This celebrated prelate was a native of Africa, born, although the exact year cannot be ascertained, about the beginning of the third century. We are not acquainted with the particulars of his life as long as he remained a Gentile; but it is evident from his writings that he must have been educated with no common care. St. Jerome and Lactantius assure us, that he practised the art of oratory, and taught rhetoric with distinguished success, and by this or some other honourable occupation he realised considerable wealth. About the year A. D. 246, he was persuaded to embrace Christianity by the exhortations of Caecilius, an aged presbyter of the church at Carthage, and, assuming the name of the spiritual patron by whom he had been set free from the bondage of Paganism, was henceforward styled THASCIUS CAECILIUS CYPRIANUS. At the same period he sold all that he had, and distributed the price among the poor.
The popularity acquired by this liberality, combined probably with the reputation he had previously enjoyed, and the pride naturally felt in so distinguished a proselyte, secured his rapid elevation. In A. D. 247 he was raised to the rank of a presbyter, and in the course of the following year the bishopric of Carthage was forced upon his reluctant acceptance by a large majority of the African clergy, not without strenuous opposition, however, from a small party headed by Novatus [NOVATUS] and Felicissimus, whose obstinate resistance and contumacy subsequently gave rise to much disorder and violence.
When the persecution of Decius burst forth (A. D. 250), Cyprian, being one of the first marked out as a victim, fled from the storm, in obedience, as he tells us (Epist.
xiv.), to an intimation from heaven that thus he might best discharge his duty, and remained in retirement until after Easter of the following year. (A. D. 251.) During the whole of this period he kept up an active correspondence with his clergy concerning various matters of discipline, much of his attention being occupied, as the violence of the persecution began to abate, by the fierce controversies which arose with regard to the readmission of the Lapsi
or apostates, who, according to the form and degree of their guilt, were designated Sacrificati,
and were seeking, now that the danger had passed away, the restoration of their ecclesiastical privileges. Cyprian, although not perfectly consistent throughout in his instructions, always manifested a disposition to follow a moderate course ; and while on the one hand he utterly rejected the extreme doctrine of Novatianus, who maintained that the church had no power again to admit the renegades to her communion, so he was equally opposed to the laxity of those who were willing to receive them at once, before they had given evidence of their contrition by lengthened penitence, and finally decided that full forgiveness should not be extended to any of the offenders until God should have granted peace to his servants. Novatus and Felicissimus, taking advantage of these disputes, endeavoured to gain over to their faction many of the impatient and discontented Lapsi. Novatus actually appointed Felicissimus his deacon without the permission or knowledge of his diocesan, who in his turn caused Felicissimus to be excommunicated; while the latter, far from submitting to the sentence, associated with himself five seditious presbyters, who breaking off in open schism, elected Fortunatus, one of their own number, bishop, and ventured to despatch an epistle to Cornelius, bishop of Rome, announcing their choice.
This cabal, however, soon fell to pieces ; Cornelius refused to listen to their representations, their supporters gradually dropped off, and their great bond of union was rudely snapped asunder by the defection of their great champion, Novatus, who, upon his visit to Rome at the commencement of A. D. 251, not only ceased to plead the cause of the Lapsi, but espoused to the full extent the views of Novatianus. Scarcely were these troubles happily allayed, and Cyprian once more securely seated in his chair, when fresh disturbances arose in consequence of the acrimonious contest between Cornelius and Novatianus [CORNELIUS; NOVATIANUS] for the see of Rome, the former finding a warm supporter in the bishop of Carthage, by whose exertions his authority was acknowledged throughout nearly the whole of Africa.
In the month of June, A. D. 252, began what is commonly termed the persecution of Gallus, but which in reality originated in an unauthorized popular movement excited by the refusal of the Christians to join in the prayers and sacrifices offered up on account of the deadly pestilence which was devastating the various provinces of the Roman empire. On this occasion, as formerly, the mob of Carthage loudly demanded that Cyprian should be thrown to the lions; but the danger does not appear to have been imminent, and while in Italy Cornelius was banished to Civita Vecchia, where he died on the 14th of September, and his successor Lucius suffered martyrdom a few months afterwards (5th March, 253), Africa remained comparatively undisturbed, and the political confusion consequent upon the assumption of the purple by Aemilianus restored to the church external tranquillity, which continued uninterrupted for nearly four years.
But in proportion as there was repose from without, so discord waxed hot within.
The never ending discussions with regard to the Lapsi were vexatiously and bitterly revived under a thousand embarrassing forms; next arose a dispute with regard to the age at which infants might receive baptism ; and lastly the important controversy concerning the rebaptizing of those who had been admitted to the rite by heretics and schismatics, which first arose in Asia, now began to call forth a storm of angry feeling in all the provinces of the West.
In this case, Cyprian was no longer the advocate of moderate opinions.
He steadfastly and sternly maintained that the unity of the visible church was essential to Christianity; that no Christianity could exist beyond the pale of that church; that no sacrament was efficacious if administered by those who had violated this principle by disobedience to episcopal authority; and that consequently the baptism performed by heretics and schismatics was in itself null and void--doctrines confirmed by the acts of a numerous council held at Carthage in the autumn of A. D. 255, and unhesitatingly repudiated by Stephen, at that time bishop of Rome.
The tempest thus aroused was stilled for awhile by the unlooked-for persecution of Valerian, hitherto considered the friend and protector of the Christian cause. Cyprian being at once pointed out by his high character and conspicuous station, was banished by Paternus the proconsul to the maritime city of Curubis, whither he proceeded in September, A. D. 257, attended by his friend and constant companion, the deacon Pontius, to whom he communicated that he had received a revelation of approaching martyrdom.
After having lived in this agreeable residence for eleven months, treated with the greatest indulgence and surrounded by every comfort, he was recalled by the new governor, Galerius Maximus, and returned to his villa in the neighbourhood of the city, from whence he was soon summoned to appear before the proconsul at Utica. Conscious of his approaching fate, he withdrew for a time into concealment, in consequence, say his enemies, of his courage having failed him, or, according to his own declaration, because he considered it more becoming to die in the midst of his own people than in the diocese of another prelate.
It is certain that, upon the return of Maximus, Cyprian reappeared, resisted all the entreaties of his friends to seek safety in flight, made a bold and firm profession of his faith in the praetorium before the magistrate, and was beheaded in a spacious plain without the walls in the presence of a vast multitude of his sorrowing followers, who were freely permitted to remove the corpse and to pay the last honours to his memory with mingled demonstrations of grief and triumph.
While Cyprian possessed an amount of learning, eloquence, and earnestness, which gained for him the admiration and respectful love of those among whom he laboured, his zeal was tempered with moderation and charity to an extent of which we find but few examples among the ecclesiastics of that age and country, and was combined with an amount of prudence and knowledge of human nature which enabled him to restrain and guide the fiery spirits by whom he was surrounded, and to maintain unshaken to the close of his life that influence, stretching far beyond the limits of his own diocese, which he had established almost at the outset of his career. His correspondence presents us with a very lively picture both of the man and of the times; and while we sometimes remark and regret a certain want of candour and decision, and a disinclination to enunciate boldly any great principles save such as were likely to flatter the prejudices of his clergy, we at the same time feel grateful in being relieved from the headstrong violence, the overbearing spiritual pride, and the arrogant impiety which disgrace the works of so many early controversialists. His character, indeed, and opinions were evidently, in no small degree, formed by the events of his own life.
The clemency uniformly exhibited towards the Lapsi was such as might have been expected from a good man who must have been conscious that he had himself, on one occasion at least, considered it more expedient to avoid than to invite persecution, while the extreme views which he advocated with regard to the powers of the church were not surprising in a prelate whose authority had been so long and so fiercely assailed by a body of factious schismatics. On one point only is his conduct open to painful suspicion.
He more than once alleged that he had received communications and directions direct from heaven, precisely too with reference to those transactions of his life which appeared most calculated to excite distrust or censure.
Those who are not disposed to believe that such revelations were really vouchsafed, cannot fail to observe that the tone and temper of Cyprian's mind were so far removed from fanaticism, that it is impossible to imagine that he could have been deceived by the vain visions of a heated imagination.
In his style, which is avowedly formed upon the model of Tertullian, he exhibits much of the masculine vigour and power of his master, while he skilfully avoids his harshness and extravagance both of thought and diction.
The fruits of his early training and practice as a rhetorician are manifested in the lucid arrangement of his matter, and in the copious, flowing, and sonorous periods in which he gives expression to his ideas; but we may here and there justly complain, that loose reasoning and hollow declamation are substituted for the precise logic and pregnant terseness which we demand from a great polemical divine.
The following is a list of Cyprian's works :--
De Gratia Dei liber
, addressed in the form of a letter to his friend Donatus, who appears to have followed in early life the same profession with himself, and to have been converted at the same time.
This work was probably composed in A. D. 246, very soon after the admission of its author into the church.
It depicts in glowing colours the happy condition of those who, enlightened by the grace of God, have turned aside from Paganism to Christianity; dwells upon the mercy and beneficence by which this change is effected, and upon the importance of the baptismal rite ; and draws a striking parallel between the purity and holiness of the true faith as contrasted with the grossness and vice of the vulgar belief. Although frequently placed among the Epistles of Cyprian, it deserves to be considered in the light of a formal treatise.
De Idolorum Vanitate liber
, written in A. D. 247, the year in which he was ordained a presbyter, is imitated from the early Christian Apologies, especially that of Tertullian. Three points are chiefly insisted upon. 1.
The folly of raising earthly kings, that is, mere mortal men, to the rank of divinities, the impotence of such imaginary powers, and the emptiness of the science of augury. 2. The Unity of God. 3. The Advent of Christ, and his Consubstantiality with the Father.
This tract is expressly ascribed to Cyprian by Jerome in his Epist. ad Magnum Orat.
A collection of remarkable texts from Scripture, divided into three books, and illustrated by remarks and applications.
Those in the first are quoted for the purpose of proving that the Jews, by their disobedience, had, in accordance with prophecy, forfeited the protection and promises of God; those in the second demonstrate that the Christians had taken their place, and that Jesus was the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament; those in the third exhibit within a short compass the great moral and religious obligations of the Christian life.
The precise date at which this compilation was arranged is unknown, but it probably belongs to the early part of Cyprian's career.
It is quoted by Jerome (Dial. I. adv. Pelag.
) and by Augustin. (Contra duas Epist. Pelag.
De Disciplina et Habitu Virginum liber
, written in A. D. 248, the year in which he was raised to the episcopate, in imitation of the dissertations of Tertullian, " De Virginibus velandis," " De Habitu Mulierum," &c., the object being to enforce upon those holy maidens who had made a vow of celibacy the necessity of simplicity in their dress and manner of life.
He commences with an encomium on virginity, insists upon the propriety of abstaining from all sumptuous apparel and vain ornaments, from paint, from frequenting baths, marriages, or public spectacles, and concludes with a general exhortation to avoid all luxurious indulgencies.
This book is referred to by Jerome (Epist. ad Demetriad. et Eustoch.
) and by Augustin (de Doctrina Christi,
De Unitate Ecclesiae Catholicae liber,
written and despatched to Rome in A. D. 252, at a period when both Italy and Africa were distracted by the pretensions of Novatianus, with the view of bringing back to the bosom of the church those who had wandered from her pale or were wavering in their allegiance, by pointing out the danger and sin of schism, and by demonstrating the necessity of a visible union among all true Christians.
This remarkable treatise is of the utmost importance to the student of ecclesiastical history, since here we first find the doctrine of Catholicism and of the typical character of St. Peter developed in that form which was afterwards assumed by the bishops of Rome as the basis of Papal supremacy.
It is quoted by Augustin (c. Crescon.
2.33; see also Cyprian. Epist.
De Lapsis liber,
written and despatched to Rome in the month of November, A. D. 252.
It may be considered as a sort of supplement to the preceding work, explaining and defending the justice and consistency of that temperate policy which was adopted both by Cornelius and Cyprian with regard to the readmission of fallen brethren into the communion of the church.
The tract is quoted by Eusebius (Hist. Eccl.
6.33), by Augustin (de Adult. Conj.
1.25), and by Pontius (Vit. Cyprian
See also Cyprian, Epist.
De Oratione Dominica liber,
written about A. D. 252, in imitation of Tertullian, " De Oratione," contains a lengthened commentary on each of the petitions in the Lord's Prayer, accompanied by remarks upon prayer in general, and upon the frame of mind which best befits those who thus approach the throne of God.
This work is highly extolled by Hilarius in his commentary on St. Matthew, by Augustin in many places (e. g. de Don. persev.
2), by Cassiodorus (Divin. Instit.
19), and by Pontius in his life of Cyprian, while among moderns, Barth pronounces it one of the noblest productions of ancient Christian Latinity. (Advers.
De Mortalitate liber,
written in A. D. 252, during the prevalence of the terrible pestilence which for the space of five years ravaged the most populous provinces of the Roman empire, for the purpose of pointing out how little death ought to be an object of dread to the Christian, since to him it was the gate of immortality, the beginning of eternal bliss.
It is mentioned by Augustin (Adv Julian.
ii.), and elsewhere.
Ad Demetrianum liber,
also written in A. D. 252. Demetrianus, proconsul of Africa, catching up the popular cry, had ascribed the famine and plague under which the world was at this time labouring to the impiety of the Christians, who refused to render homage to the deities. Cyprian here replies, that the Gentiles themselves were much more the cause of these disasters, by neglecting the worship of the only true God and cruelly persecuting his followers.
It is quoted by Lactantius (Divin. Instit.
5.1, 4), by Jerome (Adv. Mag.
), and by Pontius. (Vit. Cyprian.
De Exhortatione Martyrii,
a letter addressed to Fortunatus in A. D. 252, during the persecution of Gallus, on the reasonableness, the duty, and the reward of martyrdom, in imitation of a treatise on the same subject by Tertullian.
This piece has been by some persons erroneously attributed to Hilarius, but is now generally acknowledged as the undoubted production of Cyprian.
De Opere et Eleemosynis liber,
on the duty of almsgiving, written according to some critics towards the close of A. D. 254, while others suppose that it belongs to the preceding year, and believe it to be connected with an epistle (lxii.) addressed by Cyprian to some Numidian bishops who had solicited pecuniary assistance to enable them to redeem from captivity several of the brethren who had been carried off and were kept in slavery by the Moors.
It is named under the above title by Augustin (Contra duas ep. Pelag.
4.4), and by Jerome (Ad Pammach.
), as a discourse " De Misericordia."
De Bono Patientiae liber,
written about A. D. 256, in imitation of the work of Tertullian on the same subject.
It is quoted by Augustin (Contra duas ep. Pelag.
4.9) and by Pontius. (Vit. Cyprian.
De Zelo et Livore,
written in A. D. 256, at the period when the controversy between Cyprian and Stephen, bishop of Rome, on the rebaptizing of heretics, was at its height, exhorting Christians carefully to avoid envy and malice, and to cherish feelings of charity and love towards each other.
It is quoted by Augustin (de Baptism. Parv.
4), by Jerome (In ep. ad Gal.
100.5), and by Pontius. ( Vit. Cyprian.
In addition to the above we possess a series of eighty-one official letters, extending over the whole public life of Cyprian, including a few addressed to himself or to his clergy.
This collection is of inestimable value, not only on account of the light which it throws on the life, character, and opinions of the prelate himself, but from the lively picture which it presents of the state of ecclesiastical affairs, and of a multitude of circumstances of the greatest importance in historical and antiquarian researches. Our limits preclude us from attempting to give any analysis of these documents; but we may remark, that the topics principally considered bear upon the questions, general and local, which we have noticed above as agitating the Christian community at this epoch, namely, the treatment of the Lapsi, the schism of Novatus and Felicissimus, the schism of Novatianus, the baptism of infants, the rebaptising of heretics, to which we may add a remarkable discussion on a subject which has been revived in our own day, the necessity of employing wine in the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which Cyprian strongly denounces the tenets of the Aquarii or Encratites (Epist.
63), and employs many expressions which have been constantly ap pealed to by those opposed to the practice of the Romish church which denies the cup to the laity.
In most editions of Cyprian the tract De Gratia Dei,
together with the fragment of a letter from Donatus prefixed to it, are set down as the first two epistles, by which arrangement the number is swelled to eighty-three. Three more were printed by Baluze, which, however, are now admitted to be spurious.
Possibly Authentic Works
The following works are admitted as authentic by many editors, although they do not rest on such satisfactory evidence as the foregoing;--
De Spectaculis liber.
De Laude Martyrii ad Moysen et Maximum et ceteros Confessores.
The following works, although frequently found bearing the name of Cyprian, and many of them, probably, belonging to the same age, are now rejected by all:--
Ad Novatianum Haereticum, quod Lapsis Spes Veniac non sit deneganda,
ascribed by Erasmus to Cornelius.
De Disciplina et bono Pudicitiae,
ascribed in like manner by Erasmus to Cornelius.
De Montibus Sina et Sion contra Judaeos.
Oratio pro Martyribus-- Oratio in Die Passionis suae et Confessio S. Cypriani,
assigned by many to Cyprian of Antioch.
De Cardinalibus Christi Operibus,
now recognized as the work of Arnold, abbot of Bona Vallis.
De Singularitate Clericorum.
In Symbolum Apostolicum Expositio.
The work of Rufinus.
Adversus Judaeos qui Christum insecuti sunt.
De Revelatione Capitis B. Jo. Baptistae:
in this work mention is made of the Frankish king Pepin.
De Duplici Martyrio,
in which mention is made of the Turks!
De Duodecim Abusionibus Saeculi.
De Pascha Computus,
attributed to Cyprian by Paulus Diaconus, and found in the Cottonian MS.
16. Three poems
Three poems, the author or authors of which are unknown, have been ascribed to Cyprian--Genesis
, Ad Senatorem.
The first seems to be the same with that assigned by Gennadius to Salvianus, bishop of Marseilles.
The editions of Cyprian are very numerous. The editio princeps was printed at Rome from a Parisian MS., under the inspection of Andrew, bishop of Aleria, by Sweynheym and Pannartz, 1471, fol. The first edition in which any attempt was made to exhibit a pure text, and to separate the genuine from the spurious works, was that of Erasmus, whose labours are above all praise.
It appeared at Basle, from the press of Froben, in 1520, fol.
The two best editions are--
1. That printed at Oxford, 1682, fol., and edited by John Fell, bishop of Oxford, to which are subjoined the Annales Cyprianici of John Pearson, bishop of Chester; reprinted at Bremen, 1690, fol., with the addition of the Dissertationes Cyprianicae of Dodwell, which had previously appeared in a separate form, Oxon. 1684, 4to.
2. That commenced by Baluze, and completed by a monk of the fraternity of St. Maur, who is hence styled Maranus, Paris, fol. 1726.
These two editions taken together contain everything that the student can possibly desire.
As ancient authorities we have a biography of Cyprian still extant drawn up by his confidential friend the deacon Pontius [PONTIUS], together with the proconsular acts relating to his martyrdom. Among modern lives we may specify those by Le Clerc, Bibliothèque Universelle,
vol. xii. p. 208-378; by Tillemont, Mémoires Ecclésiastiques,
vol. iv. pp. 76-459; and by Maranus, prefixed to the edition of Baluze. No publication on this subject contains such an amount of accurate investigation with regard not only to the prelate himself, but also to the whole complicated ecclesiastical history of the times, as the Annales Cyprianici
of Pearson, an abstract of which has been compiled by Schoenemann, and will be found in his Bibl. Patrum. Lat.
vol. i. pp. 80-100 (c. 3.3), and a vast mass of valuable matter is contained in the Dissertationes Cyprianicae
Compare also Fabric. Bibl. Med. et inf. Lat.
i. p. 444; Funceius, de L. L. veg. senect.
c. 10.9; Schröck, Kirchengescht.
i. p. 210, and iv. p. 246, &c.; Lumper, Histor. Theolog. Crit.
pars xi. p. 58, &c.; Walch, Bibliotheca Patristica,
ed. Danz; Gibbon, Decline and Fall,
100.16; Milman, History of Christianity,
ii. p. 246; Rettberg, Thasc. Cäcil. Cyprian dargestellt nach seinem Leben und Wirken,
Götting. 1831; Poole, Life and Times of Cyprian,