Chapter 7: The Martyrdom of St. Cyprian, by James Jacob

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

Chapter 7: The Martyrdom of St. Cyprian, by James Jacob


St. Cyprian, an early Christian martyr of the third century is still living in the hearts of each and every Christian. As an inspired martyr and a zealous ecclesiologian and a theologian he very much influences the Christian world. His life time is not specifically mentioned in any book. The approximate life time is around AD. 200. After inspired by the teachings of Christ he became ready to accept the words of Christ.

I have done this by the help of secondary sources. I am not claiming that I could put forward tremendous materials in order to write this paper. Nevertheless I could give a portrayal of St. Cyprian through my words. I mainly depended upon the encyclopedia of the History of Christianity and the Christian Church.


Roman city in North Africa is Carthage. Carthage known to early Christianity originated as a Roman colony established on the mines of the Panic city destroyed in 146 BC. by Scipio Africanus. The colony was not successfully established until BC. 29 under Augustus, who named it Colonia Julia Carthage. It was a carefully planned city, the dwellings were set out on a good system and streets were remarkable in antiquity for their breath. Throughout the first and second centuries AD. the city grew steadily and eventually came to be recognized as the greatest city in the western part of the empire, after Rome.

Before the legalization of Christianity, Christians around burned grounds outside the city. After the peace established by the Emperor Constantine, Christians were able to build churches. Agrippanus is the first bishop to be attested. He summoned a Consul to Carthage ca. 220 to debate the issue of the rebaptism of heretics, on which he took a hardline. Indeed, Carthaginian Christianity was for centuries characterized by rigid political attitudes towards moral and doctrinal issues.

Cyprian was bishop from 248-258, he brings the Carthaginian church sharply into view through his considerable correspondence and his treatises. By mid-century, the church was not only popular but also relatively wealthy, and during the persecution of Decius (250 AD), which threatened loss of property, Carthage assumed a position of primacy among African churches in Council. Carthage was really a Christian country.


It is probable that Cyprian was born in Carthage into a family of some social standing and wealth around AD. 200. He became a distinguished rhetorician widely known in the city, and acquired friends of political power. He was converted (ca. 245-246) under the influence of the aging Carthaginian presbyter Concilius. With his conversion, he resolved on a life of celibacy and, selling his considerable estates, he gave the proceeds (or most of the proceeds) to the needy. He was soon made a presbyter, and probably within a year -- sometime between May 248 and May 249 -- was elected bishop of Carthage, with the strong approbation of the Christian people but with opposition from at least five presbyters who apparently envied his rapid rise to ecclesiastical power. (Rev. Dr. Mar Aprem, Sabha Christian Nijords (Martyrs), Tiruvalla: CLS, 1986)


In January 250, shortly after the edict of Becins demanding the universal acknowledgement of the gods through sacrifice, Cyprian went into hiding in an unspecified place near Carthage, believing that as a man of distinction he would, if he remained in the city, provide a focus for pagan hostility to the Christians. He endeavored to rule his church from his hiding place by letters sent through faithful emissaries. In these letters, we witness the persecution waxing and waning over a few months. Within weeks apparently vast numbers of Christians had lapsed and soon began to seek reconciliation. At first Cyprian resolved that peace should not be extended to the lapsed until an appropriate response had been determined by the church in council. His position, however, was undermined by laxist presbyters who began to offer peace to those which procured certificates from confessors and martyrs, and further undermined by a letter from the Roman clergy to the church of Carthage highly critical of Cyprian as a ‘hurling’ who had abandoned the flocks. As Cyprian movement tried for control, he gradually modified his position on the lapsed. Probably by early June, he had agreed that those who became severely ill and had done penance, could be accepted provided they secured certificates from the confessors and martyrs, receive reconciliation from presbyters and deacons, and by midsummer he had accepted the Roman position that all who had done penance could in the face of sickness be reunited. By late summer he had received a letter of support from the Roman clergy, and began making supportive clerical appointments at Carthage.

During the fall and winter, however, positions hardened, excommunication of the lapsed followed, and feelings ran so high that Cyprian was unable to return to Carthage until after Easter 251. Shortly thereafter, the council of 251 adopted the position that peace should be granted only in severe illness to those who had by some means acquired certificates from the pagan authorities attesting that they had sacrificed, although in fact they might be admitted to communion at once.

Eventually, under the threat of a new persecution, Cyprian was prepared to grant reconciliation to all who sought it. Unfortunately, his efforts to make accommodation and at the same time maintain integrity resulted in the disruption of the unity of the Catholic Church. By 252, two splinter groups each had its own bishop in Carthage, the rigorists who took the position of Novation, the schismatic bishop of Rome, and the laxists, who chose the presbyter Fortunasus as bishop.


The persecution had tested Cyprian’s relations with Rome. If in 250 the Roman clergy had been slow to support him, in 251 he was cautious in recognizing Cornelius as the legitimate bishop of Rome, and only after careful investigation did he support Cornelius in opposition to the claims of Novation. Cyprian’s relations with Stephen I, elected bishop of Rome in 254 became strained. In the same year, Spanish bishops appealed to Cyprian from a decision of Stephen I and a Gaelic Bishop sought his help to secure from Stephen a judgement against Marcion, who as bishop, had declared himself as a Novationist. From 255, over the course of two years, Cyprian was engaged in a bitter quarrel with Stephen I concerning the rebaptism of heretics and schematics; Stephen accepted the baptism of heretics and schematics as valid. But Cyprian denied it any efficacy whatever. But the end was near. Caught by the edict of Valerian, requiring pagan sacrifice, Cyprian was exiled to Cumbis.

Under Valerian, the successor of Decius, the persecution ceased. This successor indirectly practiced a policy of tolerance, but this was abruptly interrupted in 257 under the influence of Marxian, minister of finance. A pagan mystic, he abhorred Christianity, and moreover he saw a resumption of persecution as a way of reflecting the finances of the empire, which were disastrous at the time. High ranking clergy were the object of his last pillaging.

The persecution was a bloody one. A first edict in 257 for the first time banned Christian worship. Cyprian was exiled, but that did not prevent him from still keeping watch on his church, by sending letters and material comforts. A year later, a second edict called for the death penalty for all clergy who refused to make Roman sacrifices. The measure immediately affected Cyprian.

Paternoster ordered the blessed Cyprian to be banished. Cyprian stayed a long time in exile. Paternoster was succeeded by Galeins Maximnon who ordered the holy bishop Cyprian to be recalled from banishment and brought before him. So Cyprian, the holy martyr chosen by God, returned from the city Cumbis which had been assigned as his place of banishment by command of Asparius their proconsul. A sacred command authorized him to live on his own land. There he daily expected a summons, as had been shown him in a dream. While he still awaited these, suddenly on 15 September, in the consulship of Tinans and Bassns, two high officials came to him. They put him in a carriage and Maximus ordered to bring him next day. Then he read the verdict from his table. "It is our pleasure that Cyprian should be executed by the sword. (Bruno Chenu, The Book of Christian, Martyrs, London: SCM, 1990, p. 89.) Cyprian was happy after hearing this verdict. He was beheaded.


Among the writings of Cyprian, the corpus of his letters must be ranked of primary significance as source for the history of a decade otherwise poorly documented. The majority of these writings find occasion in persecution and its aftermath, above all the persecution of Decius and Valerian and in an anticipated persecution by Trebonranns Gallus. Nine letters document the rebaptism controversy, and a handful offer a glimpse into other aspects of life in the mid-third century, such as scandals among virgins and the devastation caused by barbarous raids.

Of two apologetic works, one an appeal to Donatus is clearly early before 250; a second, to Quisnnus a compendium of scrip-hire texts useful as testimonies, should also be dated before 250. The scandal among virgins apparently elicited the treatise on the dress of Virgins (before 250). Out of the problems arising from the Decian persecution, Cyprian in the course of 251 wrote the treatises: On the lapsed, on the unity of the church and probably also on the Lord’s prayer, which stresses the importance of unity. (James Hardy, p. 248.) He had written a lot of things other than these.


When we learn about early martyrs, we can see their honesty, sincerity, zeal and courage to face persecution. They were loving God, human beings and the church. They were very much courageous and willing to face the persecution and death for the growth of the church. The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the church.

Cyprian lived on in memory for centuries as a figure of vital importance, especially to Christianity in Africa, which regarded him as a distinguished, it not always satisfactory, apologist both donatists and Catholics appealed to his authority. In the fourth century, at least three churches were built to his memory at Carthage. Under Demasus (368-384), Rome acknowledged his greatness by including him in its festal calendar.

Today St. Cyprian is living in our hearts. He was a well-known theologian and he had his own stand in the time of controversies. He was ready to give his life for the growth of the church. His martyrdom is enriching us and inspiring us to live like him.

His attitude and sympathetic approach towards the poor and needy is highly appreciable or considerable. In his earlier days he was criticizing Christianity and spoke against Christianity. But at his 46th year of age, as the result of the attempt of a presbyter, he took baptism and became a converted Christian. The teachings of Jesus Christ very much inspired him and he started to live accurately to the words of Christ. He has given all his properties to the poor and needy. This is a good lesson for us, especially those who are speaking about sharing. We are pseudo evangelicals and pseudo liberals. We should be real liberal evangelicals. It can be seen from the teachings of St. Cyprian. Cyprian took the side of the poor and the oppressed. So I feel that St. Cyprian is one of the most inspiring early church fathers especially in his martyrdom and theological knowledge.



White Edward Benson, Cyprian - His Life-His Times-His Works, Macmillan & Co., 1897.

Chenu, Bruno, The Book of Christian Martyrs, London: SCM, 1990.

Mar Aprem, Sabha Christian Nijords (Malayalam), Tiruvalla, CLS, 1986.

The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, Michigan, Zondervan, 1985.

James, Teaching of the Apostolic Church, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1915.