(Thaschus Cæcilius Cyprianus).
Bishop and martyr. Of the date of the saint’s birth and of his early life nothing is known. At the time of his conversion to Christianity he had, perhaps, passed middle life. He was famous as an orator and pleader, had considerable wealth, and held, no doubt, a great position in the metropolis of Africa. We learn from his deacon, Saint Pontius, whose life of the saint is preserved, that his mien was dignified without severity, and cheerful without effusiveness. His gift of eloquence is evident in his writings. He was not a thinker, a philosopher, a theologian, but eminently a man of the world and an administrator, of vast energies, and of forcible and striking character. His conversion was due to an aged priest named Caecilianus, with whom he seems to have gone to live. Caecilianus in dying commended to Cyprian the care of his wife and family. While yet a catechumen the saint decided to observe chastity, and he gave most of his revenues to the poor. He sold his property, including his gardens at Carthage. These were restored to him (Dei indulgentiâ restituti, says Pontius), being apparently bought back for him by his friends; but he would have sold them again, had the persecution made this imprudent. His baptism probably took place c. 246, presumably on Easter eve, 18 April.
Cyprian’s first Christian writing is “Ad Donatum”, a monologue spoken to a friend, sitting under a vine-clad pergola. He tells how, until the grace of God illuminated and strengthened the convert, it had seemed impossible to conquer vice; the decay of Roman society is pictured, the gladiatorial shows, the theatre, the unjust law-courts, the hollowness of political success; the only refuge is the temperate, studious, and prayerful life of the Christian. At the beginning should probably be placed the few words of Donatus to Cyprian which are printed by Hartel as a spurious letter. The style of this pamphlet is affected and reminds us of the bombastic unintelligibility of Pontius. It is not like Tertullian, brilliant, barbarous, uncouth, but it reflects the preciosity which Apuleius made fashionable in Africa. In his other works Cyprian addresses a Christian audience; his own fervour is allowed full play, his style becomes simpler, though forcible, and sometimes poetical, not to say flowery. Without being classical, it is correct for its date, and the cadences of the sentences are in strict rhythm in all his more careful writings. On the whole his beauty of style has rarely been equalled among the Latin Fathers, and never surpassed except by the matchless energy and wit of Saint Jerome.
Another work of his early days was the “Testimonia ad Quirinum”, in two books. It consists of passages of Scripture arranged under headings to illustrate the passing away of the Old Law and its fulfillment in Christ. A third book, added later, contains texts dealing with Christian ethics. This work is of the greatest value for the history of the Old Latin version of the Bible. It gives us an African text closely related to that of the Bobbio manuscript known as k (Turin). Hartel’s edition has taken the text from a manuscript which exhibits a revised version, but what Cyprian wrote can be fairly well restored from the manuscript cited in Hartel’s notes as L. Another book of excerpts on martyrdom is entitled “Ad Fortunatum”; its text cannot be judged in any printed edition. Cyprian was certainly only a recent convert when he became Bishop of Carthage c. 218 or the beginning of 249, but he passed through all the grades of the ministry. He had declined the charge, but was constrained by the people. A minority opposed his election, including five priests, who remained his enemies; but he tells us that he was validly elected “after the Divine judgment, the vote of the people and the consent of the bishops”.
The Decian persecution
The prosperity of the Church during a peace of thirty-eight years had produced great disorders. Many even of the bishops were given up to worldliness and gain, and we hear of worse scandals. In October, 249, Decius became emperor with the ambition of restoring the ancient virtue of Rome. In January, 250, he published an edict against Christians. Bishops were to be put to death, other persons to be punished and tortured till they recanted. On 20 January Pope Fabian was martyred, and about the same time Saint Cyprian retired to a safe place of hiding. His enemies continually reproached him with this. But to remain at Carthage was to court death, to cause greater danger to others, and to leave the Church without government; for to elect a new bishop would have been as impossible as it was at Rome. He made over much property to a confessor priest, Rogatian, for the needy. Some of the clergy lapsed, others fled; Cyprian suspended their pay, for their ministrations were needed and they were in less danger than the bishop. Form his retreat he encouraged the confessors and wrote eloquent panegyrics on the martyrs. Fifteen soon died in prison and one in the mines. On the arrival of the proconsul in April the severity of the persecution increased. Saint Mappalicus died gloriously on the 17th. Children were tortured, women dishonoured. Numidicus, who had encouraged many, saw his wife burnt to alive, and was himself half burnt, then stoned and left for dead; his daughter found him yet living; he recovered and Cyprian made him a priest. Some, after being twice tortured, were dismissed or banished, often beggared.
But there was another side to the picture. At Rome terrified Christians rushed to the temples to sacrifice. At Carthage the majority apostatized. Some would not sacrifice, but purchased libelli, or certificates, that they had done so Some bought the exemption of their family at the price of their own sin. Of these libellatici there were several thousands in Carthage. Of the fallen some did not repent, others joined the heretics, but most of them clamoured for forgiveness and restoration. Some, who had sacrificed under torture, returned to be tortured afresh. Castus and Æmilius were burnt for recanting, others were exiled; but such cases were necessarily rare. A few began to perform canonical penance. The first to suffer at Rome had been a young Carthaginian, Celerinus. He recovered, and Cyprian made him a lector. His grandmother and two uncles had been martyrs, but his two sisters apostatized under fear of torture, and in their repentance gave themselves to the service of those in prison. Their brother was very urgent for their restoration. His letter from Rome to Lucian, a confessor at Carthage, is extant, with the reply of the latter. Lucian obtained from a martyr named Paul before his passion a commission to grant peace to any who asked for it, and he distributed these “indulgences” with a vague formula: “Let such a one with his family communicate”. Tertullian speaks in 197 of the “custom” for those who were not at peace with the Church to beg this peace from the martyrs. Much later, in his Montanist days (c. 220) he urges that the adulterers whom Pope Callistus was ready to forgive after due penance, would now get restored by merely imploring the confessors and those in the mines. Correspondingly we find Lucian issuing pardons in the name of confessors who were still alive, a manifest abuse. The heroic Mappalicus had only interceded for his own sister and mother. It seemed now as if no penance was to be enforced upon the lapsed, and Cyprian wrote to remonstrate.
Meanwhile official news had arrived from Rome of the death of Pope Fabian, together with an unsigned and ungrammatical letter to the clergy of Carthage from some of the Roman clergy, implying blame to Cyprian for the desertion of his flock, and giving advice as to the treatment of the lapsed. Cyprian explained his conduct (Ep. xx), and sent to Rome copies of thirteen of the letter he had written from his hiding-place to Carthage. The five priests who opposed him were now admitting at once to communion all who had recommendations from the confessors, and the confessors themselves issued a general indulgence, in accordance with which the bishops were to restore to communion all whom they had examined. This was an outrage on discipline, yet Cyprian was ready to give some value to the indulgences thus improperly granted, but all must be done in submission to the bishop. He proposed that libellatici should be restored, when in danger of death, by a priest or even by a deacon, but that the rest should await the cessation of persecution, when councils could be held at Rome and at Carthage, and a common decision be agreed upon. Some regard must be had for the prerogative of the confessors, yet the lapsed must surely not be placed in a better position than those who had stood fast, and had been tortured, or beggared, or exiled. The guilty were terrified by marvels that occurred. A man was struck dumb on the very Capitol where he had denied Christ. Another went mad in the public baths, and gnawed the tongue which had tasted the pagan victim. In Cyprian’s own presence an infant who had been taken by its nurse to partake at the heathen altar, and then to the Holy Sacrifice offered by the bishop, was though in torture, and vomited the Sacred Species it had received in the holy chalice. A lapsed woman of advanced age had fallen in a fit, on venturing to communicate unworthily. Another, on opening the receptacle in which, according to custom, she had taken home the Blessed Sacrament for private Communion, was deterred from sacrilegiously touching it by fire which came forth. Yet another found nought within her pyx save cinders. About September, Cyprian received promise of support from the Roman priests in two letters written by the famous Novatian in the name of his colleagues. In the beginning of 251 the persecution waned, owing to the successive appearance of two rival emperors. The confessors were released, and a council was convened at Carthage. By the perfidy of some priests Cyprian was unable to leave his retreat till after Easter (23 March). But he wrote a letter to his flock denouncing the most infamous of the five priests, Novatus, and his deacon Felicissimus (Ep. xliii). To the bishop’s order to delay the reconciliation of the lapsed until the council, Felicissimus had replied by a manifesto, declaring that none should communicate with himself who accepted the large alms distributed by Cyprian’s order. The subject of the letter is more fully developed in the treatise “De Ecclesiae Catholicae Unitate” which Cyprian wrote about this time (Benson wrongly thought it was written against Novatian some weeks later).
This celebrated pamphlet was read by its author to the council which met in April, that he might get the support of the bishops against the schism started by Felicissimus and Novatus, who had a large following. The unity with which Saint Cyprian deals is not so much the unity of the whole Church, the necessity of which he rather postulates, as the unity to be kept in each diocese by union with the bishop; the unity of the whole Church is maintained by the close union of the bishops who are “glued to one another”, hence whosoever is not with his bishop is cut off from the unity of the Church and cannot be united to Christ; the type of the bishop is Saint Peter, the first bishop. Protestant controversialists have attributed to Saint Cyprian the absurd argument that Christ said to Peter what He really meant for all, in order to give a type or picture of unity. What Saint Cyprian really says is simply this, that Christ, using the metaphor of an edifice, founds His Church on a single foundation which shall manifest and ensure its unity. And as Peter is the foundation, binding the whole Church together, so in each diocese is the bishop. With this one argument Cyprian claims to cut at the root of all heresies and schisms. It has been a mistake to find any reference to Rome in this passage (Treatise on Unity 4).
About the time of the opening of the council (251), two letters arrived from Rome. One of these, announcing the election of a pope, Saint Cornelius, was read by Cyprian to the assembly; the other contained such violent and improbable accusations against the new pope that he thought it better to pass it over. But two bishops, Caldonius and Fortunatus, were dispatched to Rome for further information, and the whole council was to await their return-such was the importance of a papal election. Meantime another message arrived with the news that Novatian, the most eminent among the Roman clergy, had been made pope. Happily two African prelates, Pompeius and Stephanus, who had been present at the election of Cornelius, arrived also, and were able to testify that he had been validly set “in the place of Peter”, when as yet there was no other claimant. It was thus possible to reply to the recrimination of Novatian’s envoys, and a short letter was sent to Rome, explaining the discussion which had taken place in the council. Soon afterwards came the report of Caldonius and Fortunatus together with a letter from Cornelius, in which the latter complained somewhat of the delay in recognizing him. Cyprian wrote to Cornelius explaining his prudent conduct. He added a letter to the confessors who were the main support of the antipope, leaving it to Cornelius whether it should be delivered or no. He sent also copies of his two treatises, “De Unitate” and “De Lapsis” (this had been composed by him immediately after the other), and he wishes the confessors to read these in order that they may understand what a fearful thing is schism. It is in this copy of the “De Unitate” that Cyprian appears most probably to have added in the margin an alternative version of the fourth chapter. The original passage, as found in most manuscripts and as printed in Hartel’s edition, runs thus:
If any will consider this, there is no need of a long treatise and of arguments. ‘The Lord saith to Peter: ‘I say unto thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; to thee I will give the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and what thou shalt have bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, and what thou shalt have loosed shall be loosed in heaven.’ Upon one He builds His Church, and though to all His Apostles after His resurrection He gives an equal power and says: ‘As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you: Receive the Holy Ghost, whosesoever sins you shall have remitted they shall be remitted unto them, and whosesoever sins you shall have retained they shall be retained’, yet that He might make unity manifest, He disposed the origin of that unity beginning from one. The other Apostles were indeed what Peter was, endowed with a like fellowship both of honour and of power, but the commencement proceeds from one, that the Church may be shown to be one. This one Church the Holy Ghost in the person of the Lord designates in the Canticle of Canticles, and says, One is My Dove, My perfect one, one is she to her mother, one to her that bare her. He that holds not this unity of the Church, does he believe that he holds the Faith? He who strives against and resists the Church, is he confident that he is in the Church?
The substituted passage is as follows:
. . . bound in heaven. Upon one He builds His Church, and to the same He says after His resurrection, ‘feed My sheep’. And though to all His Apostles He gave an equal power yet did He set up one chair, and disposed the origin and manner of unity by his authority. The other Apostles were indeed what Peter was, but the primacy is given to Peter, and the Church and the chair is shown to be one. And all are pastors, but the flock is shown to be one, which is fed by all the Apostles with one mind and heart. He that holds not this unity of the Church, does he think that he holds the faith? He who deserts the chair of Peter, upon whom the Church is founded, is he confident that he is in the Church?
These alternative versions are given one after the other in the chief family of manuscripts which contains them, while in some other families the two have been partially or wholly combined into one. The combined version is the one which has been printed in man editions, and has played a large part in controversy with Protestants. It is of course spurious in this conflated form, but the alternative form given above is not only found in eighth- and ninth-century manuscripts, but it is quoted by Bede, by Gregory the Great (in a letter written for his predecessor Pelagius II), and by Saint Gelasius; indeed, it was almost certainly known to Saint Jerome and Saint Optatus in the fourth century. The evidence of the manuscripts would indicate an equally early date. Every expression and thought in the passage can be paralleled from Saint Cyprian’s habitual language, and it seems to be now generally admitted that this alternative passage is an alteration made by the author himself when forwarding his work to the Roman confessors. The “one chair” is always in Cyprian the episcopal chair, and Cyprian has been careful to emphasize this point, and to add a reference to the other great Petrine text, the Charge in John 21. The assertion of the equality of the Apostles as Apostles remains, and the omissions are only for the sake of brevity. The old contention that it is a Roman forgery is at all events quite out of the question. Another passage is also altered in all the same manuscripts which contain the “interpolation”; it is a paragraph in which the humble and pious conduct of the lapsed “on this hand (hic) is contrasted in a long succession of parallels with the pride and wickedness of the schismatics “on that hand” (illic), but in the delicate manner of the treatise the latter are only referred to in a general way. In the “interpolated” manuscripts we find that the lapsed, whose caused had now been settled by the council, are “on that hand” (illic), whereas the reference to the schismatics — meaning the Roman confessors who were supporting Novatian, and to whom the book was being sent — are made as pointed as possible, being brought into the foreground by the repeated hic, “on this hand”.
The saint’s remonstrance had its effect, and the confessors rallied to Cornelius. But for two or three months the confusion throughout the Catholic Church had been terrible. No other event in these early times shows us so clearly the enormous importance of the papacy in East and West. Saint Dionysius of Alexandria joined his great influence to that of the Carthaginian primate, and he was very soon able to write that Antioch, Caesarea, and Jerusalem, Tyre and Laodicea, all Cilicia and Cappadocia, Syria and Arabia, Mesopotamia, Pontus, and Bithynia, had returned to union and that their bishops were all in concord (Eusebius, Church History VII.5). From this we gauge the area of disturbance. Cyprian says that Novatian “assumed the primacy” (Ep. lxix, 8) and sent out his new apostles to very many cities; and where in all provinces and cities there were long established, orthodox bishops, tried in persecution, he dared to create new ones to supplant them, as though he could range through the whole world (Ep. lv, 24). Such was the power assumed by a third-century antipope. Let it be remembered that in the first days of the schism no question of heresy was raised and that Novatian only enunciated his refusal of forgiveness to the lapsed after he had made himself pope. Cyprian’s reasons for holding Cornelius to be the true bishop are fully detailed in Ep. lv to a bishop, who had at first yielded to Cyprian’s arguments and had commissioned him to inform Cornelius that “he now communicated with him, that is with the Catholic Church”, but had afterwards wavered. It is evidently implied that if he did not communicate with Cornelius he would be outside the Catholic Church. Writing to the pope, Cyprian apologizes for his delay in acknowledging him; he had at least urged all those who sailed to Rome to make sure that they acknowledged and held the womb and root of the Catholic Church (Ep. xlviii, 3). By this is probably meant “the womb and root which is the Catholic Church”, but Harnack and many Protestants, as well as many Catholics, find here a statement that the Roman Church is the womb and root. Cyprian continues that he had waited for a formal report form the bishops who had been sent to Rome, before committing all the bishops of Africa, Numidia, and Mauretania to a decision, in order that, when no doubt could remain all his colleagues “might firmly approve and hold your communion, that is the unity and charity of the Catholic Church”. It is certain that Saint Cyprian held that one who was in communion with an antipope held not the root of the Catholic Church, was not nourished at her breast, drank not at her fountain.
So little was the rigorism of Novatian the origin of his schism, that his chief partisan was no other than Novatus, who at Carthage had been reconciling the lapsed indiscriminately without penance. He seems to have arrived at Rome just after the election of Cornelius, and his adhesion to the party of rigorism had the curious result of destroying the opposition to Cyprian at Carthage. It is true that Felicissimus fought manfully for a time; he even procured five bishops, all excommunicated and deposed, who consecrated for the party a certain Fortunatus in opposition to Saint Cyprian, in opposition to Saint Cyprian, in order not to be outdone by the Novatian party, who had already a rival bishop at Carthage. The faction even appealed to Saint Cornelius, and Cyprian had to write to the pope a long account of the circumstances, ridiculing their presumption in “sailing to Rome, the primatial Church (ecclesia principalis), the Chair of Peter, whence the unity of the Episcopate had its origin, not recollecting that these are the Romans whose faith was praised by Saint Paul (Romans 1:8), to whom unfaith could have no access”. But this embassy was naturally unsuccessful, and the party of Fortunatus and Felicissimus seems to have melted away.
With regard to the lapsed the council had decided that each case must be judged on its merits, and that libellatici should be restored after varying, but lengthy, terms of penance, whereas those who had actually sacrificed might after life-long penance receive Communion in the hour of death. But any one who put off sorrow and penance until the hour of sickness must be refused all Communion. The decision was a severe one. A recrudescence of persecution, announced, Cyprian tells us, by numerous visions, caused the assembling of another council in the summer of 252 (so Benson and Nelke, but Ritsch and Harnack prefer 253), in which it was decided to restore at once all those who were doing penance, in order that they might be fortified by the Holy Eucharist against trial. In this persecution of Gallus and Volusianus, the Church of Rome was again tried, but this time Cyprian was able to congratulate the pope on the firmness shown; the whole Church of Rome, he says, had confessed unanimously, and once again its faith, praised by the Apostle, was celebrated throughout the whole world (Ep. lx). About June 253, Cornelius was exiled to Centumcellae (Civitavecchia), and died there, being counted as a martyr by Cyprian and the rest of the Church. His successor Lucius was at once sent to the same place on his election, but soon was allowed to return, and Cyprian wrote to congratulate him. He died 5 March, 254, and was succeeded by Stephen, 12 May, 254.
Rebaptism of heretics
Tertullian had characteristically argued long before, that heretics have not the same God, the same Christ with Catholics, therefore their baptism is null. The African Church had adopted this view in a council held under a predecessor of Cyprian, Agrippinus, at Carthage. In the East it was also the custom of Cilicia, Cappadocia, and Galatia to rebaptize Montanists who returned to the church. Cyprian’s opinion of baptism by heretics was strongly expresses: “Non abluuntur illic homines, sed potius sordidantur, nec purgantur delicta sed immo cumulantur. Non Deo nativitas illa sed diabolo filios generat” (Treatise on Unity 11). A certain bishop, Magnus, wrote to ask if the baptism of the Novatians was to be respected (Ep. lxix). Cyprian’s answer may be of the year 255; he denies that they are to be distinguished from any other heretics. Later we find a letter in the same sense, probably of the spring of 255 (autumn, according to d’Ales), from a council under Cyprian of thirty-one bishops (Ep. lxx), addressed to eighteen Numidian bishops; this was apparently the beginning of the controversy. It appears that the bishops of Mauretania did not in this follow the custom of Proconsular Africa and Numidia, and that Pope Stephen sent them a letter approving their adherence to Roman custom.
Cyprian, being consulted by a Numidian bishop, Quintus, sent him Ep. lxx, and replied to his difficulties (Ep. lxxi). The spring council at Carthage in the following year, 256, was more numerous than usual, and sixty-one bishops signed the conciliar letter to the pope explaining their reasons for rebaptizing, and claiming that it was a question upon which bishops were free to differ. This was not Stephen’s view, and he immediately issued a decree, couched apparently in very peremptory terms, that no “innovation” was to be made (this is taken by some moderns to mean “no new baptism”), but the Roman tradition of merely laying hands on converted heretics in sign of absolution must be everywhere observed, on pain of excommunication. This letter was evidently addressed to the African bishops, and contained some severe censures on Cyprian himself. Cyprian writes to Jubainus that he is defending the one Church, the Church founded on Peter-Why then is he called a prevaricator of the truth, a traitor to the truth;? (Ep. lxxiii, 11). To the same correspondent he sends Epp. lxx, lxxi, lxxii; he makes no laws for others, but retains his own liberty. He sends also a copy of his newly written treatise “De Bono Patientiae”. To Pompeius, who had asked to see a copy of Stephen’s rescript, he writes with great violence: “As you read it, you will note his error more and more clearly: in approving the baptism of all the heresies, he has heaped into his own breast the sins of all of them; a fine tradition indeed! What blindness of mind, what depravity!” — “ineptitude”, “hard obstinacy” — such are the expressions which run from the pen of one who declared that opinion on the subject was free, and who in this very letter explains that a bishop must never be quarrelsome, but meek and teachable. In September, 256, a yet larger council assembled at Carthage. All agreed with Cyprian; Stephen was not mentioned; and some writers have even supposed that the council met before Stephen’s letter was received (so Ritschl, Grisar, Ernst, Bardenhewer). Cyprian did not wish the responsibility to be all his own. He declared that no one made himself a bishop of bishops, and that all must give their true opinion. The vote of each was therefore given in a short speech, and the minutes have come down to us in the Cyprianic correspondence under the title of “Sententiae Episcoporum”. But the messengers sent to Rome with this document were refused an audience and even denied all hospitality by the pope. They returned incontinently to Carthage, and Cyprian tried for support from the East. He wrote to the famous Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, Firmilian, sending him the treatise “De Unitate” and the correspondence on the baptismal question. By the middle of November Firmilian’s reply had arrived, and it has come down to us in a translation made at the time in Africa. Its tone is, if possible, more violent than that of Cyprian. (See FIRMILIAN.) After this we know no more of the controversy.
Stephen died on 27 August, 257, and was succeeded by Sixtus II, who certainly communicated with Cyprian, and is called by Pontius “a good and peace-loving bishop”. Probably when it was seen at Rome that the East was largely committed to the same wrong practice, the question was tacitly dropped. It should be remembered that, though Stephen had demanded unquestioning obedience, he had apparently, like Cyprian, considered the matter as a point of discipline. Saint Cyprian supports his view by a wrong inference from the unity of the Church, and no one thought of the principle afterwards taught by Saint Augustine, that, since Christ is always the principal agent, the validity of the sacrament is independent of the unworthiness of the minister: Ipse est qui baptizat. Yet this is what is implied in Stephen’s insistence upon nothing more than the correct form, “because baptism is given in the name of Christ”, and “the effect is due to the majesty of the Name”. The laying on of hands enjoined by Stephen is repeatedly said to be in poenitentiam, yet Cyprian goes on to argue that the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands is not the new birth, but must be subsequent to it and implies it. This has led some moderns into the notion that Stephen meant confirmation to be given (so Duchesne), or at least that he has been so misunderstood by Cyprian (d’Alès). But the passage (Ep. lxxiv, 7) need not mean this, and it is most improbable that confirmation was even thought of in this connection. Cyprian seems to consider the laying on of hands in penance to be a giving of the Holy Ghost. In the East the custom of rebaptizing heretics had perhaps arisen from the fact that so many heretics disbelieved in the Holy Trinity, and possibly did not even use the right form and matter. For centuries the practice persisted, at least in the case of some of the heresies. But in the West to rebaptize was regarded as heretical, and Africa came into line soon after Saint Cyprian. Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, and Saint Vincent of Lérins are full of praise for the firmness of Stephen as befitting his place. But Cyprian’s unfortunate letters became the chief support of the puritanism of the Donatists. Saint Augustine in his “De Baptismo” goes through them one by one. He will not dwell on the violent words quae in Stephanum irritatus effudit, and expresses his confidence that Cyprian’s glorious martyrdom will have atoned for his excess.
Appeals to Rome
Ep. lxviii was written to Stephen before the breach. Cyprian has heard twice from Faustinus, Bishop of Lyons, that Marcianus, Bishop of Arles, has joined the party of Novatian. The pope will certainly have been already informed of this by Faustinus and by the other bishops of the province. Cyprian urges:
You ought to send very full letters to our fellow-bishops in Gaul, not to allow the obstinate and proud Marcianus any more to insult our fellowship…Therefore send letters to the province and to the people of Arles, by which, Marcianus having been excommunicated, another shall be substituted in his place…for the whole copious body of bishops is joined together by the glue of mutual concord and the bond of unity, in order that if any of our fellowship should attempt to make a heresy and to lacerate and devastate the flock of Christ, the rest may give their aid…For though we are many shepherds, yet we feed one flock.
It seems incontestable that Cyprian is here explaining to the pope why he ventured to interfere, and that he attributes to the pope the power of deposing Marcanus and ordering a fresh election. We should compare his witness that Novatian usurped a similar power as antipope.
Another letter dates perhaps somewhat later. It emanates form a council of thirty seven bishops, and was obviously composed by Cyprian. It is addressed to the priest Felix and the people of Legio and Asturica, and to the deacon Ælius and the people of Emerita, in Spain. It relates that the bishops Felix and Sabinus had come to Carthage to complain. They had been legitimately ordained by the bishops of the province in the place of the former bishops, Basilides and Martialis, who had both accepted libelli in the persecution. Basilides had further blasphemed God, in sickness, had confessed his blasphemy, had voluntarily resigned his bishopric, and had been thankful to be allowed lay communion. Martialis had indulged in pagan banquets and had buried his sons in a pagan cemetery. He had publicly attested before the procurator ducenarius that he had denied Christ. Wherefore, says the letter, such men are unfit to be bishops, the whole Church and the late Pope Cornelius having decided that such men may be admitted to penance but never to ordination; it does not profit them that they have deceived Pope Stephen, who was afar off and unaware of the facts, so that they obtained to be unjustly restored to their sees; nay, by this deceit they have only increased their guilt. The letter is thus a declaration that Stephen was wickedly deceived. No fault is imputed to him, no is there any claim to reverse his decision or to deny his right to give it; it is simply pointed out that it was founded on false information, and was therefore null. But it is obvious that the African council had heard only one side, whereas Felix and Sabinus must have pleaded their cause at Rome before they came to Africa On this ground the Africans seem to have made too hasty a judgment. But nothing more is known of the matter.
The empire was surrounded by barbarian hordes who poured in on all sides. The danger was the signal for a renewal of persecution on the part of the Emperor Valerian. At Alexandria Saint Dionysius was exiled. On 30 August, 257, Cyprian was brought before the Proconsul Paternus in his secretarium. His interrogatory is extant and forms the first part of the “Acta proconsularia” of his martyrdom. Cyprian declares himself a Christian and a bishop. He serves one God to Whom he prays day and night for all men and for the safety of the emperor. “Do you persevere in this?” asks Paternus. “A good will which knows God cannot be altered.” “Can you, then, go into exile at Curubis?” “I go.” He is asked for the names of the priests also, but replies that delation is forbidden by the laws; they will be found easily enough in their respective cities. On September he went to Curubis, accompanied by Pontius. The town was lonely, but Pontius tells us it was sunny and pleasant, and that there were plenty of visitors, while the citizens were full of kindness. He relates at length Cyprian’s dream on his first night there, that he was in the proconsul’s court and condemned to death, but was reprieved at his own request until the morrow. He awoke in terror, but once awake he awaited that morrow with calmness. It came to him on the very anniversary of the dream. In Numidia the measures were more severe. Cyprian writes to nine bishops who were working in the mines, with half their hair shorn, and with insufficient food and clothing. He was still rich and able to help them. Their replies are preserved, and we have also the authentic Acts of several African martyrs who suffered soon after Cyprian.
In August, 258, Cyprian learned that Pope Sixtus had been put to death in the catacombs on the 6th of that month, together with four of his deacons, in consequence of a new edict that bishops, priests, and deacons should be at once put to death; senators, knights, and others of rank are to lose their goods, and if they still persist, to die; matrons to be exiled; Caesarians (officers of the fiscus) to become slaves. Galerius Maximus, the successor of Paternus, sent for Cyprian back to Carthage, and in his own gardens the bishop awaited the final sentence. Many great personages urged him to fly, but he had now no vision to recommend this course, and he desired above all to remain to exhort others. Yet he hid himself rather than obey the proconsul’s summons to Utica, for he declared it was right for a bishop to die in his own city. On the return of Galerius to Carthage, Cyprian was brought from his gardens by two principes in a chariot, but the proconsul was ill, and Cyprian passed the night in the house of the first princeps in the company of his friends. Of the rest we have a vague description by Pontius and a detailed report in the proconsular Acts. On the morning of the 14th a crowd gathered “at the villa of Sextus”, by order of the authorities. Cyprian was tried there. He refused to sacrifice, and added that in such a matter there was no room for thought of the consequences to himself. The proconsul read his condemnation and the multitude cried, “Let us be beheaded with him!” He was taken into the grounds, to a hollow surrounded by trees, into which many of the people climbed. Cyprian took off his cloak, and knelt down and prayed. Then he took off his dalmatic and gave it to his deacons, and stood in his linen tunic in silence awaiting the executioner, to whom he ordered twenty-five gold pieces to be given. The brethren cast cloths and handkerchiefs before him to catch his blood. He bandaged his own eyes with the help of a priest and a deacon, both called Julius. So he suffered. For the rest of the day his body was exposed to satisfy the curiosity of the pagans. But at night the brethren bore him with candles and torches, with prayer and great triumph, to the cemetery of Macrobius Candidianus in the suburb of Mapalia. He was the first Bishop of Carthage to obtain the crown of martyrdom.
The correspondence of Cyprian consists of eighty-one letters. Sixty-two of them are his own, three more are in the name of councils. From this large collection we get a vivid picture of his time. The first collection of his writings must have been made just before or just after his death, as it was known to Pontius. It consisted of ten treatises and seven letters on martyrdom. To these were added in Africa a set of letters on the baptismal question, and at Rome, it seems, the correspondence with Cornelius, except Ep. xlvii. Other letters were successively aggregated to these groups, including letters to Cyprian or connected with him, his collections of Testimonies, and many spurious works. To the treatises already mentioned we have to add a well-known exposition of the Lord’s Prayer; a work on the simplicity of dress proper to consecrated virgins (these are both founded on Tertullian); “On the Mortality”, a beautiful pamphlet, composed on the occasion of the plague which reached Carthage in 252, when Cyprian, with wonderful energy, raised a staff of workers and a great fund of money for the nursing of the sick and the burial of the dead. Another work, “On Almsgiving “, its Christian character, necessity, and satisfactory value, was perhaps written, as Watson has pointed out, in reply to the calumny that Cyprian’s own lavish gifts were bribes to attach men to his side. Only one of his writings is couched in a pungent strain, the “ad Demetrianum”, in which he replies in a spirited manner to the accusation of a heathen that Christianity had brought the plague upon the world. Two short works, “On Patience” and “On Rivalry and Envy”, apparently written during the baptismal controversy, were much read in ancient times. Saint Cyprian was the first great Latin writer among the Christians, for Tertullian fell into heresy, and his style was harsh and unintelligible. Until the days of Jerome and Augustine, Cyprian’s writings had no rivals in the West. Their praise is sung by Prudentius, who joins with Pacian, Jerome, Augustine, and many others in attesting their extraordinary popularity.
The little that can be extracted from Saint Cyprian on the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation is correct, judged by later standards. On baptismal regeneration, on the Real Presence, on the Sacrifice of the Mass, his faith is clearly and repeatedly expressed, especially in Ep. lxiv on infant baptism, and in Ep. lxiii on the mixed chalice, written against the sacrilegious custom of using water without wine for Mass. On penance he is clear, like all the ancients, that for those who have been separated from the Church by sin there is no return except by a humble confession (exomologesis apud sacerdotes), followed by remissio facta per sacerdotes. The ordinary minister of this sacrament is the sacerdos par excellence, the bishop; but priests can administer it subject to him, and in case of necessity the lapsed might be restored by a deacon. He does not add, as we should at the present day, that in this case there is no sacrament; such theological distinctions were not in his line. There was not even a beginning of canon law in the Western Church of the third century. In Cyprian’s view each bishop is answerable to God alone for his action, though he ought to take counsel of the clergy and of the laity also in all important matters. The Bishop of Carthage had a great position as honorary chief of all the bishops in the provinces of Proconsular Africa, Numidia, and Mauretania, who were about a hundred in number; but he had no actual jurisdiction over them. They seem to have met in some numbers at Carthage every spring, but their conciliar decisions had no real binding force. If a bishop should apostatize or become a heretic or fall into scandalous sin, he might be deposed by his comprovincials or by the pope. Cyprian probably thought that questions of heresy would always be too obvious to need much discussion. It is certain that where internal questions of heresy would always be too obvious to need much discussion. It is certain that where internal discipline was concerned he considered that Rome should not interfere, and that uniformity was not desirable — a most unpractical notion. We have always to remember that his experience as a Christian was of short duration, that he became a bishop soon after he was converted, and that he had no Christian writings besides Holy Scripture to study besides those of Tertullian. He evidently knew no Greek, and probably was not acquainted with the translation of Irenaeus. Rome was to him the centre of the Church’s unity; it was inaccessible to heresy, which had been knocking at its door for a century in vain. It was the See of Peter, who was the type of the bishop, the first of the Apostles. Difference of opinion between bishops as to the right occupant of the Sees of Arles or Emerita would not involve breach of communion, but rival bishops at Rome would divide the Church, and to communicate with the wrong one would be schism. It is controverted whether chastity was obligatory or only strongly urged upon priests in his day. The consecrated virgins were to him the flower of his flock, the jewels of the Church, amid the profligacy of paganism.
A short treatise, “Quod Idola dii non sint”, is printed in all editions as Cyprian’s. It is made up out of Tertullian and Minucius Felix. Its genuineness is accepted by Benson, Monceaux, and Bardenhewer, as it was anciently by Jerome and Augustine. It has been attributed by Haussleiter to Novatian, and is rejected by Harnack, Watson, and von Soden. “De Spectaculis” and “De bono pudicitiae” are, with some probability, ascribed to Novatian. They are well-written letters of an absent bishop to his flock. “De Laude martyrii” is again attributed by Harnack to Novatian; but this is not generally accepted. “Adversus Judaeos” is perhaps by a Novatianist and Harnack ascribes it to Novatian himself. “Ad Novatianum” is ascribed by Harnack to Pope Sixtus II. Ehrhard, Benson, Nelke, and Weyman agree with him that it was written in Rome. This is denied by Julicher, Bardenhewer, Monceaux. Rombold thinks it is by Cyprian. “De Rebaptismate” is apparently the work attributed by Genadius to a Roman named Ursinus, c. 400. He was followed by some earlier critics, Routh, Oudin, and lately by Zahn. But it was almost certainly written during the baptismal controversy under Stephen. It comes from Rome (so Harnack and others) or from Mauretania (so Ernst, Monceaux, d’Arles), and is directed against the view of Cyprian. The little homily “De Aleatoribus” has had quite a literature of its own within the last few years, since it was attributed by Harnack to Pope Victor, and therefore accounted the earliest Latin ecclesiastical writing. The controversy has at least made it clear that the author was either very early or not orthodox. It has been shown to be improbable that he was very early, and Harnack now admits that the work is by an antipope, either Novatianist or Donatist. References to all the brochures and articles on the subject will be found in Ehrhard, in Bardenhewer, and especially in Harnack (Chronol., II, 370 sqq.).
“De Montibus Sina et Sion” is possibly older than Cyprian’s time (see Harnack, and also Turner in Journal of Theol. Studies, July 1906). “Ad Vigilium Episcopum de Judaica incredulitate” is by a certain Celsus, and was once supposed by Harnack and Zahn to be addressed to the well-known Vigilius of Thapsus, but Macholz has now convinced Harnack that it dates from either the persecution of Valerian or that of Maxentius. The two “Orationes” are of uncertain date and authorship. The tract “De Singularitate clericorum” has been attributed by Dom Morin and by Harnack to the Donatist Bishop Macrobius in the fourth century. “De Duplici Martyrio ad Fortunatum” is found in no manuscript, and was apparently written by Erasmus in 1530. “De Paschâ computus” was written in the year preceding Easter, 243. All the above spuria are printed in Hartel’s edition of Cyprian. The “Exhortatio de paenitentia” (first printed by Trombelli in 1751) is placed in the fourth or fifth century by Wunderer, but in Cyprian’s time or Monceaux. Four letter are also given by Hartel; the first is the original commencement of the “Ad Donatum”. The others are forgeries; the third, according to Mercati, is by a fourth-century Donatist. The six poems are by one author, of quite uncertain date. The amusing “Cena Cypriani” is found in a large number of Cyprianic manuscripts. Its date is uncertain; it was re-edited by Blessed Rhabanus Maurus. On the use of it at pageants in the early Middle Ages, see Mann, “History of the Popes”, II, 289.
The principal editions of the works of Saint Cyprian are: Rome, 1471 (the ed. princeps), dedicated to Paul II; reprinted, Venice, 1471, and 1483; Memmingen, c. 1477; Deventer, c. 1477; Paris, 1500; ed. by Rembolt (Paris, 1512); by Erasmus (Basle, 1520 and frequently; the ed. of 1544 was printed at Cologne). A careful critical edition was prepared by Latino Latini, and published by Manutius (Rome, 1563); Morel also went to the manuscripts (Paris, 1564); so did Pamele (Antwerp, 1568), but with less success; Rigault did somewhat better (Paris, 1648, etc.). John Fell, Bishop of Oxford and Dean of Christ Church, published a well-known edition from manuscripts in England (Oxford, 1682). The dissertations by Dodwell and the “Annales Cyprianici” by Pearson, who arranged the letters in chronological order, make this edition important, though the text is poor. The edition prepared by Etienne Baluze was brought out after his death by Dom Prudence Maran (Paris, 1726), and has been several times reprinted, especially by Migne. The best edition is that of the Vienna Academy, edited from the manuscripts by Hartel. Since then much work has been done upon the history of the text, and especially on the order of the letters and treatises as witnessing to the genealogy of the codices.
- John Chapman. “Saint Cyprian of Carthage”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 19 July 2013. Web. 10 October 2015. <>