person, and one of his seniors, might be chosen to that dignity. His declining it made the people keener in their desires, as it showed him to be the more worthy. A great multitude beset his house, and guarded all the ways that led to it, so that he could not make his escape from them. He attempted to get out at a window, but finding it in vain, he yielded, and showed himself to the people, who were impatiently waiting for him, divided between hope and fear. He was received with great joy, and consecrated with the unanimous approbation of the bishops of the province in the year 248, as bishop Pearson and Tillemont prove. Five priests with some of the people opposed his election, alleging that he was yet a novice in the church. Saint Cyprian treated these persons as if they had been his best friends, and expressed so much goodness towards them, that every body admired him for it. In the discharge of the episcopal functions he showed abundance of piety, charity, goodness, and courage, mixed with vigour and steadiness. His very aspect was reverend and gracious beyond what can be expressed, says Pontius, and no one could look him in the face without a secret awe upon his spirits: his countenance had a happy mixture in it of cheerfulness and gravity; his brow was neither too contracted nor too open, but equally removed from both extremes of gaiety and severity, so that a person who beheld him might doubt whether he should love or respect him most; only this was certain, that he deserved the highest degrees both of respect and love. His dress was of a piece with his countenance, neither affectedly sordid nor pompous. How careful he was of the poor when he was bishop may be judged from his tenderness for them whilst he was only a catechumen.

The church enjoyed peace under the reign of Philip for above a year after Saint Cyprian’s promotion to the see of Carthage. But Decius, who was sent by that emperor to chastise certain rebels in Pannonia, was proclaimed emperor by them, and advancing towards Italy, gained a great victory over Philip’s forces who was killed by his soldiers at Verona, and his son at Rome in 249. Decius began his reign by raising a bloody persecution against the church. The cruel edict reached Carthage in the beginning of the year 250. It was no sooner made public, but the idolaters, in a kind of sedition, ran to the marketplace, confusedly crying; “Cyprian to the lions: Cyprian to the wild beasts.” The saint was publicly proscribed by the name of “Cecilius Cyprian, bishop of the Christians;” and every one was commanded not to hide or conceal his goods. By his remarkable conversion and great zeal, his name was so odious to them, that in derision they called him Coprianus, alluding to a Greek word which signifies dung. He was often sought for by the persecutors on this occasion. Saint Cyprian consulted God, according to his custom, what he ought to do. It is the part of a hireling to fly when the flock is left destitute in time of danger. But there were at that time many weak ones among the faithful at Carthage, as appeared by the great number of those that soon after fell; the havoc which the enemy made there would have probably been much greater if providence had not preserved Saint Cyprian, that by his active zeal and authority he might maintain discipline, and repair the ruins caused by the persecution. In order to procure to his flock all necessary support and comfort during the storm, the holy bishop was persuaded that the precept of flying from one city to another held good in his case; and during his deliberation he was favoured with a vision, in which Christ commanded him to consult his own safety by a prudent retreat, as Pontius testifies in his life, and as Saint Cyprian himself assures us. 2 The clergy of Rome who by severe glances reflected upon his flight, as if by it he had in some measure forsaken the flock, were not apprised of his motives, or of these circumstances.. Moreover, by his staying at Carthage the heathens would have been provoked to fall more severely upon the whole church.

During his recess, though absent in body, yet he was with his flock in spirit, supplying the want of his presence by frequent letters, pious counsels, admonitions, reproofs, exhortations, and hearty prayers to heaven for the welfare and prosperity of his church. He exhorted them to continual prayer to God, saying: “What hath moved me more particularly to write to you in this manner, was an admonition which I received in a vision from heaven, saying unto me: ‘Ask and you shall have.’” 3 He assured them that the Christians by falling into sloth and a relaxation of manners during the long peace, had deserved this scourge for their trial and amendment; and that this storm had been discovered by God before it happened, to a devout person at Carthage, by a vision of the enemy under the figure of a net-fencer (a kind of gladiator) watching to destroy the faithful, because they did not stand upon their guard. 4 In the same epistle the saint mentions another revelation of God, which he himself, though the last of all his servants, as he styles himself, had received concerning the end of the persecution, and the restoration of the peace of the church. 5 Saint Cyprian during his absence committed the care his church to certain vicars, of whom some were bishops, as Caldonius and Herculanus; some priests, as Rogatian, Numidicus, and Tertullus. By frequent letters he warned and exhorted his flock, encouraged the confessors in the prisons, and took care that priests in turns should visit them, and offer the sacrifice of the altar and give them the holy communion every day in their dungeons. Two affairs at that time gave him much disturbance; the schism of Novatus and Felicissimus, and a controversy about the absolution of the lapsed.

Felicissimus, a turbulent clerk of Carthage, had with five priests opposed the election and ordination of Saint Cyprian. During the retreat of that holy pastor, Novatus, a priest of Carthage, formed an open schism. He was a man of an unquiet disposition, covetous, presumptuous, a lover of novelty, and suspected by the bishops in point of faith. He had robbed the widows and orphans, misapplied the revenues of the church, and suffered his aged father to perish with hunger in a certain village, without so much as taking care to bury him. For these and other reasons the brethren were very urgent to have him deposed and excommunicated. The time of his trial was near at hand, when the persecution beginning, no assemblies could be held. In order to prevent his condemnation, he separated himself from his bishop, persuading some others to do the same, and pretending to ordain Felicissimus for his deacon, a man like himself, who had been convicted of several frauds and robberies; they were joined in their schism by five other priests, and held their assemblies upon a mountain. Some among the lapsed and confessors, who were angry at Saint Cyprian’s severity towards the former, adhered to them; for Novatus received, without any canonical penance, all apostates that desired to return to the communion of the church. 6 Saint Cyprian, finding other remedies only served to make the schismatics more insolent, sent a commission to the bishops and priests, whom he had appointed to act in his stead, to declare the ringleaders among them excommunicated; which was done according to his orders. About the beginning of the year 251, Saint Cyprian wrote to his flock, exhorting them to beware of being misled by the schism, which he calls more dangerous than the persecutions of the pagans. “There is,” says he, “one God, and one Christ, and but one episcopal chair, originally founded on Peter, by our Lord’s authority. There cannot therefore be erected another altar, or another priesthood. Whatever any man in his rage or rashness shall appoint, in defiance of the divine institution, must be a spurious, profane, and sacrilegious ordinance.” 7 Novatian and Novatus having kindled a schism at Rome against Pope Cornelius, Saint Cyprian wrote his excellent book, On the Unity of the Church, in which he more fully explains the same principles, which overthrow all schisms and heresies which can arise in the church. The case of the absolution of the lapsed who returned penitent to the church, gave more exercise to the zeal of our holy pastor than the schism itself.

Virtue which had stood the fiercest persecutions, is often seen to melt at the first ray of prosperity; so dangerous are its flattering blandishments. Saint Cyprian complains in many parts of his works, 8 that the peace which the church had enjoyed 9 had enervated in some Christians the watchfulness and spirit of their holy profession, and had opened a door to many converts who had not the true spirit of our faith; from which sources a sensible relaxation was discoverable in the manners of many. Their virtue therefore being put to the test, in the persecution raised by Decius, many wanted courage to stand the trial. The lapsed, whether apostates who had sacrificed to idols, or Libellatici who, without sacrificing, had purchased for money certificates that they had offered sacrifice, were not admitted to assist at the holy mysteries, before they had gone through a most rigorous course of public penance, consisting of four degrees, and of several years’ continuance, as is prescribed for much less heinous sins than that of apostacy, in the canonical epistle of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus, written about that time. When, during this penitential term, absolution was given in danger of death, if the penitent recovered he was obliged to accomplish his course as to the austerities enjoined him. Relaxations of these penances, called indulgences, were granted on certain extraordinary occasions, as on account of the uncommon fervour of a penitent; of which several instances occur in ecclesiastical antiquity; also, on occasion of a new violent persecution being raised in the church.

Thus Saint Cyprian, in 252, when the persecution of Gallus began to threaten the church, decreed, “that all the penitents should receive the peace of the church who professed themselves ready to enter the lists afresh; there to abide the utmost heat of battle, and manfully to fight for the name of the Lord, and for their own salvation.” For the reasons of which indulgence he alleged, that it was necessary “to make a general rendezvous of Christ’s soldiers within his camp, who are desirous to have arms put into their hands, and seem eager for the engagement.” So long as we had peaceable times, there was reason for a longer continuance of penitents under a state of mortification; yet so as to relax it in the case of sickness and danger. Now the living have as much need of communion as the dying then had, unless we would leave those naked and defenceless, whom we are exhorting and encouraging to fight our Lord’s battle: whereas we should rather support and strengthen them with the body and blood of Christ. The design of the eucharist being to be a defence and security for those who partake of it, we should fortify those whose safety we are concerned for with the armour of our Lord’s banquet. How shall they be able to die for Christ if we deny them the blood of Christ? How shall we fit them for drinking the cup of martyrdom, if we will not first admit them to the cup of the Lord? 10 It was also customary to grant indulgences to penitents who brought tickets from some martyr going to execution, or from some confessor in prison for the faith, containing a request in their behalf, which the bishop and his clergy examined, and often ratified. This practice was established in Africa in Tertullian’s time, 11 in Egypt, in the days of Saint Dionysius of Alexandria, 12 in Asia, as appears from the acts of Saint Pionius, and in other places. In Saint Cyprian’s time this custom degenerated in Africa into a great abuse by the multitude of such tickets, and their often being given in too peremptory terms, and without examination or discernment, to the great prejudice of souls, and the relaxation of the discipline of penance.

Saint Cyprian being informed of the mischief which threatened his flock in June, 250, severely condemned it by three letters which he despatched together, one to the martyrs and confessors, the second to the priests and deacons, and a third to his people. In the first 13 he expresses the utmost concern to the confessors that they had not been better instructed by his priests in the rules of the gospel than they appeared to have been, and that by their recommendation “some priests had presumed to make oblations for the lapsed, 14 and to admit them to the holy eucharist; that is, indeed, to profane the body of our Lord. And as a further aggravation,” says he, “they have admitted these sinners to communion before any submission made by them to penitential discipline, before any confession made of their heinous and crying sin, and before any imposition of hands made by the bishop and his clergy unto penance. Such priests, instead of approving themselves the true shepherds of the sheep, become as bad to them as butchers and murderers. For a mischievous condescension is, in effect, a cheat; nor are those who have fallen raised by such helps, but rather cast down, and pushed upon destruction.” He adds: “I beseech you, with all possible earnestness, to set before your eyes the examples of your predecessors, and to consider how careful other martyrs, who are gone before you, were in making such grants; duly weigh the reasonableness and justice of the petitions which you hand to me. I again entreat you, that you see the persons, acquaint yourselves with their circumstances, and be assured that their humiliation comes very near the just measures of a legitimate and full satisfaction.” The saint’s letter to the priests 15 is a much more severe rebuke, that some of their order (whom he threatens to restrain from offering, that is, to suspend), forgetting the rules of the gospel, as well as the rank which they held in the church, rashly and hastily admitted penitents to communion upon the tickets of confessors; “though,” says he, “they have not performed their penance, made no humble confession of their sin, nor received the imposition of hands from the bishop and his clergy; the holy eucharist is administered to them, in defiance of the scripture, which saith: Whoever shall eat or drink unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, 1 Cor. xi. 27.” Fleury remarks, that Saint Cyprian here does not take the word exomologesis, with Tertullian, for the whole course of penance, but for a part of it, according to the Greek word, namely, confession, which was made either publicly or privately, after penance was ended, before receiving reconciliation by the imposition of hands. 16 The holy bishop, in his letter to his people, recommends to them to restrain by their advice, the forwardness of such confessors within the limits prescribed by the gospel. 17 He, however, dispenses in case of sickness, or other extreme danger, and allows such, with tickets from the martyrs, to be reconciled, “when they have made the humble confession of their sin before any priest or deacon, 18 whom they can procure to attend them.” 19 Lucian, and certain others among the confessors at Carthage, wrote an imperious letter to Saint Cyprian upon this subject, 20 but the holy pastor strenuously maintained his point.

The see of Rome being then vacant, Saint Cyprian wrote concerning this affair to the clergy of that church, who, by an excellent answer, confirmed the same law of holy penance, and discipline of the church. 22 They were by that time well satisfied of the just reasons Saint Cyprian had for his retreat; and condemn over-hasty absolutions. “God forbid,” say they, “that ever the Roman church should be so easy and compliant, or have so little regard to the interests of religion, as to relax the severity and rigour of its discipline. The remedy too hastily applied can do those that are fallen no sort of service; but through a mistaken compassion, would fester the wound received by the first offence, and to their greater destruction, deprive the unhappy souls of the advantages they might reap from a true repentance. For how is it possible that the medicinal grace of forgiveness should have its effect, if he who hath the dispensation of it becomes fond of increasing the danger, by contracting the time which should be allowed for the removal of it, by a legitimate and proper penance? If he choose only to skin over the wound, and will not allow due time for the operation of his medicines, nor for closing it by surer and slower degrees? This, if we would speak out plainly, is not to cure, but to kill. Let penitents knock at the doors of the church; but let them not proceed to violence, nor to break them open. Let their tears and lamentations, coming from the very bottom of their hearts, plead their cause for them, and speak their shame and sorrow for their sin. Nay, if they have really a just horror of their guilt, and would have the deep and dangerous wounds of their consciences handed skilfully, they should even ask with shame. Let them ask, agreeably to the rules of the gospel, with modesty and humility. The mercies of God may be considered; but then his justice should also be remembered. He hath prepared a heaven, but he hath prepared a hell too,” etc. A letter also which the confessors at Rome wrote out of prison to those in Africa (much extolled in this and Saint Cyprian’s letters, though not now extant) contributed very much to the support of discipline.

Saint Cyprian writes of a certain priest named Gaius, who admitted the lapsed to communion, and of such others: “Let them be suspended from their monthly dividend.” 23 For the revenues of the clergy then consisted chiefly of the oblations of the faithful, which were divided every month into four parts, one of which was assigned to the bishop, and one to his clergy, so that the bishop’s share equalled that of all his clergy together. The other two parts were allowed to the poor, and the expenses of oratories or churches. 24 The Roman clergy tell Saint Cyprian, in another letter, that they hoped the impatience of the lapsed would wear off with time; “and then they will be thankful,” say they, “that they have been kept in hand for a season, till their cure could be depended on.” 25 The schismatics Novatus and Felicissimus supported the cause of the lapsed, and the rebellious clergy and confessors; but Novatus retired to Rome in the beginning of the year 251, where Saint Cornelius was chosen pope in June that same year. Saint Cyprian congratulated with him upon his election, and they joined their forces against the double schism kindled both at Rome and in Africa.

At the end of the year 250 the persecution was considerably abated at Carthage, upon the expiration of the proconsul’s annual authority. It ceased by the death of the two Decii, father and son, who perished together, by the treachery of Gallus, their general, as they were fighting against the Carpi, a Scythian nation, near Abrutum, in Mysia, part of Scythia, in November, 251, the elder Decius having reigned about two years and six months. Saint Cyprian was returned to Carthage in April that same year, after an exile which he calls of two years, though it seems only to have continued about fourteen months, as Tillemont observes. Soon after his return he held a numerous council at Carthage, in which the schismatics were condemned, and it was ordered that the lapsed should remain in a course of penance. Saint Cyprian granted them afterwards a plenary indulgence in a second council which he held at Carthage soon after Easter the following year, the persecution of Gallus then beginning to threaten the church, as has been already mentioned. Our saint is thought to have read in the first of these councils his treatise, On the Lapsed, which he published soon after he came out of his retreat.

Visions continued very frequent in the church in that age, as the learned Mr. Dodwell 27 has proved, tracing the evidences of this prophetic spirit through almost every writer, from the apostolic age to this period, namely, from the works of Hermas, Clement, Romanus, Ignatius, Polycarp, Quadratus, Justin, Melito, Tertullian, Origen, Dionysius, Alexandrinus, etc. Saint Cyprian mentions several visions with which God had favoured him and many other persons. He assures us, that he received from God an express order to fly and lie concealed when he was proscribed or outlawed in the reign of Decius. Pontius, in his life, tells us, that it was purely owing to his fear of offending God, which induced him rather to obey the commands of God than to be crowned with martyrdom against the will of God, to whom in everything he was entirely devoted. He so firmly depended on the truth of those admonitions which he received from heaven, that he was persuaded he should commit a sin by suffering, if he had not then concealed himself, when our Lord commanded him to do so. This historian observes, that he was preserved by a merciful Providence, lest his weak flock should have been totally dispersed, and the discipline of penance enervated in it by the persecutions, first of the heathens, and afterwards of the lapsed. During which dangers this skilful manager bound up the wounds of the brethren, and, by his watchfulness, defeated the stratagems by which the cunning enemy sought to impose upon those who were found not to be upon their guard. Such circumstances render the vision more credible at those times when miraculous powers were frequent.

Saint Cyprian, in his eleventh epistle to his priests and deacons, 28 mentions several other visions; one by which he was moved to exhort them to continual prayer. “I received,” says he, “an admonition from heaven, in a vision, saying, Ask, and you shall receive. Next, my people were directed in the same vision to ask for certain persons; but they could not agree in asking, which exceedingly displeased him who had said, Ask, and you shall receive; because it is written: God maketh men to be of one mind in a house.” 29 He subjoins the vision of the net-fencer, representing the devil threatening the people, which pointed out the impending persecution of Decius; and gives an account of a third vision, in which it was shown him that this persecution was drawing towards an end, in the following words: “To the least of all his servants, who hath many sins to account for, and in all respects is unworthy of such a condescension, God, in his infinite mercy, hath been pleased to give the following direction, saying: ‘Bid him be secure and easy, for settled times are coming: and, as to the intervening delay of them, there is reason for it, seeing there are some yet remaining to be proved in this trial.’ Even as to the point of spare diet, we have some intimation from above, with a manifest view of preventing any declensions in the vigour of heavenly virtue, through the allurements of the world; and of disengaging the mind from the weight and incumbrance of satiety, that it might more easily and expeditely watch for prayer.” The English editor observes, that this letter was written in 250, when there was no human appearance of times growing more peaceable. The departure of the Decii from Rome soon after, upon their expedition, made some abatement in the persecution, and their unexpected death put an end to it. The event proved the author to be neither an enthusiast nor an impostor, who depended with great assurance upon these visions, especially those which promised peace to the church; of which he writes again: 30 “Let us animate one another, and endeavour to make all possible improvements in virtue, that when our Lord shall mercifully vouchsafe that peace to the church which he hath promised, we may return to her new men,” etc. When some of the lapsed had written to Saint Cyprian, humbly and modestly begging penance and reconciliation, the holy bishop said of them: “The Lord is my witness how much I congratulate with them for this regular and Christian conduct, who hath been pleased also to reveal to me how highly acceptable it is in his sight.” 31 He speaks of several other divine revelations which he received: 32 he was often directed by them in promoting persons to holy orders, and in other occurrences. He was forewarned by God of the revival of the persecution under Gallus; of which he wrote to Pope Cornelius as follows: “A storm is coming, and a furious enemy will speedily declare himself against us; the struggle will not be like the late one, (that under Decius,) but more sharp and insupportable. This we have had frequently revealed to us from above, and the merciful providence of God doth often remind us of it; through whose assistance and compassion for us, we trust that he who, in times of peace, hath foretold to his soldiers the approaching battle, will crown them with victory when engaged in it.” 33 Upon these revelations he, by a plenary indulgence, admitted the lapsed, who had entered upon a course of penance, to the benefit of reconciliation and communion.

In the beginning of this persecution, in July, 252, Pope Cornelius made a glorious confession of his faith at Rome, and was banished to Centumcellæ. Saint Cyprian congratulated him hereupon by a letter, 34 in which he foretels both his and his own approaching martyrdom. “Since it hath pleased God,” says he, “to advertise me of our approaching trial, I cease not to endeavour by exhorting my people to prepare for it, and to join with me in continual watchfulness, fasting, and prayer. Let us cry to God continually, and avert his wrath: for this is our heavenly armour, which will enable us to stand our ground with constancy and courage. Let us agree in remembering each other at this time of peril and distress—and whichever of us shall first be favoured by our Lord with a removal hence, let our affection still persevere before the Lord for our brethren, in never ceasing prayers for them.” These two great saints lived in the closest and most constant union together; we have eight letters of Saint Cyprian to that holy pope, besides a synodal epistle; and it appears by these that he wrote to him many others. After the martyrdom of Saint Cornelius, which happened the same year, 252, on the 14th of September, Saint Cyprian wrote a letter of congratulation to his successor, Saint Lucius, who was no sooner elected than banished. Being recalled, he died about five months after his election, on the 4th of March, attaining to a “glorious martyrdom,” as Saint Cyprian assures us.

The pestilence, which broke out first in Ethiopia, in the reign of Decius, and ravaged successively all the provinces of the empire, fell most heavily of all upon Africa. It grew more violent under Gallus; afterwards destroyed the armies of Valerian in Persia, and seemed to redouble its virulence in the reign of Gallien. It is mentioned also under Claudius II. in 270, though its chief havoc is confined to the space of twelve years, from 250 to 262. 36 Saint Cyprian describes this distemper, that it began by a sinking of the strength, with colliquative evacuations, and grievous inflammations of the larynx and parts adjacent: these symptoms were followed with an inward heat of the bowels, convulsions of the stomach, violent retchings and vomitings, fiery redness of the eyes, and mortifications in several parts, which required amputations of limbs; a weakness contracted in the whole frame rendered the body almost incapable of motion; a dulness of hearing or a dimness of sight also came upon the patients. 37 This fatal contagious distemper swept away daily vast numbers, seizing whole families one after another, without sparing one individual person in them. 38 All in this dreadful juncture, were in the utmost consternation, every one striving to shift for himself, and get to the greatest distance from the infection. The heathens deserted and exposed their nearest friends, turning the dying patients out of the doors, as if they could shut death out with them. Living carcases rather than men lay destitute up and down the streets, begging the assistance of passengers. Yet many were intent upon an unnatural and cruel plunder of the goods of others.

Saint Cyprian, in this time of desolation, assembled the Christians at Carthage, and spoke to them strongly on the duty and advantages of mercy and charity, teaching them that they ought to extend their care not only to their own people, but also to their enemies and persecutors. The faithful readily offered themselves to follow his directions. Their services were severally distributed; the rich contributed large alms in money; the poor gave only their personal labour and attendance, having nothing else to bestow. Every one was ambitious to engage in a service wherein they might so eminently approve themselves to God the Father, and Christ, the Judge of all, and in which they had at their head so great a leader and commander as their good bishop. How much the poor and necessitous were, not only during this pestilence, but at all times, the objects of our saint’s most tender care, appears from the concern he expressed for them, and the orders he frequently gave about them in his epistles, even during his absence. It was one of his usual sayings: “Let not that sleep in thy coffers which may be profitable to the poor. That which a man must of necessity part with, some time or other, it is wisdom for him to distribute so, that God may everlastingly reward him.”

All orders of men shared the good bishop’s attention, but the clergy above the rest. So solicitous was he that they should be wholly taken up in the spiritual function of their charge, that he reckoned it among the great disorders which had crept into the church during the long continuance of peace before Decius, that some bishops, “neglecting their high trust, entered upon the management of secular affairs.” 39 In the town of Furnis, one Geminius Victor had, in his last will, appointed Geminius Faustinus, a priest of that church, his executor. The sixth among the apostolic canons (framed in various synods during the three first centuries) and other synodal decrees of the earliest ages forbade any bishop, priest, or deacon to engage himself in secular business under pain of being deposed. Bishop Fell observes that the Roman laws made it penal for any one to refuse the office of executor or guardian when offered. Wherefore, in this case, the synods inflicted the penalty on him who should appoint a bishop, priest, or deacon, either executor or guardian, forbidding “any remembrance of him to be made at the eucharist, (or mass,) or any oblation to be made for him after his death. The reason of which was, that the clergy should not be distracted from their holy ministrations—that they might attend their altar and their sacrifices without interruption, and fix all their attendance upon religious duties,” as Saint Cyprian says. Wherefore he ordered “that the name of the said Victor should not be mentioned at the altar—that no oblation should be made for his repose, nor the customary prayers of the church be offered up on his behalf,” as was usually done for the faithful departed. Saint Cyprian hoped, by this instance of severity, to prevent any person from calling down to a lower employment the priests and ministers of God, whose whole time and care should be devoted to his altar.

In the persecution of Gallus, some priests, who celebrated the holy eucharist early in the morning, made use of water only in the chalice, for fear of being discovered by the scent of the wine. This abuse Saint Cyprian condemned and confuted. 41 He mentions the sign of the cross used at baptism, and on other occasions, 42 and says, “A Christian is fortified by the defensive sign of the cross.” 43 Several cities in Numidia having been distressed by an incursion of barbarians, who were not subject to the Romans, a great number of Christians of both sexes were carried into captivity by them. Upon this accident eight bishops wrote to Saint Cyprian, imploring his assistance for the redemption of the prisoners. Saint Cyprian shed many tears upon reading these letters, and was particularly concerned on account of the danger to which the virgins were exposed. At his recommendation the clergy and people of Carthage raised a sum amounting to a hundred thousand sestertii, that is, about seven hundred and eighty-one pounds English. 44 This money Saint Cyprian sent to those bishops, charging them to have recourse to him again upon all such occasions.

About the year 255 began the controversy concerning the validity of baptism given by heretics. Saint Cyprian having been consulted by eighteen bishops of Numidia concerning that point, answered, that such a baptism is null, and to be reiterated; which decree he soon after confirmed in a synod of seventy-two bishops, which he held at Carthage. The pretended reasons for this mistaken notion he sums up in his epistle to Jubaianus. 46 In what manner Saint Stephen maintained the tradition of the church upon this head, has been related in the life of that holy pope and martyr. What the behaviour of Saint Cyprian would have been had he seen the controversy determined by the decision of the church, cannot be doubted from the principles which he himself lays down. 47 Nor did he question the superior authority of Saint Stephen; though in a point which he thought to belong merely to discipline, not to faith, he thought he might maintain the custom which he found established at Carthage by a predecessor named Agrippinus. Neither was he unacquainted with the dignity of the Roman see, which he calls “The chair of Peter, the principal church, the origin of the sacerdotal unity; whither perfidy cannot find access.” 48 If he for some time betrayed a warmth in this controversy, how much he repented of it appears by the book which he afterwards wrote on patience; and, if he offended, this was effaced by his perfect charity and glorious martyrdom, as Saint Austin frequently repeats.

Whilst this controversy was carried on, the church enjoyed some tranquillity. For Gallus did not reign full two years, being slain by his own troops. Emilianus, who had revolted against him, met with the like fate after four months, and Valerian, who next stept into the throne, was favourable to the Christians, till, through the instigation of Macrianus, his general, he raised a most bloody persecution in 257, which raged three years and a half, till that emperor was taken prisoner by the Persians. 49 Saint Cyprian so effectually encouraged his flock to martyrdom, that many who had fallen under Decius, and been by an indulgence reconciled by Saint Cyprian, upon the approach of the persecution of Gallus, in it courageously suffered martyrdom; whose example is made use of to confound the harshness of Novatian in rejecting such penitents, in the work of a learned contemporary writer against that heresiarch, which has sometimes been ascribed to Saint Cyprian. Indefatigable was the zeal of our holy bishop in exhorting the confessors, and in procuring them all possible succour. He was also careful in devoutly honouring the memory of the martyrs, after their triumphs, by sacrifices of thanksgiving to God on their annual festivals. For this purpose, in his retirement, during the first of these persecutions, he sent this charge to his clergy at Carthage: 50 “As to those confessors who die in prison, observe the days on which they depart this life, that they may be commemorated with honour, as those of the martyrs are.—We offer up here the usual sacrifices and oblations in commemoration of them.” He says, in another letter to his clergy, speaking of certain martyrs: “We constantly offer sacrifices for them, upon the yearly return of those days, wherein we celebrate the memorial of the martyrs’ sufferings.”

The saint describes in his epistles the wonderful constancy with which the martyrs endured the most unheard-of torments. They were scourged, beaten, racked, and roasted; their flesh was pulled off with burning pincers; some were beheaded with swords, others were run through with spears; often more instruments of torment were employed about the same man than his body had limbs. They were plundered and stripped, chained and imprisoned, thrown to wild beasts, or burnt at stakes. When the persecutors had run over all their old methods of tortures and executions, they studied to invent others more barbarous. They not only varied, but repeated the torments, and where one ended, another began. This cruelty they added to all the rest, that they tortured them without leaving them hopes of dying soon, stopping them in their journey to heaven. Many were purposely kept upon the rack, that they might die piecemeal, and that their pains might be lingering: no intervals or times, of respite were given them, that the sense of their torments might be without intermission, unless some chanced to give their executioners the slip, by expiring in the midst of their pains. All this did but render the faith and patience of the martyrs more illustrious, and make them more earnestly long for heaven. They tired out their tormentors, overcame the sharpest engines of execution, and smiled at the busy officers that were raking in their wounds; when their flesh was wearied and consumed, their virtue and fidelity to God were unconquerable. The multitude beheld with admiration these heavenly conflicts, and stood astonished to hear the servants of Christ in the midst of all this, with unshaken souls, making a free and bold confession of him, destitute of any external succour, but armed with a divine power, and the shield of faith. The holy bishop ceased not to prepare his people for the combat, by having this saying often in his mouth: “All present evils are to be endured for the hope of good things to come.” He was preserved, by a special providence, during two such violent storms, that he might be the support of a weak flock, and the father of many fervent penitents and holy martyrs. The third storm in which he was involved, was the eighth general persecution raised by Valerian in the fourth year of his reign, of Christ 257.

In that very year Saint Cyprian was apprehended at Carthage, and on the 30th of August presented before Aspasius Paternus, the proconsul of Africa, in the council-chamber. This magistrate said to him: “The most sacred emperors Valerian and Gallien have done me the honour to command me by their letter, that I oblige all who follow not the Roman worship immediately to conform to it. What is your name and quality?” Cyprian said: “I am a Christian and a bishop. I know no other gods besides the one true God, who made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all that is therein. This God we Christians serve; his mercies we implore both day and night for ourselves, for all men, and for the safety of these very emperors.” When the proconsul further asked him if he persevered in that resolution? He replied that, “A purpose so well founded, and a will which hath once devoted itself to God, can never be altered.” The proconsul said: “Go then into banishment to the city Curubus.” The martyr answered: “I will go.” The proconsul said: “The emperors have done me the honour to write to me to find out not only bishops but also priests. I would therefore know what priests live in this city.” Cyprian answered: “The Roman laws wisely forbid us to become informers; and I cannot discover them. But they may be found at home.” The proconsul said: “I will find them.” He added: “I have orders also to forbid the holding of your assemblies in any place, or entering into the cemeteries. Whoever observes not this wholesome ordinance, shall be put to death.” To which Cyprian made answer: “Then obey your orders.” The proconsul having commanded that he should be banished to Curubis, the saint arrived there on the 13th or 14th of September. Curubis was a small town fifty miles from Carthage, situated in a peninsula upon the coast of the Lybian sea, not far from Pentapolis. The place was pleasant and healthy, in a good air, and though situated in a desert country, green meadows, and the conveniency of fresh water (scarce and valuable things in many parts of Africa) were not wanting. The saint was attended by his deacon Pontius, and some others; and met with kind and courteous usage. He was favoured with a vision the night after his arrival, by which God forewarned him of his approaching martyrdom, and which Pontius gives in the very words in which Saint Cyprian related it. “Before I went to sleep,” said he, “there appeared to me a young man of a very uncommon stature, who led me to the palace, and placed me before the tribunal of the proconsul, who, as soon as he cast his eyes upon me, began to write a sentence in a pocket-book. The young man who stood behind him, and read it, signified to me by signs the substance of it; for stretching out his hands at full length, so as to represent a sword, he made a cross stroke over one hand with the other, imitating the action of beheading a person, so that no words could have made the thing more intelligible. I immediately apprehended that this was to be the death which was prepared for me, and I addressed myself to the proconsul for a short reprieve, till I could settle my affairs. He wrote again in his pocket-book; and I guessed that he granted my request of a reprieve till the morrow, by the evenness of his countenance, and the openness of his brow. This the young man intimated to me by twisting his fingers one behind another.” This, says Bishop Fell, was a known mark of the thing in question being postponed; as bending the thumb was a mark of condemnation, and holding it straight a token of acquittal. The reprieve of a day signified a year; and the bishop suffered on the same day in the following year. This warning he took for a divine promise of the honour of martyrdom. The reasons of his desiring a reprieve was for settling the affairs of his church, and, for an opportunity of expressing by a last effort, his tenderness for the poor, upon whom he accordingly bestowed almost all he was then possessed of. Pontius doubts not but God granted him this respite because he desired it for these purposes.

A messenger arrived about that time from Rome, sent by Pope Xystus, to advertise Saint Cyprian that new and very bloody edicts were speedily expected. No sooner were they published but Saint Xystus was immediately sacrificed, on the 6th of August, 258, somewhat above a month before Saint Cyprian. Our saint received from Rome information of his martyrdom, and that the order which Valerian (who was set out upon his Persian expedition) sent to the senate, imported, “that bishops, priests, and deacons should forthwith suffer.” 51 From that time Saint Cyprian lived in the daily expectation of executioners arriving to take off the heads of such as were marked out for victims. Meanwhile divers persons of the first rank and quality, even several pagans met together, and endeavoured to persuade him to secrete himself, with offers of a commodious and safe retirement. But he had so set his affections upon things above, that he utterly neglected all lower interests. He took all opportunities of encouraging the servants of God, and spoke with most ardent affection upon religious subjects, always wishing the moment of his martyrdom might overtake him whilst he was discoursing upon God. He prepared himself for it by those exercises of compunction and penance, the spirit of which he so excellently expressed in his treatise, On the Lapsed, and by which he studied to purify his soul more and more, that it might appear without spot or stain before the God of infinite sanctity. He devoted his time to penance, and made heavenly contemplation the favourite employment of his retirement, by which he raised his soul to God by the most inflamed love, and longing desires and prayers to be united to him for evermore, according to the maxim which he lays down in the close of his book On Mortality, where he says: “To this delightful society of the blessed, and to Christ who is at the head of it, let us hasten, my brethren, upon the wings of desire, and of an holy love. Let God and Christ be witnesses, that this is the main bent of our wishes, and the sum of our most ardent hopes. Then our rewards will be proportioned to the earnestness of our present desires, if they proceed from his love.”

Our saint was still at Curubis when Galerius Maximus succeeded Paternus in the government of Africa. The new proconsul recalled Saint Cyprian to Carthage, that he might more readily come at him as soon as he should receive the new edicts which he expected from Rome. The bishop by his order, resided at his own gardens or country-house near the city, which he had sold for the benefit of the poor when he was baptized, but which afterwards fell again into his hands. He desired to give this estate again, with the rest of his fortune, to the poor; but could not do it at that dangerous season for fear of exasperating the persecutors. The sanguinary order reached Carthage about the middle of August, whilst the proconsul was at Utica, which shared with Carthage the honour of being his residence for part of the year. Maximus despatched a guard to conduct him to Utica; but Saint Cyprian being desirous to suffer in the midst of his own flock, stepped aside, and took shelter in a more private place, till the proconsul being returned to Carthage, he showed himself again in his own gardens. Galerius, upon notice given him, sent the prince (that is, the chief of those who served under the magister Officiorum) with another officer, to seize him by surprise. But nothing could happen suddenly or unexpectedly to the blessed man, who was always ready and prepared for any event. He, therefore, came forth with all imaginable cheerfulness and courage, and all the marks of an undaunted mind. The officers putting him into a chariot between them, carried him to a country seat at Sextus, where the proconsul was retired for his health, six miles from Carthage. The proconsul not being then ready, deferred the trial till the next day, and the martyr was conducted back to the house of the chief officer that had apprehended him, situated in the street of Saturn, between the streets of Venus and Salus. Upon the rumour that Thascius was taken, the city was alarmed; the very pagans flocked together, and testified their compassion; for he had been well known among them; and they remembered the excess of his charity towards all in the late instance of the public distress and pestilence. The multitude that was gathered together was very great, in proportion to the extent of the city of Carthage, which was inferior to none but Rome for the number of its inhabitants.

Saint Cyprian was guarded that night by the chief of the officers in a courteous manner, and his friends were allowed to sup with him. The next morning, which the conscience of the blessed martyr, says Pontius, rendered a day of joy to him, he was conducted by a strong guard to the prætorium or court of the proconsul, about a furlong from the officer’s house where he had passed the night. The proconsul not being yet sitting, he had leave to go out of the crowd, and to be in a more private place, where the seat he got was accidentally covered with a linen cloth, as if it were to be a symbol of his episcopal dignity, says the deacon Pontius; by which it appears that bishops had then such a badge of distinction, at least at the public divine service. One of the guards who had formerly been a Christian, observing that the sweat ran down the martyr’s body, by the length and hurry of his walk, offered to wipe it off, and to give him dry linen in exchange for that he had on, which was wet, linen garments being common in hot countries. This was the soldier’s pretence; his meaning was to get into his possession some of the holy man’s garments and sweat, as Pontius observes. The bishop excusing himself, replied: “We seek to cure complaints, to which perhaps this very day will put a final period.” By this time the proconsul was come out, and being seated on his tribunal, he ordered the martyr to be brought before him, and said: “Art thou Thascius Cyprian?” The martyr answered: “I am.” Proconsul: “Art thou the person who hath been bishop and father to men of ungodly minds?” Cyprian: “I have been their bishop.” Proconsul: “The most sacred emperors have commanded thee to conform to the ceremonies of the Roman religion.” Cyprian: “I cannot.” Proconsul: “Consider better of thy own safety.” Cyprian: “Obey your orders. In so manifestly just a case there is no need of consideration.” Upon this the proconsul consulted with his friends, and coming to the resolution to condemn him, said: “Long hast thou lived with an irreligious heart, and hast joined great numbers with thee in an unnatural conspiracy against the Roman deities, and their holy rites: nor have our sacred and most pious emperors, Valerian and Gallien always august, nor the most noble Cæsar Valerian, been able to reclaim thee to their ceremonies. Since thou hast been a ringleader in crimes of such an heinous nature, thou shalt be made an example to those, whom thou hast seduced to join with thee; and discipline shall be established in thy blood.” Then he read the following sentence written in a tablet: “I will that Thascius Cyprian be beheaded.” To which Cyprian subjoined: “Blessed be God for it.” The Christians who were present in crowds, said: “Let us be beheaded with him;” and they made a great uproar.

When the martyr went out of the court, a great number of soldiers attended him, and he was guarded by centurions and tribunes marching on each side of him. They led him into the country, into a large plain, thick set with high trees; and many climbed up to the top of them, the better to see him at a distance, by reason of the crowd. Saint Cyprian being arrived at the place appointed, took off his mantle, fell upon his knees, and prostrated himself before God. Then he put off his Dalmatic, 52 which he gave to the deacons, and remained in a linen vestment, or shirt, expecting the executioner, to whom he ordered a sum of twenty-five golden denarii, amounting to about six pounds English, to be given. He himself bound the napkin over his eyes; and he desired a priest and a deacon to tie his hands. The Christians spread before him napkins and handkerchiefs to receive his body. His head was struck off on the 14th of September, 258. For fear of the insults of the heathens, the faithful conveyed his body for the present into an adjoining field, and they interred it in the night with great solemnity on the Mappalian way. Two churches were afterwards erected to his memory, the one on this place of his burial, called the Mappalia, the other on the spot where he suffered, called Mensa Cypriana, or Cyprian’s Table, because there he was made a sacrifice to God. Both are mentioned by Victor. 53 The proconsul Galerius Maximus died a few days after him, but in a very different manner. In the Liberian Calendar, and that published by F. Fronto, his festival is placed on the 14th of September; but since the fifth age has been joined with that of Saint Cornelius on the 16th. Certain ambassadors of Charlemagne, returning from Aaron, king of Persia, through Africa, obtained leave of the Mahometan king of that country to open the tomb of Saint Cyprian (which they found entirely neglected) and to carry his relics into France, which they deposited at Arles, in 806, according to Ado, 54 or in 802, according to Agobard. Leidrarde, archbishop of Lyons, with the king’s consent, removed them to Lyons, and deposited them behind the altar of Saint John Baptist; a poem upon this translation was written by Leidrarde’s successor, Agobard. Charles the Bald caused them to be translated to Compeigne, and lodged with those of Saint Cornelius, in the great abbey which he built, and which is called Saint Corneille. Part of the relics of Saints Cornelius and Cyprian is kept in a shrine in the collegiate church of Rosnay, near Oudenarde, in Flanders.

It is a maxim of our holy faith, which Saint Cyprian strongly inculcates, that we must follow the saints now in desire if we hope to reign with them hereafter: “We have solemnly renounced the world,” said he, “and therefore whilst we continue in it, should behave like strangers and pilgrims. We should welcome that happy day (of our death) which is to fix us, every one in our proper habitation, to rescue us from the embarrassments and snares of this world, and remove us to the kingdom of heaven. Who amongst us, if he had been long a sojourner in a foreign land, would not desire a return to his native country? What person, when he had begun to sail thither, would not wish for a prosperous wind to carry him to his desired home with expedition, that he might the sooner embrace his friends and relations? We must account paradise our country. There friends, and parents, and brethren, and children without number, wait for us, and long to congratulate our happy arrival. They are in secure possession of their own felicity, and yet are solicitous for ours. How great will be our common joy, upon the transports of our meeting together in those blessed abodes! How unutterable must be the pleasures of that kingdom, which have no allay or intermission, having eternity added to the highest degrees of bliss! There we shall meet with the glorious choir of the apostles; with the goodly company of the prophets; with an innumerable multitude of holy martyrs; there we shall be blessed with the sight of those triumphant virgins who have subdued the inordinate lusts of the flesh; and there we shall behold the rewards of those who, by feeding the hungry and succouring the afflicted, have with their earthly treasure purchased to themselves a treasure in heaven.”

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Cyprian, Archbishop of Carthage, Martyr”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 15 September 2013. Web. 22 October 2017. <>