1902 Encyclopedia > Cyprian

(St Cyprian; Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus)
Bishop of Carthage and early Christian writer and martyr
(c. 200 - 258)

CYPRIAN [THASCIUS CAECILIUS CYPRIANUS] (c. 200-258), bishop of Carthage in the 3d century, is one of the most illustrious names in the early history of the church, and one of the most notable of its early martyrs. He was born about the year 200 ; or, at least, this is the most reasonable conjecture as to the date of his birth, for there is no clear evidence on the subject, nor as to his age at the time of his martyrdom, which took place on the 14th Sep-tember 258. He was of patrician family, and highly edu-cated, and for some time occupied as a teacher of rhetoric in Carthage, in the neighbourhood of which he was born. He had either inherited or acquired considerable wealth. Of an enthusiastic temperament, accomplished in classical literature and the rhetorical art which he taught, he seems while a pagan to have courted discussion with the converts to Christianity. Confident in his own powers, he entered ardently into what was no doubt the great question of the time at Carthage as elsewhere. He sought to vanquish, but was himself vanquished by, the new religious force which was making such rapid inroads on the decaying paganism of the Roman empire. Caecilius, a presbyter of Carthage, is supposed to have been the instrument of his conversion, and he assumed this name accordingly at his baptism, which seems to have taken place about 245 or 246.

Cyprian carried all his natural enthusiasm and brilliant powers into his new profession. He devoted his wealth to the relief of the poor and other pious uses; and so, accord-ing to his deacon Pontius, who wrote a diffuse and vague account of his " life and passion," " realized two benefits— the contempt of the world's ambition, and the observance of that mercy which God has preferred to sacrifice." The result of his charity and activity as a Christian convert was his unanimous call by the Christian people to the head of the church in Carthage. " His reluctant diffidence was overpowered by the acclamations of the whole city, who environed his house and compelled him by their friendly violence to assume the distinguished and, it might be, dangerous office. He yielded to preserve the peace of the city."

The time was still one of fierce persecution directed against the Christians according to the temper or caprice of the Roman emperors ; and the head of the church at Carthage became a prominent object of attack. During the persecution of Decius in 250 he was exposed to imminent danger, and was compelled for a time to seek safety in retreat. Under Gallus, the successor of Decius, the perse-cution was relaxed, and Cyprian returned to Carthage. Here he held several councils for the discussion of the affairs of the church, especially for grave questions as to the rebaptism of heretics, and the re-admission into the church of the lapsi, or those who had fallen away through fear during the heat of the Decian persecution. Cyprian, although inspired by lofty notions of the prerogatives of the church, and inclined to severity of opinion towards heretics, and especially heretical dissentients from the divine author-ity of the episcopal order and unity of Christendom, was leniently disposed towards those who had temporarily fallen from the faith. He set himself in opposition to Novatian, a presbyter of Roma, who advocated their permanent exclusion from the church; and it was Cyprian's in-fluence which probably guided the tolerant measures of the Carthaginian synods on the subject. This question plunged him into controversy, of which, as well as many other matters, we have an interesting glimpse in the numerous letters which he wrote during his episcopate, and which have been preserved to our time.

Among the early documents of church history there are few more interesting memorials then these letters of Cyprian, addressed to a great variety of friends, particularly to two bishops of Rome, Cornelius and Stephen, and dealing with many points of church discipline and doctrine. They show clearly the substantial equality of all Christian bishops at the time, who all equally received the name of " pope" (papa), and addressed each other as colleagues. The bishop of Carthage, for example, speaks of " his brother " the bishop of Rome, and does not hesitate to dis-pute his opinion when it does not seem to him a good or sound one. Stephen of Rome had espoused the cause of one Basilides, a bishop of Spain, who had been deposed from his see ; but Cyprian manfully defends (Epist. lxvii.) the sentence prononnced against the latter, and does not hesitate to say in the same epistle that Basilides had gone to Rome and deceived there his colleague Stephen (Stephauum collegam nostrum fefellit). Some of the letters were written during his retirement under the Decian persecution—the forty, or nearly that number, which stand first in the series,— others belong to the later period of his life, and a few to a still earlier period. It is by no means easy to determine their several dates, as the first of the series (according to Migne's order, that usually followed), which is one of the most interesting of the whole, is without any chronological indication. We give a sentence or two from this letter, as showing the more human, poetical, and pleasing aspect of Cyprian's character. It is the vintage time when he writes to his " dearest Donatus," and both the season and the place, he says, invite to repose. "The pleasant aspect of the gardens harmonizes with the gentle breezes of a mild autumn in soothing and cheering the senses; the neighbouring thickets insure us solitude; and the vagrant trailings of the vine branches, creeping in pendant mazes among the reeds that support them, have made for us a leafy shelter. Pleasantly here we clothe our thoughts in words."

Valerian followed Gallus upon the imperial throne in 253, and the persecutions of the Christians were soon renewed. Cyprian was at first banished from Carthage, but found refuge in a pleasant retreat at Ceril is, " near the sea-shore, in a spot shaded with verdant groves, beside a clear and healthful stream of water." But soon he was recalled, taken into custody, and finally condemned to death. The severity of Valerian spared the mass of the Christian people, and vented itself chiefly on the bishops, who refused to sacrifice to the emperor. When brought before the proconsul, the great bishop of Carthage was briefly interrogated: "Art thou Thascius Cyprian, the bishop of so many impious men? The emperor com-mands thee to sacrifice." Cyprian replied, "I will not sacrifice;" and, persisting in his refusal notwithstanding remonstrances, he was condemned to death. On hearing his sentence Cyprian only said, "God be thanked;" and, being conducted to a neighbouring field, he was beheaded.

Besides his letters, various brief treatises of Cyprian have descended to modern times, on such subjects as " The Lapsed," "The Unity of the Church," " the Lord's Prayer," "Works and Alms." But the characteristics of his time and of his own mind are chiefly to be sought in his letters. A general account of him will be found in any of the larger church histories, as those of Milman, Meander, Schaff. (J. T.)

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