Tag Archives: St Cyprian

St. Cyprian & His Plague

CyprianusReliquiarCyprian (c. 200 – September 14, 258) was bishop of Carthage during the plague that was known as The Plague of Cyprian. The plague was named for him because of the descriptions he wrote about the plague. He was born into a wealthy pagan family and converted to the Christian religion in his thirties. He later became a bishop. He was classically educated and his Church writing made him one of the church scholars of his time.

When Carthage suffered a severe plague epidemic, Cyprian organized a program of medical relief and nursing of the sick, available to all residents.  Cyprian believed that the world was coming to an end. He wrote:

“The Kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world …”

The Carthaginians, however,  became convinced that the epidemic resulted from the wrath of the gods at the spread of Christianity. Another persecution of Christians arose, Cyprian was arrested, tried, and beheaded on in 258 AD. (See the reliquary on right.)

The world did not end, but the plague weakened the Roman Empire by killing two Emperors, Hostilian in A.D. 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in A.D. 270, and decimating the populations. The barbarians and Scythians armies, however, were also affected which put an end to large wars for a time.  The plague may have been a key driving force behind the spread of Christianity in the Empire when pagans saw the Christian response to the plague and persecution.

Tomorrow, Between and Among

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A Plague to End the World – The Plague of Cyprian

Between roughly A.D. 250-271, a series of deadly epidemics swept through the Roman Empire – Egypt. The so-called Plague of Cyprian claimed approximately 25 percent of those living in the Roman Empire, which included Egypt at the time, As many as 5,000 victims died each day in Rome alone.

230px-Child_with_Smallpox_BangladeshSaint Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage (in Tunisia), wrote extensively of the plague’s horrific effects on its victims, and claimed that the disease signaled the end of the world. Cyprian wrote a detailed description of the progress of the disease in “De mortalitate:”

“The bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces (an area of the mouth).” Cyprian added that the intestines “are shaken with a continual vomiting, the eyes are on fire with the injected blood,” and that in some instances, “the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction.”

Researchers believe the disease described by Cyprian was smallpox which is caused by the Variola major or minor viruses. The disease has been around for over 10.000 years. As in the picture, the victim is initially covered in a rash which becomes fluid-filled blisters. About 20-65% of the people who caught the disease died, but it was especially lethal among children. Those who survived were often badly scarred – especially on the face, were blinded, and their limbs might be deformed.

In 1967 the World Health Organization identified as many as fifteen million victims a year with two million dying from the disease. After vaccination campaigns for two centuries, smallpox was eradicated in 1979.

Tomorrow, More about Cyprian and the Plague

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