Chapter 6: The Martyrdom of Cyprian of Carthage (Ad 200-258), by Vijoy T. Oommen

Martyrs in the History of Christianity
by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)

Chapter 6: The Martyrdom of Cyprian of Carthage (Ad 200-258), by Vijoy T. Oommen


"You shall be my witness ... to the ends of the earth". This was the basis of the early churches to accept the real meaning of witnessing in the act of dying for the faith. The secular meaning of the Greek word ‘martyr’ is a witness one who bears testimony. This is more than suffering death for the faith. According to the origin, a martyr is the one who of his own free choice chooses to die for the sake of religion. In the New testament it means giving testimony in words, preaching and also suffering death for Christian faith. In this write up I deal with one of the early Christian martyrs St. Cyprian of Carthage.

It is believed that Cyprian was born in Carthage into a family of some social standing and wealth around AD. 200. (Peter Hinchliff, Cyprian of Carthage, p. 20.) He was highly educated and well known in Carthage as a rhetoric and acquired friends of political power. Later he was converted to Christianity under the influence of the aging Carthaginian presbyter Ceaecilius in 246 AD. He had been on the anti-Christian side for a long time, but had gradually been converted by the agreements and frequent debates. It has been said that he was familiar with public affairs and was of senatorial rank. With his conversion, he resolved to lead a life of celibacy and, selling his considerable estate, he gave it to the needy. His dedication to the celibacy, poverty, scriptures and native ability quickly led to the presbyterate and within a year around AD 248 he was elected as the Bishop of Carthage. (Ibid., p. 20) Though there was a strong opposition for electing him as Bishop he had the strong support of the Christian community. He was a great Bishop as well as an administrator. He was also a famous writer. With the exception of Tertullian, Cyprian was the first Latin Christian writer.

Historical Context -- Socio-economic & Political

Cyprian lived during the time of Emperors Decius and Valerian in Carthage. This city grew and developed and through an expanding network of subordinate city colonies, sea trade and territorial expansion, it became one of the richest cities in the western Mediterranean by 3rd cent. BC. This growth resulted in bitter conflicts with other rivals for the control of Mediterranean trade routes. The greatest threat for Carthage came from Rome. This bloody conflict destroyed the city and Romans took over the control. However the geographical advantages and economic possibilities inherent in the location led to the re-establishment of Carthage as a Roman colony in 44 BC. (Donald Dubley, Roman Society, p. 115) Under the Roman rule Carthage experienced an economic bloom, becoming the largest city in the West after Rome. Mainly on account of its monopoly over the corn trade and control over the exports of marble, woods, precious stones, gold dust, etc.

These developments resulted in the Carthage of Cyprian’s time being a vibrant metropolis, highly unbound in cross cultural outlook and behavior. This policy of colonization and territorial expansion resulted in the growth of flourishing centers of urban civilization all along the North African coastal belt by the 3rd cent. ND. Colonies were quickly inter-connected by road system and trade and commerce grew. (‘Africa Roman’ in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, pp. 22-23.)

Though Carthage was economically rich, the whole Roman empire went through a period of economic crisis. It was a time of short reigns and rival emperors, one man succeeded another with bewildering rapidity. (Peter Hinchliff, Cyprian of Carthage, p. 27.) The administration was not so sound. Political events were very disastrous for Africa. In 235 Maximus, a Goth, made himself emperor. Roman culture and civilization, had little appeal for him and sheer naked force seems to have been his favorite political tool. There was a rebellion, and the rebels proclaimed the proconsul Gordia, joint emperor with his son. Maximus was defeated in this and lost his throne. So the public works were not properly maintained; taxes were high; Municipal office was avoided. (Ibid., p. 28.) Politically there was a real crisis in Africa.

The natives of Carthage panicked. Due to the Roman invasion, Roman Latin ethnic element was added to Carthage. There was a widespread belief in the demonic powers among the people. Cyprian believed in a real literal and vivid hell and in the de Idoloum, he mentioned that Christ and Christian power over the forces of evil is the proof that the true God is the Lord of all things. Black magic seems to have been widely practiced. Cyprian therefore lived in a world when demonic forces, evil spirits and magic were considered as real things. Also in the Roman world dreams were counted as portentous, in the strict sense. (Ibid., p. 25.) Before Cyprian’s conversion, he practiced all these things. Cyprian’s decision to become a Christian seems to have been the result of a disgust with the world in which he lived. It would certainly seem that Cyprian turned to Christianity in revulsion against a decline in the standard of the society.

So there was a strong cruelty to those who threatened to challenge these systems. So Decius who reigned at that time ruled with an unrelenting conservation aimed at restoring the lost stability of an idealized Roman past. But the Christian church was rapidly expanding during this time.

Persecution Under Roman Government

Before going into the details of the 3rd century persecution, I would like to present some of the general reasons for the persecution in the Early Church. One of the important reasons for the persecution of the early church was the universal claim of the Christians for their religion. It is true that Christians were intolerant to other religions. Roman history states that there were many pagan religions in Rome besides the state religion and Rome allowed other religions to persecute Christianity. It is true that other religions were absorbing and assimilating the best necessary elements from the state religion and introduced them into their religions. This attitude of syncretism saved them from Roman destruction, on the other hand the early Christians stood firm in their faith in Jesus Christ alone. And they also mentioned that they alone had the truth, that all other religions were false. They said "we know that no idol is anything in the world, and there is no good but one." (H.B. Workman, Persecution in the Early Church, p. 86.) This claim of Christians aroused the anger of heathens and as a consequence of it they began to hate the Christians and persecute them. Another reason for the persecution is that Christians were called as atheists and charged with sacrilege because they did not worship the gods of the state. It was essential that all citizens of Rome worshipped their national gods as well as the imperial religion because only tho~e who worshipped the national gods and emperor were patriots and the others were considered as traitors. For Christians, worshipping their national gods was against the Christian belief and they proclaimed that they will worship no other god except Jesus Christ. Christians not only refused to worship, they also mocked at other images "that the gods raided Apollo, the savior Aesenlapius, even Jupiter Capitolimus himself -- were malignant ‘demons’ ensconced behind wood and stone." To quote Tertullian "that they might obtain their favorite food of flesh forms and blood". (Ibid., p. 25.) They not only mocked at other gods as demons but also despised their temples as dead houses and mocked at the sacred things. So Christians were charged as atheists. This charge of atheism led the heathens to their unconquerable superstitious beliefs. They believed that if they won’t worship properly, the wrath of gods will fall upon the people in the form of famine, flood etc. So Romans believed that Christians had no gods. This was one of the reasons for the persecution of Christians.

Another charge was against the practice of magic acts. Heathens believed that Christians were meeting secretly to use magic arts in order that they might undo the oracles which they used to consult often. They also believed that by their superior exorcism the Christians could reduce oracles to silence which hitherto had proved to be the fortune of the whole country. This was strengthened when emperor Valerian consulted the oracle before he went to war; he did not receive any reply. The chief priest told the emperor that this is because of the fact that some Christians showed the sign of cross and made the oracle a failure. So Christians were persecuted for this. Another reason, the Christians had to suffer under Roman government was because they thought Christianity was a denigrating factor upon family. Christians did not encourage inter-marriage with others especially heathens. This is simply to avoid tension in the family. For example, in some families, women were converted to Christianity and the husbands remained as heathens. Being a heathen, he won’t allow his Christian wife to go with her Christian friends. Moreover he won’t permit her to be out all night for worship, nor to kiss with one of the brethren. Due to this, women asked for divorce. So Christians did not encourage inter-marriage with heathens. Also they encouraged divorce for the Christian wives in order to take part actively in the Christian ministry. This caused separation of many families. So heathens made up their mind to destroy Christianity.

Another reason was that Christians were always opposed to the Roman law. According to Roman law, every religion had to get permission to exercise its religion from the government and it should be recognized by the state. But Christianity was not. They met secretly in houses for meetings which was considered to be illegal. Also in the Roman law one has every freedom to practice his religion but one was not free either to change his/her religion or to attempt to persuade other people to change their religion. So in order to stop conversion the state adopted the policy of persecution. Another law was the emperor worship. Like other Roman subjects, Christians did not worship the image of Caesar; neither they were willing to sacrifice. So Romans thought that in their secret meetings they were planning to rebel against Caesar, and were disloyal to the emperor also. These were some of the reasons why Christians were persecuted.

Persecution during the time of St. Cyprian

The second persecution started from the early years of the 3rd century. In this period, the Church was called upon to meet a real test of its faith and take a more cruel and terrible suffering. The persecution of the second period was different from the first. 1) In the 1st and 2nd centuries it was the people who took active part in the persecution of the Church, but now the state had determined to destroy the Church. The state saw that the Church was increasing enormously, numerically as well as in its power. As Ward says "The Christian society had become that terror of the state and empire within the empire." (J.W.C. Ward, A History of the early Church, p. 99) In this period the Church not only grew numerically, but also strengthened itself in its organization and power by creating a monarchical bishop who had the sole authority over the Church and who really became the emperor of the Church. So the Roman hierarchy feared the growth of the Church and they thought that if they would not control the growth, the supremacy of the Roman emperor would be no more and pope would become the monarch of the state as well as the Church. 2) The second difference is that this persecution was more organized and systematic than that of the first. The state used all the resources to destroy the Church. It also called upon to her aid, able philosophers such as Celsius, Porphyry to defeat the Church with their criticism of the claim of new faith. 3) The state also passed several edicts to destroy the foundation of the Church such as conversions, worship, destroying Churches and bishops. 4) This persecution was universal, not confined to one particular province but throughout the whole Roman empire.

Persecution under Septimius Severus (193-211 AD)

Septimius Severus was the emperor during the period of 193-211 AD. In the beginning he was lenient to Christianity but later when he saw the growth of Christianity, he thought it would be dangerous for his kingdom. Therefore to stop conversion he passed an edict in 202 AD. forbidding to be made Jews or Christians. So conversion was not possible according to this law. But Christians did not fear this because they knew that Christ called them to be the Ambassadors and to be witnesses for Christ. So they continued preaching the gospel. So a terrible persecution started in the East and North Africa. The two important Churches of Alexandria and of Carthage received severe blows. At Carthage great execution was done among the catechumens. Though the catechumens suffered severely, the sword could not stop conversion.

Persecution under Decius Trajan (249-251)

After the death of Severus, Church enjoyed peace for some time. But by the coming of Decius this situation was changed. He wanted to revise and to enforce the observance of the National Religion in which all the citizens of the Roman Empire, including Christians, should worship the national gods as well as Caesar. Christians were rapidly growing during this period and they discussed the possibility of converting the whole Roman empire. So Decius started a most systematic, planned and deliberate attempt to stamp out the Church. His method of persecution was different from others. His aim was not to martyr Christians but to reconvert them into paganism, and to make them Apostates. For this he specially aimed at Bishops and leaders of the Church thinking that if those shepherds were destroyed the folk would abandon Christianity and would worship national religion. So he included Christians on a fixed day and see to it that they would sacrifice to the national gods and to the genius of the emperor. He also commanded to see that all should taste the sacrifice and a special attention to be diverted to the bishop and Church leaders. This was really an inescapable test to detect sincere Christians and to punish them. The Christians had only two alternatives; either they had to sacrifice to the gods or to die. Many Christians fearing death denounced Christ and became apostates and worshipped national gods. But many good Christians who refused to sacrifice were tortured and put to death. The persecution was so severe in Carthage that the whole Church became apostatized and that even some of the bishops and clergy denied the faith. Bishop Dionysus says: "This edict is a new terror ensured sufficient to scandalize if it were possible over the elect". (Charles Bigg, The Origin of Christianity, 1909, p. 350.)

Persecution Under Valerian

Though Valerian was favorable to Christians in the beginning later he turned against because of the constant calamities of the empire which were attributed to their atheism and also he was influenced by his governor who took vengeance upon Christians. Like Decius, he also aimed at Bishops and leaders and he added two more things for persecution: (1) Method of confiscation of property, (2) abolishing Church meetings and worship. He passed the first edict in 257 AD. specially directed against the bishops and priests to which he empowered the magistrates to seize and to compel them to sacrifice to gods, if they would not do that, they were to be punished. The second edict says that the Christians should not assemble together for worship nor hold meetings. They were also forbidden to enter the cemeteries where Christians used to celebrate the anniversaries of the dead, especially of the martyrs. The edict was passed mainly to destroy the worship system and meetings. The penalty for this edict was death. Many Christians were arrested and put to death or sent to the mines. Several others were exiled. When he saw that the first edict was not sufficient to torture Christians, he passed another edict in 258 AD. which says that all bishops, priests and deacons should be put to death. Many Christians lost their property and the Christian members of the emperor’s domestic or official household were sent in chains to work as slaves on the imperial estates.

Cyprian and Persecution

Cyprian lived during this time of persecution. During the Decian persecution, the Christian Church suffered a lot especially the Church in Carthage. Many flew from the city including the bishop Cyprian. This was one of the Cyprians’ actions which is very difficult to understand. Cyprian’s stand was that the Church in Carthage would only survive if his hand remained at the helm, even if from a distance. Cyprian believed that Church needed a man with some considerable abilities. One of his main reasons for withdrawing had been to preserve the government of the Church. His letters of that period are full of instructions about all sorts of things. Cyprian devoted himself to the complex business of running his diocese from his hiding place. But he was not quite happy in his hiding place. He was so worried about the flock he left behind especially the poor Christians who depended on the bishop’s charity. During the exile he found time to write, encouraging others suffering under the edict, by being made to undergo forced labor in the mines. He also sent them material/financial help. It is probable that during the exile, he wrote his treatise Ad Fortunatum, a collection of Biblical passages with commentary on martyrdom. Not only the persecution from outside, there was also a lot of problems inside the Church regarding the hierarchy during this time.

The slackening of the persecution allowed Cyprian to return home. Not only the persecution was less fierce but also the opposition within the Church was also much less active. He was so much concerned about the unity of the Church. De Ecclesia Catholicae Unitate was one of his famous writings. He says that this unity stems from God. He said the Church is one as the Trinity is one. Though there was some kind of peace for a short period, Valerian caused more persecutions to Christians. Many people lost their lives. Cyprian himself was waiting with certainty of his end. On August 258, Cyprian returned to his own estate to await trial under the power of the new edict promulgated by Valerian. According to Dontius, eminent and influential people visited him and urged him to escape and even offered him several hiding places. But this time he refused their offers and he was firmly set on the course of martyrdom. He thought he could serve God and the Church better by martyrdom than by going into hiding as he had gone during the first persecution. His last letter to the presbyters and deacons, to all other people, comes from this period explaining why he chose temporarily to withdraw from his estate to avoid being taken by agents of the imperial government to Utica for trial, since he lectured that it was proper for a bishop to confess his faith and suffer the consequences in his own city in the midst of his own people. (Peter Hinchliff, Cyprian of Carthage, p. 126.)

Trial of Cyprian

On 13th Sept, 1258, Cyprian was arrested and brought before the proconsul Galerius Maximus who was trying to recover his wealth in the estate of Sixtus. The proconsul ordered that Cyprian be placed under house arrest that night at the home of one of his staff officers and fixed date of trial for morrow. That night mobs thronged the street before the gate of the officer’s house and Cyprian issued instructions that no harm should come to the young girls who formed part of the crowd. (Mururilo Herbert, Acts of Christian Martyrs, P. 172.) The next day, 14th Sept, the trial proceeded as follows:

Are you Tharcius?

Bishop replied Yes, I am

Galarius: The revered emperors ordered you to perform the religious rites.

Bishop : I will not

Galarius : Take care

Bishop : Do as you have been ordered. There is no need for deliberation.

Then Galarius consulted with his colleagues and said: "Since you have set yourself as an enemy of the gods of Rome and of our religious practices, the emperors could not be able to bring you back to the observance of their sacred laws and also you are an instigator and leader for most atrocious crime. Tharsius Cyprian was sentenced to die by the sword."

Bishop Cyprian said: ‘Thanks be to God’.

The large Christians gathered there said: ‘Let us also be beheaded with him’.

Then Cyprian was let out to the grounds of Sextus’ estate. After removing his outer cloak, he spread it on the ground so that he could kneel on it. When the executioner came, he told his friends to give the man twenty five gold pieces. (Ibid., p. 173.) The blessed Cyprian then touched his eyes with his own hands, and he went to his death by the sword. His body was laid out nearby to satisfy the curiosity of the pagans. In the night it was taken from there by his friends with prayer in great triumph to the cemetery of Macrobius Caandidianus, the Procurator, which lies on the Mappalian way near the fish ponds, and was buried there.

Cyprians’ Theological Writings on Martyrdom

In his theological writings, we can see a clear awareness, rooted in experience and in the gospel. In one of his writings, he says "No wonder we suffer constant persecutions, for the Lord has foretold that this must occur". (Cyprian, Preparation of Martyrdom, pp. 637-85.) Persecution is seen as an opportunity to testify their faith and hope, a wellspring of the highest example of generous devotion, love and freedom. He says "the Lord has willed that we rejoice and exult in it. This is the path that the Lord himself had followed for the deliverance of all. What he has instructed us to do, this he has done before us, and what he had exhorted us to suffer, he has first suffered for us. (Ibid.) Cyprian says that righteous had suffered from the foundation of the world itself. "It has been ordained from the beginning of the world that this same justice should struggle in the worldly conflict, since indirectly in the very beginning, Abel, the just, was killed and therefore all the just men and prophets, apostles Who were sent forth"? (Ibid.) Cyprian in his treatise De lapsis calls for an act of repentance. "If you in this faithless and corrupt age are ashamed of me and my doctrine, the son of man will be ashamed of him" (Mk. 8.38), Cyprian reminds us -- How can you consider yourself a Christian when you are ashamed or afraid to be a Christian? How can you be with Christ if you fear; and feel it to be dishonorable, to belong to Christ? (Ibid.) For Cyprian, it is not enough to confess Christ before the authorities but one must have the faith not only in prison and in state but throughout one’s life. "We are still in the world battle; we fight daily for our lives.. you have been an example to the rest of the brethren for whose living your life and action ought to be a stimulation". (Cyprian, Letters No. 2, p. 37)


"Martyrdom is a gift of god, not available to all; but God sees our inner thoughts and for those who have not had the opportunity of martyrdom, he nevertheless crowns the desire and happiness." (Henri Gonzel, p. 238) Early Christians believed that their death was a second baptism through which one was not yet "perfected in Jesus Christ" could at last become a true disciple. We can see from the history how much they were honest in their witnessing. Their boldness, firmness in the face of trial and how they answered to the judges in the name of their faith is very touching: Their well being is not the ultimate satisfaction but seeing others in painful situation caused them pain; they were willing to undergo difficulties and were totally oriented to others. Even in the midst of calamities, such as plagues, it was Christians who went with help whereas the attitude of pagans was very negative. They had no fear of death and suffering. I do not think it was a fanaticism but it was an expression of their commitment, an act of love to their maker and savior. But today most of our mission is to safeguard our own position. It comes more from our well being than risking our life for others except in a few cases.

They also challenged the power structures in order to be freed. For that they were willing to lose their life. Christians challenged the idol worship. More than that they opposed the exploitation behind this, because that was a period where slave trade was prevalent. It was the temple they used for selling and buying the slaves. The story behind the conversion of St. Cyprian states that it was a revulsion against a decline in the standard of the society. Christianity stood as a corrective force in the midst of a demoralized society. This caused the death of many Christians.

It Is true that Christians were intolerant to other religious traditions. Because, many a times, these religions were very exploitative in their nature. It was the temples they used for buying and selling the slave. The slave trade was very much prevalent in those times. To a certain extent, Christianity could resist these kinds of evil structures; so it was not a denial of other religions, but the denial of evil practices which were exploitative, oppressive and dehumanizing. Martyrdom of St. Cyprian is a model for us, calling us to renew our own faith.



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