I. Life and works – II. Character and activity – III. Martydom and cult. According to P. Monceaux, Cyprian was one of the finest figures of a bishop that the history of Christianity offers Hist. litt. Afr. Chr. 2, 237. Bishop of Carthage from 249258, he died a martyr during Valerian’s persecution. I. Life and works. Cyprian’s life can be traced only inasmuch as it is reflected in his work. His biography by the deacon Pontius is not so much a history as a panegyric. The acts of his martyrdom are the only document that comes close to what actually occurred.
Reconstruction of the years before his episcopate remains hypothetical. But from his letter Ad Donatum ca. 246 we learn not just that his conversion was recent but also the reasons for that conversion. His biographer mentions the role the priest Caecilian played in it. Also from his first years of adherence to Christianity 246249 come two works which attest Cyprian’s reading: Quod idola dii non sint, marginal notes to Tertullian and Minucius Felix, and the Testimonia ad Quirinum, a florilegium of biblical citations arranged by subject.
He quickly became a priest but even before then had renounced his inheritance as a landowner. In 249 he was elected bishop of the city, arousing the jealousy of candidates whom his unexpected nomination defeated. His first work as a bishop seems to have been De habitu virginum, perhaps written in connection with the episode behind Ep. 4. The work is certainly modeled on Tertullian, but as a person of refined sentiments and a pastor speaking with authority. The treatises De oratione dominica 250, De lapsis, De unitate ecclesiae early 251 and no doubt De zelo et livore 251252 were published in the sad days of Decius’s persecution, in the climate of disputes and schisms arising out of the reconciliation of apostates.
While De oratione dominica starts from Tertullian’s De oratione, but in a new eucharistic and ecclesiological dimension, De lapsis defines the procedures of their reconciliation, in the manner and the terms later formalized by the Councils of Carthage and Rome of 251. De unitate is the first treatise on the church; in it Cyprian adduces the principles of its unity and sees in the apostolic college the foundation of its structure, established by Christ. Chapter 4 exists in two versions. The oldest, according to general opinion, is that which comes out in favor of the primacy of Rome; the other, taking opposite positions, would be a revision by Cyprian himself at the time of the controversy over baptism. De zelo et livore would preserve the echo of the controversies aroused against him, at the time of the schisms at Carthage, by his unlucky rivals to the episcopate.
The plague of 252, with its train of public calamities, provided the cue for three more treatises: De mortalitate, De opere et eleemosynis, Ad Demetrianum. The first is Cyprian’s most original work: not merely an exhortation to Christian Stoicism, it presents a theology of death, seen as God’s summons, accersitio dominica. Regarding almsgiving, it is not just an urgent necessity in disastrous times like these, but a duty, since in the poor we serve God, and God comes before our own children. In Ad Demetrianum he opposes and resolves the objections that Augustine would come up against in the City of God: present evils are God’s punishment, not because of Christianity, but for the crimes and persecutions of the pagans.
While the Christians resolve to return love instead of hate; for the torments and pains inflicted on us, we show you the way of salvation. De bono patientiae depends on Tertullian’s De patientia more directly than any other of Cyprian’s works. Mentioned at the end of the letter to Jubaianus Ep. 73,26, it must date from 256, the time of the baptismal controversy. Cyprian’s last work may be the exhortation to martyrdom Ad Fortunatum, which is certainly connected with a persecution, probably that of Valerian in 257258. It consists of a selection of biblical passages on the duties of Christians in time of persecution. Some would identify its recipient as the bishop of Thuccabor, who attended the council of 1 September 256 Sent. epp. 17. Finally, it is in Cyprian’s letters that the man appears most clearly. They cover the whole period of his episcopate and allow us to fix sure reference points in the chronology of his life and works, from the start of Decius’s persecution to the last days of his life d. 14 September 258.
II. Character and activity. Cyprian’s character was fully formed in his conversion: he remained celibate and put his fortune at the service of the church and the poor; on many occasions he was generous to the needy Ep. 62, 76; he showed supreme magnanimity to his executioner. His conversion also had an intellectual character: apart from the letter Ad Donatum, where at every sentence the rhetor peeps out from under the convert, his literary work shows that he totally renounced secular literature. He now had only two teachers, but knew them thoroughly: the Bible and Tertullian, which made up his daily reading; this abandonment itself was for him a sort of ascesis. But what his contemporaries praised in him was the rectitude of his thought, the firmness of his teaching, the nobility of his character, his generosity and availability to others, his faithfulness to his Christian commitment and to his duties as bishop, all finally crowned with martyrdom see Ep. 77; Passio Mariani et Jacobi 6; Passio Lucii et Montani 13. His activity played out above all during Decius’s persecution, from which, like Dionysius of Alexandria, he escaped by flight.
From his hiding place he continued to direct his community, enjoining them to assist prisoners, bury the dead and keep a register of martyrs. When the persecution became more harsh and defections multiplied, and when confessors in prison began unduly to promote the reconciliation of apostates, Cyprian recommended patience and penitence to the lapsi, reminded the confessors of the respect due the bishop’s authority, and deferred resolution of the problem to after the persecution. He did not subsequently change his attitude on this, save for speeding up the readmission of penitent lapsi in danger of death. Instead of restoring calm, the bishop’s decision displeased both apostates and confessors; they joined up with five priests who from the start had accepted Cyprian’s election with bad grace.
They promoted a schism and were excommunicated. There were similar difficulties at Rome, where the election of Cornelius led to Novatian’s schism. Meanwhile, around Easter 251, the persecution ended, and soon afterward a general council of all Africa was held at Carthage, which ruled on the question of lapsi in accordance with Cyprian’s proposal.