Cyprian (Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus), bishop of Carthage and an important early Christian writer, was born probably at the beginning of the third century in North Africa, perhaps at Carthage, where he was educated from his early childhood; died a martyr at Carthage September 14, 258.

His original name was Thascius; he took the name Caecilius in addition in memory of the presbyter of that name to whom he owed his conversion. He belonged to a provincial pagan family and became a teacher of rhetoric. He was baptized probably in 245 or 248.

He soon gave a part of his fortune to the poor, imposed upon himself austere penances, and devoted himself to the study of the Bible and the earlier Christian writers, especially Tertullian.

In the early days of his conversion he wrote an Epistola ad Donatum de gratia Dei, a treatise on the vanity of idols (if this work is genuine), and controversial works against the Jews. Not long after his baptism he was ordained deacon, and soon afterward presbyter; and in 248 he was chosen bishop of Carthage.

Table of contents
1 Flees During the Decian Persecution
2 Controversy Over the Lapsed
3 Controversy Concerning Heretic Baptism
4 Persecution Under Valerian
5 Writings

Flees During the Decian Persecution

After much hesitation he yielded to the stormy demand of the people, but a part of the presbyters soon formed an opposition party, hampered him in all his efforts, and even spread evil reports about him. At first Cyprian treated them with wise consideration, and asked their advice; but he soon had to use sharper measures. He was strict with priests and consecrated virgins who had broken the moral law.

During the Decian persecution (January, 250, to April, 251) he saved himself by flight, though his official income was sequestrated. His secret departure was indeed interpreted by his enemies as cowardice and infidelity, and they hastened to accuse him at Rome. The Roman clergy (the see was vacant at that time) wrote to Cyprian in terms of disapproval. Cyprian rejoined that he fled in accordance with visions and the divine command. From his place of refuge he ruled his flock with earnestness and zeal, using a faithful deacon as his intermediary.

Controversy Over the Lapsed

The persecution was especially severe at Carthage; many Christians fell away, but afterward asked to be received again into the Church. Their request was early granted, no regard being paid to the demand of Cyprian and his faithful clergy, who insisted upon earnest repentance; the arrogance of the confessors became more and more unbearable. Their intervention allowed hundreds of the Lapsed to return to the Church.

Cyprian censured all laxity toward the lapsed, refused absolution to them except in case of mortal sickness, and desired to postpone the question of their readmission to the Church to more quiet times. A schism broke out in Carthage. One Felicissimus, who had been ordained deacon by the presbyter Novatus during the absence of Cyprian, opposed all steps taken by Cyprian's representatives. Cyprian deposed and excommunicated him and his supporter Augendius. Felicissimus was upheld by Novatus and four other presbyters, and a determined opposition was thus organized.

When, after an absence of fourteen months, Cyprian returned to his diocese he called a council of North African bishops at Carthage, to consider the treatment of the lapsed and the schism of Felicissimus (251). The council in the main sided with Cyprian, and condemned Felicissimus. The libellatici, i.e., Christians who had made or signed written statements that they had obeyed the behest of the emperor, were to be restored at once upon sincere repentance; but such as had taken part in heathen sacrifices could be received back into the Church only when on the point of death.

Afterward this regulation was essentially mitigated, and even these were restored if they repented immediately after a sudden fall and eagerly sought absolution; though clerics who had fallen were to be deposed and could not be restored to their functions.

The followers of Felicissimus elected Fortunatus as bishop in opposition to Cyprian; and the followers of the Roman presbyter Novatian, who refused absolution to all the lapsed and had elected Novatian as bishop of Rome in opposition to Cornelius, secured the election of a rival bishop of their own at Carthage, Maximus by name. Novatus now left Felicissimus and followed the Novatian party. But these extremes strengthened the influence of the wise, moderate, yet firm Cyprian, and the following of his opponents grew less and less. He rose still higher in the favor of the people when they witnessed his self-denying devotion during the time of a great plague and famine.

He comforted his brethren by writing his De mortalitate, and in his De elcemosynis exhorted them to active benevolence, while he gave the best pattern in his own life. He defended Christianity and the Christians in the treatise Ad Demetrianum against the reproach of the heathens that Christians were the cause of the public calamities.

Controversy Concerning Heretic Baptism

But Cyprian had yet to fight another battle, in which his opponent was Pope Stephen I. The matter in dispute was baptism administered by heretics.

Stephen declared baptism by heretics valid if administered according to the institution either in the name of Christ or of the holy Trinity. Cyprian, on the other hand, believing that outside the Church there was no true baptism, regarded that of heretics as null and void, and baptized as for the first time those who joined the Church. When heretics had been baptized in the Church, but had temporarily fallen away and wished to return in penitence, he did not rebaptize them.

Cyprian's narrow definition of the Church led him to certain inferences that made him in this respect the connecting-link between his teacher, the rigorist Tertullian, and the Donatists who appeared later in North Africa.

The majority of the North African bishops sided with Cyprian; and in the East he had a powerful ally in Firmilian of Caesarea. But the position of Stephen came to find general acceptance. While, however, Cyprian defended his position with wisdom and dignity, Stephen showed a blind, blunt zeal; and there appears in his letters the claim of superiority of the Roman See over all bishoprics of the Church. To this claim Cyprian answered that the authority of the Roman bishop was coordinate with, not superior to, his own. Stephen broke off communion with Cyprian and Carthage, though perhaps without going as far as a formal excommunication of Cyprian.

Modern Roman Catholic writers make a special effort to show that the controversy concerned only a question of discipline, not of doctrine. The modern Catholic church holds dogmatically that baptism by heretics and even by atheists or other non-Christians is valid if intentionally done according to the manner that the Church prescribes.

Persecution Under Valerian

At the end of 256 a new persecution of the Christians under Valerian broke out, and both Stephen and his successor, Xystus (Sixtus) II, suffered martyrdom at Rome.

In Africa Cyprian courageously prepared his people for the expected edict of persecution by his De exhortatione martyrii, and himself set an example when he was brought before the Roman proconsul Aspasius Paternus (August 30, 257). He refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and firmly professed Christ.

The consul banished him to the desolate Churubis, whence he comforted to the best of his ability his flock and his banished clergy. In a vision he saw his approaching fate. When a year had passed he was recalled and kept practically a prisoner on his own estate, in expectation of severer measures after a new and more stringent imperial edict arrived which demanded the execution of all Christian clerics.

On September 13, 258, he was imprisoned at the behest of the new proconsul, Galerius Maximus. The day following he was examined for the last time and sentenced to die by the sword. His only answer was "Thanks be to God!" The execution was carried out at once in an open place near the city. A vast multitude followed Cyprian on his last journey. He removed his garments without assistance, knelt down, and prayed. Two of his clergy blindfolded him. He ordered twenty-five gold pieces to be given to the executioner, who with a trembling hand administered the death-blow.

The body was interred by Christian hands near the place of execution, and over it, as well as on the actual scene of his death, churches were afterward erected, which, however, were destroyed by the Vandals. Charlemagne is said to have had the bones transferred to France; and Lyons, Arles, Venice, Compiegne, and Roenay in Flanders boast the possession of the martyr's relics.


Besides a number of epistles, which are partly collected with the answers of those to whom they were written, Cyprian wrote a number of treatises, some of which have also the character of pastoral letters.

His most important work is his De unitate ecclesiae. In this, which makes the one episcopate, not of Rome, but of the Church at large, the foundation-stone of the Church, occur the following statements: "He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother; . . . he who gathereth elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ" (vi.); "nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church" (ix.).

The most famous saying of Cyprian, usually though inadequately translated "Outside the Church there is no salvation," is found in Epist. lxxii. Ad Jubajanum de haereticis baptizandis, "Quia salus extra ecclesiam non est." His work De oratione dominica is an adaptation of Tertullian's De oratione; he also worked over Tertullian's De patientia in his work De bono patientiae.

The following works are of doubtful authenticity: De spectaculis; De bono pudicitiae ; De idolorum vanitate (which may perhaps belong to Novatian); De laude martyrii ; Adversua aleatores ; De montibus Sina et Sion. The treatise entitled De duplici martyrio ad Fortunatum was not only published for the first and only time by Erasmus, but was probably also composed by him and fathered upon Cyprian.

Posterity has had less difficulty in reaching a universally accepted view of Cyprian's personality than his contemporaries. He combined loftiness of thought with an ever-present consciousness of the dignity of his office; his earnest life, his self-denial and fidelity, moderation and greatness of soul have been increasingly acknowledged and admired. He was the type of a prince of the Church. The glory of his courageous and edifying martyrdom can not be extinguished by the earlier charges of cowardice. As a writer, however, he was in general by no means original or especially deep.